Sunday, October 27, 2013

Individual or Group Identity

A week ago Wednesday, I was on my way home from work, walking from my train stop to my apartment.  About a block from where I live, I was ran into a man who sells weekly newspapers.  I often buy papers from him.  As I bought the paper on October 16, he told me he had seen my twin on the Ellen Degeneres Show.  I don't have a twin but I knew immediately what the newspaper vendor meant.  Within a week's time, Miley Cyrus performed "We Can't Stop" on both Saturday Night Live and on the Ellen Show

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In both cases she performed an acoustic version, accompanied by three guitar players.  One of the guitar players was Frankie Gieb, a person of short stature.  Though I told the newspaper vendor I don't have a twin and that Frankie and I, though we are both short statured, look nothing alike, I should have been honored.  The appearance of Frankie on Saturday Night Live and the Ellen Show was the type of representation in popular culture that so many people with dwarfism hope for.  He was integrated with two other average stature musicians and he was on stage to play music, nothing else.  Nothing gave the appearance that Frankie was recruited because of his dwarfism.  He just happened to have dwarfism.  The only part of the performance on Saturday Night Live that singled out Frankie more than the other two guitar players was when Cyrus gave him a high five after the song.  It was an exciting moment in terms of popular culture representation for the dwarfism community. 

Though it's impossible to find anything wrong with the Saturday Night Live Performance and the Ellen Performance, the difficult reality is that Gieb accompanying Cyrus on stage comes in the immediate wake of several little people appearing on stage with Cyrus as dancing bears at the Video Music Awards. Many people criticized the little people who played the bears, especially when that performance was juxtaposed against the performance of Gieb.  One person posted this on Facebook:

To my Dwarf Acting friends: I hope seeing Frankie on SNL this weekend can be a reminder that being a dwarf alone should not be justification for a career in entertainment. He has a skill that he artfully shared with his audience. It is not worth being a prop in someone else's low brow gag. Yeah the money is nice, but our dignity as a group isn't worth a couple hundred bucks.

Though the post doesn't specifically identify the people who played the baby bears or the band from the German Television Program (at least some of the same people were in each performance), a long dialogue followed in the comment section.  In the midst of that dialogue, a few of the dancers spoke out, defending their decision to take the role.

After the Gieb performance on Saturday Night Live and Ellen, and after the conflict ensued on Facebook, Little People of America reversed course.  Before, it had decided not to comment.  But with such a strong dialogue happening, the organization decided, even though it knew nothing good would come of it, to release a statement. Inspired by a statement made by Gloria Steinen about the Cyrus situation, and by some comments by members of Little People of America, the statement tried to make the point that all people of short stature, not just entertainers, have to be aware that our actions will be judged not just as reflections of who we are as individuals but as a reflection of the dwarfism community; the statement also said that rather than changing who we are as individuals, the goal is to change the culture that stigmatizes people with dwarfism.

Here is the statement:

Since day one, when well-known actor Billy Barty founded the organization, the portrayal of people of short stature in entertainment and popular culture has been an issue for Little People of America as an organization, and individual members of the dwarfism community.  Embedded within this issue is the concern that people with dwarfism have historically been dehumanized and objectified based upon their physical stature.  Though there are many examples of people with dwarfism in roles which put their talents, and not their physical stature, on display, in many cases people of short stature are still recruited as entertainment based upon stature.  Because of this, individuals with dwarfism who follow their passion into a career in acting and entertainment may be forced to make difficult decisions about what roles to accept.  Those decisions will impact not just themselves but the entire community of people with dwarfism. 

Most people who are average stature will never meet a person with dwarfism.  Because of this, all people with dwarfism, not just actors, have difficult decisions to make.  No matter if we are teachers, lawyers, waiters, or social workers, the people we meet for the first time and strangers who observe us may believe that what we do is reflective of an entire community or reflective of the stereotypes projected by popular culture.  Though we all face difficult decisions in our careers and throughout our lives, the primary role of Little People of America is not to judge the decisions people make but rather to raise awareness about dwarfism and to support the development of new opportunities so that in the future people with dwarfism will judged and recruited based upon their talents, not their physical stature.  

The statement was picked up by one media outlet, Refinery 29.  The story focused on this part of the statement:  

Because of this, individuals with dwarfism who follow their passion into a career in acting and entertainment may be forced to make difficult decisions about what roles to accept.  Those decisions will impact not just themselves but the entire community of people with dwarfism. 

Focusing on the two sentences above, the story made it appear as if LPA was critical of the people who played the dancing bears.  Criticism of the actors was not the intent of LPA, but until this point at least, it doesn't seem like anyone has picked up on the story and the discussion around Cyrus the performers with dwarfism has died down to some extent.

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