Sunday, February 22, 2015

Reaction to Tom Shakespeare's article "It's time dwarfs stop demeaning themselves in public."

Tom Shakespeare is a sociologist and disability rights advocate who is the co-author of The Sexual Politics of Disability and the author of Disability Rights and Wrongs.   Early in February, The Telegraph published an article by Shakespeare titled "It's time dwarfs stop demeaning themselves in public."  

In the article, Shakespeare argues that historically, roles in entertainment for little people have been created to "make the audience laugh or snigger or gawp." He cites The Wizard of Oz and Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as examples.  The problem with these roles, and with contemporary roles in which dwarfs are used as a site gag or the butt of a joke, is that they impact how the general public interacts with little people.  Shakespeare writes, "jokes about the Dwarfs affect the way that the public thinks of people like me." 

Shakespeare's article reflects a debate that has been ongoing in the dwarfism community.  For years, people have argued about the responsibility of dwarf actors.  Many people hold the actors that take demeaning roles responsible for the stigma that exists around dwarfism.  Since dwarfism is so rare, if a member of a general public sees a dwarf on television dressed up as a prop to make people laugh, that member of the general public may believe that all dwarfs fulfill a similar function.  Many people with dwarfism would agree with Shakespeare, who wrote, "But the problem is, other restricted-growth people's choices impact on me directly, when they make it more likely that total strangers will regard me as a figure of fun and abuse me in the street."

Throughout the debate over what responsibility a dwarf actor has for the roles he or she takes, many people have urged the organization Little People of America to speak out in much the same way Shakespeare did in his article.  At least some members of Little People of America blame the actors who take roles as Elves, Fairies, and Leprechauns for the roadblocks to equal opportunity that other little people face when pursuing a professional career outside of entertainment.  These members would love for Little People of America to put some of the responsibility for those roadblocks in the laps of dwarf actors.  The hope being that dwarf actors would then think twice before agreeing to a demeaning or stereotypical role.  

The problem with this hope, and in my opinion the reason why Little People of America will never cast blame on actors, is that the line in entertainment between demeaning and respectable is very subjective.  The show "Life's Too Short" is just one example.  When the show began in England, many little people were horrified with the way it portrayed little people.  Others believed that it was a satirical commentary on the situation in which little people in the entertainment industry find themselves.  Debate with the community of little people waged such that some members of the community split with the Restricted Growth Association to form a new organization for little people.  If Little People of America were to begin to cast judgement on the roles of little people, debates such as the one over "Life's Too Short" in England would be ongoing and unproductive.

In addition, I believe that even if articles such as that written by Tom Shakespeare and even if a position statement by an organization against demeaning roles convinced a few actors to say no to certain roles, there will probably always be other individuals ready to take the role.  There would be a constant cycle of blame within the dwarfism community.  The answer is not to attack the people who take what may be considered a demeaning role.  The answer is to prevent the demeaning role from being written in the first place.  That can be done, not by finger pointing at individuals, but by systemic campaigns of awareness.  Dwarfism Awareness campaigns may or may not accomplish this goal, but in the last few years, countries around the world have launched awareness movements.  If they ever do, it will be a long time before these campaigns have a significant impact on the entertainment industry.  But, there a moving in the correct direction, and they are doing so in an inclusive manner.  For the dwarfism community, inclusion is vital.  

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