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.  


Monday, December 29, 2014

People and the things that they do

John Young is a friend of mine from Facebook.  Over the Christmas Holiday, he visited his home town in Canada.  While in Canada, he had to deal with people trying to take his picture at least twice. The incidents happened while he was out for a run.  John's nephew suggested that he write about what happened, which he did.  He submitted the story to local papers.  I am not sure if the piece was published, but John also posted the story on his blog.

I also went away for the Christmas Holiday.  I went to visit my in-laws, who live outside of a small town in North Central New Jersey.  Like John, I went jogging while I was away.  I went twice, fairly early in the morning.  Once on Christmas Day and once on December 27.  I heard about John and the pictures between my first and second run.  Knowing what had happened to John, I was hyper aware of anyone around me during the second run.  Thankfully, nothing happened.  The most attention I generated was not from people but rather from two big yellow dogs that lived on the property across the road from my in-laws.  They started to bark at me as soon as I turned from the driveway on to the two-lane asphalt road.  They followed me to the edge of the property line and then continued barking until I was out of sight.  

I really enjoy my visits to New Jersey.  But the fact that nothing happened to me while I was running is not a reflection of North Central New Jersey humanity compared to Orangeville, Ontario, where John Young visited.  I have no idea how many people John saw during his runs, but, between my two runs, I saw a total of two cars on the road, and four other people.  Each of the other people I saw was also running.  Two cars and four people is not a large enough sample size to reach the conclusion that the roads of Bernardsville, New Jersey are cooler than Orangeville, Ontario.

I thought about John's story again this morning. Back in Chicago, I took another run.  I followed a route I often take; a route on which I've never had a problem.  But typically, if I run outside in Chicago, I run on Saturday or Sunday mornings.  I don't know if I've ever run outside on Monday during the morning commute.  Running along sidewalks this morning, I was forced to navigate several cars that zoomed into intersections, came to a rolling stop over pedestrian crossings, and waited for a break in the traffic before making a right hand turn.  But I was unable to avoid the driver of a gray sport utility vehicle that, while heading north, made a u-turn over a median that divided the north and southbound lanes.  Now moving south, the driver, with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand holding a phone, took my picture.

In the hours that followed my run, I thought about many things.  I thought about John and all the other people with dwarfism to which this type of thing happens.  No one should have to suffer this indignity, but it's nice to be in the company of good people.  I thought about the driver.  I wondered if the driver mistook me for Peter Dinklage.  Why else would a driver go at least two u-turns out of his or her way to get my picture?  I thought about the mother from Australia who murdered her six-month old daughter because she believed her baby had dwarfism.  Developing strategies that protect the community from infanticide feels much more urgent than strategies to deal with bootleg pictures of dwarfs.  

Finally, I thought, what does it matter?  By all measures, the dwarfism community builds more awareness every year.  As we build awareness, we have more resources to implement the right to participate in our communities on a level playing field.  We have more resources to protect ourselves from discrimination, and to portray ourselves as people who embrace our dwarfism but are not defined by our dwarfism.  Though we get stronger, we will most likely always have to deal with individuals who may or may not be shitty people but who sometimes do shitty things.  The shitty things probably won't ever go away.  That's why I ask myself, what does it matter how I respond to the shitty thing perpetrated by the driver of the gray sport utility vehicle?  That's why I tell myself, focus on the big picture.

But it does matter.  It matters because the shitty things create a hostile environment for the person with dwarfism.  It matters because the shitty things interrupt the course of our days.  Because it matters, I am grateful for people like John and for scores of other people with dwarfism who don't tolerate anyone that interrupts the course of their days.  Because of them and what they do, the big picture is changing.