Dwarfs are prominent figures within the entertainment industry, but there is limited academic focus on representations of them in the theatre. In this paper, I explore one of the most prominent representations of dwarfism in the theatre: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The paper argues that the current representation of the Seven Dwarfs engages with disabling humour, which mocks their stature and has implications for people with dwarfism in society. Focusing on three different forms of casting including; using people with dwarfism, average height adults and children to fulfil the roles of the Seven Dwarfs, I argue that each representation promotes a negative stereotype of dwarfism, which can be explained by different theories of humour. In the last part, I suggest that using disability humour within scenes featuring the Seven Dwarfs can help to challenge stereotypes of dwarfism, which are less likely to have negative repercussions upon people with dwarfism in society.
A pantomime is a stage-based form of entertainment, often shown over the Christmas season. According to Sladen (2017), it is a staple of British Christmas tradition and an important part of the UK's cultural and theatrical landscape. Since 2012, ticket sales for the pantomime have been increasing year on year in the UK. In 2016/17, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the sixth most popular pantomime show, with over 300 performances across the UK and selling approximately 314,591 tickets (Brownlee, 2017). Furthermore, Holland (1997:195) adds that the 'pantomime is the single most popular form of British theatre, the cornerstone of the British theatrical economy – its takings subsidizing many theatre's work for the rest of the year'. Most of the show's content incorporates singing, dancing, slapstick comedy and celebrity guest appearances. The inclusion of celebrities aids in increasing the show's popularity. As well as within the UK, numerous productions also take place throughout the world, mainly in former Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and South Africa (Sladen, 2012). The popularity of the pantomime makes the representation of the various characters within it important to consider.
In this paper, I explore one of the most prominent representations of dwarfism in the theatre: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Shakespeare (2015) points out that dwarf actors are mostly seen around Christmas time in pantomime productions of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As a person with dwarfism, I consider it important to understand how the Seven Dwarfs are portrayed within the pantomime in order to provide an ethical perspective of dwarf entertainment in the theatre. Using extracts from both dwarf actors and people with dwarfism, I demonstrate how the representation of the Seven Dwarfs in the pantomime can influence how other members of the public perceive and interact with people with dwarfism. I argue that current representations engage with disabling humour, which has negative consequences for people with dwarfism in society. Adelson (2005b) argues that the ethical implications associated with dwarf entertainment need to be addressed. These ethical implications, not only include how dwarfs are represented, but also who has been chosen to fulfil the role of the dwarfs, including average height actors and children, which are both forms of 'cripping up'.
In the first part, I focus on the casting of average height actors to play the role of the Seven Dwarfs. According to Tregaskis (2004: 93, cited in Loja et al, 2013: 198) 'perhaps 'identity' is most important when you belong to a minority whose selfhood is constantly challenged by the presence and actions of the majority.' In this part, I argue that the non-disabled majority in society perpetuates a derogatory perception of dwarfism through offensive comedic impersonation, which is known as 'cripping up'. Cripping up refers to a non-disabled person playing the part of a disabled character. The acceptance of cripping up in relation to the Seven Dwarfs allows non-disabled actors to reinforce a problematic stereotype of dwarfism. This, even if unintentional, can encourage unwanted social attitudes towards people with dwarfism within society.
In the second part, I look at how children are often cast to play the Seven Dwarfs. This form of cripping up has been given limited consideration, however, it creates its own form of disablism. The term disablism was coined to describe all forms of "discriminatory, oppressive or abusive behaviour arising from the [unjustified] belief that disabled people are inferior to others'' (Scully, 2010: 26). In this case, comparing dwarfs to children is infantilizing and can influence problematic beliefs within society. For example, people with dwarfism are often compared and treated as children in society. In this section, I demonstrate that due to their similarities in height a problematic binary is created. This section refers to Bolt's (2014) notion of 'disablist infantilization' to demonstrate how using children to play the role of the Seven Dwarfs can further encourage society to perceive and treat people with dwarfism as children.
However, it is not just cripping that is problematic, but the general representation of dwarfism in the Pantomime. In the third part, I unpack how the Seven Dwarfs are portrayed in the pantomime when played by dwarf actors. In this paper, I use the term 'dwarf actor' to refer to someone who has dwarfism and uses their impairment to fulfil the role of a stereotypical representation of dwarfism. On the other hand, an actor with dwarfism is an actor whose impairment is not incidental to the plot. A person with dwarfism refers to someone with an impairment but who is not necessarily associated with the entertainment industry. I argue that using dwarf actors to play the role reinforces the acceptability to laugh at people with dwarfism. I draw on interview extracts taken from my doctoral research, which explored the social and spatial experiences of people with dwarfism living in the UK. These interviews were conducted with people with dwarfism, who have shared their views and experiences concerning cultural representations of dwarfism and how they impact them.
In analysing all three representations, in the fourth part, I look at some of the different ways the Seven Dwarfs can be represented using disability humour as opposed to disabling humour. Reid, Hammond-Stoughton and Smith (2006) suggest that there are two forms of comedy related to disability: disability humour and disabling humour. Disabling humour, they argue, reinforces stereotypes and negative representations of disability. According to Barnes (1991), disabling humour helps perpetuate the preconceived attitudes towards, assumptions about, and expectations of disabled people in the minds of non-disabled people. On the other hand, disability humour challenges cultural assumptions towards disabled people. I argue that using disability humour directs the humour away from the person's dwarfism and instead towards the overall situation and even the other characters. I demonstrate an example of disability humour involving a scene with an actor with dwarfism featured in the 2003 Christmas film Elf.
The Pantomime, Disability, Humour and Dwarfism
The theatre in relation to disability has tended to focus on disability arts and performance (Kuppers, 2004; 2007; 2017). The theatre is constructed as a place where disabled artists can challenge problematic constructions of disability. Kuppers (2004) suggests that disabled artists use performance as a way to express themselves and as a form of activism. However, disability arts has remained separate from the pantomime resulting in a lack of critical analysis in regards to how the pantomime represents disability, or more specifically dwarfism.
The modern-day pantomime significantly differs from its origins in ancient Rome. What we are familiar with originates from the 18th century and is based on well-known fairy tales from that era, including: Peter Pan, Jack and the Beanstalk and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The modern-day pantomime depends on tradition that has been passed down from the Victorian era (Kruger, 2000). However, some of these traditions reflect historical attitudes that are no longer acceptable in society, yet they continue to persist. It can be argued that the pantomime acts as a vehicle for promoting outdated ideologies. This is further problematised in the way the pantomime is constructed. Unlike other forms of dramatic media, the theatre produces a relationship between the performer, audience and the space in which they come together (McAuley, 1999). The audience practically comes face to face with the performers and thus boundaries are blurred between fiction and reality. This can further influence how people with dwarfism are perceived due to humourous representations.
People with dwarfism have been perceived as a form of comic relief for centuries. Haberer (2010: 10) points out that they are often 'depicted based on the novelty factor of their stature rather than any other personal attributes'. It is important to understand why their condition, which predominantly results in short stature, is perceived as humorous. To understand how humour is used to influence perceptions about dwarfism it is beneficial to draw on theories of humour. There are three main theories of humour, but for the purposes of this paper, I am drawing on superiority and incongruity.
According to incongruity theory, what makes something funny is 'because there is something odd, abnormal or something out of place, which provokes laughter' (Morreall, 2009: 68). People with dwarfism create incongruous encounters as they challenge normative ideas of the body within society. It is unusual to see an adult of profound short stature. In practice, incongruity theory can be related to bisociation. Bisociation is used to analyse humour and combines the known and the unknown (Koestler, 1964). These two conflicting forms result in laughter. However, lots of incongruous encounters do not necessarily provoke laughter. Thus, it is not just incongruity that provokes humour in relation to people with dwarfism. It can be argued that it is also their social standing, which can be related to superiority theory.
In regards to superiority theory, humour is derived from the expense of others through the exploitation of human flaws, such as their height and intellect. Aristotle claimed that in comedies people are normally depicted as 'worse than the average and a comic is a subspecies of the ugly' (Billig, 2005: 43). When comic figures are depicted as ugly or deformed, then the audience can feel superior to them. Superiority theory is always associated with laughing at someone in order to show how they are inferior in comparison to the rest of the cohort. When superiority theory was first observed it was during a time when the powerful wished to keep society in order. For example, the lower classes were often not permitted to laugh at their superiors (Billig, 2001). Depending on whether we are laughing with someone or laughing at them can determine their social standing. In this case, laughing at a group of disabled people keeps them in an inferior position within society.
Laughing at disabled people is a form of disabling humour. Disabling humour is influenced by the superiority theory of humour, as it reinforces disablist beliefs. Billig (2001) argues that humour permits taboo thoughts to be expressed. These taboo thoughts can include deeming people inferior in societies where equality for minority groups is promoted. Thus, it is important to challenge humour which promotes disablist beliefs if society truly wants disabled people to be equal. 'Who has been chosen as the comic targets of ridicule and mockery and what lies behind these choices needs to be seriously investigated if we are to move towards a more sensitive ethical consideration of cultural representations in public forms of humour' (Lockyer and Pickering, 2008: 812). This can result in changing the direction of the humour.
Disability humour challenges cultural assumptions towards disabled people. Albrecht (1999) points out that disability humour is often a reaction towards disabling humour. The important element is changing the direction of the humour. In other words, instead of laughing at disabled people, audiences are encouraged to laugh at disablist structures within society. Using this form of humour disabled people are no longer constructed as inferior. Although often performed by disabled comedians, disability humour can also be used in other forms of entertainment, including performances within the pantomime. However, as it stands the pantomime has yet to adopt this form of humour. This is especially problematic given that non-disabled actors are also permitted to play the role of the dwarfs.
It is important to consider who performs what type of humour in relation to disability. In relation to the pantomime, this involves focusing on how the disabled character is represented and who is playing it. In recent years, who plays the role of a disabled character has become an important topic of interest (Fox and Sandahl, 2018; Kuppers, 2017). The role of non-disabled actors playing disabled characters is known as 'cripping up' (Kuppers, 2017). The act of cripping up has been widely criticised by disability activists and actors. One criticism is that cripping up denies disabled actors employment opportunities. For example, whilst disabled people make up 20% of the American population, non-disabled actors play 95% of the disabled characters featured in films (Taylor, 2018). This economical argument is further supported by claims that disabled people are less likely to be in employment than non-disabled people.
As well as the economic concerns, the ethical implications of cripping up, and how it can reinforce negative perceptions of the impaired body within society have also been explored (Kuppers, 2007; 2017). Cripping up allows for the non-disabled actor to perpetuate negative stereotypes associated with disability, which have been created by non-disabled people. This is problematic as it robs disabled people of any agency and provides another way for non-disabled people to mock them. If people with dwarfism are deemed as inferior in society, then the average height actor should have no qualms in representing them as such through humour. Who encourages laughter, whether it is a dwarf actor or an average height actor fulfilling one of the roles of the seven dwarfs, is problematic and needs consideration.
To gather the data for this paper, semi-structured interviews and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) were adopted. The interview extracts used in this paper are taken from my doctoral research, which focused on the social and spatial experiences of people with dwarfism. In total, 22 semi-structured interviews were conducted with people with dwarfism living in the UK. Semi-structured interviews provide unique access to the lived world of participants and an insight to their experiences (Kvale, 2007). Semi-structured interviews provided a structured conversation that enabled me to gain in-depth information from the participants. One of the main themes to emerge was the impact of cultural representations of dwarfism on the spatial experiences of people with dwarfism in public spaces. Thus, to understand why cultural representations have a negative impact on people with dwarfism in society, it is important to analyse the representations.
To understand how dwarfs are represented in the pantomime and issues of cripping up, newspaper articles focusing on cripping up in relation to dwarfism were analysed using CDA. CDA is often used to understand the social and ethical implications of words used (Antaki, 2009). The newspaper extracts were taken from several British newspapers. I used the search terms Pantomime, Panto (the abbreviated version often used in tabloid newspapers), dwarfs, Snow White, little people and restricted growth. I used numerous terms associated with people with dwarfism as there does not seem to be a clear agreement on which term is most acceptable to use. Using several different terms aided in expanding the number of articles found. I was also able to find a relevant article that further exemplified the implications cultural representations, particularly Snow White, has upon people with dwarfism in society and have incorporated this into the paper.
As I wanted to use examples from pantomime productions but do not attend Pantomimes 1 myself, I searched for scenes on the international video sharing platform YouTube. YouTube proved to be a useful place to find videos as it disseminates numerous forms of media content (Konijn et al., 2013). I again used terms such as 'Pantomime', 'dwarfs' and 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' to find appropriate videos. The two videos I selected were UK based and featured scenes where the dwarfs were prominent. To collect the data for the pantomime extracts used in the paper I used CDA to understand how what is said in the performance constructs the seven dwarfs. CDA is not only applied to text, but also other forms of media (Mullet, 2018), in this case performance. Priyanti (2018) points out that language plays an important part in shaping social reality. Furthermore, Mullet (2018) points out that CDA explains the ways in which discourses construct, maintain and legitimise social inequalities. Using this method alongside the interview extracts aids in demonstrating how pantomime representations of dwarfs impact the social standing of people with dwarfism. How the dwarfs are depicted within the shows influences social attitudes towards dwarfs, as well as maintaining them. The benefit of CDA is that it provides the opportunity for people to emancipate themselves from the unequal power relation that is contracted through discourse, through reflection and self-awareness (Mullet, 2018).
The research was carried out according to the ethical guidelines set out by the Universities I was completing each piece of research within. When collecting the interview data, it was important to ensure anonymity of the participants. As Shakespeare et al. (2010) point out, anonymity is of significant importance when conducting research with people with dwarfism because a lot of them know each other through being members of various associations. All participants were given pseudonyms and any demographic information was made vague. For example, instead of stating the town or city the participant was living in, a more general geographic location was provided.
Cripping up: Get down on your knees
During the pantomime season (usually around Christmas), media attention emerges towards the act of cripping up in relation to the seven dwarfs. The attention often revolves around the use of average height actors or children who have been cast by entertainment companies to play the dwarfs (see, Hutchinson, 2015; Khan, 2016; Powell, 2015). Entertainment companies argue that using average height actors to play the role of Seven Dwarfs is cheaper. This is despite the pantomime being a multi-million pound industry (Lipton, 2007). For example, figures from 2016/17 showed that the total revenue for Pantomimes in the UK exceeded £60 million ($78 million) (Brownlee, 2017). Warwick Davies, a dwarf actor, has criticised a UK based theatre company's decision to use average height adults to play the role of the dwarfs in Christmas Pantomimes because it robs people with dwarfism, including himself 2, of the opportunity to fulfil those roles (Telegraph reporters, 2016). Added to this Warwick Davis has been quoted as claiming that the role provides 'vital work' and a 'staple income' for people with dwarfism (Hutchinson, 2015). This reinforces the problematic belief that people with dwarfism are spectacles who rely on the pantomime as a source of employment (see Grant, 2017).
A spectacle can be regarded as something that is out of the ordinary and thus worthy of public attention. As Garland-Thompson (1997: 20) suggests, 'The visibly disabled body intrudes on our routine visual landscape and compels our attention.' In this case, they are a humorous spectacle, the attention they receive is influenced by the incongruous encounter they provoke and the audience's feeling of superiority. The belief that people with dwarfism are spectacles and work in the pantomime undermines their other abilities. It is also not an accurate assertion, as Ablon (1984) points out that less than 1% of people with dwarfism are employed in the entertainment industry. Therefore, dwarf entertainers can be considered a minority, however, due to the large influence the media has they perpetuate the belief that dwarf entertainment is the main form of employment for people with dwarfism.
With improved equality for disabled people, including better access to employment, people with dwarfism can work in a variety of occupations. Adelson (2005b) suggests that people with dwarfism are now moving away from employment within the entertainment industry. There is also a growing number of actors with dwarfism who are rejecting roles that stereotype and degrade people with dwarfism. Shakespeare (2015) argues that actors such as Lisa Hammond and Peter Dinklage are now pursuing roles where their dwarfism is incidental to the plot. This movement is making it difficult for some theatre companies to hire dwarf actors, resulting in them having to either look further afield or to use non-disabled actors. However, these companies should be responding to the concerns of people with dwarfism in regards to their representation instead of trying to find other ways to continue promoting a problematic representation of dwarfism.
The media's focus on the economic reasoning of the entertainment companies using average height actors for the role ignores the ethical dilemmas in relation to the possible impact it can have on people with dwarfism within society. This includes how promoting dwarfism as a spectacle, which is reliant on disablist beliefs, can damage the employment opportunities for people with dwarfism interested in occupations other than entertainment. Lawyer Paul Steven Miller, for example, a person with dwarfism, reflects upon how he struggled to gain employment, with one law firm noting their reason for rejecting him was that their clients would think that they were running a 'circus freak show' (Adelson, 2005a). A lawyer with dwarfism creates an incongruous encounter. A lawyer is a professional with a strong educational background and is to be respected. Whereas in the media dwarfism is constructed as a figure of fun and is inferior. However, it is not Miller's dwarfism that would impact the reputation of the law firm, but rather how others perceive people with dwarfism. German Lawyer Silke Schönfleisch-Backofen, who has dwarfism, successfully sued a man after he started laughing and singing 'Heigh Ho' at her in court (Reuters, 2012). This clearly demonstrates that the perception of people with dwarfism in society is influenced by cultural representations.
To fulfil the role of the dwarfs, the average size actor's bodily appearance has to change in order to mimic someone with dwarfism. This involves the actors walking around on their knees and wearing a costume with trousers that look like two smaller legs. This is problematic as the role is used to provide comic relief using the impaired body. When out in society I have witnessed people mocking me by walking around on their knees. Promoting this sort of mimicry only reinforces its acceptability in society. Being down on one's knees implies being powerless and subordinate to others. This way of being is emphasised by the way the average height actors encourage their role to be laughed at by others. It is humiliating to walk around on your knees; however, the actors are lucky that their short stature is only temporary. As well as changing their appearance, actors also try to mimic their movements, such as their gait, which differs from that of a non-disabled person. This again mocks a characteristic associated with dwarfism for comedic purposes.
Cripping up in the pantomime can be considered a form of comic impersonation. Comic impersonation can be defined as impersonating a person's identity, in this case dwarfism, to provoke laughter from others. For laughter to occur the impersonation must be degrading (Koestler, 1964). In other words they must construct themselves as inferior. In relation to impersonating the dwarfs, constant jokes are made towards their height, which can be considered a form of heightism. Heightism is defined as 'unfair treatment based on height, especially: prejudice or discrimination against short people' (Merriam-Webster, 2020). According to Pickering and Lockyer (2005), comic impersonation is viewed negatively when the person has done it in order to demean or promote a derogatory stereotype. As pointed out the Seven Dwarfs are used as a form of comic relief, which promotes dwarfism as inferior. Whilst it could be argued that the audience is laughing at the performer, they are in fact laughing at dwarfism. According to Shakespeare (1999) in reference to stage performances, there is an acceptance and an enjoyment that comes from laughing at disabled people. Using non-disabled actors to replicate the disabled characters adds another dimension to being able to laugh at the disabled body. The average height actors reinforce dwarfism as a form of entertainment by cripping up and acting in a way that mocks dwarfism, rendering those with the impairment as inferior and powerless.
Pretending to be a person with dwarfism controls how their impairment is presented. The actors are partaking and promoting a form of disablist humour. The humour derived from the averaged sized actors is based on how they represent dwarfism.The seven dwarfs are a popular set of characters that are portrayed as funny without any indication as to how they degrade people with dwarfism in society and subsequently promote disablist attitudes. According to Lockyer and Pickering (2008), the ethical limits of humour have stood in need of fuller discussion and debate. Considering the ethical implications of cripping up in relation to the Seven Dwarfs, allows for further consideration as to how people with dwarfism are constructed as humorous.
Cripping up to play the Seven Dwarfs is a form of comedic performance that can be classed as disabling humour. According to Lockyer (2015), this form of humour degrades disabled people. The humour derived from the averaged sized actors is based on how they represent dwarfism, which uses their short stature as a comedic crutch. The following extract is taken from a pantomime script:
Brainy: Let us introduce ourselves. I'm Brainy.
Smiley: He's the clever one. And I'm' Smiley.
Brainy: He's the happy one (to the other 5:) Come on, your turn – and keep it short!
Dozy: I'm Dozy.
Brainy: He's one slice short of a loaf!
Blushful: (Shy and embarrassed at meeting a girl) I'm…oh, gosh…I'm Blushful.
Smiley: He's short and sweet.
Sniffle: I'm Sniffle.
Brainy: He's short of a…
Sniffle: (interrupting) A…a…a…tishoo! (he sneezes into his hands).
Brainy: Yes, he's short of a tissue.
Snow White: (Looking at her hand) Err! I see what you mean!
Snoozy: I'm Snoozy.
Smiley: He's always short of sleep.
Grumbly: And, if you must know…I'm Grumbly.
Brainy: He's short tempered.
Dozy: And he's got a short fuse!
Other 6: (All except Grumbly:) So he may be a bit short with you! (They laugh.)
Snow White: So, do you think I could stay here with you?
Dozy: How about it, lads?
Grumbly: No! Women are trouble!
Snow White: I'm a very good cook!
7 Dwarfs: In that case, it's a "yes"!
Snow White: Why, thank you – and I promise you won't go short!…Oops…Sorry! (Frayn, 2017).
The repeated use of the adjective 'short' is used as a pun to encourage laughter. Priyanti (2018) points out that language aids in establishing and maintaining particular ideas. The humour in this case aids in reinforcing heightism within society, which is a form of superiority. According to Koestler (1964) a pun is a bisociation of a single phonetic form with two meanings. The term short is used as a way to emphasise each of the dwarf's personality traits, whilst also reminding the audience of the character's short stature. Their short stare therefore becomes the main target of humour, as it is the crux of the joke. This reinforces their inferior position. Lockyer and Pickering (2008) argue that humour can easily become ridicule and mockery. I would feel uncomfortable sitting through this performance, knowing that my impairment is being used to make people laugh. I can imagine that I would be accused of being 'short tempered' if I was to make my objection to the scene known. After the performance is finished, the actors can then revert to their original stature and not have to endure any of the repercussions.
The scene also infantilises dwarfs as they are constructed as asexual and dependent on Snow White. According to Bolt (2019) humour can be used to highlight differences and create hierarchies. They firstly refuse acceptance of Snow White in a way similar to a young boys club. Grosz (1991) argues that due to their body size people with dwarfism occupy a binary middle ground between children and adults. This is reinforced within the show. The confusion between being an adult but represented as a child is an example of bisociation, which creates an incongruous encounter. This similarity has aided average height people to further construct dwarfs as childlike and inferior through presenting them in an infantalising manner. This calls into question the ethics of cripping up when performed by children.
Acting like children: Cripping up and Disablist Infantilization
Adults are expected to be tall and children are expected to be small. It is all about growing up and thus height is a representation of maturity. A similarity in body size has led to an assumption that people with dwarfism are childlike in relation to their personality. It is not just their body size that can reinforce this perception, but also how they are represented. According to Forgacs (1992), Disney transformed the dwarfs from the gnome like representations, within the Grimm's fairy tales, to being more infantile, in both appearance and behaviour. The dwarfs all have round features, large eyes and a large head, which relates to cuteness (Merish, 1996). Forgacs (1992) suggests that many of the creators behind Snow White perceived the dwarfs to be childlike. Throughout the animated film, Snow White treats the dwarfs like children. In one scene, she tells them to wash their hands before supper, in the same way a parent would talk to their child. Using children for the role of the Seven Dwarfs only reinforces the belief that dwarfs are like children. Wilde (2018) argues that a singular childlike character with dwarfism is problematic; however, a group of dwarfs being infantilized is even more so, as it produces a stronger identity.
It is not uncommon for theatre companies to use children, instead of dwarf actors, to play the role of the Seven Dwarfs. A Qdos Entertainment Ltd spokesperson said: 'The casting of children in the roles is not unusual, as is the case in many productions of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs around the country…' (Powell, 2015, n.d.). This is because children are cheaper to hire than dwarf actors and because, as previously stated, people with dwarfism are becoming more reluctant to fulfil roles that reinforce problematic stereotypes. Using children for the role of the Seven Dwarfs reinforces the idea that people with dwarfism are childlike. An automatic comparison is made between people with dwarfism and children. Although the decision to cast children is not for humorous purposes, it still is a form of comic impersonation which is degrading for people with dwarfism, especially when average height people think that replacing dwarfs with children is acceptable.
The children replacing the dwarf actors will be playing a role that will indicate to them that people with dwarfism are figures of fun. According to Osensky (2018) children's attitudes are influenced by their family, friends and by what they see in the media. Exposing children to this sort of role reinforces derogatory attitudes for the next generation. The act allows children to mock people with dwarfism and perceive them in an infantilising manner. Wilde (2018) argues that the audience's failure to question the infantilising representation of dwarfism can be problematic. It can lead them to believe that people with dwarfism in society are also childlike.
A feature associated with children and the seven dwarfs is cuteness. Merish (1996) argues that cuteness is associated with a lack of power and sexuality. These representations are reflected in people's attitudes towards people with dwarfism, which has an impact on their dignity and the ability to be taken seriously. Bolt (2014) refers to disablist infantilization as the way in which non-disabled people perceive and treat disabled people as children. This disablist infantilization places the social status of people with dwarfism to that of a child's. When appearing on an American talk show, celebrity Chelsea Handler remarked that she found people with dwarfism cute, but would never sleep with one, as it would be child abuse (Moye, 2012). This absurd comment clearly demonstrates how some people equate people with dwarfism to children.
In both cases of cripping up, what is problematic is how average size people are reinforcing a problematic representation of dwarfism. However, it should not be ignored that dwarf actors can also reinforce these beliefs.
Pantomime dwarfs – It's behind you
The Seven Dwarfs are part of the wider cultural narrative of dwarfism. As the name suggests the Seven Dwarfs are key characters within the story, but are secondary to Snow White, in the same way that the evil stepmother and Prince Charming are. The bisociation of an event with two habitually incompatible matrices will produce a comic effect (Koestler, 1964). The inclusion of the Seven Dwarfs in the title, however, creates a binary opposition between non-disabled and disabled, beautiful and grotesque, admiration and ridicule, sexual and asexual. This helps to reinforce an incongruous encounter, which provokes humour.
An incongruous encounter does not always provoke laughter and thus, there must be more to their performance for laughter to be present. The Grimm brothers originally wrote Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, however, according to Sladen (2012), a strong influence on the modern British pantomime is Disney's version of the classic fairy tale. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was Disney's first animated film. It remains one of Disney's most iconic films and remains the highest grossing animated film (Watson, 2020). Sladen (2012) points out that there is no pantomime version of the story prior to the film's release in 1937. According to Watson (2020) Disney popularized the seven dwarfs, who previously were only minor characters. Making them a more prominent set of characters makes it more important to consider how they are presented. In Disney's animated version of the fairy tale, the Seven Dwarfs are used for comedic purposes.
The Seven Dwarfs can be conceived as a humorous caricature of people with dwarfism, with their rosy cheeks, childish costumes and long beards. Watson (2020) suggests that much of the humour towards the dwarfs is influenced by their cuteness. An adult being conceived as cute is a form of bisociation. Their cuteness not only creates an incongruous encounter, but also denotes powerlessness. According to Koestler (1964) laughter occurs within the sudden cessation of danger, real or imaginary. Furthermore, Morreall (2009) points out that prehistoric tribes used laughter to indicate to others that something they had seen was not a potential threat. People with dwarfism may provoke an incongruous encounter, however their small stature indicates that they are not a threat. However, many other people, including other disabled people, would be considered non-threatening yet they do not provoke laughter.
Unlike people with dwarfism the seven dwarfs do not display any secondary impairments associated with the impairment, such as mobility difficulties. According to Noonan (2010: 54), 'jokes about disabled people are often seen as mean spirited and denigrating, they flaunt a callous insensitivity to human tragedy and suffering'. Thus by ignoring any disabling aspects usually associated with the impairment allows them to be constructed as humorous. Ignoring the secondary impairments, which often result in pain, allows for incongruity theory to be applied. Aristotle argued that pain must be absent for incongruity theory to work (Billig, 2005). Both their appearance and performance misrepresent dwarfism and encourage the impairment to be seen in a comical and distorted manner. The audience are expected to laugh at a set of small characters, but would probably be reluctant to laugh at them if they were aware of their other impairments. Ignoring the realities of dwarfism, allows particular representations to flourish, which can distort people's perceptions and attitudes towards people with dwarfism in society. This not only allows the audience to laugh at them, but for society in general to perceive dwarfism as a humorous phenomenon.
Why so grumpy? The social impact of the performance
In the pantomime production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the dwarfs are used, as Shakespeare (2015) points out, to make the audience laugh, snigger or gawp. Encouraging the audience to react in this way is problematic as the attention is based on their impairment:
"When you're on stage, the kids love it. It's a great feeling to hear the gasps when they see us." (Dwarf actor, Telegraph reporters, 2016, n.d.).
Gasping at someone demonstrates feeling an element of surprise, resonating with the incongruity theory and bisociation. Children are taught that adults are tall and authoritative. However, when the dwarfs walk on stage the children are presented with several people who are similar in size to them, which presents them with both the known and unknown. This reaction from the children usually results in staring. Staring is defined as a 'more intense form of looking than glancing, glimpsing, scanning, surveying, gazing and other forms of causal or uninterested looking, staring registers the perception of difference and gives meaning to the impairments by marking it as aberrant' (Garland-Thomson, 2002: 56). Of course, being on stage purposely encourages people to stare, but why the dwarfs are on stage in the first place needs to be questioned. In relation to humour, staring can be related to incongruity and superiority theory. The dwarfs are stared at because they provoke surprise, however, by staring at the small body, audiences can also judge them as inferior. In their research based on both the medical and social experiences of people with dwarfism, Shakespeare et al. (2010) found that 96% of their participants had been stared at when out in public. People with dwarfism are not a common sight in society, but like the freak show, the pantomime provides the opportunity to see real life dwarfs and create an incongruous encounter. According to Grosz (1991), people exhibited in the freak shows still arouse public fascination despite their demise. In his review of the west end production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the British newspaper columnist Quentin Letts, wrote that he was disappointed not to see any 'real life dwarves 3' [sic] playing the Oompa Loompas (Letts, 2013). Whilst I do not care for Letts' disappointment at not being able to gawp at my impairment like a member of the audience at a Victorian freak show, I am concerned that these roles only serve as a modern day freak show for a number of people.
People eagerly wait for the Seven Dwarfs to come on and as soon as they do, they are encouraged to laugh at them. Watson (2020: 145) suggests that 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs teaches the audience that people with dwarfism are funny looking and childlike and that it is okay to laugh at them'. For example, they are often seen acting silly, tripping over themselves and in several scenes are laughed at by Snow White. This automatically constructs them as figures of fun. Their silly antics reinforce their small stature as childlike and inferior, especially when compared to the beautiful and mature Snow White. The dwarfs are older men, who are meant to be mature and full of wisdom. This is in itself an incongruous situation and a form of bisociation.
The dwarfs can be conceived as a narrative crutch on where the humour is derived from (Mitchell and Snyder, 2011). The characters' dwarfism is part of the Pantomime's comedy element that encourages the audience to engage with the performance through laughter. Watson (2020) argues that Disney's version of the story follows the conventions of the freak show, which constructed dwarfs as oddities and acceptable to laugh at. Freak show performers were those who deviated from the norm and thus created an incongruous encounter. They were also deemed inferior due to their bodies which significantly differed to what was considered the norm. Adopting the Disney version of the story aids in keeping this attitude alive and well in the present day. Furthermore, it can influence how children react towards people with dwarfism in society:
It's difficult for parents to take their children to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and encourage them to laugh and then when they come out of the theatre somebody like me walks along and they tell them not to laugh. It must be very confusing for that to happen to a child (Ivy).
If children are taught to laugh at the Seven Dwarfs and deem them a spectacle, this attitude is likely to be reflected within society, as their body size becomes an indicator of humour. Shakespeare (1994: 2) points out that 'as children grow up, they learn about disabled people through books, films and legends which they encounter' and so real disabled people are understood in terms of fictional stereotypes. A person with dwarfism is easily recognisable and if a child has no other point of reference to them then their perception is likely to be shaped by the person with dwarfism on stage. Pritchard (2014) points out that people with dwarfism receive a lot of unwanted attention from children, including being pointed and laughed at. This can be disconcerting when children are approximately the same height as someone with dwarfism. According to Kruse (2003), due to children associating people with dwarfism with fictional characters their reaction to them can often be nasty. This is problematic as a representation should not encourage disablist reactions. Adelson (2005b) suggests that because most members of the public do not know any people with dwarfism personally, their impressions are formed by what they see in popular culture. It is no surprise then that adults can also be guilty of this behaviour:
When I was in Blackpool [seaside town in England] a few years ago to see a friend who was in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We went out for a meal and people started singing behind us 'Heigh Ho 4' (Lydia).
The association between the two people with dwarfism and a fictional set of characters that are encouraged to be mocked prompts an unwanted encounter. Constant attention to their stature in a humorous way encourages dwarfism to be perceived as such. According to Clark (2003, cited in Lockyer, 2015: 1399), such disabling jokes and terms repeated over time have a number of negative effects, including: 'damage done to the general public's perceptions of disabled people'. These representations are harmful in the social perceptions of dwarfism as they acquire significance in everyday society interactions with people with dwarfism. Pritchard (2017) points out that cultural representations of dwarfism influence how other members of the public interact with people with dwarfism in society, including mockery and name calling. This is an unwanted reaction that indicates that people with dwarfism are figures of fun as opposed to people with impairments. As indicated by Lydia, she was a member of the audience as her friend was performing in the Pantomime. Of course, whilst we can presume that pantomime audiences are predominantly non-disabled, there will be members of the audience who are disabled, including people with dwarfism. Bolt (2019) questions whether it is acceptable for disabled people to laugh at disabilist humour. Amongst people with dwarfism, there is contention surrounding the acceptance of entertainment which stigmatises people with dwarfism. Adelson (2005b) suggests that people with dwarfism are turning against entertainment that exploits people with dwarfism and are protesting against those who do. These protests are based on the negative implications that the roles have on other people with dwarfism.
Shakespeare et al. (2010) found that the majority of people with dwarfism attract unwanted attention when out in public, including verbal abuse. As a result, 63% of their participants claimed they felt unsafe when out in public. Feeling unsafe when out in public is a factor in avoiding certain areas where they are likely to feel most unsafe, and as shown this can include spaces where certain cultural representations of dwarfism are prominent:
I never want to be next to a poster advertising Snow White, because I never want to be that photo opportunity for someone with a camera phone (Naomi).
Most people in society will have seen a person with dwarfism in some form of entertainment but rarely, or if ever, in public. To see a real-life person with dwarfism next to a fictional character allows a humorous comparison to be made. This comparison encourages unwanted attention, as the person with dwarfism is perceived and treated in the same way as the dwarf character. However, treating a person in society in the same way as a character on stage should not be acceptable. Loja et al. (2013) argue that it is not just physical barriers that result in disabled people being confined to certain spaces, but also social attitudes, which indicate to disabled people that they are inferior. The problematic representation of dwarfism, which has been constructed by non-disabled people as humorous and inferior and given this acceptance by dwarf actors, leaves people with dwarfism in a powerless situation. This is why it is important to challenge problematic representations.
Changing perceptions – Drawing a curtain on laughing at dwarfism
Performances can be altered in order to challenge long held beliefs and stereotypes. There are now calls for more positive representations of dwarfism (Adelson 2005b) that shifts away from representations that connect dwarfism to the spectacle. Lipton (2007) argues that the modern pantomime is evolving in order to reflect changing attitudes and values within society. For example, production companies are now incorporating 3D technology in order to remain relevant with modern society (Sladen, 2015). From this, it can be argued that the play's content, including the humour it uses, should also reflect contemporary attitudes that promote disability equality. O'Reilly (2009) suggests that stage performances should adopt 'alternative dramaturgies'. O'Reilly (2009 p.32) defines alternative dramaturgies as 'the process, structures, content and form which reinvert, subvert or critique 'traditional' or 'conventional' representations'. Alternative dramaturgies can include a move away from using disablist humour and instead disability humour. Changing how the humour is constructed, within one of the most famous shows featuring people with dwarfism, can help to change how they are represented and subsequently perceived within society.
In the pantomime, audiences are encouraged to laugh at the characters with dwarfism. Their dwarfism is part of the humour, as much as their make-up and garish clothing. Instead, the audience should be encouraged to laugh with them, such as towards the situation, not the person's impairment. For example, why cannot one of the Seven Dwarfs mock one of the other characters? In one scene of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Jester makes numerous jokes towards one of the dwarfs, such as laughing and saying 'things are looking up, but not for you', then after the Evil Queen shouts 'Hi-de-hi' the Jester looks at the dwarf and again laughs and states 'Low-de-low in your case'. The Jester is constantly using the dwarf's stature as his comedic prop, or a narrative prosthesis (Mitchell and Snyder, 2011). This repeated ridicule towards the dwarf's height was not challenged, but was instead encouraged by the other characters laughing at him. When people laugh together, it is an indication that the humour is acceptable and subsequently their laughter becomes stronger (Koestler, 1964). In other words, the group laughter reinforces the belief that dwarfs are humorous. Their reaction acts as an indicator for the audience to join in and laugh at the dwarf. According to Koestler (1964) laughter is often aimed towards those who are deemed inferior within society. Instead, the dwarf could have retorted to the Jester's mockery or the Jester could have mocked the other characters.
A problematic representation can be challenged by changing the direction of the humour. Disability humour is a form of entertainment that can aid in challenging disabling stereotypes (Reid et al., 2006). If the dwarf had responded using disability humour he could have helped to demonstrate that he is not submissive and will not tolerate mockery towards his stature. Performing a joke, rather than being one, aids in changing where the humour is directed (Shakespeare, 1999). They can still use humour to entertain the audience, however, changing the content of the humour and whom it is directed towards can make it more ethical. The Jester could have also made jokes towards the other characters to demonstrate that comedy is not specific to the dwarfs. In moving from being laughed at, people with impairments can challenge disablism within society (Shakespeare, 1999). This of course depends upon the context of the humour. If the dwarf challenges the other non-disabled characters who mock his height, he is performing an alternative dramaturgy. The dwarf character is no longer being the figure of fun, but is instead constructing the others as a figure of fun. This performance directs the audiences' laughter away from the dwarf's stature and instead towards the other character's and simultaneously constructing the dwarf as the protagonist.
Another example of disability humour can be seen being performed by Peter Dinklage in the 2003 Christmas film Elf. In the film, Peter Dinklage plays the bestselling children's author Miles Flinch. His character is revered and somewhat feared due to his high powered position. In one scene, he is in a boardroom meeting that is interrupted by Buddy the Elf, played by the average height actor Will Farrell. Buddy the Elf innocently confuses Miles for a real life elf, which Miles mistakes for mockery. As a woman with dwarfism, I found this to be a relatable scene as I am used to people comparing me with mythical creatures, such as elves. For example, around Christmas time when people see me they will shout across the street that they have seen a real life elf in order to generate laughs from their friends. In the scene, Buddy's remark makes Miles angry, leading to a fight scene that Miles wins. This scene uses disability humour to expose the common mockery that people with dwarfism encounter from other members of the public. The scene demonstrates how people with dwarfism can still be included within comedy, without them having to be the figure of fun.
However, how I as a woman with dwarfism interpret the scene can differ from other audiences. Reid et al. (2006) argue that whilst disability humour can challenge stereotypes, if the audience fails to recognise the joke, it may actually promote disablist humour. This can be dependent on the audience's background as well as the influence of other representations upon them. For example, stereotypes associated with dwarfism are very prominent in the media and have been for centuries. This can make them highly influential in people's conceptions about dwarfism. To counteract these stereotypes, other representations may need to be more obvious in their meaning.
People with dwarfism have been used as a source of ridicule for centuries. Cripping up in the pantomime is another way of promoting this ridicule towards people with dwarfism. The representation of the disabled body in the theatre can influence societal attitudes and thus is important to consider. The current representation of dwarfism within the pantomime has helped to pass down and keep alive the attitudes towards people with dwarfism from the freak show era. Whilst there are now actors with dwarfism pursuing roles which challenge stereotypes of dwarfism and do not encourage disabling humour, the problematic representations still exist. Meeuf (2014) claims that the celebration of Peter Dinklage's success ignores the wider problem of how people with dwarfism are represented within the entertainment industry. This is encouraged by dwarf actors and non-disabled people, including those in the entertainment industry and the audiences.
Currently the representation of dwarfism in the pantomime relies on disabling humour, which reflects disablist attitudes that construct disabled people as inferior. This inferiority has been examined using the superiority and incongruity theories. This paper has shown that cripping up can further encourage people with dwarfism to be perceived as figures of fun. Cripping up gives average height actors the power to determine how people with dwarfism are represented and subsequently how they are treated within society. When considering who plays the role of the Seven Dwarfs there needs to be more consideration given to the ethical implications of the performance, rather than an economical one. Ethical considerations include either finding a more suitable fairy tale to use or ensuring that the show refrains from using disablist humour. This can be achieved through using disability humour and would aid in responding to the concerns of people with dwarfism.
The concerns of people with dwarfism, regarding how dwarfism is represented within the media, have largely gone ignored. Companies need to understand why people with dwarfism are rejecting derogatory roles, including the Seven Dwarfs. Representations of dwarfism need to reflect the growing attitudes of people with dwarfism who are against their impairment being mocked. Shakespeare (2015) argues that when the audience laughs at other pantomime characters, it has no impact outside of the theatre, but this is not the case when people are encouraged to laugh at the dwarfs. People are encouraged to laugh at the dwarfs because it is their body size that is deemed humorous, something that cannot be left behind. It is almost as if there is no clear distinction between the actors' impairment and other props. The stage can act as a modern day freak show, which puts on display people with dwarfism in order for entertainment value. It is important to challenge negative representations in order to improve the social experiences of people with dwarfism. Altering how the dwarfs are represented can help to reflect the changing attitudes amongst people with dwarfism, which will eventually filter into the rest of society.
It cannot be ignored that derogatory representations of dwarfism can have serious consequences for people with dwarfism in society. Shakespeare (2015) points out that numerous entertainers with dwarfism have taken their own lives and blames this upon the insecurities they have because of their dwarfism. Most recently, Verne Troyer, a dwarf actor, committed suicide. Troyer was best known for playing Mini-me in the Austin Powers movies. Mini-me was a well known character whose dwarfism, as the name suggests, was the main focus point in a set of comedy based films. The character Mini-me was often infantilised and used as a comedic crutch, which the audience was encouraged to laugh at. Pritchard (2014) points out that the name Mini-me has been used numerous times as a form of name-calling towards people with dwarfism in society. As well as dwarf actors, I have also been made aware of many other people with dwarfism, who are not in the spotlight taking their own lives. It is important to remember that this is a small minority group and thus a high number of suicides create a cause for concern. Although we cannot assume that their deaths are all linked to media representations of dwarfism, these tragic events should be looked at more closely. Constant ridicule within society, much of which is encouraged by the media, cannot be ignored, as it impacts negatively upon the lives of people with dwarfism. It is the responsibility of the entertainment industry to not create social barriers for people with dwarfism.
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I do not attend Pantomimes as I am concerned about the reaction from others when they see dwarfs in a play featuring dwarfs who are encouraged to be laughed at. This is not to imply that other people with dwarfism avoid attending pantomimes, but as pointed out further within the paper seeing a person next to a set of dwarf characters can provoke an unwanted reaction.
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What is also not reported is that Warwick Davis co-runs an acting agency for tall and short actors. Willow management is the world's largest agency for short actors (Willow Management, 2014).
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There is often confusion between the correct pluralisation of the term dwarf. The plurals 'dwarfs' and 'dwarves' are often used in the media. The latter was derived by Tolkien to differentiate between people with dwarfism and mythical characters (Keleny, 2011). This confusion demonstrates how much of an influence cultural representations have on shaping perceptions of people with dwarfism.
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Heigh Ho is a famous song sung by the dwarfs in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
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