|Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies
BOOK & FILM REVIEWS
Gay Rosenthal (Producer). (2006). Little People, Big World. [Television series]. The Learning Channel. Premiered on Saturday, March 4, 2006.
Reviewed by Betty M. Adelson, author of The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity toward Social Liberation—and Dwarfism: Medical and Psychosocial Aspects of Profound Short Stature. Adelson, a psychologist, is the mother of a short-statured daughter and an average-statured son.
When it was announced that Matt Roloff, former President of Little People of America, and his family were soon to appear in a 20-episode reality TV series, some LPA members expressed apprehension. While they hoped that the series would represent people with dwarfism fairly, their experiences with patronizing talk show hosts—and producers who ridiculed the "dwarf talent" they were ostensibly showcasing—had led them to wonder whether this series might be just another exploitive spectacle.
Fortunately, their fears proved unfounded. The series, which appeared on TLC (The Learning Channel) in March and April 2006, drew well over a million viewers and garnered positive attention from print and television media. Less sensational than most reality TV shows, Little People, Big World had a dual purpose: While offering an entertaining look at one engaging family, it also hoped to educate the public about distinctive aspects of the lives of persons with dwarfism.
The Roloffs do not profess to be representative of all families of little people: Just as there is no typical American family, there is no typical dwarf family. Although Matt and his wife Amy are about 4-feet tall, 15-year-old Jeremy, 13-year-old Molly, and 8-year-old Jacob are average size, while Jeremy's twin brother Zach is a dwarf. (Many may be surprised to learn that although both these parents are short, little people are just as likely to marry a taller spouse as one their own size; few dwarf families have four children; and very rarely is just one twin affected by dwarfism.)
The program's major appeal lies in its interesting protagonists: the Roloff parents, children, and grandparents. Matt Roloff—enthusiastic, voluble, a risk-taker and a dreamer—having lost his lucrative job in software development and sales, is shown struggling successfully to build his own business, selling adaptive aids for short-statured individuals to hotels. Amy—warm, thoughtful, forthright and good-humored–works as a pre-school teacher and administrative assistant, while also coaching her children's soccer teams and running the household. For both parents, devotion to family is central.
The couple owns a 34-acre farm in Oregon, where Matt has built replicas of a western town, a pirate ship, a castle, and later an Indian village. In the course of months of filming, the likable children are revealed maturing, with Zach's concerns—both as a twin and as the only short child in his family—receiving particular attention. Visually compelling cinematography depicts scenes on the farm, in the beautiful Oregon hill country, and at LPA meetings; the TLC website offers informative links.
As the episodes unfold, they elicit lively exchanges on Internet bulletin boards about many issues, including the parents' individual outlooks about work, finances, and child-rearing practices, Although some viewers chide the parents for their messy home, and for not enforcing chores, others identify with them, and praise them for overlooking minor misbehavior in favor of organizing activities that fill their children's lives with excitement and love. Teenage girls write in about hankering to meet the twins. One lengthy post on the TLC message boards sums up the common consensus: "The love shows in this family, and that is something great to finally see in a reality show. Honest people with honest problems, not unlike our own, going through life and depending on each other" (TLC Fansite, 2006).
A number of individuals mention their own disabilities. A 17-year-old with cerebral palsy protests the way strangers stare and guys feel sorry for her; she thanks the Roloffs for setting an example of hope—not only for little people but for everyone—and getting her through a rough "why me" week. Similarly, a person with autism derides the stupid comments of strangers and praises the program for showing that "even if you have a disability, you can have a life" (TLC Fansite, 2006).
While appreciating the many achievements of this series, I share some viewers' criticisms: The repetition of the intro to each program can be grating (one viewer complains, "If I hear 'we're all little people in a big world' one more time! AIGH!"). Another writes, "A lot of the interesting family dynamics have absolutely nothing to do with dwarfism (and that's probably the show's point) . . . . I don't need to have multiple little people explain to me that they are in fact little, multiple times in a half hour. I'm not slow" (TLC Fansite, 2006).
But such complaints do not lessen the overall achievement. The series is groundbreaking in ways that the Cosby show was in challenging stereotypes of African Americans—or Rosie O'Donnell's video of the gay family cruise she organized was in enhancing public understanding of that minority group.
Probably the greatest contribution Little People, Big World makes is to amend people's sense that dwarfs are strange or alien, and hopefully, to reduce the relentless ridicule that this group encounters. This series allows many thousands of individuals who have never known a little person intimately—as workmate, friend, or family member—to feel some commonality with at least one energetic, complicated, loving, striving, appealing family. Should anyone ever inquire of such viewers, who have no close dwarf friend or acquaintance, "Do you know any dwarfs?" they can now answer honestly, "Well, in a way I do—I know the Roloffs!"
Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) is the journal of the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). It is a multidisciplinary and international journal of interest to social scientists, scholars in the humanities and arts, disability rights advocates, and others concerned with the issues of people with disabilities. It represents the full range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that the field of disability studies embraces. DSQ is committed to developing theoretical and practical knowledge about disability and to promoting the full and equal participation of persons with disabilities in society. (ISSN: 1041-5718; eISSN: 2159-8371)