|Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies
Dwarfs: The Changing Lives of Archetypal 'Curiosities'—and Echoes of the Past
Betty M. Adelson
Can a class of individuals that was once considered among the most prominent of freaks be "defreaked"? And if so, what could cause such a makeover to occur? The answers to these questions are playing out among persons with dwarfism in an increasing number of nations. Although the social roles of many members of this former "freak" population have undergone a transformation during the last half-century, the forces that caused them to be mocked and exploited as they struggled to cope are still very much in evidence.
Keywords: persons with dwarfism, Little People history, dwarf identity
Among many persons with dwarfism today—determined to vanquish the ridicule that has permeated their history—the current association of dwarfs with freak-related entertainment has provoked irritation, distress, and even outrage. When exploring why some individuals have accepted roles reminiscent of earlier eras, scholars need to pay attention to the views of both critics and performers. A discerning eye is required to examine motivations, assess the satisfactions and problems inherent in each activity for each individual, and consider the ethical issues involved. Among all persons with physical anomalies, there is perhaps no other group whose destiny, in every era, has been so ineluctably shaped by their extraordinary bodies.
In contrast to other "born freaks"—persons with anatomical differences exhibited in sideshows, such as bearded ladies, hermaphrodites, and the like—dwarfs, relatively more common than other categories, have not been regarded simply as unique, sporadic occurrences, but rather as a community, or even as a "people." They are also the most recent minority to join the identity procession that marked the last decades of the 20th century, when women, African-Americans, homosexuals, and persons with disabilities sought to explore their history and claim a comfortable seat at society's table.
The general public and the disability community are not necessarily aware of the "small revolution" in progress. In order to understand these developments, as well as be tuned into the current debates in the dwarfism community about individuals who still accept roles as "spectacles," it is necessary to be at least somewhat familiar with the group's long and multifaceted history.
My own journey toward understanding, which led eventually to my researching and publishing two books about the lives of the very short, stigmatized people known as dwarfs, began in 1974 when my daughter Anna, now a 30-year-old nursery school teacher, was born with achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism (Adelson 2005). My decision to write a cultural history of dwarfism was influenced by the fact that in the early years after her birth, when I searched the literature for works about dwarfs, the books I found had titles such as Freaks, Victorian Grotesque, and Human Oddities—most often written by onlookers from an alienated perspective. A standard medical text I came upon asserted that because of their grotesque appearance and strength, achondroplastic dwarfs were apt to be employed in the circus; the author described these individuals as immature, with strong feelings of inferiority, often vain and fond of drink, and sometimes lascivious (Durthee & Bentley, 1983). Although stereotypes such as this still persist, a number of high-quality works have appeared since (see Ablon 1984, 1988; Dasen 1993).
My approach to "freakery" has not been formed by a dispassionate, scholarly perspective only, but also via the prism of being deeply engaged personally with some of the people and issues being studied. When I agreed to write this article, I did not anticipate just how much I would find myself struggling with the subject matter, despite the fact that I was in familiar territory. Just what my final point of view might be was not a foregone conclusion. Here first is the easy part—a précis of the influential past.
A Brief History
Even before there was a written history, dwarfs appeared in the artwork of many cultures. Images of dwarfs are among the oldest artifacts extant: They are depicted in ancient stone and clay funerary sculpture in Egypt, India, China, and the Mayan civilizations; they are highlighted in the legends and myths of every nation.
In the courts, from ancient Egypt through the 18th century, dwarfs were collected, indulged, sometimes abused, and sent by royalty as gifts. In ancient Egypt, dwarfs were associated with Bes and Ptah—gods of childbirth and creativity—which helped enhance their status. The Egyptian courts were unique in that they offered roles to dwarfs as priests and courtiers, as well as jewelers and keepers of linen and toilet objects.
Monarchs in all nations sent emissaries far and wide to gather dwarfs: Although some may have been free, it is likely that others were held in some degree of bondage. A combination of being highly prized, but the property of an owner, were among the defining characteristics of dwarfs' lives during the nearly 5000 years they are known to have been present in the courts of Africa, Asia, Europe, and Central America.
In all periods, they were assigned to wait upon or amuse others. The nature of each court differed, however, reflecting the temperaments of its ruler and the character of his subjects. Famously present in the courts of ancient Rome, dwarfs gratified royalty's appetite for violence and lasciviousness. In the reign of Domitian (81-86 AD), they were matched with Amazons as gladiators, and wealthy women selected their favorite dwarfs to take home to participate in erotic games.
By the time of Isabella d'Este, Marchioness of Mantua (1474-1539), a very different atmosphere prevailed. Her attitude toward her dwarfs resembled her attitude toward her other unique valuable collections—like classical writings, paintings, gold and silver objects, and majolica. She could present them as gifts, or lend them to relatives for their amusement. It must be acknowledged that some court dwarfs, like painter Richard Gibson (1650-1690) in the court of Charles I of England, were better off than those outside the court—offered good food and clothing, and provided with artistic training. However, even in the benevolent, family-centered courts of Spain, famous later for the superb paintings of Velasquez, Francesillo de Zúniga, clever 16th-century court dwarf of Carlos V, could be murdered, allegedly in retaliation for his sarcastic critique of a courtier in his Cronica Burlesca, a rare work by a court dwarf (de Zuniga 1989).
Only a few commentators have analyzed the role of dwarfs in the courts—most notably anthropologist Francis Johnston (1963) and humanist geographer and theorist, Yi-Fu Tuan (1984). While Johnston saw the status of dwarfs as generally diminished since the court era, reduced to handicapped status by their medicalization, his view of their previous position was somewhat romanticized. Tuan's 1984 analysis is far more insightful. He perceives dwarfs as constrained by the same combination of dominance and affection as other groups—including animals, women, black slaves, fools, and castrati—treated as pets, and similarly indulged or exploited.
With the decline of the courts in the 18th century, dwarfs began to be exhibited more frequently at fairs, sideshows, and taverns, as well as continuing to appear at private levées for the nobility. Polish court dwarf Joseph Boruwlaski (1739-1837) was a "bridge figure": He left court when he was refused permission to marry his average-statured love. He supported himself and his wife and children by exhibiting himself and playing the violin throughout Europe, in as dignified way as he could manage. He ended his long life in Durham, England, dependent upon the charity of patrons. One of a very few dwarfs to write a memoir, he observed that had he been formed like other mortals he could have subsisted by means of his energy and labor, and been acknowledged as "a man, an honest man, a man of feeling" (Borulawski, 1778, p. 247).
In the 18th and 19th century, exhibiting dwarfs alternated between this activity and "straight" often low-paying occupations such as watchmaker, seamstress, or bookkeeper. Charles Stratton (Tom Thumb) and his wife, Lavinia Warren, were among the greatest celebrities of the 19th century, hosted on their honeymoon by Abraham Lincoln. Well into the 20th century, sideshows, midget villages, and traveling troupes performing musical extravaganzas were popular, perpetuating the illusion that happy communities of very short people were naturally occurring phenomena.
This period has been expertly researched and described by Robert Bogdan in Freak Show (1988) and documented in photographs in works such as Hy Roth's The Little People (Roth & Cromie, 1980). One New York reviewer's "compliment" to the Liliputian Opera Company at the turn of the 20th century captures the unfortunate situation of the best "freak" performers: "Adolph Zink was so exceptionally able that it is to be hoped he may grow up some day and act without the necessity of posing as a natural phenomenon" (Goldfarb, 1976, p. 279).
Dwarfs were the favorites of agent Nat Eagle, who made much of his living by maintaining a company of eight or nine Little People. Beginning with the Chicago World's Fair in 1934 and continuing as late as 1958, he and Mrs. Eagle created a familial atmosphere, spending much of the year with them in Sarasota, Florida. Like court dwarfs, "Eagle's midgets" are portrayed in a New Yorker article as less than full adults, requiring a patron to shepherd their lives (Taylor 1958).
During the same era, the Ovitz family from Transylvania, consisting of seven siblings with a condition called pseudoachondroplasia and their three average-statured siblings formed a self-managed troupe; they toured Europe and, after World War II, performed in Israel, offering dramatic, comic, and skilled musical performances. The remarkable story of this group, who survived Mengele's depredations in Auschwitz, has recently been published (Koren & Negev, 2004).
Although large traveling companies and midget villages have disappeared, and sideshows are rare, even today dwarfs continue to be sought after for various peripheral entertainment venues, usually more for appearance than talent. Dwarfs' appearance and mythological associations continue to arouse fascination and ambivalence, often causing them to be "[reduced] in the minds of strangers from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one" (Goffman 1963, p. 3) —in fact, liable to be viewed as corresponding to all three of Ervin Goffman's stigmatizing categories: physical deformities; unnatural passions and dishonesty; and tribal stigma.
Recent Historic Changes
During the past half-century, new vocational opportunities, medical progress, and the influence of the civil rights and disability rights movements have led to an increased sense of positive identity among dwarfs in many countries. Signs of the emergence of a group "dwarf identity" were first noticeable in 1957, when Midgets of America was formed (its name was changed 3 years later to Little People of America); it originated in an almost chance meeting of 20 individuals, mostly entertainers, organized by dwarf actor and advocate Billy Barty and a hotel owner who wanted to publicize Reno as the "smallest little city in the world." A second dwarfism organization, Short Statured People of Australia, was formed in 1962, also by an actor, George Whitaker. In France as well, where discrimination was rampant, most of the first group members were performers.
By 2004, annual LPA conferences attracted approximately 1800 attendees—including dwarfs and family members—and organizations existed in more than 30 countries, mostly Western nations; recently they have burgeoned in nations as widespread as Kosovo, Chile, and Nigeria. Their inspiration often came from individuals who attended LPA conferences, or from media documentaries featuring these events. Among the benefits of such groups are their medical advisory boards, which offer members indispensable medical expertise and access to treatment, which I regret I have not space to discuss here.
Anatomy is Not Destiny
In the 1930s, the majority of dwarfs in the United States were unemployed, and those who were not tended to be in the entertainment world. In 1934, journalists Walter Bodin and Barnet Hershey could write in It's a Small World: All About Midgets:
What are they to do with their lives? Their choice is decidedly limited. Unlike normal children, they cannot plan careers at will. Innumerable doors are closed to them. They cannot be aviators, policemen, electricians, chefs, laborers, bus-drivers, clerks. The professions are closed to them. A doctor, a lawyer, a schoolteacher no smaller than a small child, would not only be laughed out of countenance, but would probably starve to death" (p. 89-90).
While this pronouncement was not fully accurate even when it was written, a very large percentage of dwarfs were unemployed, and those with jobs tended to be in some aspect of entertainment. These days, persons with dwarfism are employed in almost every one of the occupations listed above, and a great many more. A survey of the 2003 database of the LPA membership finds many persons in professions, including teachers, social workers, physicians, engineers, actuaries, computer specialists, and administrators in public and private sectors. Sales, service, and skilled trades are also well-represented, and even some laboring occupations appear. About eight percent in this survey are employed at least part-time as actors or in some other aspect of the entertainment world—sometimes along with another occupation. Surprisingly to many who continue to believe that if they did not engage in "freak" performances many dwarfs would have to "go on welfare," relatively few list themselves as unemployed or receiving disability payments, although because most dwarfs are not members of LPA, this sample may not be representative.
Despite improvements, dwarfs have faced significant discrimination. Former commissioner of the Equal Economic Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Paul Miller, when he interviewed for his first job after graduating from Harvard Law School, was pained to see classmates with lower grades and less experience receive offer after offer, while he received 45 rejection letters without a single call-back. One law firm said that they feared that their clients would think they were running a "circus freak show" (Miller 1998, p. 49). Currently, Miller is a professor at the University of Washington Law School—a rare individual with a disability among legal academics—where he hopes to continue to be a positive force.
The Arts: The Cultural Mirror
The persistent artistic stereotypes of dwarfs that endured for centuries did so because society continued to cast them as curiosities. Both literature and art have experienced significant developments, with more varied, realistic representations, but some of the most visible changes have taken place in the theater. Whereas in the past, films offered roles only as fantasy figures or miniature cowboys as in The Terror of Tiny Town, today there are a number of accomplished dwarf actors playing challenging roles and even roles that could just as well be played by average-statured actors.
Among the most talented are Danny Woodburn, best known for his role in Seinfeld; Mark Povinelli, cast as Thorwald in Mabou Mines' DollHouse, an adaptation of the Ibsen play; Meredith Eaton, who starred in the television series Family Law and in the film Unconditional Love, and Peter Dinklage. Dinklage received national acclaim for his performance in The Station Agent, which was also one of the first films to realistically portray the inner emotions of, and societal reactions to, a dwarf; recently, he starred on stage in the title role of Shakespeare's Richard III.
Several actors have discussed the interconnections between their personal, professional, and ethical identities. Meredith Eaton, for example, notes that she makes a point of being involved in every script, at times turning down parts when they become "freak stereotypical." She says, "When I decided to pursue the career of acting, I made a pact with myself that I have managed to stick to. I always want to be proud of my work, and I never want to compromise my dignity . . . .I feel a tremendous responsibility to myself, first and foremost, secondly to women, and of course to the dwarfism community at large" (personal communication, 14 September 2003).
This stance should not be interpreted as suggesting that dwarfs must therefore be depicted in a consistently positive manner. It does presume, however, that the unique, the seemingly atypical, are in fact the norm, and that drama is frequently an exploration of how all individuals reveal themselves in connection.
Some excellent documentaries about dwarfs have also been produced in the past two decades. Eminent disability scholar, activist, and BBC commentator Tom Shakespeare, himself a dwarf, regularly receives requests to weigh in on "whether it would be a good idea to make a film about (deep breath); dwarfs and sex, dwarfs and pantomime, famous dwarfs, sad dwarfs, happy dwarfs, dwarfs getting their legs lengthened, dwarf actors, dwarf teenagers, and dwarf babies." Although he praises the superb exceptions, Shakespeare views all too many documentaries as essentially exploitative, voyeuristic ventures. "Stare at someone else for a change," he urges (2003). On balance, however, most dwarfs tend to feel that despite the flaws of some documentaries, and talk show condescension, the exposure of ordinary and distinguished dwarfs in these media has proved an asset.
Echoes of the Past
Many dwarfs are still employed in roles that feature them as freaks or "spectacles." These include being "tossed" in a bar, playing stereotypically negative roles in mainstream films, leaping about in bizarre costumes at half time in football games, acting as mascots, providing "atmosphere" in music videos, participating in reality TV, or appearing in pornographic films or at bachelor parties. On the Dwarfism Listserv, an online board frequented by persons with dwarfism and family members, it is common to see debates about whether various activities engaged in by dwarf performers are acceptable. While a number are criticized as degrading by at least some respondents, other LPs assert the right of individuals to make their own choices.
An interesting example of an occupation that tends to be regarded as demeaning is circus clown. In the past, the exaggerated identification of dwarfs with the circus was so powerful that a number of parents of dwarf children have reported—one even recently communicated to me that their obstetricians "broke the news" about their child's condition by saying, "You have given birth to a circus dwarf."
Judgments about circus clowns are best made with full knowledge both of the individual involved and the cultural context, rather than reflexively, out of displeasure with the stereotype. While doing research for The Lives of Dwarfs, I tracked down Frank Theriault, a former circus clown who by that time had married and settled down, and was working as an engineer at a hotel, while creating occasional private gigs. One of his two children was a dwarf, and he was determined that she have a positive sense of herself as a little person, as he himself did. Theriault felt unapologetic about his time in the circus—he had gone to clown school and considered himself a professional; he had been well-treated, paid well enough for a young man, and enjoyed performing and traveling.
Currently, he noted, because of the availability of other vocational opportunities and the prejudice against circus jobs in the dwarfism community, it is hard for Barnum and Bailey to enlist dwarf clowns. In some other countries things are quite different. A motion picture entitled Starkiss: The Circus Girls of India included two dejected dwarf clowns who, like those featured in Mary Ellen Mark's Indian Circus, had little other recourse.
Many individuals when hearing the expression "midget wrestlers," automatically have a negative response. My own understanding was enriched by a telephone conversation with Eric Tovey (Lord Littlebrook), one of the few remaining luminaries of the midget wrestling world, active for half a century in his field as wrestler and trainer (personal communication, 2003, January 28). Proud of his expertise and his body, he rails against the changes that have taken place: "When I started in the fifties," he says, "there was no such thing as paint on the face—I'm disgusted, I really am...I want midget wrestling, I don't want midget comedy." These days, there are few remaining wrestlers in the field, and they tend to perform in small towns in remote locations.
Attending a Coney Island sideshow in 1994, I watched the performance of then 70-year-old Otis Jordan, the same "frog man" or "ossified man" whom Robert Bogdan had written about a decade earlier in Freak Show (1988, p. 2, 16, 279-81). Jordan's limbs were underdeveloped and immobile, and his body locked in a seated position. While his "act" mainly involved lighting a cigarette with his toes, his appealing personality and his $1 "carte de visite" describing the frustrations of his small-town Georgia childhood and the pleasures of his current occupation appeared to favorably impress the mostly working-class audience: "Don't give up," the card concluded, "I never did." Though apprehensive, I ended up moved by the opportunity to experience this echo of an earlier era, when seriously disabled dwarf individuals, for whom little real choice was unavailable, took pleasure in the adventure and earnings that this way of life made possible.
Even in the past, not all sideshow performers were disadvantaged or depressed. A few old timers, like Frank and Sadie Delfino, pituitary dwarfs who performed in sideshows and later in McDonald's commercials, at the height of their careers earned "unbelievable money," perhaps as much as $80,000 a year as a result of residuals (Gogin, Michael, personal communication, 23 February 2005). One interesting performance-related development is that because of the introduction of synthetic growth hormone treatment in the 1980s, a film such as The Wizard of Oz, if made today, could no longer feature the same type of Munchkins as in United States of 1938, when only Caucasian, proportionate (hypopituitary) dwarfs were included in the cast). Since growth hormone treatment became available, the preferred category of cute, "perfectly-formed" miniatures like Tom Thumb, common in the courts and frequent among exhibiting dwarfs, has nearly disappeared in most Western nations.
There is least disagreement about dwarf tossing, a "sport" involving a large, often inebriated, bar customer tossing a harnessed dwarf onto a mattress, competing to see who can throw a dwarf the farthest. When this activity first migrated to the United States from Australia in the 1980s, LPA mounted a campaign against it, successfully getting laws passed outlawing dwarf tossing in New York and Florida. Citing the physical vulnerabilities of dwarfs that made this activity dangerous to them, members of LPA also noted that publicity about the "sport" had led to bullies picking up ordinary dwarfs and swinging them about: The atmosphere in workplaces had also been affected, with jokes about dwarfs and dwarf-tossing increasing.
When early in 2002, David Flood, "Dave the Dwarf," tried unsuccessfully to have the Florida law overturned, Cara Egan, then Vice President for Public Relations of LPA, terming his appeal a publicity stunt, commented: "There are plenty of other ways for him to make a fool of himself that are legal: I suggest that he take advantage of these" (see "Dwarf Tossing: Dwarf Fights for Right to Be Thrown," Accessibility.com.au, 2001; Van Etten, 1988). Egan was even more adamant when the Jersey Journal published a laudatory article about Lester Green (Beetlejuice); she pointed out that Green, who has appeared as one of Howard Stern's "Wack Pack" and has offered himself for hire for dwarf tossing and striptease events, was unable to conduct an interview with the newspaper due to a mental impairment.
While acknowledging the rights of individuals to participate in any voluntary legal activity they choose, she regarded Green as being exploited, not capable of making an informed choice. Egan decried the "sideshow mentality" that gives people permission to stare, laugh at, or even fear individuals with dwarfism, noting that such venues thrive even today, despite the health dangers and indignity that they pose; "LPA," she wrote, "denounces public activities or media portrayals that fail to convey the intelligence, individuality, and humanity of the short-statured individual" (Egan 2001).
Many dwarfs choose performing unquestioningly because it is "the family business." But in some areas, demand far exceeds supply. A shortage of dwarfs in Great Britain has led to the hiring of dwarfs from as far away as Sweden, Belgium, and Romania for productions of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (de Bruxelles, n.d.). Todd Robbins, who runs a show called Carnival Knowledge, has had trouble finding Little People to perform, though he sees his show as featuring "dwarfs with dignity." Dick Zigun, who runs Sideshow in Coney Island, reveals that he has stopped Little People on the street, inviting them to become performers, to no avail (Kuntzman, 2003).
In film, there are important distinctions among performers: There are serious starring actors, such as Peter Dinklage, who have no connection with LPA or the dwarfism community, and others, such as Meredith Eaton, who do; there are some actors who play fantasy parts but yearn for mainstream roles, and others who are satisfied to earn their livings in the fantasy genre. The Screen Actors Guild retains a category called "Little People," which features jobs mainly for stunt people and others who play small parts in sci-fi, fantasy, or adventure movies, or animals in costume. There is much competition for these roles, and actors who earn their living in these parts, while sometimes put on the defensive these days, view them as legitimate sources of entertainment: They protest the fact that the popular Lord of the Rings series used digitalized images instead of dwarf actors.
Actors who play in fantasy films do not necessarily incur the wrath of the dwarfism community: the nature of the vehicle matters. The Austin Powers series did elicit some negative reviews, from critics as well as from LPs. New Yorker critic David Denby described Mini-Me, Dr. Evil's clone, as "a thirty-two inch dwarf who bites and generally terrorizes the staff at world domination headquarters... this is a movie in which a midget bites the star in the crotch and then gets picked up, swung around, and bashed into a pole...the different parts of a messy comedy have to be good, and much of this movie is terrible" (Denby, 1999).
In a Mission Impossible spoof entitled Mission: Imp, Mini-Me actor Verne Troyer is spanked by a woman who thinks he is a child, and stuffed into a covered dish (a practice reminiscent of similar practices at court banquets). One LPA member found the episode "rude and offensive and insulting" and asked others to protest to Warner Brothers. Vociferous protests occurred in January 2003 when, after a pre-football game television show that featured dwarfs doing imitations of celebrities, host Jimmy Kimmel remarked, "Aren't midgets fun? Everyone should own a midget!"
The latest controversial act is Mini-KISS, a dwarf group impersonating the rock band KISS. Organized by Joey Fatale, who impersonates KISS front man Gene Simmons, it includes a changing cast of three others, of varying ability. Music critics and Web sites reveal that although some audience members laughed and enjoyed themselves, many others described the "off-key performers" with cardboard guitars as talentless; sometimes there were even crude references to their physical appearance. Such events are best understood as significant remnants of the freakery tradition. The performers garner a good wage, the limelight, and a sense of importance, but they can no longer always count on the appreciative, less critical audiences of earlier eras.
Why does there seem now to be an upsurge in appearances by dwarfs in "lowbar" sorts of entertainment, often in ways that accentuate their sexuality? Mainstream cultural trends play a role. In the United States today, there is a much higher bar for scandalous behaviors, in life and in art. There was official disapproval when Janet Jackson's breast was revealed at a football game at half time, but little real astonishment among viewers. "Survivor" is among the nation's favorite television shows, and sex is everywhere in the media: Some dwarfs who have been invited to play the game have rushed to accept the invitation.
Actor Mark Povinelli attributes the increase in visibility of dwarfs in both "highbar" and "lowbar" entertainment to their increased access to each other, and to viewers' access to 700 cable channels needing programming. "There are an awful lot of unenlightened people out there," Povinelli comments, "and many silly shows of all sorts." As far as the willingness of persons with dwarfism to participate, he explains the phenomenon as rooted in the pervasive American dream of stardom, adoration, and fortune: "No one can persuade these individuals that they are accessing notoriety, not fame, or that there is anything wrong with what they are doing" (Povinelli, personal correspondence, 2005).
Individuals who participate in various sorts of fringe activities by no means always fit the stereotype of uneducated, unloved, impoverished persons—they run the gamut. One college-educated friend of Povinelli's was asked by Wendy's to hand out fliers in costume. Although the friend was "capable of running Wendy's," he decided to accept the job for the experience—to see what makes many in the dwarfism community cringe. He found the day interesting—chatted and joked—and was pleased that he had challenged himself in this fashion, although he would not repeat the experience. Another college-educated couple participated in a wedding—she carried the bride's train and both socialized with the guests. They found the day fun and lucrative.
Povinelli, although he is a professional actor and one of the most sought-after mainstream dwarf actors today, understands the reasons that lead people to accept fringe employment. One such factor led him to go into acting: "I had always been looked at and watched. If everyone is going to stare at me and make fun of me, I'd rather be in control than be a passive participant. In life you are constantly onstage; in the theater you can be controlling, and in some measure are able to manage to have people watch you in a positive way" (2005). He can even understand why a dwarf would accept a job walking around a Mexican restaurant wearing a sombrero containing salsa and chips; that individual can view himself as being interesting, charming—more so than if he merely walked through the bar, minding his own business, and was stared at.
At one point, Povinelli's average-height college roommate had encouraged him to follow the roommate's path and become a circus clown: The roommate had auditioned with 1000 others and had been among 15 selected. He was happy with his choice, and told Mark, "You have to join the circus when you graduate—you'll learn incredible skills and get to see the world!" Mark replied, "I can't do this—my family would be horrified, and I would never be able to tell anyone." Whereas his friend went on to become one of the most famous Ronald McDonalds, for Povinelli such employment was unthinkable.
It is common in the dwarfism community to express an indulgent attitude about another phenomenon that is so widespread as to be almost a rite of passage for a good number of dwarfs. Many (mostly young adults) don costumes as teddy bears and the like for the New York City Radio City Christmas extravaganza or one of its many road shows. Sometimes these performers are students seeking quick cash, adventure, travel, or "time out"; others use the gig to survive economically during a lean period, or perhaps earn a nest egg that will enable them to buy property or fund education. Almost always, they move on to more conventional employment.
I spoke with Danny Black, who has been employed for the past 25 years as a dwarf clown and also as an agent for dwarf performers in the other peripheral categories mentioned earlier. While some observers have referred to the increase in demand as simply the result of a "Mini-Me craze" which has made it chic to make fun of Little People, Black attributes the rise in popularity in large measure to the advent of the Internet, with online posts and e-mails now facilitating finding and placing performers even in distant locations (Black, personal correspondence, 28 February 2005).
Since 1999, as a result of online publicity, demand has escalated. Black has been the agent for only one dwarf tossing, but he indicates that his clients span a wide range of performers, and that he does not make value judgments on the roles they are willing to accept. Because they may be paid a hundred dollars or more an hour for their labors, he does not view them as being exploited. Unlike in previous eras, they experience themselves as exercising free will—able to set their own terms.
When pressed to offer an opinion about the profiles of those willing to take some of the more controversial jobs—including being tossed or working as strippers—Black indicated that he shared others' impression that these individuals tended to be lower on the economic ladder, or from less stable families, and sometimes lacking in self-respect. Although no one has actually studied the issue, this conclusion is as apt to be as true of this subgroup as it is of average-height individuals in similar occupations. Still, Black believes that the choice should be theirs. Although he not always enthusiastic, he is willing to book individuals who accept even the most controversial types of employment. He does draw the line with respect to his own personal participation—he backed out of a Jerry Springer episode that featured bondage and sadomasochism; he viewed the manner and terms of his having been enlisted as manipulative and exploitive. Black is concerned about his own image, not the group image, he says.
A well-known Spanish saying declares, Andeme yo caliente y riase la gente: "As long as I am warm, I don't care if people laugh at me." This adage captures the economic reality that confronted dwarfs through the centuries. Despite all the changes that have taken place, it continues to be true for a percentage of dwarf individuals today: These happen to be more in the public eye than the far greater number in traditional types of employment.
By now, it should be clear that the problem of deciding which kinds of entertainment and which categories of entertainers may be deserving of censure is not a simple one. A critical question is: Whom does the participation harm—if anyone?
The roles of the self-styled "actors" who participate in fringe activities impact upon the new wave of gifted serious actors who are dwarfs. They may have a greater than usual problem convincing others that their success is due to their talent—rather than to being "professional midgets," a term used disparagingly by 3' 10" Michael Dunn, the highly regarded 1960s actor. Some persons with dwarfism are upset by what they believe is the disingenuousness of those who accept the peripheral roles; these individuals emphasize the distinction between professional actors and "freak" performers, cautioning that if a dwarf dances at a party so that guests can gawk, that person had best be honest and not use the euphemism "entertainer." One New Yorker critic who went to an opening of The Station Agent, seemingly unaware of Dinklage's lengthy theatrical training and acclaimed stage performances wrote, "Now there is talk of Dinklage becoming a star, though it is not clear if this is because he is a curiosity or because he is good" (Paumgarten 2003).
Many cite the negative consequences of "lowbar entertainment" for the public's perception of dwarfs—and still more for the indignity it represents for dwarfs themselves. Journalist Dan Kennedy, father of a dwarf daughter and author of Little People: Seeing the World through my Daughter's Eyes, explains, "At root, dwarfism is a disability and people in wheelchairs don't rent themselves out. People who are blind don't rent themselves out" (2003, p. 213). While the disability community has frequently taken issue with the "medical tragedy issue of disability," Tom Shakespeare has pointed out that it is the "comedy model of disability" that has been used to disparage dwarfs.
Both personal experience and their value systems have combined to set many dwarfs against the most blatant fringe activities. In 2003, in a small town in Putnam County, N.Y., Keaser's Gentleman's Club, noted for its lap dancers, announced the arrival of a novelty act: "'China-Doll' the only dwarf feature dancer in the U.S. She's a real cutie! Have some fun—take a photo with the little one!" the advertisement proclaimed.
Some LPA members feel that this kind of activity is neither more nor less disreputable when engaged in by a short or an averaged-statured woman: Free choice should be equally available to both. But one 3'6" townswoman felt differently—after half a lifetime of defending against negative media images, mythological associations, and discrimination, she had achieved a rewarding personal and professional life. She was distressed that some locals might place her in the same category, or perhaps even mistake her for "China Doll" when encountering her on the street.
Eminent Dwarfs—Who are Not Freaks
One of the most unfortunate fallouts of the focus upon dwarfs as curiosities in all eras is that society has overlooked the scores of profoundly short-statured individuals in history who have made significant contributions. Like talented women, blacks, gays, and others, they have been invisible—and if their contributions were known, the individuals themselves were not identified and celebrated as persons with dwarfism. As we now know, such invisibility is a great loss to individuals eager to learn about others like themselves, whether in the process of identity formation or simply through interest.
Therefore, in The Lives of Dwarfs, I highlighted such figures as 4'7"abolitionist Benjamin Lay and engineer/scientist/socialist Charles Proteus Steinmetz, eminent in their own time, but unknown to most persons with dwarfism today. I discussed how their short stature and deformity, as well as temperament and social milieu, influenced various individuals' accommodations to their dwarfism. The effort to illuminate the lives of individuals such as these is a relatively recent phenomenon, as is the effort to develop useful theoretical underpinnings for their historic roles. Leslie Fiedler's Freaks (1978) represented a significant contribution. It reframed scholarly thinking about individuals with various medical anomalies, establishing a mythological reference point and stimulating discussion. However, its chapter about dwarfs was replete with errors—copied by the author without further checking from early sources—and was marred also by his condescending mindset and scant familiarity with affected individuals.
Since then others, most notably Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1996 and 1997), Robert Bogdan (1996), and David Gerber (1996), have written groundbreaking, insightful, and markedly empathic books and articles analyzing freakery, leading to the fundamental conclusion that the freak of nature is in fact a freak of culture. Thomson's discussion of the extraordinary body relies on a broad historical perspective, enriched by personal experience and forthright humanism. Bogdan's comprehensive scholarship, enhanced by his willingness to revisit the performers' choices as they themselves experience them, represents a vital step. Gerber's eloquent peroration questioning just how much "consent and free will" actually exists on the part of these individuals, and his emphasis upon the paucity of opportunity for some, as well as "the imperfections and confusions of people in determining what is in their best interests" are all equally valuable.
To approach positions like these scholars' by focusing upon the divergences in their analyses is to miss the point. A productive examination requires integrating and embracing multiple historical and subjective perspectives. The truth of the "defreaking of dwarfs" is that remarkable progress, unimaginable a half-century ago, has occurred, but that miracles are as elusive as ever. The war to end all wars, the demise of stigma, and the disappearance of religious, ethnic, and anatomical bigotry are not apt to be celebrated any time soon.
After dwarfs had appeared on a number of "reality shows" such as The Littlest Groom, and others where they were shown competing against elephants, former LPA vice president Maria Perez commented that the dwarf community must respond forcefully and steadily to misperceptions of dwarfs: "All we can do is educate as we go along.... Accept every opportunity to speak to groups and share correct information. Appear publicly in our everyday life with our heads held high" (Perez 2003).
As the mother of a dwarf, an elder of the dwarfism community, and an opponent of bigotry of all kinds, I ardently hope to see some "lowbar" activities fade away; as someone who has read philosopher Peter Suber's (1999) polemic justifying a laissez faire attitude toward dwarf tossing, I understand the argument for personal freedom; as a curious researcher, I believe that it is valuable to look closely at the backgrounds and belief systems of persons involved in each of the various activities described here—bolstering Michael Chemers' call for further study of freakery as an aspect of disability.
The social and economic advances that have led to modest but steady improvement in quality of life for dwarfs today are significant and irreversible. However, their uneasy coexistence with an apparent upsurge in freak entertainment sometimes makes it appear as if one is watching the river of history flow upstream and downstream at once. Because most members of the general public do not know any dwarfs personally, their impressions are formed by what they see in popular culture. While there have been some positive developments—such as the fact that a few prominent dwarf actors and occasionally an LPA officer may be consulted about a script or commercial—given the current climate, it seems unlikely that most media moguls will soon display a sensitive, informed attitude about the image of dwarfs they project.
Further protest and advocacy by a vocal dwarfism community is apt to be required. A crucial element will be a raised consciousness among many more persons with dwarfism about the legacy of their history as curiosities, and a willingness to engage in soul-searching about how their personal and professional decisions enhance or diminish the lives of others like themselves.
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