This past summer the average-size mother of a dwarf friend said to me, "This is an exciting time to be a dwarf." She may have never had a stranger throw a coin into her coffee cup, but she was right. Many dwarfs, including me, were anxiously anticipating a minor trend of pop-cultural dwarf-positiveness.
The movie The Station Agent, which opened on October 3, starred a dwarf actor named Peter Dinklage as Finbar McBride, a regular guy with regular problems who just happens to be four-foot-five. Writing for the Boston Phoenix, Dan Kennedy called McBride "perhaps the most important film role a dwarf has ever played." Unlike, say, Mini-Me of the Austin Powers series, McBride, said Kennedy, is "a fully realized human being."
Around the same time, Rodale published Kennedy's book, Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes. Kennedy, the average-size father of an 11-year-old dwarf girl, used personal anecdotes about his daughter and profiles of dwarf doctors, athletes, and lawyers to show that dwarfs are as normal and complex as anybody else.
Also this fall, scores of dwarfs in London marched on Parliament to lobby MPs for more positive portrayals of little people in the media. BBC News covered the story, reporting that the activists gathered to "break the stereotype of the circus." One dwarf in attendance said, "We have become an easy target--we have never stood up for ourselves."
Then in December hundreds of dwarfs received an invitation to audition for a new reality series: The Littlest Groom, an Average Joe-type show from the Fox brain trust in which one male dwarf would look for love among 12 dwarf women and 3 of average size. A friend of mine was horrified that I might consider auditioning. Another friend, whose pastimes include voice impersonation, advised me in his best Don Juan DeMarco to introduce myself to the audition committee this way: "Hello, my name is Gaaaareeee, the waaarld's greaaaatest dwaaaarf laahhver."
I e-mailed the producers of the show asking for more information. They responded quickly, encouraging me to send a videotape of myself talking to the camera about my interests. I never replied to the e-mail. I was afraid that the show would exploit the stereotypes that people like Dinklage and Kennedy had been battling, that it would be shot in a Microtel furnished with miniature chairs and sofas. I soon learned that Fox had cast Glen Foster, a blond man three inches taller, ten years younger, and much better looking than me, for the lead.
Weeks before Fox aired the first episode, an Internet bulletin board devoted to issues related to dwarfism was littered with debate about the show. Some argued a show about dating, romance, and marriage that included dwarfs would be positive because everyone can relate to the emotional turbulence associated with relationships. This would make dwarfs seem like everyday people. Others insisted that the show was just a gimmick, encouraging people to watch for an experience equivalent to gawking at a sideshow freak.
As the February 16 premiere approached, many of us held our breath. But the show wasn't bad. There were complaints that one woman jumping up and down on a bed reinforced the tendency to treat dwarfs as children. But the producers didn't put the participants in embarrassing situations that poked fun at their stature. No host made puns in voice-over like "she was a little short" when a golf shot came up shy of the hole. Unlike Average Joe: Hawaii, this show didn't stick anybody inside a minisub. The Littlest Groom was about people meeting, mingling, and hanging out with each other, stuff all potential partners do. The day after the show, even some skeptics admitted that The Littlest Groom had not done horrible damage to the image of dwarfs.
But over the next few days entertainment writers, disc jockeys, and talk-show hosts began ridiculing the show. Some of the weak punch lines were to be expected. Wayne Brady pointed out that The Littlest Groom had only two episodes, joking, "I guess it's a miniseries." But others, under cover of attacking Fox for exploitation, used the opportunity to express their discomfort with dwarfs. Ray Richmond of the Hollywood Reporter wrote that the show was cast in a "freak-show-ish light at every turn. It isn't enough that these dignified young adults are treated as circus tent fodder. They also have to cart them all to a golf driving range and take them line dancing to really drive home the point that, hey, little people sure look weird when they move around."
What's wrong with golfing? The men of the first Average Joe went golfing. I've been known to play golf myself--for fun, not comic relief. Many of the bachelors, bachelorettes, and blind-daters of reality television have danced in front of the camera at one time or another. Like The Littlest Groom, their shows have all been ridiculed, but no one cried exploitation then. People like Richmond may feel more uncomfortable about The Littlest Groom than they do about, say, Big Brother because watching the Fox show forces them to stare at dwarfs, and everyone knows that staring at a dwarf in public is wrong.
The media backlash devastated some members of the bulletin board. Even people who liked the show freaked out when they heard how outraged the pundits were on our behalf. Some blamed Fox. Some accused Glen and the female participants of selling out their dwarf brothers and sisters and generating a new wave of negative publicity.
But it's not Fox's fault if a lot of people think a dwarf doing normal everyday things looks funny. And it's not the cast's fault either. It's not like they were playing ridiculous, offensive characters like Munchkins or Oompa Loompas. Or for that matter Louie the Elf, whom I played in 1997 and '98 for The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. They weren't portraying human cannonballs, human bowling balls, or human testicles. They were just being themselves. The only thing they and Fox have done is reveal the viewing public's prejudices.
One of the show's original 12 dwarf women, Cherub (who disappeared five minutes into episode one and was never introduced by name), put it best in a post on the bulletin board. Referring to an average-size writer who criticized the show, she wrote, "He is offended that we were on TV for him to laugh at, implying that we should keep ourselves hidden. He's the one with the problem."
The so-called twist of salting the dating pool with a few average-size women may have been the one place Fox got it wrong. It was supposed to complicate Glen's decision making--I mean, what dwarf in his right mind wouldn't choose a tall, beautiful woman over someone his own size, right? I'm not sure if the majority of viewers were shocked when he asked a dwarf to be his partner, but no one on the bulletin board was. After the finale the board was relatively silent. Discussion soon moved on to genetic screening for the gene that carries dwarfism and what to do about average-size people who hang around the bulletin board because they think all dwarfs are cool.
I say let them stay: it would do average-size people good to get used to the idea of dwarfs. They're so much more scared of dwarf exploitation than I am. I'm thankful for The Littlest Groom. I'm glad the folks at Fox saw fit to give dwarfs the same right to look like idiots and bimbos that people on other reality shows get. And maybe now people on the street will stop mistaking me for one of Jerry Springer's frequent dwarf guests and start mistaking me for Glen, who, like I said, is much better looking.