Who you calling a "midget"?

Little people take a stand against the offensive word -- and a world that thinks it's OK to mock them

Published July 16, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

Matt and Amy Roloff with their children Molly and Jeremy (back row), Zack and Jacob (front row), and Peter Dinklage in "The Station Agent"
Matt and Amy Roloff with their children Molly and Jeremy (back row), Zack and Jacob (front row), and Peter Dinklage in "The Station Agent"

Jimmy and Darlene Korpai of Crawford, N.Y., will always remember the night they fired Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice." 

It was this past April, and the contestants' task was to create a viral video promoting All detergent.

"I got a bad feeling as soon as I heard them say 'small and mighty,'" says Jimmy, referring to All's line of highly concentrated soaps.

His instincts were dead on. "What about if we use little people and let them wash themselves in All detergent in the bathtub ... and you hang them out to dry?" suggested superstar running back Herschel Walker. Joan Rivers: "We can hang them out on my terrace."

The resulting video, starring motorcycle maven Jesse James and titled "Jesse James Gets Dirty With Midgets," features three very short actors clad in All-bottle blue, whose yelling and hose-squirting and zippy fast-motion action (including an unexplained mallet to James' gut) leave his T-shirt sparkling clean.

"Imagine if I said what Herschel Walker did about a black person," says Jimmy, 37, a sculptor and designer. But it wasn't that, or the video, or the peppering of the episode with the word "midget," which -- as even some on the show noted -- is considered derogatory by people with dwarfism, that left the Korpais truly aghast. More than anything, it was this assurance, made to the group by James: "[Little people] know that people point and laugh at them and they are comfortable within themselves and they have fun right back."

"Here is a celebrity," Jimmy says, "telling people that it's all right to point and laugh at our daughter."

The Korpais are the parents of Hailey, 3, who has achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism. (The standard definition of dwarfism includes anyone 4-foot-10 or smaller whose stature is attributed to one of at least 200 medical conditions that cause dwarfism.)

Like approximately 80 percent of parents of children with dwarfism, Jimmy and Darlene are of average stature. Their efforts to educate -- and reassure -- themselves about Hailey's condition brought them to their local chapter of Little People of America, a 5,000-member organization offering medical information, social support and, increasingly, community outreach and political advocacy for dwarfs and their families. (Past and present agenda items: outlaw "dwarf tossing," lower the height of ATMs, raise awareness about advances in genetics  -- or, depending on one's view, eugenics.) The Korpais soon found themselves determined to help alter the culture into which Hailey had been born, which, for all its advances in civility -- when was the last time you heard somebody called "a cripple"? -- still finds "midgets" fair game for ridicule. The two have spearheaded an effort on the part of LPA to file a formal complaint about "Celebrity Apprentice" with the FCC. Says Darlene, 36, who raises Hailey full-time: "In this p.c. world, I don't see why we're the last group it's OK to make fun of."

Which brings us to right now -- and to what dwarfism expert and LPA stalwart Dr. Betty M. Adelson calls a "historic moment" for people with profound short stature. (Note: Adelson is my mother-in-law; my sister-in-law, Anna, 34, has achondroplasia.)

Dwarfs have weathered "Under the Rainbow" and the Oompa Loompas and approximately 158 sightings of "the plane, the plane" -- not to mention Howard Stern's "Eric the Midget" and Pedro Martinez's "lucky" one: roles and gags in which the whole point, and source of matter-of-taste hilarity, is that the guy is, you know, really short. That's not going away soon.

But there's been progress. In "The Station Agent," actor Peter Dinklage played a fully realized leading character who was, you know, also short. LPA considered Fox's "The Littlest Groom" "equal-opportunity embarrassment" for all involved; plus, hey, lots of people loved Charla on "The Amazing Race."

Today, the best-known, most-visible dwarfs on TV are not blue-suited scrubbing bubbles but members of the Roloff family, whose real lives are chronicled -- sensitively and in-depth, by most accounts -- on one of TLC's most popular shows, "Little People, Big World." (There's also "The Little Couple," and the frequently aired one-off "Little Parents, Big Pregnancy," both of which are doing well.)

That's "historic" on its own. But the dwarfism community itself, insofar as it's represented by LPA, has also been transformed. Back in the day, Adelson says, "dwarfs kept very busy trying to show they were like everyone else." Not so with the "new generation": media- and Internet-savvy dwarfs and their parents, like the Korpais, who grew up watching other disability and rights groups form their identities and stake their claims. So now, more than ever before, LPA is coming out swinging.

The group has recently taken two proactive and unprecedented steps: disinviting the Radio City Christmas Spectacular's "elf" recruiters from LPA's annual national conference, held last week in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- and announcing at the conference, officially, and once and for all, that the word "midget" is anathema.

"When referring to people of short stature, Little People of America will use the terms 'dwarf,' 'little person,' 'person with dwarfism,' or 'person of short stature,'" reads the group's statement. "In addition to promoting positive language around people of short stature, Little People of America will ... spread awareness to prevent use of the word 'midget,' considered offensive by Little People of America."

I attended the conference as a reporter. Over and over, the participants I interviewed -- including one black mother of a toddler with achondroplasia -- made the same analogy: The "M-word" should be considered as unacceptable as the "N-word."

Perhaps now you're reminded of the "R-word": that is, last summer's clamorous -- and controversial -- protest of the use of the word "retard" in the movie "Tropic Thunder." Then and now with the LPA, it has been incorrectly reported that advocates have demanded an all-out "ban" on the word in question. (That wouldn't fly with the FCC, anyway, whose policing of content is actually pretty limited, and which doesn't expressly ban words at all -- not even the so-called seven dirty ones.) The stated goal of both campaigns: open eyes, boost sensitivity, get folks to think twice.

But -- snarkosphere notwithstanding -- there's reason to believe that the M-word campaign might be welcomed a bit more graciously outside the disability community than was its predecessor. While many of us embrace and defend "retard" and "retarded" as pungent synonyms for "dumbass," many also use the word "midget" as simple description. "Many people don't realize the word 'midget' is offensive in the first place," says Gary Arnold, 38, vice-president of public relations for LPA (and public relations coordinator for a disability rights and service group in Chicago).

People, that is, like the Gray Lady herself. A March article buried in the Times' business section mentioned, in passing, a famous photo showing "J. P. Morgan Jr. with a midget who had been plopped in his lap by an opportunistic publicist." Outcry from dwarfs and their families -- including detailed historical background provided by Adelson, author of two authoritative books about dwarfism -- had this notable result: a rare addition to the New York Times' style manual. (Changes are made only five or six times a year, according to a spokesperson.) As public editor Clark Hoyt wrote in April, the new entry states that people of unusually (and medically) short stature should be referred to as dwarfs, not "midgets."

Still, LPA's ousting of Radio City and its anti-"midget" campaign are -- like the history and usage of the word itself -- not without complication or controversy.

Etymologically, at least, it's easy to explain the word's offense: It's derived from "midge," a type of tiny fly that may bite or spread disease. But part of the word "midget's" P.R. problem is that the term (like "retarded") was once used comfortably, particularly to distinguish people who were small but proportionate (usually as the result of a growth hormone deficiency) from those who were small but disproportionate (usually due to one of various bone disorders, such as achondroplasia). It was also once the term of choice for dwarfs in the entertainment world. In fact, LPA itself was founded in 1957 by actor Billy Barty and about 20 colleagues as "Midgets of America." The name was changed three years later. Even, or especially, as more diverse (and "respectable") professions have opened up to people with dwarfism, its vestigial freak-show connotation has remained, and has come to rankle. 

Would people with dwarfism ever seek to sap the word's power by reclaiming it, as the gay rights movement has done with "fag" and "queer"? Some think it's way too soon; some think it's way too hurtful. Says Adelson: "I don't think they'll ever want it back."

What about the word "dwarf"? Given its association with "gnome," "elf" -- and, you know, Dopey, Grumpy and Sleepy -- it's not everyone's first choice. (Barbara Spiegel, 35, of South Portland, Maine, has achondroplasia and two young daughters, one adopted, with the same diagnosis. Recently the elder, Alexandra, asked how she should describe herself to her new kindergarten classmates this fall. "You can say you're a dwarf," replied Spiegel. Alexandra: "But I'm not make-believe!") Still, since "dwarf" is an accurate term for a medical diagnosis, it's not considered offensive, at least in the United States.

Not everyone is a fan of "little person," either, which to some sounds mythical and munchkin-y. On the upside -- as Billy Barty himself was said to point out -- the term does contain the word "person." According to Adelson, the acronym "LP" (often used by members of LPA in place of "little people") is the neologism of choice in the U.S., precisely because it carries so little historical baggage. ("Most individuals," she adds, "prefer simply to be called by their given names.")

Even if LPs could ban the word "midget" -- or find the perfect term to describe themselves -- neither mockery nor bias nor movies like this one would magically vanish overnight. What would really help stop the laughing and pointing at the "midget" on the street? Advocates within LPA agree: the understanding that people with dwarfism are actual humans, not mythical creatures or comic relief. It's an understanding, they say, that can come in large part from seeing dwarfs portrayed realistically and respectfully in pop culture.

"Whenever we look at the progress we're making, or trying to make, we can assign credit -- or blame -- to images of dwarfs in culture and media," says Gary Arnold.

That's where Santa's dancing elves come in -- and that's where things get complicated again. The decision to uninvite Radio City after nobody-even-knows-how-many years was made by 2009's New York conference organizers alone, not by LPA as a whole. The planners for the 2010 gathering in Nashville fully intend to have Radio City's elf recruiters return.

Ask the first group, and they'll acknowledge that many LPs (often amateurs with unrelated career aspirations) enjoy performing in the show, and stress that those who are interested should by all means seek out the opportunity on their own. But LPA, they say, should not appear to endorse or place its imprimatur on an enterprise that can be seen as perpetuating age-old dwarf stereotypes. (And, as one parent of a dwarf wondered: "How will parents at their first LPA conference feel if it looks like this is the only opportunity that awaits their child?")

Nashville organizers feel otherwise. "My daughter did Radio City and she loved it," says conference organizer Sheryl Hankins, who is of average stature. "She's a pediatric oncology nurse. At no point in her life did she think she had to be an elf to make a living. I think other people realize dwarfs are not just elves, too. I guess I just give everyone more credit than that."

Former "elves" are divided as well. My sister-in-law performed in Radio City's Chicago show one year, and now wishes she hadn't. But for actor Mark Povinelli, 37, who is well under 4 feet tall, it was different (possibly, in part, because he's an actor). "I mean, part of me was like, ugh, I can't believe I'm doing this -- but every actor says that at some point," he says. Plus, he notes, the generous salary is what helped him afford to go on to do Shakespeare and Durang in the months that followed.

Even those opposed to Radio City's presence at the conference -- or, more broadly, who are bothered by the limited roles available to dwarfs -- stop far short of condemning the actors who choose to play those roles.

"When people with dwarfism are portrayed negatively, they are usually portrayed by people with dwarfism," observes Joe Stramondo, 27, chair of LPA's advocacy committee and a doctoral candidate in bioethics at Michigan State University. "This complicates the issue."

Few actors of any height are in the position to cherry-pick plum roles, if you will. Most, in fact, can rarely afford to say no. Given how often roles come along like Dinklage's in "The Station Agent," this leaves many very-short-statured actors to choose, in effect, between supporting their families or playing Jimmy Kimmel's left testicle.

"When I first get a script, I flip through to see where I'm going to bite someone's ankle or punch someone in the nethers or fight the tall guy," says Povinelli. (Povinelli will admit, with a sheepish smile, that early in his career he did in fact play Kimmel's testicle. It should be noted that he went on to play Toulouse-Lautrec -- a role normally performed by an average-statured actor on his knees -- at Lincoln Center and tour many countries as Torvald Helmer of Lee Breuer's "Dollhouse," a modern version of the Ibsen drama.)

That said, there's no simple formula for determining which roles are "negative" in the first place. For one thing, it's not necessarily as simple as highbrow vs. lowbrow. (We're talking to you, Gary Oldman.) Povinelli also says that, perhaps counterintuitively, it's often the "fantasy" roles (leprechauns, goblins, denizens of the HarryPotterverse) that offer more depth than the real-guy ones.

"Some people give LPs a hard time about the costumed fantastical characters they play, but in fact, that's some of the most meaningful, meaty work we have available," he says. Cases in point: On "Charmed," he played a leprechaun warrior with an interesting story line and complex motivations. On "Dharma and Greg," he played Greg's old college roommate, who was ... short. (All the ensuing short jokes made "inadvertently" by a rattled Dharma were supposed to be at her expense. But they were still ... short jokes.)

Povinelli agrees that the word "midget" -- and all it conveys, on-screen and off -- is an issue to be addressed. "But what bothers me most is being invisible," says Povinelli. "People butting in front of me because they think I'm a child, or being hit in the head with carry-on bags. The other day I was at the supermarket, pushing a full cart, the handle way up there, and in front of me there was a woman reaching down to the bottom shelf to get something. I didn't see her, and totally plowed into her, knocked her down. It gave me the weirdest sensation: I loved it. That had happened to me, in some way, so many times, and now I was the asshole doing it. It gave me some sort of sick satisfaction," he says. "You can call me 'midget' -- that's your problem, not mine. But when you ignore me as a human, when you don't give me the courtesy you'd give a person of average height, that's when it really gets me."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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