Dwarfs are often portrayed as figures of fun, happy to always be laughed at, but rarely with. Whilst dwarfism’s acceptance as a disability is often contested, its perception as a form of amusement is not. Dwarfism is a disability, but a disability that is acceptable to laugh at and is actively encouraged within the media. Laughing at dwarfism for entertainment purposes is a social construct that needs to be changed.
Throughout history dwarfs have been a viewed as a source of amusement, from within European courts to the Victorian freak shows. Although the freak show started to die out at the turn of the 20th century, as people were beginning to realise that it was unethical to stare at people with physical deformities, dwarfism continued to be a form of amusement in other forms of entertainment, including films and lowbrow entertainment venues. It is not difficult to find an online event agency where you can hire out a dwarf for your special occasion, be it a wedding or just a general party.
Ever thought about hosting an amputee throwing competition or hiring out a wheelchair user as a form of amusement for your stag do? Of course not, as it would be unethical to do so. So why is it OK to then hire out dwarfs for the same purpose? After all, dwarfism is a disability just like the other two.
That is not to imply that other disabilities have not been linked to humour, but they are not stereotyped as a form of amusement, especially in lowbrow entertainment. There may be jokes about disabled people in films and television shows, but they are not stereotyped as figures of fun and hired out for the sole purpose for people to be amused by their appearance.
As someone with dwarfism I face the repercussions of laughing at dwarfism in society. I am laughed at. I am seen as a figure of fun whom it is OK to ask for a blow job or to pick up and photograph without permission. I am often asked where Snow White is or called Mini-me. I have had to put up with people singing “Hi, ho” or the Oompa Loompa song at me in the street, whilst they giggled with their friends.
Dwarfism is a rare condition (there are estimated to be around 651,700 dwarfs in the world) and thus encounters with dwarfs in society will also be rare. People’s perception of them is often formed by what they see in the media, which encourages how some people react towards them. I have had to tolerate shop assistants nudging their co-workers so they can point me out and snigger together and then experience the same from some of the shoppers. I have encountered parents encouraging their children to laugh at me or asking me if I would dress up for their birthday party. Whilst I expect to be stared at due to my body size, it is the laughing and joking that is encouraged by representations of dwarfs that are intolerable.
Over the past few years there has been a slight improvement in how dwarfs are represented in the media. Actors with dwarfism, such as Peter Dinklage and Kiruna Stamell, have taken on more serious roles that do not perpetuate negative stereotypes of dwarfs. Both are actors with dwarfism who refuse to take on roles that encourage people to laugh at dwarfs. They demonstrate that dwarfs can still be in the entertainment industry without being laughed at. They challenge the social construct of dwarfism and humour, without stopping dwarfism being involved comedy. For example Dinklage was in the 2003 Christmas comedy Elf, where the audience was encouraged to laugh at what was going on in the scene, not at Dinklage’s height.
Dwarfism is a disability, not a form of entertainment for society to laugh at.
Erin Pritchard is a post-doctoral teaching fellow in disability and education at Liverpool Hope University