Monday, June 20, 2005

A Dwarf Is a Dwarf

Herve Villechaise, well known for repeatedly shouting "the plane!" when portraying Tattoo on Fantasy Island, liked to be called "midget." Most other contemporary actors of small stature despise the term. At best, calling people midgets implies that you think of them as that certain type of human being, as one would think of a Serbian or a shoemaker--they are defined by their type and not their set of human complexities. At worst, calling people midgets implies that, intellectually as well as physically, look down on them. One actor who dislikes the term is Danny Woodburn, who is probably most famous, at least in my mind, for playing Kramer's friend Mickey on Seinfeld (Mickey: "Bacterial Meningitis, Jackpot!!" Kramer: "Gonorrhea?!! You wanna trade?" Mickey: "Sorry buddy, this is the Hamlet of diseases. Severe pain, nausea, delusions, it's got everything!").

Danny Woodburn was apparently also in Death to Smoochy, which I didn't see because I heard it was bad. Roger Ebert reviewed that movie and used the m-word to refer to Woodburn, prompting Woodburn to write in to complain. What followed was an interesting correspondence about offensiveness, the press, and the power of language to wound:
The truth is Little People or Persons of Short Stature or Dwarfs do not
have equal rights under the law. We are forbidden to join the military or police force based purely on size and not ability. Accessibility laws laid down by the ADA are not always accommodating to Little People. The ACLU, has not, in my experience acknowledged such issues as forcible eviction, denial of housing, or employment and education when it comes to people with Dwarfism. The response was "We don't recognize that there is any such race as the Dwarf race." True though it may be, in my opinion there needs to be a precedent set in support of Little People.

With regard to the term Little People, I suppose that until we can get the world at large not to describe someone as black or Jewish or disabled or Asian or Hispanic when we talk of their existence, we must include the term "People" in order to keep them in the one race that we all share -- the human race.

I suppose it is more than you expected after your note to me, but it is
something that I have great passion about and have spoken publicly at every opportunity and it is the reason I pursue acting as passionately as I do.

Link to original Movie Answer Man column, link to full correspondence. Ebert, who writes for a living, and Woodburn, who performs, both have much to say about the way words bear loads of emotion and association. The letters are thought-provoking reading, right down to the smile-inducing last word. It's a good thing Ebert or Villechaise didn't see the lifts in Woodburn's shoes. Then they'd know he's been heightening.

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