Don’t you know that it’s rude to stare? The makers of TLC’s reality series Little People, Big World do, which is the key to its appeal. On one level, it offers an up-close, unsentimental look at a family headed by a dwarf couple, spreading the positive message that little people can argue over money, coach youth soccer, and shoot tin cans off rocks like anyone else. On another level, though, it wallows in what it purportedly deplores, allowing us to feel good about ourselves while we gawk at this unusual-looking family from the privacy of our living rooms.
As the father of a teenage girl with dwarfism, I welcome media images that portray little people as normal. I’ve been tuning in every Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, when TLC presents two new half-hour episodes of what will be a 20-part epic. (Repeats are in heavy rotation throughout the week.) The series, which debuted March 4, stars fortysomethings Matt and Amy Roloff, both of whom are dwarfs, and their four children. Three of the kids are average-size; that is, they are unaffected by dwarfism. The fourth, 15-year-old Zach—incongruously enough, the twin brother of towering Jeremy—is, like his parents, a little person.
I know the Roloffs a bit, having interviewed them a few years ago for my book about the culture of dwarfism, Little People: Learning To See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes. Watching them on the small screen offers both the kick of seeing familiar faces and the reassurance that my daughter, Rebecca, can grow up to lead the same kind of life as Matt, Amy, and their kids.
Still, it’s hard to imagine why a viewer without such a connection would tune in if the Roloffs weren’t so different-looking. Little People, Big World is not exactly the stuff of high drama. In one episode, Amy and her daughter, Molly, who share a birthday, are dispatched on a hot-air balloon ride while Matt and the boys—Jeremy, Zach, and their younger brother, Jacob—are joined by family and friends to undertake a frenetic bathroom makeover as a surprise for Amy when she returns home. In another, Matt pushes Zach to pick up girls at a Little People of America gathering. These scenes are interspersed with interviews in which the Roloffs—primarily Matt, Amy, and Zach—expound on what it’s like to live in a world built for people at least a foot taller than they are. Everyone is pleasant and articulate. But there’s really no hook here other than the Roloffs’ unusual dimensions.
So, why watch? The impulse derives, I think, from the same one that compels people to stare. Dwarfs are rare: Depending on how you define the condition, there may be as few as 50,000 in the United States. Then, too, there is a certain cognitive dissonance in seeing adults who have some of the physical characteristics of children—the short stature, of course, but also disproportionately short arms and legs and slightly enlarged heads. These differences have forever cast dwarfs as celebrities, whether they like it or not. From gods in ancient Egypt, to the royal courts of Europe, to the sideshows in 19th-century America, dwarfs have never been allowed to just be; every little person is intimately familiar with the supremely unpleasant experience of being the subject of scrutiny. Little People, Big World lets viewers satisfy the need to stare: It’s voyeurism without the fear of being caught.
This is a huge improvement over the historical image of dwarfs. When Becky was a baby, my wife and I rented a critically acclaimed 1993 Argentine film called De eso no se habla (I Don’t Want To Talk About It), supposedly a sophisticated coming-of-age story about a young woman with dwarfism; we were disgusted when, in the end, she runs away to join the circus. Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks starts off by portraying little people and other disabled performers in a surprisingly sympathetic light and then turns them into homicidal monsters. The former porn actress Bridget Powerz, a dwarf, is thrown around in suitcases, only to pop out eager to service her clients like an oddly lifelike sex toy. (Such fare is invariably called “midget” porn, thus invoking a word that is approximately as popular among little people as the “N” word is among African-Americans.) Howard Stern sidekick Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf died a few years ago, but his degrading shtick—spewing slurred, boozy insults and generally making an ass of himself—lives on at his Web site.
The cultural context for such fare is that because dwarfs are little, then they are also less—less important, less human, less in need of being taken seriously. Some people in the dwarf community argue that fellow dwarfs like Bridget and Hank have a responsibility not to perpetuate those negative images. I won’t go that far. But I can see their point.
Since Little People, Big World is such a positive portrayal, I’d rather the series be on television than not. Similarly, I’m glad that actors and actresses like Peter Dinklage and Meredith Eaton are landing roles that could easily have gone to average-size performers, and that documentaries such as Big Enough and Dwarf Family: Meet the Fooses are casting dwarfism in a more normal, everyday light.
Because of such images, we may now associate dwarfism with individuals such as the formidable, no-nonsense Amy Roloff rather than the likes of Hank. But I’m afraid people will always stare at my daughter, attaching a label to an individual they haven’t met. Thus my enthusiasm for Little People, Big World is tempered by realism about the challenges my daughter will face in a culture that claims to celebrate difference—yet fears it and keeps it at a safe distance as well.