By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Dwarfs and the media

When our daughter, Rebecca, was born more than 13 years ago, we never would have suspected that the genetic anomaly with which she was diagnosed — dwarfism — would one day be the media flavor of the month. Actually, it’s been quite a bit more than a month now, as media depictions of people with dwarfism are becoming increasingly common.

Just recently, the Discovery Health cable channel broadcast an outstanding documentary on a dwarf couple from San Francisco, Joe and Ginny Foos, and their children. Called “Dwarf Family: Meet the Fooses,” it did so well that it migrated up the dial to channels that people actually subscribe to, like TLC and Discovery. The Fooses themselves have started a blog for anyone interested in learning more about the film.

Now comes a far more ambitious effort by TLC — if, by “ambitious,” you mean an attempt to connect with a wider audience. “Little People, Big World” stars Matt and Amy Roloff and their four kids, who live on a 34-acre farm outside Portland, Ore. The New York Times ran a lengthy feature on the program last week in advance of its Saturday debut.

We were out on Saturday — at a Little People of America function, actually — but last night had a chance to see both the hour-long pilot and the first two half-hour episodes in a TLC rebroadcast. The series is to run over about 20 weeks. TLC has put together a comprehensive fan site with video clips and interviews.

The program — about 90 percent straight documentary and 10 percent “The Osbournes” — was fascinating to watch. We know the Roloffs a bit: Matt is a past president of LPA, and I interviewed the entire family for my book, “Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter’s Eyes,” at the LPA national conference in Salt Lake City in 2002. The following year, LPA’s conference was held in the Boston area. The photo I’ve included with this item is of Becky with Matt and Amy at that 2003 get-together. (Am I hoping “Little People, Big World” gives my book a new life? Oh, yes. Did I mention that you can buy it by clicking here?)

I think what people will find most interesting about “Little People, Big World” is its depiction of the Roloffs as an absolutely normal family with normal desires and problems. There is a tendency when depicting people with disabilities to show them as somehow better than ordinary — courageous, perfect beings who overcome all odds. By contrast, the Roloffs’ four kids — three of whom are average-size, which may surprise some viewers — are as wild as any normal kids would be. Matt and Amy argue over money and her need to work two jobs following his being laid off. Their house is every bit as much of a disaster as yours and ours might be.

When Becky was a baby, about the most positive depiction of dwarfism we could find was an Argentine film called “I Don’t Want to Talk About It,” a coming-of-age story about a young woman who’s a dwarf. It’s a fine piece of work that falls apart in the last 15 minutes when the heroine decides that the only way she can truly find herself is to run away — and, I kid you not, join the circus.

Now, positive media depictions of dwarfism have become almost routine, thanks to Meredith Eaton‘s role as an attorney in the television series “Family Law,” Peter Dinklage’s wonderful movie “The Station Agent,” and even dumb reality shows like “The Littlest Groom.” Will this help Becky Kennedy ease herself into a more accepting world? I don’t know. But it certainly can’t hurt.

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  1. Maria Perez

    Great piece Dan. Previous to my introduction to the dwarfism community I was home for months recovering from an upper spinal fusion and 2 hip replacements. Somewhere in that 12 month period I happen to catch the Argentinian film one afternoon and was fascinated. Although a dwarf myself, I’d had little exposure to others with the same and no positive media depiction of an individual with any type of dwarfism. I watched (and loved) the movie, fascinated at it’s use of a character with dwarfism. -It reminded me of so many stories I’d read the year before during my sabbatical from work, when I’d discovered writers like Isabel Allende and Federico Garcia Lorca. While I searched for a doctor to perform my 3 surgeries, I whiled away hours at our local Barnes & Nobles, not to mention the amount of money I dropped during that time on coffee and and book discoveries. – I too was extremely disappointed at the ending. It was almost a cop-out, as if they had gotten tired of dreaming and went for an easy end. Shame and so disappointing.

  2. Billy Booster

    I felt that the Roloff show should be titled just that the Roloff Show. In the name Little People, Big World is seems that they want to be representatious of all little people. That being the case they should soften up the “struggling”undertones and lose the sales pitch for the tuff n tumble step stool. It feels like they are anticipating, or soliciting in these undertones, a handout. The lone child with dwarfism I feel awful for because anyone can see he’s being coached, borderline exploited. Too Bad.

  3. Anonymous

    But Billy, it’s at least a start for popular media outlets. It’ll be the first time a lot of people even think about dwarfism. It’s not the ideal, but it has _some_ value in that it’s an inroad.I happened on the movie _The Station Agent_ and loved it. I googled Peter Dinklage and came across Dan’s book, which I then read. Dwarfism wouldn’t have come to my attention in any other way. Now, at least I’ve read a book about it.This show, awful as it may be, will do the same thing for a broad audience. Yes, it’s not ideal, but anything is a step in the right direction.Until shortly before I read Dan’s book, I didn’t know that there’s no such thing as a midget. If you’re going “Huh?,” that furthers my argument that this show may have value.

  4. Anonymous

    The Roloffs seem to have alot of money. There doesn’t seem to be a thing they mention that they would like that they don’t go right out and by it,

  5. Anonymous

    yes it is right not about money.. it about to love little people no matter what.. i m half deaf and i really want to meet and get to know about little people i just want to make friend with them i m tall 5 3 but not matter.. accpet who ever they are little or deaf or blind or whatever..

  6. Anonymous

    please dont be afraid of me. i want to be nice and respect and listen and obey.. I have lot of animals my self what wrong with the animals too.. God made animals and god made little people or big or whatever.. I just want some one contact me . accpet whoever im.. i just want peace and try look for new friend who are little people. i not care if dwarf or midget i not going to say it no more.. i just say they are people like me i m half deaf. no matter what you are . please please contact me I not want mean or hateful.. I want my daughter to be friend with little people or whoever.. i taught her to be nice.. even i taught her to be nice to animals.. please i want ginny and joe foose and matt and amy roloffs please contact me please please.. i try look harder on computer for your email. accpet whoever i m.. GOD BLESS !!

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