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

A few thoughts on China’s dwarfism theme park

Billy Barty and Midgets of America gather in Reno, Nev., in 1957.

There’s a fascinating story in today’s New York Times about a theme park in China that stars people with dwarfism. Sharon LaFraniere writes that the park, the Kingdom of the Little People, is controversial because it depicts dwarfs in demeaning roles. And there’s no doubt it’s jarring to modern Western sensibilities. But I’m not sure it’s really that simple.

For one thing, it’s clear from the story that, for people with disabilities living in China, the Kingdom of the Little People is a pretty good gig. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Many performers said they enjoyed being part of a community where everyone shares the same challenges, like the height of a sink. “Before, when we were at home, we didn’t know anyone our size. When we hang out together with normal-size people, we can not really do the same things,” said Wu Zhihong, 20. “So I really felt lonely sometimes.”

For another, I think those of us involved with the dwarfism community sometimes tend to forget the reality of the not-too-distant past. Gary Arnold, spokesman for Little People of America, is quoted as saying, “I think it is horrible. What is the difference between it and a zoo?”

Arnold’s point is well-taken, to an extent. Yet LPA was founded by an actor, the late Billy Barty, and the group originally came together in the late 1950s under a banner that read “Midgets of America” — something that would provoke protests today.

Moreover, a number of people with dwarfism, including intelligent, successful people who are LPA members in good standing, have exploited their unique features to get work in the entertainment business. And movies like “The Station Agent” remain the exception.

In the last few years we’ve seen the mainstreaming of dwarfism, due in large measure to television series such as “Little People, Big World” and “The Little Couple.” As I’ve written before, I think such shows are, overall, a positive. Yet we’re kidding ourselves if we think they’re not on some level exploitive as well. Who would sit on the couch and watch average-size, non-dysfunctional (my Gosselin caveat!) families go about their daily lives?

Finally, you’ll note that I did slip in the word “dwarf” even though Arnold is quoted as saying that some find it offensive. Unlike the M-word, on which there is universal agreement as to its offensiveness, the notion that “dwarf” is offensive is not a mainstream view within LPA, although Arnold is right that there are those who don’t like it. But it is a word my daughter uses, and I am not offended.

You didn’t think I was going to close this out without flogging my book, did you? Here you go.

You will also note, when you look at the photos that accompany the Times story, that one of them is the same picture that was hilariously misidentified yesterday as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

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  1. Neil Sagan

    Thanks for sharing your books with us. I read the part of Chapter 13, your interrogatory with your daughter, in which I recognized how a father works to understand his daughters feelings and tries to help prepare her for what he fears is a difficult future.

    I wonder about the use of the word dwarfism as the word of choice that describes the height of little people. Do we use “ism” to describe a characteristic of a group of people in any other context or are isms used typically to describe behaviors in social structures such as capitalism, terrorism, communism, socialism?

  2. BP Myers

    @Neil asks: Do we use “ism” to describe a characteristic of a group of people in any other context

    Autism comes to mind, but you’re right. Only top of my head one I could come up with.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @BP: And we don’t call people with autism “auts.” (That’s a joke. Sort of.) Hmmm … is that really the end of the list?

  3. BP Myers

    @Dan: Hilarious.

    Reminds of of a comedian years ago commenting on the use of the word “flu” as shorthand for influenza, a horrible disease once responsible for the deaths of millions. He went on to wonder if, one day, other diseases might be conquered such that we could refer to them diminutively.

    “Yeah,” he envisioned someone saying. “I have the canc.”

    He foresaw another adding, “Nah, it’s nothing. Just a touch of the bubies . . .”

  4. Dan Byrnes

    The Chinese deserve nothing but protest and condemnation for this circus freakshow called the Kingdom of Little People. Such places where they are ‘performers’ make it socially permissible to gawk and laugh at little people without the discomfort and ambiguity to be faced if they were to see them in an ordinary social role: receptionist, doctor, teacher, etc. The fact that it provides jobs and brings dwarves together, who were once isolated is nothing, but a sad fact that there are not better alternatives or avenues open to them in China. Do the Chinese get a free pass due to cultural sensitivity and relativity?

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