Little People of America, a US-based organization, which was established to provide support to people of short stature and their families, defines dwarfism as a medical or genetic condition that usually results in an adult height of 4'10" or shorter, among both men and women, although in some cases a person with a dwarfing condition may be slightly taller than that. Many of those individuals, who are usually referred to as ‘midgets,’ protest against such a term and calls upon the human society to stop using it in everyday life.
People living with dwarfism get offended when they hear someone using that word, especially when it comes to public figures, Hollywood celebrities in particular. After Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Isaiah Washington, calling a person a ‘midget’ is about the last thing anyone in Hollywood has left to apologize for saying.
In general, common people disregard the inner world of those living with dwarfism and use the word midget to insult a person or threaten his or her safety. It may also be frequently heard on television and radio.
The outcry over bigotry, homophobia and racism during the past years in Hollywood has been admirable. However, it never occurs to anyone in Hollywood to apologize.
The word ‘midget’ was created from the combination of the word midge, meaning "small fly" and the suffix -et, so that etymologically the word midget means a "very small small fly." In 1869, it was used specifically in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Oldtown Folks": "Now you know Parson Kendall's a little 'midget' of a man." Stowe is using midget as a way to describe Parson Kendall as an annoying, insignificant man. By 1884, it referred to small people who were exhibited in shows or circuses.
So what is the difference between a dwarf and a midget?
In the circus shows of early America, dwarf had a more negative connotation than midget. According to historian Robert Bogdan, dwarfs were further down the pecking order and were assigned more degrading roles. The terms midget and dwarf had important social meaning in the amusement world. Small people who were well-proportioned - "perfect humans in miniature" - in particular coveted the term midget for themselves as a way of disaffiliating from the more physically deformed dwarf exhibits. For midgets to be called a dwarf was an insult. Dwarfs were associated with exotic freak or circus clown roles, and these roles midgets shunned.
But calling someone a midget today is hardly a compliment, and the insults haven't stopped.
Ethan Crough, the president of the Bay Area chapter of Little People of America, writes in his article originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle that he has heard midget jokes from many comedians, including Andy Dick, Chris Rock and Jimmy Kimmel.
In January, on an episode of the NBC show "30 Rock," Tina Fey's character says on her phone, "I just want to go home, watch the midget show and eat a block of cheese." Members of Little People of America (the national support and advocacy group for people of short stature) who watched the show cringed.
In an article by Tad Friend in the New Yorker titled "What's So Funny?" he writes that a standup comedian at the Ice House in Pasadena wasn't getting any laughs, "so she put her script aside and barked, 'Two faggots and a midget walk into a bar ...' The audience cracked up for four long, joyous seconds."
Fey echoes Friend's point in an article about working for "Saturday Night Live": "If you want to make an audience laugh, you dress a man up like an old lady and push her down the stairs." By using the word midget, she is giving us our chance to be pushed down the stairs for some laughs.
The dwarf actor Danny Woodburn makes a good point writing with Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times: "So often, the use of the word (midget) will eliminate a person's humanity. Next time you hear it used in TV, film, or print see how it makes you feel about midgets. Notice the imagery, if there is any. It's generally demeaning and dehumanizing."
Unlike T.R. Knight, the "Grey's Anatomy" actor who says, "I've never been called that (a gay slur) to my face," I get called the word midget to my face quite often. The comments usually go something like, "Hey midget!" Most people I know with dwarfism would love to see everyone who calls us midgets have to perform the same penance Isaiah Washington did for insulting his co-worker. He agreed to educate the public about the cruelty of such words.
The cruelty of words may often lead to the cruelty of action. There is a bizarre public entertainment in the USA and Australia, a bar attraction known as dwarf-tossing. Some may even consider it a sport when miniature people wearing special padded clothing are thrown onto mattresses by drunken gamers. They compete to throw the dwarf the farthest. The World Dwarf-throwing Championships were held in Australia in 1986. This “occupation” is widely considered to be offensive to the dignity of miniature people. Various public organizations have been taking numerous actions to ban the bar attraction. On the other hand, those little people who volunteer for the entertainment claim that such restrictions damage their financial well-being.
It goes without saying that humans will continue using the word the way it can be witnessed now. However, little people hope that humans’ understanding evolves so that they realize the word is considered by many little people as a slur on their humanity. It shouldn't be a throwaway line in a comedy routine. It shouldn't be hurled out a car window. And it shouldn't be the only form of insensitivity toward other human beings that doesn't deserve an apology from the Hollywood stars, or ordinary people, who utter it either thoughtlessly or with malice.
Article originally written by Ethan Crough, the president of the Bay Area chapter of Little People of America, for San Francisco Chronicle
Prepared by Dmitry Sudakov