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7 Dwarfs, Munchkins and Fairy Tale Fallout

          With roles in Station Agent and Game of Thrones, Peter Dinklage has worked hard to establish himself as a serious actor.  Recently, he has used his voice and public platform to call out Disney productions for half-stepping diversity progress.  Apparently, the new Disney production of the age old “Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs” will take the white out of Snow White but leaves the 7 Dwarfs, and its accompanying damage, intact.  Maybe because Dinklage uses the F-bomb liberally in his comments, maybe because no one wants to hear or understand what he’s talking about, Dinklage is being dismissed as simply, “an angry little man”.  What is all this about?

          Fairy tales, for the most part, involve mythical things or powers that don’t really exist.  While extinct dinosaurs might resemble the imaginary dragons, you cannot find the elusive flitting fairies, gargoyles that leave their stony perch, vampires or giants bigger than trees.  The challenge with short-statured people in fairy tales (dwarfs, leprechauns, trolls and gnomes), is that short people do exist.  They are real human beings just like everyone else.  They are never portrayed in tales as heroic beings like everyone else.

          Many Unity ministers love to use The Wizard of Oz to examine metaphors and lift it up as a spiritual tale.  I do not.  What do you do about the Munchkins?  One of the primary tools of discrimination of people with disabilities is “infantasizing” them, or making them childlike. If you go to Munchkin.com you find a company making baby products.  This village in Oz is filled with one dimensional (height) people with cute little costumes and no real identity or characteristics.  One day I found myself in the grocery store, going up and down the aisles to gather my groceries.  A man sidled up to me and with a sneer said, “Look what we have here!  A Munchkin!”  I was very uncomfortable and moved away from him.  He located me in another aisle, “Are you gonna tell me where the wizard is?” The evil in his tone and demeanor was starting to freak me out.  I abstained from saying, “May a thousand flying monkeys come out your ass,” because I was a pastor and that was not a very pastoral thing to say.  Instead, I found my daughter and hurried out of the store.  I should have told the store manager.  The problem with portraying people with dwarfism in fairy tales is that a fair number of people cannot distinguish fairy tales from reality.  Dinklage, like most of us, did not grow up with people looking at us as potential romantic partners, as leaders of industry, as inventors, as creatives or people to respect. We were “the dwarf” in class, in town, in our work environments, often in our own families.  It is a minimization that few are interested in undoing.  Dinklage hoped he had the recognition to make a change. Sadly, I think he was wrong.

          Disney is in the business of fairy tales.  In recent years, they have begun to identify some of the damage done in the typical fairy tale.  For generations we have taught young women that they need a man (ideally a prince) to rescue them from danger (not that the men cause the danger, that is left to evil older women) and finding the right prince is the only real path to happily ever after.  Young men are taught fighting is the answer to any conflict, physical strength is the primary characteristic of success, and you also need to find a princess for happiness.  Newer stories are being told about women who fight (Mulaun, Maya and the Dragon), women who don’t get rescued (Tangled and Frozen), men can lack physical strength, be sensitive and prevail in peace (How to Train Your Dragon-not a Disney film, DreamWorks) and the absence of beauty as necessary (Shrek, also DreamWorks).  Still, we leave the dwarfs intact as not real people, even though we have real people in the roles.  Snow White in the forest with 7 little men is not in any danger because they aren’t real men, they are dwarfs. They have no capacity for violence, sexuality nor heroism.  Only one out of 7 seems to be very smart (Doc vs Sleepy, Happy, Grumpy, Bashful, Sneezy, Dopey).  Maintaining this one-dimensional portrayal of people with dwarfism is what Dinklage is calling out as the perpetuation of the damage done in fairy tales, while appearing to correct the bigotry of Snow White-ness.  

          Dinklage’s comments are being countered with wails of “So should we do away with all fairy tales?”  “Why does everything have to be politically correct?”  “Why can’t kids have stories anymore?”  So here is a thought.  Before we cast out damaging fairy tales, we need to first, acknowledge the nature and existence of the damage fairy tales have done; and second, we need to write new stories that counter the damage. What if it was The Princess and 7 Men in the Woods?  What if the men, maybe a mix of short and tall, had real strengths and weaknesses, and a devotion to protecting and caring for the princess?  What if they performed heroic acts to keep her safe?  What if it was a dwarf man who summoned the courage to kiss the poisoned girl they all had cared for and the princess awakens to a love born out of caring and courage—which might actually be the foundation for a happy marriage? I would suggest that we cast the princess as a woman of color and short stature but then observers could dismiss it as just a “dwarf tale” not really relevant to “real people” or in our value system, tall people. Just as even winning an Emmy has not been enough to eliminate references to Dinklage as a “dwarf actor” not merely a talented actor.  Putting that “dwarf” label in front of anything is like adding a demerit, or a negative sign.

           People with dwarfism are real people.  They are in pulpits and classrooms and boardrooms and hospitals.  They have hopes and dreams; they have marriage and divorce and children.  Like all real people, they have diseases and pain and yet, like all people, the measure of their worth is not their height nor their productivity.  We all have sacred value. Minimizing the value of anyone, based on any characteristic in this material and temporary manifestation in the world, is injustice.  We need to stop telling stories that perpetuate injustice.  We need to create new stories to lift up the characteristics that lead to true success—kindness, compassion, courage, wisdom.  We need to start NOW.