Friday, March 26, 2010

Dwarfs on display

"In photographing dwarfs, you don't get majesty and beauty. You get dwarfs."--American author and art critic Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

China got a lot of press recently for opening a theme park populated by dwarfs. Announcement of the opening of the so-called Dwarf Village raised questions about the ethics of the attraction and compared it to the human zoos of the past. Here are the 1st few sentences of a review of the book Spectacle of Deformity that I just wrote for Fortean Times:
"During my first conversation many years ago with sideshow historian James Taylor, he disabused me of the notion that the acts – dwarfs, giants, conjoined twins, human skeletons, albinos, leopard boys, and bearded ladies – were exploited. Author Nadja Durbach does the same in the introduction to this volume. 'Posterity,' she writes, 'is condescending.' Mentally competent freaks saw the exhibit of their bodies as a means of self-support and, in some cases, an alternative to institutionalization."
In America and Europe, dwarfs and midget families have a long history of performing at circus sideshows. The dwarf children of the Ovitz family formed the Lilliput Troupe and took the stage throughout eastern Europe. The Doll Family worked for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey and appeared in several films. Admiral Dot, Commodore Nutt, and General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren (whose marriage was heavily promoted) all worked for legendary showman P.T. Barnum (1810-1891).

But I also ask you to consider that contemporary Chinese hiring practices discriminate on the basis of height, prompting some average-sized citizens to undergo costly, lengthy, and excruciating limb-lengthening surgery to gain an advantage. The dwarfs at the park are gainfully employed and self-sufficient. They are not shunned or bullied, which in the past has led some to attempt suicide, and instead have found camaraderie and respect. By seeing the dwarfs perform at the park, says its owner, the public will leave impressed by their skills and courage. By living and working together, the dwarfs enjoy being part of a community of people who all face the same challenges.

That said, here are some occupations that dwarfs undertake today, knowing that their physical anomaly will be a big draw that some will find offensive: bullfighting, boxing, dwarf tossing. Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood raised eyebrows when he expressed his desire to hire dwarfs to play tricks on the guests at his daughter's wedding.

In comparison, working at Yunnan Province's Kingdom of the Little People seems like a pretty good gig. The 80 or so dwarfs receive relocation fees, a good weekly salary, and free room and board. They live in dormitories, but during the day act in skits in the performance hall and pretend to live in the 33 fairy-tale cottages. They have access to dance training and English lessons. All between 2' and 4' 3", they are served by an on-site police force and fire brigade.

It is not for us to judge. They have voices of their own.

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