Is it okay to laugh at dwarfs?

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

10 February 2018

9:00 AM

You’re planning a party. You’ve hired the vaults of a former bank, Le Caprice is doing the catering, and a celebrity DJ will round things off on the dance floor — but you want that little bit extra to give your fashionable, jaded guests something to remember. What about a dwarf? It’s a curious fact that even people who think of themselves as modern and caring feel quite comfortable laughing at dwarfs.

Type the words ‘dwarf’ and ‘rent’ into a search engine and you’ll be amazed at the number of websites offering to ‘supply a little someone’ for every occasion. Just click ‘dwarf’ and ‘add to cart’. One online agency boasts: ‘If you require the midget to perform and dance… or if you would like our mini man to be handcuffed to a specific person this can be arranged.’

Fun-loving party-people seem oddly keen to be handcuffed to dwarfs. One video, with thousands of ‘likes’ on Facebook, shows a male dwarf standing with his face at groin-level, handcuffed to a man using a urinal. A comment reads: ‘I want one of these at my hen night!’ Other photos show middle-aged men on stag nights, posing with a dwarf dressed in nothing but a nappy, astride their knee. It’s surprisingly popular.

Some friends of mine recently attended the party of a beautiful socialite, where canapés were served by naked dwarfs. Why would intelligent, privileged women pay people with a genetic disorder to serve them food? And why nude? Does being naked make being short funnier? It must certainly make it more humiliating for the poor dwarf.

The term dwarfism covers a number of syndromes, the most common being achondroplasia, a genetic condition resulting in shortened arms and legs. Spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenital (SEDc) tends to result in more proportionate limbs. If you consider that two people with dwarfism starting a family together have a one in four chance of their baby inheriting the gene from both parents and dying within days of birth, it’s not unreasonable to feel that bodies that characterise this condition aren’t all that funny.

And yet… I spoke to the actor Warwick Davis recently (star and co-writer of the comedy Life’s Too Short and co-founder of Little People UK), who showed me another side of what had seemed to me a pretty straightforward story. If we shame our countrymen into dropping the dwarfs, what will the unintended consequences be? Warwick says ‘solving one problem may well cause problems for little people elsewhere’.

Davis uses, by way of illustration, the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which has rapidly progressed from the downfall of a serious abuser to the criminalisation of clumsy would-be seducers. ‘If we decide a dwarf at a stag night is unacceptable then where will it end?’ he says. Will people start campaigning for pantomimes to stop hiring dwarfs as it is ‘demeaning’? In 2011 Qdos Entertainment re-cast children in the roles of the seven dwarfs in a panto version of Snow White. They claimed to be being politically correct, but in fact, says Davis, they were cost-cutting.

Davis has reason to be frustrated by what he describes as ‘people taking offence on my behalf’. The biggest challenge his Reduced Height Theatre Company faced in its 2014 touring production See How They Run was breaking through the political correctness barrier. ‘The play is a farce, people were meant to laugh at us! It had great reviews and those that came loved it, but persuading them to come was the hardest part.’ Another entertainer, Laura Whitfield-Phillips, agrees. ‘I get people apologising to me on bookings,’ she says. ‘Even trying to send me home early as now they’ve found I’m just a normal person, they feel bad for me. I tell them please don’t, I wouldn’t be taking any job I’m not happy to do.’

What’s beyond the pale? What’s just fashionable fun?

Perhaps what’s in the real interests of little people is just to smile politely and admire their ability to look dignified even handcuffed to a drunk and hope that there’ll be better jobs on offer in the future.

The set of See How They Run was built in proportion to the actors. Once it began, says Warwick Davis, everyone forgot they were watching dwarfs on stage. When the six-foot director came to take a bow at the end of the play the audience gasped at the sight of him, a giant.

Polly Morgan and Mary Wakefield discuss the ethics of dwarf hire on The Spectator Podcast.

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