Expert comment: “Cripping up” in relation to dwarfism and the problem of gawping at dwarfs on stageTuesday 22 November 2016
Lecturer in Disability and Education Dr Erin Pritchard comments on recent news that Pantomime companies are employing average-sized people are to play dwarfs.
A recent article in The Telegraph explains that some Pantomime companies this year will be using average-sized people to play the role of the seven dwarfs in their productions of Snow White and the seven dwarfs. This is because non-disabled actors are apparently cheaper than dwarfs. I use the term ‘non-disabled’ because dwarfism is a disability and once again this highlights how entertainment companies are favouring non-disabled people for the roles of disabled characters. The part will involve a non-disabled actor walking around on their knees or wearing a special costume to make them appear smaller. This is problematic in itself, because as a dwarf I have experienced people walking about on their knees when they want to mock my dwarfism in front of me. Allowing non-disabled people on stage to do this only reinforces its acceptability.
It is not the first time Pantomimes have replaced dwarfs with other people to play the role of the seven dwarfs. It is not uncommon for Pantomime companies to cast children in their place. This is due to similarities in height, and again because they are cheaper to employ. What is problematic in this instance is that it can promote what Bolt (2014) terms “disablist infantalisation”. Due to their short stature it is not uncommon for people with dwarfism to be treated like children. This only encourages this already unwanted behaviour. But whether or not, it is non-disabled people, children or dwarfs themselves fulfilling the roles, it is how dwarfism is represented and the possible implications on dwarfs in society that should also be questioned.
“Cripping up” is used to describe the act of non-disabled actors playing the role of disabled characters. It has been compared to “blacking up”. Most recently disabled activists criticised the film “The Theory of Everything” due to the part of Stephen Hawkings being played by a non-disabled actor. Whilst I do not agree with “cripping up”, at least when a non-disabled actor was cast as Stephen Hawkings the role did not involve encouraging people to laugh and gawp at people with Motor Neurone Disease. How is getting non-disabled actors to walk around on their knees any different from “blacking up”? Both mock the person they are intended to be and have negative repercussions for them.
But, it is not just getting people to walk around on their knees that can be problematic. It is also about what the performance entails. The Telegraph article provides a quote from a dwarf actor, who they term as a “panto dwarf” and who describes the effect dwarfs can have on the audience: "When you're on stage, the kids love it. It's a great feeling to hear the gasps when they see us.” (James Lusted quoted in The Telegraph, 2016).
This leaves me feeling uncomfortable, because we should not be encouraging children to “gasp” at dwarfs. From my experience, children do not need much encouragement in order to gasp at people like me, but it is the reinforcement that it is acceptable through these kinds of cultural representations that is problematic. Therefore, instead of just questioning whether or not non-disabled people should be playing the roles of dwarfs should we not also focus on how the show affects dwarfs in society? As Shakespeare (2015) comments: “Most dwarf actors are simply there to make the audience laugh or snigger or gawp.” This is problematic due to the implications it can have on dwarfs in society.
Evident in my own doctoral research is that cultural representations of dwarfs influence how other members of the public interact with them: “I mean it's difficult for parents to take their children to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and encourage them to laugh and then when they come out the theatre somebody like me walks along and they tell them not to laugh.” (Ivy, telephone interview, quoted in Pritchard, 2014).
Another participant reported how she had been mocked due to the show: “I got a few ‘Hi Hos’ whistled at me in the street.” (Naomi, face to face interview, quoted in Pritchard, 2014).
This begs the question, is Snow White and the seven dwarfs still an acceptable show if it has negative repercussions for dwarfs in society? Whilst I would not call for the show to be banned, the possible implications that some of the show could have should be questioned and altered. Even more questionable though, is should we be allowing non-disabled people to mock dwarfism and encourage others to laugh at them through pretending to be someone like me? Walking around on their knees just adds to mocking that is encouraged towards dwarfs. This is something that should certainly be disallowed.
The non-disabled actors who will be cast as the dwarfs will be mocked on stage, but after the show they will be able to hang up their costumes and walk out without facing any of the repercussions it may have caused. It will be the dwarfs in society who will have to face the consequences.
If non-disabled actors want to play the role of the dwarfs, then perhaps they should stay in character after the show has finished. That way they can have the real experience of living with dwarfism, including the implications of their performance.
Bolt, D. (2014) Epilogue: Attitudes and Actions, In David Bolt (ed) Changing Social Attitudes Towards Disability Abingdon: Routledge pp. 172-175.
Pritchard, E. (2014) The social and spatial experiences of dwarfs in public spaces. Unpublished PhD thesis: Newcastle University
Shakespeare, T. (2015) ‘It's time dwarfs stopped demeaning themselves in public’ The Independent [online] 6th February, Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/11394321/Its-time-dwarfs-stopped-demeaning-themselves-in-public.html (Accessed 21/11/2016)
The Telegraph (2016) ‘The days of dwarfs in panto are behind you, actors warn’ [online] 21st November. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/21/the-days-of-dwarfs-in-panto-are-behind-you-actors-warn/ (Accessed 21/11/2016)