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Expert comment: Midget Wrestling - The 21st-century freak show comes to Liverpool

Dr Erin Pritchard, Lecturer in Disability and Education, comments on the controversial sport of Midget Wrestling, which was recently showcased at a bar in Liverpool city centre.

Due to their distinctive body size, people with dwarfism will always elicit stares from other members of society. Academic research shows that 96 per cent of people with dwarfism have encountered being stared at when out in public (Shakespeare et al., 2010). Unfortunately, as far back as the Victorian era there have been entertainment venues that will use this to their advantage, and subsequently encourage further unwanted attention towards people with dwarfism, including verbal abuse. The Victorian freak show exploited people’s differences, including those with dwarfism, for profit. At the turn of the 20th century, the freak show’s popularity began to decline when it was noticed that those being put on show had medical impairments. However, the exploitation of people with dwarfism continued in other forms, including within lowbrow entertainment. According to the academic Betty Adelson, throughout history and in the present day, people with dwarfism have been a popular form of entertainment, not so much for any talents, but rather due to their small stature.

On the 26th October, the Coyote Ugly bar in Liverpool decided to go ahead with hosting a controversial midget wrestling event. Since its arrival to the UK, Coyote Ugly has ignored protests from Restricted Growth Association (RGA), a charity for people with dwarfism and their families, in order to profit from the exploitation of people with dwarfism. Coyote Ugly has tried to play down these protests and ignore the views of people with dwarfism often rendering them powerless in order to justify their use of people with dwarfism for entertainment purposes. Coyote Ugly have claimed that there has been little protests to these events. However, since as far back as 2013 Little People of America, the world’s largest association for people with dwarfism has been protesting against midget wrestling in the USA (Dicker, 2013).

It is not the wrestling that people with dwarfism take offence to, but rather the promotion of ‘midget’ wrestling and midget tossing. The term midget derives from the word midge, meaning Sand-fly or Gnat. This automatically dehumanises people with dwarfism. It also has no medical connotations, but is instead a word that derives from the freak show. It is a term that most people with dwarfism, including myself, find offensive and can recall having strangers shout at them in the street. 77 per cent of people with dwarfism have claimed that they have been on the receiving end of verbal abuse (Shakespeare et al., 2010).

Since the protests, Coyote Ugly have tried to hide behind the guise of disability equality in order to justify their outdated form of entertainment. A statement from the company reads, "As we feature monthly wrestling events called ‘Coyote Nitro’ our stance has always been one not to discriminate against people with disabilities, whether mental or physical”. Disability equality does not include exploiting ones disability for the amusement of others. Dan Kennedy, a writer, whose daughter has dwarfism, points out that other disabled people, including wheelchair users, do not rent themselves out, yet people with dwarfism do. This is probably why academic research (Pritchard, 2014; Shakespeare et al., 2010) on dwarfism shows that when people with dwarfism use a wheelchair the unwanted attention they receive significantly decreases, further demonstrating the impact lowbrow entertainment can have on shaping the social experiences of people with dwarfism. Disability equality is actually about ensuring that disabled people are not promoted as a form of entertainment and are not referred to using derogatory slurs that can influence name calling in society. Disability equality should be for all people with dwarfism, not a select few who will make good money for venues such as Coyote Ugly.

Whilst people may be quick to defend those with dwarfism who choose to exploit their impairment within the entertainment industry, we must also consider how their choices can affect people with dwarfism in society. Most people will be used to seeing someone with dwarfism supposedly enjoying the attention they seek onstage, but will be unaware of the problems it creates for people with dwarfism in society. According to the anthropologist Joan Ablon, less than 1 per cent of people with dwarfism are part of the entertainment industry, however, this minority shapes how dwarfism is perceived by the rest of society. Despite such a low percentage, many people tend to think that all people with dwarfism par take in some form of entertainment, such as the Christmas Pantomime, as that is all they have ever seen them in. My own research shows that cultural representations of people with dwarfism influence how other members of society perceive and interact with them in society (Pritchard, 2017). Negative repercussions can include name-calling and unwanted physical contact, such as being picked up by strangers. This often makes people with dwarfism feel unsafe when out in public. As the lawyer and activist Angela Van Etten points out, if 5 people with dwarfism want to par take in midget tossing, is it right for it to go ahead if 10 people face the unwanted social repercussions from it? Of course not, and thus it is about time that the views and opinions of those with dwarfism who are not in the entertainment industry were taken seriously.

References:

Dicker, R. (2013) 'Extreme Midget Wrestling' Offends Little People Of America, Which Calls For Name Change In Protest, Huffington Post online.

Kennedy, D. (2003) ‘Little People’ Rodale

Pritchard, E. (2017) Cultural Representations of dwarfs and their disabling effects on dwarfs in society. Considering Disability

Shakespeare, T., Thompson, S. and Wright, M. (2010) No Laughing Matter: Medical and Social Experiences of Restricted Growth. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 12 (1) 19-31


Published on 28/11/2018