A Liverpool Hope University academic has singled-out Ricky Gervais’ Netflix series After Life for its ‘problematic’ representation of dwarfism on the screen.
And Dr Erin Pritchard says that until the media tackles those representations, people with dwarfism will always have to endure abuse and discrimination
Dr Pritchard is a Lecturer in Disability and Education at Hope and has dwarfism.
She’s just been appointed to the Editorial Board of respected journal Disability & Society.
While After Life has been praised by audiences and critics, Dr Pritchard says it’s symptomatic of the way her condition is used for cheap laughs - and says it’s particularly offensive when it comes to sexuality.
She explains: “The problem with humour in the media towards people with dwarfism is that it has implications for the rest in society.
“Due to the current lockdown, like most people I have been bingeing on Netflix more than usual.
“As a woman with dwarfism when deciding on what to watch, particularly with comedies, I am always aware that I am likely to witness my condition being used for cheap laughs.
“And the second series of After Life is particularly problematic.
“In one scene, a psychologist (played by Paul Kaye) talks about a friend he calls ‘Paedo Ian’, because this person ‘slept with a dwarf’ whilst ‘off his head’.
“This obviously implies that a person would only sleep with a dwarf if they were not in the
right frame of mind. However, more importantly it implies that somehow sleeping with
a person with dwarfism is peadophilic.
“It is not uncommon for people with dwarfism to be infantilised, and whilst it is patronising to be spoken to like a child, being compared to one in terms of sexuality is downright offensive.
“This scene infantilizes and demeans my sexuality. Perhaps Ricky Gervais was reflecting the stupidity of some people, however the joke can reinforce these absurd beliefs.”
Dr Pritchard is quick to point out that dwarfism should not be immune to humour.
Indeed, she highlights long-running series Family Guy as a programme that strikes the right tone on disability issues - despite its status as a controversial show.
She adds: “If you look at the representations of dwarfism in Family Guy, I don't think they’re offensive. They laugh at those who poke fun at people with dwarfism, as opposed to dwarfs themselves.
“The humour usually comes in Family Guy’s famous cut-away gags. In one, for example, a dwarf Franklin D. Roosevelt announces the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“He’s standing behind the lectern on a chair - which is what I do when I give lectures - and he’s depicted as professional, wearing a suit, tie, glasses and he speaks in a normal voice.
“Then, someone in the audience who we don’t see, shouts, ‘Oh, he's adorable!’
“And it’s actually a clever gag. This is what people do - they overlook the intelligence of people with dwarfism and they instead see you as just a child.
“This is different to regular media representations of dwarfism - where you look at it and immediately think, ‘Oh, great. That's going to get shouted back at me in the street tomorrow…’
Dr Pritchard says we’ve seen some huge societal changes in recent weeks amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, not least the Black Lives Matter movement.
And she says a similarly groundbreaking shift in mentality is necessary when it comes to the way we think about dwarfism.
She explains: “We need to change how people with dwarfism are perceived, and that means changing how they are represented within the media.
“With the Black Lives Matter movement, derogatory representations of black people - such as within shows like Little Britain or Come Fly With Me - have been successfully challenged.
“Yet with dwarfism, the representations are still awful - where we have dwarf tossing, midget wrestling, and parties hiring people with dwarfism for their baby shower.
“And yet none of those things would be acceptable if it involved another minority group.
“I wouldn't call for something like Snow White to be banned. But we need to look at those representations and how problematic they are, as well as considering the implications they have.
“When people endure those implications, we need to take action. People like me speaking out is only the first part of the process. Society then needs to listen.”
The world was horrified in February this year when the family of an Australian boy with dwarfism, nine-year-old Quaden Bayles, was shown crying on social media having been mercilessly bullied.
But for Dr Pritchard, crying about poor Quaden’s plight gets us nowhere.
She says: “This is a child wanting to kill himself because he's being bullied so much.
“But I don’t want people to just get upset, we need to tackle those representations that cause people with dwarfism to be labelled sub-human beings.
“I’m not saying you can’t cry at a little boy. But we can’t cry at a little boy being bullied and then, a few months later, laugh at dwarfs in a pantomime.
“Unless we tackle the root causes as to why people laugh at us, then we’re never going to change anything.
“Even well-meaning media articles apparently promoting positive representations create problems.
“They might use language like, ‘Oh, look, this dwarf is walking tall’, or, ‘This dwarf has a big heart’.
“And like If you're using words like that it infers have to be big, and we have to be taller because there’s something wrong with being small.”
Dr Pritchard, from Bangor, North Wales, has written extensively about the challenges facing those with dwarfism, from accessibility to buildings and facilities to the fears of ridicule.
Disturbingly, she says she’s either stared at or abused every single time she leaves the house. It means many people with dwarfism might be apprehensive about Covid-19 restrictions being lifted fully in the coming weeks.
She adds: “There have been good and bad points to the Covid lockdown.
“Social distancing has been good. A lot of the time when I'm in a queue at a shop people get too close, towering over you.
“I recently had a man reach over my head at the Post Office to access the Chip and PIN machine before I’d even finished.
“Now, with social distancing, I was getting served in Asda, and when someone got too close the cashier told that person to back away.
“For many people, myself included, when restrictions are fully lifted it will be a case of having to go shopping very early in the morning, just to avoid people and the potential for abuse.”