TOsa professional actor living with dwarfism, all I could do when I read Peter Dinklage’s critical comments about Disney’s forthcoming live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was nod in agreement. Peter is a much more famous actor than I am, but my politics disability are very similar to his. I am very aware of the importance of representation, and of how few genuine and humanizing representations there are of people with dwarfism on our screens and on our stages.
I am so careful about the roles I pick because I know that, if I get it wrong, there will be repercussions for some innocent person with dwarfism just minding their own business. I don’t want what I create as an artist to be used to bring a random person down in the middle of their day. I had “Mini-Me” yelled at me by strangers for years after Austin Powers came out. “Hi-ho, hi-ho,” is regularly hummed or sung at me by passersby. I am filmed and photographed by strangers for who knows what on social media. Most insults are simply regurgitated rubbish that people have picked up from somewhere in the social repertoire of negative and dehumanizing media portrayals.
Most people have never met a person with dwarfism. It is a rare condition. People only have a very few reference points: pantomime, Disney’s 1937 animated film, something ridiculing that they saw in the press or on TV, the punchline to a comedian’s joke, a dehumanized character such as Mini-Me in a film. The recurring “Hippo Eats Dwarf” fake news article is the kind of degrading swill that circulates every few years.
On the other hand, I don’t have a problem with Tolkien’s fantasy Lord of the Rings. His Hobbits and Dwarves are clearly stylized fairy folk.
It is so disappointing that I am still more likely to be a mum, lover, secretary, lawyer, teacher or doctor in real life than to play one in a Disney film. It worries me that Disney hasn’t even reached the basic milestone of representing disabled bodies in ordinary ways, yet are now undertaking the creatively fraught challenge of humanizing their seven most famous disability tropes.
A live-action version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will remove the safety net that animation provided. These cute, dehumanised, infantilised, animalistic creatures known in the 1937 film only by their labels, Dopey, Happy, Doc, etc, are not fully people. Nor are they fully fairytale creatures. Interestingly, their naming did not originate from the original Brothers Grimm tale but was a Disney invention. But as a cartoon, it is “pretend”, more forgivable. It is still problematic but with more distance from me, in the real world. The dated nature of the animation also reduces the hurt it causes because it was from another time, predating the disability rights movement.
And before you question me: yes, I do identify as disabled. At 3-feet-something-secret tall, I can only drive an adapted car and cook safely in an adapted kitchen. My life requires modifications and adaptations. I am disabled on the street by negative attitudes and prejudice I meet in the community and broader society. If you need more information to understand what I mean, Google “the social model of disability”.
I simply cannot see how Disney can make a live action version of its 1937 film without falling into disablist stereotypes of people with dwarfism. It will have to involve disabled creatives, and empower people with dwarfism to forge their own representations, steer their own roles in the story and give space to their voices. Disney will have to listen. Which means being open to awkward conversations and the workshopping of ideas from a minority community.
Disney have you responded to concerns in a statement: “To avoid reinforcing stereotypes from the original animated film, we are taking a different approach with these seven characters and have been consulting with members of the dwarfism community. We look forward to sharing more as the film heads into production after a lengthy development period.”
But in general, this is not something film production is renowned for doing well, or at all. And it is a process that is often glossed over with a tokenistic wave of the hand. I have too often been the only disabled person in the rehearsal room on a shoot. And as an actor, there is a fine line between “advocating bravely” and being “emotionally frigid and just not open to their ideas”. You aren’t the director, but you are the only one who knows the experience and how you are seen in the world.
This leads me to doubt that Disney is currently capable of making the massive ideological leap needed to create a film in which the seven dwarfs are the fully fledged humans they should be. With real names, rounded characters and having some kind of agency.
Here’s an idea, though: the seven dwarfs could live in a house that is only accessible to people 4ft 2in tall. With an adapted kitchen and adapted vehicles. So all the average height people in their world are forced to bend over for 40% of the film, sit in little chairs and stoop to use the stove. Maybe back pain destroys the evil queen, and the perils of bad ergonomic design are really and truly explored.
That would be an interesting take on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Let the average-height people be disabled by design and attitude for once.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism