The best roles on television for people of short stature are those in which dwarfism takes a back seat. In the new show, Are You There, Chelsea? Mark Povinelli plays Todd, a supporting character on the show who works at a sports bar. I've watched only two episodes, but, compared to portrayals in popular culture that objectify little people because of their physical appearance, Todd appears to be one of the better roles for people of short stature. Like the rest of the cast, Todd is in search of a laugh, a good time and some comfort. He just happens to be a dwarf. He understated presence of dwarfism on Are You There, Chelsea? underscores the irony of Chelsea Handler's Feb. 8 appearance on The Rosie Show. Characters such as Povinelli's and Peter Dinklage's recent honors on the Emmys and Golden Globes have delivered a message that people with dwarfism, while different in physical appearance, have far more similarities with their non-dwarf peers than they do differences. Povenilli, Dinklage and others in popular culture are reflective of what is becoming a more inclusive community, a community that welcomes differences, including dwarfism.
But on the Feb. 8 Rosie Show, Handler and Rosie O'Donnell all but put up a sign that said "little people not welcome." The conversation turned to dwarfism when O'Donnell confessed a fear of little people, a fear that is evidently linked to her grandmother's fear of munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Many people, including people with dwarfism who watched the interview, might have been able to forgive O'Donnell for her discomfort. After all, there are probably not more than 30,000 people with dwarfism in the United States. Most people don't personally know a dwarf. The unfamiliar breeds discomfort. We can't help that. It's a part of human nature.
But what happened after O'Donnell's confession was unacceptable and hard to forgive. I expected her to address her fears as an opportunity to bridge the gap between her own misunderstanding of dwarfism and the reality of what life is like for people with dwarfism. Rather than erase any distance, O'Donnell reinforced the gap. After Rosie's confession, she and Handler engaged in a conversation that at best infantilized and at worst dehumanized little people. Handler, who compared dating a little person to child abuse, and wondered aloud how a dwarf could give birth to a baby, certainly wasn't helpful if O'Donnell wanted to make a sincere effort to recognize that dwarfism is secondary to a person's skills, ambitions, passions and personality. But O'Donnell never went beyond treating discomfort with dwarfism any more seriously than she would a fear of clowns, as if it was something quirky, or unique about her. The behavior would have damaging had it come from any talk show host. But from O'Donnell, who claims to be about inclusion, the behavior was unexpected and utterly disappointing. Even later in the conversation, when O'Donnell mentioned Martin Henderson, the victim of a heinous physical assault, and who was singled out simply because he is a dwarf, O'Donnell failed to make a human connection to dwarfism.
Since the Feb. 8 telecast of The Rosie Show, little people around the world have responded. Hundreds of people have reached out to O'Donnell, demanding a public apology and demanding that she dialogue with the dwarfism community in order to address the misinformation.
In response, O'Donnell has apologized on her Twitter feed, directly to reality star Amy Roloff and to others. The Twitter apologies could be a good first step, but she needs to do more. Going forward, she needs to use her platform as a public figure to promote awareness about little people. If she doesn't, thousands of people around the world will no longer think of her as a champion of inclusion. Rather, she will be another second rate comedian who, sensing that she is losing the crowd, resorts to a joke using the m-word.