For whatever reason lately, the word “midget” has been cropping up all over the place. I feel like we had a good year where I didn’t hear it as often (once SNL’s “Stefon” skit was off the air) and I thought we were finally making some progress. Nope.
Every time the word comes up, little people (and average height advocates) like to say “Oh, it’s like the N word for little people”. First of all, let me start off by saying No. It is absolutely not. The N word has a violent, horrible history. The mere fact that I can write “midget” and not write the N word should prove that. (A point that will be reiterated further down). But I understand the desire to equate the “M word” with something. People need a way to explain what that word means to us and why it’s so hurtful to use.
I have a 27 year history with “the M word” and I am here to tell you that I have never once heard the word used in a positive light.
Whispers from children when I would run errands with my parents. “Oh look, it’s a whole family of midgets.” “Oh look at her, she’s a midget.”
When I was in elementary school, kids would taunt my friends and family with it. My cousin, Brittany, probably got the brunt of it or at least, she’s the only one who would tell me about it. “Oh, your cousin is a midget!” they’d say to her on the playground. This was always met with righteous anger from Brittany. “No, they’re dwarfs!! Don’t call them that!”
In Middle School, we read a poem in my sixth grade English class. It was about a carnival. I can’t tell you who wrote it or what the title was but I will never forget that the author used the word “midget”. My cheeks flushed red as everyone turned to me when the line was read out loud to see how I’d react. The teacher called me to her desk after class to see if I was okay. I remember quickly dismissing it and saying “I’m fine, no really, it’s okay.” But wondering to myself “If she knew that line was in the poem, why did she make us read it? Why did we have to read it out loud?”
In high school, when I would watch stand-up comedy specials with friends, I would always brace for the inevitable. There was always a chance that a comedian would make a little person joke and nine times out of ten, they would never use the word “little person”. Once again, I was back in sixth grade as my cheeks flushed and everyone looked at me. But I got faster; more resilient. I would feign extreme anger, pretend to flip a table, and walk out of the room.
As my love for musical theatre grew, I accepted The Last Five Years as a new favorite. There’s a line in “Summer in Ohio” where Cathy sings about performing with a “gay midget named Carl”. It is still to this day, in my top 5 favorite musicals, but I have to choose to love it in spite of the fact that it uses that word. Two years ago, a movie came out of the musical. I went to the theatre hoping that maybe, just maybe, they had changed the word since the movie would obviously be getting a much larger release. Nope.
John Mulaney is my favorite stand-up comedian but he has an entire bit in his special “The Top Part” about little people, using “the M word” and how it’s not as bad as the “N word”. Here’s the transcript:
“I was writing for an awards show once and I got into some trouble. I wrote a joke for this awards show that had the word “midget” in it. And someone from the network came down to our offices and he said to me ‘hey, you can’t put the word midget on TV’ and I said ‘I sure would like to’. And he said “No, midget is as bad as ‘The N Word’.’ First off, no. No it’s not. ‘Do you know how I know it’s not?’ I said to him, ‘because we’re saying the word ‘midget’ and we’re not even saying what ‘the N word’ is. If you’re comparing the badness of two words and you won’t even say one of them? That’s the worse word.” Also I don’t mean to gloss over what little people have been through in this country but you cannot compare the plight of midgets to African Americans. That is outrageous. Midgets were never enslaved unless you count the Wonka factory. So we get into this argument and we’re going back and forth and he says ‘you can’t put the M word on TV’ and I say ‘but I want to!” and he says ‘if you put that word on TV, there could be a protest of midgets on this building’ and I said ‘promise?'”
In college, an anonymous chat board was started about me. Saying how ugly I was and how all “the M words” needed to be purged and killed. They mocked my boyfriend at the time, saying that he must have some kind of fetish. People saying they were scared of me and didn’t like seeing me with my “bug eyes” at parties.
On Orange is the New Black this season, Morello (I believe) used “the M word” when talking about the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. Instead of using it as a teaching moment, they simply let her use that word and move on. It should be noted that later in the season, a character uses the word “retard” and is told that that word is verboten.
I was crossing the street mere months ago, when a bicyclist rode by. “Look out, midget!” he yelled at me. Friends tell me stories all the time about people they meet using “the M word” and the fights they get into about it. They’ll try to correct someone’s behavior and the user of the word will argue with them about it. “Oh no, they like to be called that.” “It doesn’t matter what they want to be called, I was told it was ‘the M word'”.
Most recently, Rob Lowe used the “M word” when speaking at a function. I don’t have all the details, but apparently, someone tried to correct him and he didn’t listen. He continued on to say “hey, there’s always a place for you in Hollywood!” Mr. Lowe also had Ann Coulter speak at his Comedy Central Roast, so obviously, his judgement is flawed to say the least.
So cue up the Natalie Imbruglia, because I am TORN. These shows and people that I love continue to use a word I hate. These people I admire and look up to seem to only see me as a punchline. Do I continue to support them or do I protest them for their ignorance? I feel like once I start protesting, I’ll have nothing left to watch.
I ask you, can you look at all the ways that word has been used and still tell me that it’s not offensive? It’s used to demean. It’s used to separate us and treat us as oddities or objects….as freaks. And maybe I sound like a broken record, but I beg you, insert any other minority in my place. Would any of the above be considered even remotely acceptable? Little people are one of the last acceptable minority groups to be mocked. Oh, isn’t it just so hilarious that we’re not tall?
And whenever this debate comes up, people love to say things like “you are the one giving the word the power.””Take it back and own it so it can no longer hurt you”. I discussed this point with my friend, Bridget, yesterday. She said “Yes, but do the people who say things like that realize that words are the very foundation on which our society is built? No one other than you gets to decide when they can or cannot hurt.” My other friend, Nick, brought up a similar point when I discussed this with him. He said “Yes, okay, in an ideal world, that would happen. But we’re not there yet. The verboten words like “the N word” and “The [gay] F word” can be taken back by the groups that own them because we (as a society) have been taught of the damage that those words can do. We’re not there yet with “the M word” because people are still saying it so casually. We’re years behind being able to “take it back”.”
How do we combat this? How do we force a world that is hellbent on demeaning us to accept us as humans? In our actions. Cast little people in TV shows and in movies. NOT ONLY IN REALITY SHOWS. We are not your inspiration porn. Give us a narrative. Let comedians know that someone’s disability is not a punchline. Stop supporting places that are determined to keep us down like “Beachers Mad House”.
If someone uses “the M word” around you, try and have a dialogue with them. Be patient. I’ll be the first one to tell you that the patience part is the most difficult. If anyone ever uses a slur to demean a friend of mine, I get filled with a white hot rage that only tells me to kill them. So yes, the patience is hard, but possible. And if they still try to argue with you after you’ve corrected them, give me a call and put me on the phone with them. I’ll do the yelling.