In my review of the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, I wanted to discuss one weakness and that was the role played by Peter Dinklage but I faced the quandary of how to describe him without being offensive. I was not sure if the word ‘dwarf’ was acceptable. I had read somewhere that the term ‘Little People’ was preferred by members of the community but it seemed a little awkward (to my ears at least) but I was not sure if it had become the exclusively preferred term.
I wrote my review using the label dwarf just once but later decided to look into this question and came across this helpful post by film critic Roger Ebert from 2005. Following his review of the film Death to Smoochy, actor Daniel Woodburn had written to him.
Dear Mr. Ebert,
I am an actor that you have reviewed neither favorably nor unfavorably in two different movies: one was “Death to Smoochy,” the other “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her.” I have absolutely no objection to you trashing a film or lauding it. I do object to the use of the word “midgets” in your review of “Death to Smoochy.”
As a writer you are aware of the power of words. The use of the word midget is, for Little People, equated with any other hate word someone might use to describe a minority group. I simply ask you: if you were to see Little People children would you take away their humanity in the same way with the use of such a hate word? I can respect a yes answer but I cannot respect the person who answers yes.
Sincerely, Danny Woodburn
That started a correspondence between the two that Ebert later posted in its entirety. What becomes clear is that the m-word is highly offensive and should never be used, though there are some in the community who are trying to reclaim the word as a means of taking away its power to insult, like parallel attempts with the n-word. But there is no similar consensus on the label ‘dwarf’ and it has had its ups and downs.
Ebert’s post included an informative essay by Leonard Sawisch that traced the various ways that Little People have been described.
In the 1970’s, perhaps as a parallel with the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement, some of the younger members of LPA [Little People of America] began using the term “dwarf” and “dwarf power” as a symbol of self and group pride. At first, the older little people (and their average sized families and friends) were horrified! They felt the midget/dwarf issue had been resolved and that “Little People” had won the day. To them, “dwarf” was as negative as “midget” seems to be today.
However, the intent of the people using the term was empowerment. The message was strength and unity. When the Dwarf Athletic Association of America was formed in the mid 1980’s, there was still quite a stir about the use of “that” word. But again, the intent was empowerment and pride; the opportunity for people like us to excel in athletic competition, to be America’s best at something. It was pretty hard to resist that kind of positive appeal. As a result, I can refer to us as the dwarf community today without raising too many eyebrows. I can also refer to us as the LPA community with a similar reaction.
I went to the website of the Little People of America to see if there had been any change in preferred usage since that 2005 blog post. They explicitly state that the m-word is seen by them as a derogatory slur. They recommend that because of its negative connotations, people avoid using it even in other contexts where it does not refer to people. The site does refer to dwarfism as a condition and promotes the World Dwarf Games, so that word seems to be acceptable.
One thing to note about the Ebert-Woodburn correspondence is how graciously Ebert responded when Woodburn criticized him. When told by Woodburn that the m-word was offensive, Ebert did not get defensive. He said that he had been unaware that it was so when he used it but after looking into the issue, he decided, “Well, I will retire the word “midget” right here and now. … Words that cause pain should be retired, although perhaps during the transitional period they can offer a certain homeopathic relief.”
In saying that “Words that cause pain should be retired”, Ebert expresses a simple truth that those who rail against ‘political correctness’ in speech do not seem to, or want to, understand
I found it hard to explicitly write the m-word in this post because it is derogatory, like the n-word, and people who are not members of the groups that these words are used against should never use it. I had no choice because it was said by others in the quotes and was necessary to make the post intelligible. Without it, many people may have been puzzled by what ‘m-word’ stood for because it is not referred to as commonly as the n-word. I will use the term ‘LPA community’ (or even ‘LP community’ to make it less parochial) in future and hope people will be as familiar with it as we are now with the term LGBT community and will know what I am talking about.