It was our second date and we hadn't discussed my dwarfism yet. I'd picked a dark downstairs bar in a cool part of town. A safe place to sink cocktails and build the mood. We were two drinks down and spoke with the warm, energised tones of new attraction. She leant in close, talking softly about her past when suddenly, from across the bar a great cheer went up. I left her gaze to catch a small green figure darting through the moody lighting of this East End bar. It leapt on stage and announced, 'I'm Puff the magic dragon!' to howls of laughter. And there it was; the elephant in the room, in the form of a gruff middle-aged little person in an all-in-one romper suit. And me, an unwitting punter, sweating and squirming, front row - at the sudden mercy of this bizarre act. Briefly his eyes met mine from beneath his costume - a shared condition, worlds apart. Meanwhile, my date monitored my reaction. I'd been knocked off my game and we both knew it. A man on a date in his 20s brought to his knees by a fluorescent green onesie.
While I can laugh now, the portrayal of dwarfism in pop culture and entertainment can be damaging to young people coping with their condition in vulnerable early years. Growing up there were few, if any, positive role models in mainstream culture. Pop culture featured some real offenders that regularly pumped confronting images across global television. World Wrestling Entertainment, for instance, promoted shorter people as a kind of Victorian sideshow. Such was my loyalty to the Ultimate Warrior that I would stoically brave dwarfism clowns and gimmicks to see the action. Other images stemmed from moments of idiocy so baffling it was laughable. Post-MTV music awards I learnt of Blink 182's reasoning for using dozens of little people in their stage show, 'So, the song says, all the small things, so we thought, yeh, why don't we use small people?' Great thinking, boys. To a developing teenage mind coping with dwarfism, such depictions add an element of doubt about your place in the world. I was studying for a GCSE Latin exam at the time and grappling with verb formation, but in a moment of passing doubt I fleetingly contemplated whether working with stoned pseudo-punkers was as high as I could ever go in life. On results day I scored a B, and have barely contemplated the inner workings of Blink 182 since.
The festive period brings out a pretty confronting circuit for young little people to deal with too. Towns across Britain play host to 'Snow White' pantomime, while Christmas 'elves' appear on British high streets. A month ago, a Leicester theatre rightly took a stand against using 'dwarves' in their production, stating that it made people feel uncomfortable. Others need to follow suit and consider the impact such productions have on young people with dwarfism and whether it is still acceptable in a world that strives for modernity and inclusion. It is similar to the questions we ask of the continent with their use of 'festive' blacked up faces. The Leicester announcement signifies a welcome change. I recall the awkward sight of Snow White posters going up in my town as I walked home from school on winter nights, and hope future generations will be spared. It is positive to think of young people with hearts, souls, minds, fears and dreams free to aspire, unburdened by the antiquated stereotypes and misrepresentations of the past.
It is important that people with dwarfism feature in pop culture and entertainment with human roles that reflect the true intricacies of living with the condition. The Station Agent provides a highly emotive, humorous and true to life account of dwarfism. In Peter Dinklage, the world is being exposed to a classically trained, award-winning short actor. Dinklage says he will not accept the backwards roles that have previously defined dwarfism in entertainment. He has instead delivered skilled and thoughtful performance, creating real distance from the standard misrepresentation that is confronting and awkward for those affected. Progress only ever stems from a collective human conscience that tires of old practice and shapes progressive change. Such change has occurred, against all odds, in the way we think of and portray race, gender and sexuality - time for dwarfism to catch up too.
So here's to further progress as we question what we accept as entertainment. And hopefully, to the next generation of shorter people, confidently building the mood in dimly lit bars; free from howling crowds and magic dragons.