To those of us who fight ableism, it is no surprise that dominant culture renders differently shaped bodies, bodies out of bounds, or what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “extraordinary bodies,” as childlike, asexual, and dependent.
Rosie O’Donnell and Chelsea Handler’s recent offensive comments on little people remind us, yet again, of this all too familiar trope. In their discussion on the Oprah Winfrey Network talk show, O’Donnell admits that she has “anxiety around little people.” She then asks Handler, “Would you ever do a little person?” to which Handler says, “No, that would be like child abuse. I’d never do that.” O’Donnell agrees returning, “That’s half my issue. The problem with me is I can’t put the two things together. This is an adult person, a little person … it’s so hard for me.”
In a conversation clearly marked by privilege and prejudice, Handler’s overtly offensive comments equate bodily size with being a helpless, asexual child. In talking about Chuy Bravo, Handler states that she sometimes wants to “tackle [Chuy] … I bite Chuy sometimes,” she says. “He comes in my office and he’s so cute. … It’s like having a kid.” The ableist assumption that stature and physical difference is associated with dependence, child-like behavior, and immaturity are uncanny here.
I cannot help but make a disturbing connection between these verbal attacks and the physical assault Martin Henderson faced in the U.K. Henderson was picked up and thrown by members of an English rugby team in October 7th, 2011. Perversely and disturbingly known as “dwarf-tossing,” when one reflects on Henderson’s assault, it is not difficult to evoke the rhetoric used by Handler and O’Donnell that size is synonymous with being helpless, small, or less than.
When referencing Chuy and his current job, Handler adds insult to injury stating “Who else was going to give that guy a job though? … Someone has to rescue him. … There’s not a lot of job oppertunities for those kinds of people. They need help.” Seriously? The stripping of agency and independence here is astonishing. To refer to an entire, diversified group of people by “those kind of people” is not only reductive but is also discriminatory. To suggest that Handler herself “rescued” anyone speaks to her self-proclaimed position of privilege and power.
Particularly disrespectful are the assumptions that are made during O’Donnell and Handler’s back-and-forth: that they are in a hierarchically superior position when compared to little people. They are in the position to “save” the Other. Pity, an often repeated effect of ableism, is certainly at play here. The comment “someone had to rescue him” at once removes agency from Chuy while at the same time clearly depicting the rhetoric of pity.
Although we may be aware of sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism in our society, this conversation makes clear that just because we learn about one type of oppression does not mean that we are aware of other forms. We must continue in our vigilance to call attention to and confront oppression, particularly ableism.
The solution to expanding work opportunities for little people will not be solved with patronizing and self-congratulatory remarks. Viewing little people as complex human beings, without prejudice, is needed.
James Brown said it best: “I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Open up the door, I’ll get it myself.”