Roger Ebert Home

Dwarfs, Little People and the M-Word

Daniel Woodburn (right) on an episode of "Seinfeld" with Michael "Kramer" Richards.

The following exchange, reprinted here in its entirety, began with an e-mail to Ebert's Movie Answer Man column.

From Daniel Woodburn to Roger Ebert

April 6, 2005

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


April 12, 2005

Dear Mr. Woodburn,

I had no idea the word "midget" was considered offensive, and you are the only person who has ever written to me about it. In my mind it is a descriptive term, like "dwarf." "Little People" has seemed to me to have a vaguely condescending cuteness to it. If I am now informed that "midget" is offensive, I will no longer use it. What is your feeling about "dwarf?" Is "Little Person" always the preferred term? Our newspaper's style book, based on Associated Press, does not consider "midget" or "dwarf" to be offensive terms, but perhaps we have not caught up.

Sincerely, Roger Ebert

P.S. I am sure you have seen the essay below, which I found online and thought interesting.


Essay by Leonard Sawisch, PHD:

Most of us in the United States have been teased or harassed or otherwise had our personal space invaded "just because" we are members of the dwarf community. Our reactions can range from indifference to humiliation; from announce to outrage and sometimes perhaps even fear for our safety. Because of their connection to us, our average-sized family members, friends, and peers have more than likely felt the same things.

Somewhere around third grade, our average sized son Brandon started getting into schoolyard fights. Lenette (always the more insightful parent) realized what was happening. Kids would come up to Brandon and ask "aren't you the kid whose parents are midgets?" Regardless of the intent of the question, Brandon was raised in the dwarf community where midget was the nigger word. In his young mind he saw no choice but to defend his family's honor!

I was devastated. I had spent over a decade of my life as a disability advocate and spokesperson for the dwarf community promoting "politically correct" use of terminology. I had helped make the word midget such a powerfully negative word that it was endangering my son! And we had never actually talked about the word -- he just picked up the value from growing up with little people. So we sat him right down and began desensitizing the word midget. We also enrolled him in Karate class so he would learn that violence was a last resort.

I had made a classic mistake. I had confused the word midget with the way it was used by people who intended to make me feel bad. Ironically, midget is the newest term for people like us. It was coined by PT Barnum in the mid 1800's to describe members of the dwarf community who were the most socially acceptable, i.e., "well proportioned" little people who could entertain on the front stage for polite society. The rest of the dwarf community, those of us whose bodies are shaped differently enough to look more than just "really short," were relegated to the back stage or freak shows.

In fact, even into the 1950's, it was still considered more socially acceptable to be a midget than to be any other kind of dwarf! I remember hearing parents say "if my child has to be small, then thank god she's a midget, and not a dwarf." And little people themselves would fight over who could call themselves midget and who couldn't. Billy Barty, our organization’s founder, was raised in this era, and grew up claiming to be a midget, even though his "wind swept" legs and "stubby" fingers would not meet the standards of the more conservative midgets.

So what happened? First, LPA happened. Originally to be called "Midgets of America," the folks who could afford to attend the early meetings were as likely to be non-midgets as midgets. So a compromise was made to call the group Midgets and Dwarfs of America (notice who came first). It didn't take long, however, for the fledgling members to notice that the non-midgets (by Barnum's standards) were greatly out-numbering the midgets. So a second compromise was struck to call the group "Little People of America."

Second, PT Barnum was so good at showmanship that the term midget became common vernacular, and used for almost anything smaller than usual. As a result, It became the word that most people learned and used. Which meant that when people wanted to call attention to short stature and body differentness, midget was the first word to come to mind. Those of us raised in this country from the fifties and after came to associate "midget" only as a bad and hurtful word.

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 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.

Why can't I write about us as the midget community? I imagine just about everyone reading this just had a visceral reaction that wasn't positive, even though in much of the rest of the world it is the preferred terminology. But I admit it wasn't all that easy for me to write it!

I have let myself be a victim of my times, and maybe that's why I wrote it. Because it is time to take some of the power away from the word midget. We can't afford to let ourselves and our children be victimized by that word any longer. And the word will not go away. We need to toss the word around more amongst ourselves. We need to de-mystify it and play with it and understand it in new ways. We need to begin to reflect it in our art and our culture in ways that reduce its negative impact. We need to make fun of the way it has been used. Maybe we need to visit a midget petting zoo and find some peace.

Len Sawisch


April 13, 2005

Dear Mr. Ebert,

Thank you for your genuine, honest response and for the article. In answer to your question, personally, I still feel, as many do, that the term midget is akin to "nigger." I am forty and grew up in that Dwarf Power era as Mr. Sawisch discusses. I do believe that it would be great to claim "the word" as our own in much the same way as African Americans and Blacks have claimed "nigger." The truth is, if I say "nigger" I am getting my head cracked open, but not too many LP's or Dwarfs are doing any head-crackin' after being addressed as a "midget," (just out of sheer self-preservation). Nor are they standing up for their right to be addressed as human beings in a verbal way.

I do use the term, "midget" in the satire of my stand-up comedy act, and that is the closest I get to it. So often, the use of the word will eliminate a person's humanity. Next time you hear it used in TV, film, or print see how it makes you feel about "midgets." Notice the imagery, if there is any. It's generally demeaning and dehumanizing. I think to fully claim the word in empowerment, the way black Americans have claimed the word "nigger," entails getting it away from those who abuse it or misuse it.

The truth is Little People or Persons of Short Stature or Dwarfs do not have equal rights under the law. We are forbidden to join the military or police force based purely on size and not ability. Accessibility laws laid down by the ADA are not always accommodating to Little People. The ACLU, has not, in my experience acknowledged such issues as forcible eviction, denial of housing, or employment and education when it comes to people with Dwarfism. The response was "We don't recognize that there is any such race as the Dwarf race." True though it may be, in my opinion there needs to be a precedent set in support of Little People.

With regard to the term Little People, I suppose that until we can get the world at large not to describe someone as black or Jewish or disabled or Asian or Hispanic when we talk of their existence, we must include the term "People" in order to keep them in the one race that we all share -- the human race.

I suppose it is more than you expected after your note to me, but it is something that I have great passion about and have spoken publicly at every opportunity and it is the reason I pursue acting as passionately as I do.

Sincerely, Danny Woodburn


April 16, 2005

Well, I will retire the word "midget" right here and now.

You touch on a strange phenomenon: The way members of various discriminated-against groups use words among themselves that would be fighting words if used about them by others. You doubt that "midget" will ever be domesticated among Little People in the same way "nigger" has been tamed among blacks, but actually I think that is just as well.

Words that cause pain should be retired, although perhaps during the transitional period they can offer a certain homeopathic relief. I have recently been in correspondence with disabled people over the ending of "Million Dollar Baby," and note that they sometimes use terms like "crip" and "gimp."

I am going to share with you an extraordinary Usenet posting about Cockney Rhyming Slang used among disabled Cockneys in East London:

=== Mutton Jeff = Deaf. Canary Wharf = dwarf. Cardinal Wolsey = cerebral palsy. Raspberry Ripple = cripple. Rubber and plastic = spastic. Tulips and roses = multiple sclerosis. Bacon rind = blind. Diet Pepsi = epilepsy. Benny and the Jets = Tourettes. Wasps and bees = amputee. ===

Best, Roger Ebert


April 16, 2005

Dear Mr. Woodburn,

With your permission, I’d like to reprint our correspondence in full on the web site.

Best, RE


April 17, 2005

Dear Mr. Ebert,

The mere fact that you have decided to retire the word midget from your work -- which I have watched on PBS since the 70's indeed has made my week. Every significant move forward is huge. My wife always tells me every step, no matter how big or small, is a step. The idea that you publish this on you site honors me further.

Regarding the use of "nigger" and "gimp" or "crip." When I have felt a particular closeness with someone of color or disability we have often exchanged those derogatory terms for one another. I think that when you do have that bond and have used those terms with someone in an even, equal exchange, it is then that the words are truly owned. It is a recognition of having defeated the hate that comes with the terms.

With regard to Midget I have coined a term on stage that eliminates its impact in much the same way African Americans and Blacks (which traditionally was not capitalized in the same way White was to describe race) have altered the word "nigger" to "Nigga." I have decided that dropping the "t" and changing the "e" to "a" to create Midga deflates the impact. So in closing I would just like to say to you Mr. Ebert -- "You my Midga."

Sincerely, Danny Woodburn

PS. I prefer the Cockney versions of everything.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Janet Planet
Fancy Dance
Copa 71
What Remains


comments powered by Disqus