It was a dull show, though I appreciated Meryl Streep calling out the long list of wonderful roles for women in 2011 (and I bet Pariah, which is on my list to see soon, will get a nice bump from this). But for my money, Peter Dinklage had the most powerful moment of the evening when he suggested people Google the name Martin Henderson. It turns out he meant not the actor, but a British man with dwarfism who may be spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair after he was picked up and tossed. The attack on him came in the wake of a visit by members of England’s Rugby team to a dwarf-tossing competition in New Zealand (in a deeply uncharming proposal, a Florida Republican lawmaker proposed last fall that dwarf-tossing should be legalized as a job creation measure—the practice was banned after someone who was being tossed ended up dead as a result), and Henderson suggests that the team’s visit may have legitimized the practice. I’ve had some folks tell me that dwarf-tossing is an established cultural practice in New Zealand, but there’s no question that it would have been possible to decline without being disrespectful. And given that a lot of people don’t have contact with either people of short stature or people with disabilities in general, I actually think it’s reasonably plausible that if your’e dumb enough, seeing sports heroes be amused by abusing people with dwarfism could legitimate a practice that you could only participate in if you saw the people involved as less than human, an object of your own entertainment.
Dinklage didn’t have to deliver a sermon: he intrigued people into researching a terrible story on their own, one that ought to remind them that while he’s lucky enough to be winning Emmys, aspiring actors like Martin Henderson are at risk of terrible violence and discrimination because of their stature. And that’s a critically important thing to remind the rest of us about. I think people are aware that it’s physically difficult and frustrating to be physically disabled. But I don’t know that most people know the other ways discrimination against disabled people plays out. Just 20.7 percent of people with disabilities participate in the labor force, compared with 69.3 percent of able-bodied people. Disability magnifies the impact and risk of domestic and sexual violence. And students with disabilities drop out of school at twice the rate of their able-bodied peers. These are critically important issues, and ones that I think often go invisible.
For that reason, I’m excited for Sundance Channel’s Push Girls, a reality show about four women in Los Angeles who also happen to be paralyzed. I haven’t seen my screeners for the show yet, but the stars—Angela, Auti, Mia and Tiphany—were the standouts of Saturday’s presentations at the Television Critics Association press tour. In part, it was because they were a striking contrast to the images of disabled people we normally see in popular culture: gorgeous, super-groomed (they all had fantastic shoes), even dancing on stage in their chairs. But the show, in the clips they showed us, also made clear how terrifying it must be to do something you used to love after you lose some of the physical abilities that let you do it. I think seeing Mia get back into the pool and start swimming laps for the first time since she was paralyzed was one of the most emotional moment many of my fellow critics had on tour.
These women, and Peter Dinklage, are important. In their own ways, they’re forcefully asserting that people with dwarfism and with physical disabilities can be competent, can be sexy, can be an awful lot of fun, can be advocates. If moronic behavior in the public eye did, in fact, contribute to the acts that paralyzed Martin Henderson, strong, powerful countervailing images are more necessary than ever.