Why Are There So Many Shows About Little People?

By Cathy Alter
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Today a friend sent me a snippet from a YouTube video in which a dwarf-sized lady answers a room-for-rent ad. The tiny woman shows up to meet her new housemates, and when the two women stand to greet her, they each unfold to reveal near skyscraper measurements.

"Wow," marvels the little lady, speaking directly into their navels. "I am so tiny compared to you two giants."

"Look how short your legs are," notes one of the giants.

"I love these tiny, miniature people," remarks her friend, bending down for a closer look, "They're beautiful!"

I know what she means. I'm not exactly a fellow giantess (although I am almost six feet tall), but I do share in their delight and fascination. And apparently I'm not alone. Thanks to the many shows that chronicle the surprisingly mundane lives of little people (if you count Chelsea Handler's little sidekick, Chuy, and Holt, the little cartoon character on The Cleveland Show, there are seven airing on network cable, with four on TLC alone), I have ample time to ponder the collective little affinity.

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TLC

Tonight, with the premiere of Our Little Life, (about, big surprise, a little couple and their normal-sized baby), TLC adds yet another show to its small roster. A few years ago, shows like this might have been too exploitive, too voyeuristic, to land on a major network. But since the reality television boom, stories about compelling, quirky, and yes, freakish people (have you seen For the Love of Ray J!?) have become television mainstays. Even Anderson Cooper watches The Real Housewives. We are staring because we can. I just like staring at little people more.

For me, it all started with Matt Roloff, the little star and progenitor of four kids (three of whom are "average size") on Little People, Big World. That he navigates through life on downsized crutches hasn't stopped him from commandeering his 34-acre Roloff Farms and building a full-size Western town, a floating pirate ship, a multi-level tree house, and a pumpkin-flinging trebuchet. Let me rephrase. Roloff's condition hasn't stopped him from directing other, taller people into carrying out his bidding, no matter how far fetched or out-sized.

Now entering its sixth season and with companion shows like TLC's The Little Couple and Little Chocolatiers and Animal Planet's Pit Boss (starring Shorty, whose little people talent agency also doubles as a pit bull rescue center), my obsession is pretty much full blown. If the SyFy channel would combine little people with my other fascination, ghosts, I'd never leave the house.

To try to understand what this fixation says about me—and by extension, my fellow peanut gallery—I went to where all budding self-analysts go (Google) and typed, "Big people who love little people" into the search engine. When that only yielded information about the Roloff family (and their Facebook page) and a link to, of all things, a site listing 200 reasons to love a cappella, I tried plunging deeper. Without the aid of a little peepologist, I spent the greater part of my afternoon searching phrases like, "Jung and the tiny mirror" and "Did Freud know General Tom Thumb?" Finally, after coming up short (sorry), I went to Psychology Today's website and tried my luck at "Dwarf fetish." Not a proud moment.

Less proud was the email I sent to my shrink, Dr. Oskar.

"Can you help me understand why I love little people?" I wrote.

"It is sort of weird," he emailed back. "But I think regular size people feel more secure as people when they can observe midgets." (I should add that Dr. Oskar is a Swede and doesn't know preferred terminology.) "I think that contrast is validating because we tell ourselves that at least there are people who have it worse," he continued, "because they are small."

I thought about the anxieties that might be plaguing me. In his email, Dr. Oskar had pondered the larger context for my condition, suggesting that the fragile economy had made me feel insecure about my job and my future.

"We need the midgets to feel normal," he concluded.

Yet, part of the charm of these shows is the complete normalcy of their stars. For example, in 2007, Matt Roloff was charged—and later, after a trial, acquitted—with DUI, when police saw him driving erratically upon leaving a local watering hole. His wife, Amy, is a total slob and, judging from the piles of old newspapers and heaps of outgrown clothing, a bit of a hoarder. The little couple are having trouble conceiving and Shorty is constantly dealing with difficult coworkers.

Maybe it's that shows about little people broaden our definition of what is normal. They also expose what is common. We all have obstacles to overcome. These shows give us permission to stare, if only to reflect. A day on Roloff Farms is real life, our life, in small scale.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/03/why-are-there-so-many-shows-about-little-people/36375/