Representation in Hollywood: Tyrion Lannister vs. The Seven Dwarfs

In the mid-90s, a friend who knew I liked to read fantasy novels lent me a book that was quite unlike most others. It was gritty and didn’t pull any punches. The characters were flawed human beings and not just stereotypical heroes and villains. What’s more, the author didn’t have any issues with killing off even the main characters in the story. These were characters that the reader assumed would save the day. This willingness to color outside the lines of the genre created a buzz that eventually turned into a roar. For me, though, as a 15-year-old adolescent with dwarfism trying to make sense of the world, the reason the book,  “A Game of Thrones” was different from other fantasy novels could be summed up in two words: Tyrion Lannister.

Little People of various kinds are common in fantasy lit. There were dwarves, elves, halflings, gnomes, fairies, and all sorts of other creatures that lived in the pages on my bookshelf.  Tyrion was not like any of them. Tyrion was real. Tyrion, like the other characters in the series of books that would later become an HBO smash hit TV show, was a fully developed character with depth that a reader could relate to.

What I realize now, however, is that Tyrion Lannister being interesting and relatable to me had very little to do with the fact that he was biological human with achondroplasia dwarfism. It had nothing to do with the fact that he was not part of a mythical race of smaller humanoids. Rather, he was interesting not because he had a body like mine, but because he had a mind like mine.  This was a character that had human motivations, desires, fears, ambitions, weaknesses and courage. 

It is a total lack of this kind of depth that makes most media representations of Little People unrelatable.We are typically the comic relief or spiteful villain, but we are almost never fully developed characters with complicated emotions and interesting relationships with others. 

When the actor who played Tyrion on HBO, Peter Dinklage, recently commented about the live action reboot of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” it hit home for me. Dinklage went on a bit of a rant about the remake during a podcast interview. He said:

“I was a little taken aback by [the fact] they were very proud to cast a Latina actress as Snow White, but you’re still telling the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You’re progressive in one way but you’re still making that f–ing backward story of seven dwarves living in the cave. What the f–k are you doing, man? Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soapbox? I guess I’m not loud enough. They were so proud of that, and all love and respect to the actress and the people who thought they were doing the right thing but I’m just like, ‘What are you doing?”

If we unpack why Dinklage thinks this is a “backwards story,” it almost certainly must have to do with how flat these characters are. The Seven Dwarfs of the Disney fairytale are so one dimensional that their entire personality can be summed up by the single character trait they are named for: Grumpy, Sleepy, Dopey and so on. These dwarfs are a far cry from Tyrion Lannister, or almost any of the characters Dinklage has built his career on. So, I can see his frustration.  Little People in this case, but disabled people more broadly, are often portrayed in ways that are one dimensional. This makes it impossible for an audience to relate to the character and in some sense, makes us actual dwarfs alien to them. Ultimately, it’s no wonder stigma around dwarfism exists if Sneezy is most people’s point of reference.

About Joe Stramondo: Joe is an assistant professor at San Diego University and is extremely active in the disability community. Joe uses an Edge 3 Power Wheelchair to maintain his mobility and independence. In his spare time, Joe strives to be the best father he can to his children. Click here to learn more about Joe.