There is a distinction to be made: in daily life, every divergence from “normalcy” is not something that demands justification in most cases. In industrialised countries, social norms, individualization and the respect for privacy will avert someone from asking another person directly why they have a specific characteristic (dwarfism, cleft palate etc.). However, within a narrative, any such divergence begs for contextualisation in order to acquire a “logical” position within the imaginary constructed universe of the characters.
Therefore, the question is how to incorporate in any type of narrative (a movie, a book, a tv series etc.) characters with such differences while avoiding turning them into caricatures. The Disney edition of Snow White (1937) is a striking example of how easy is to dehumanize an individual based on their physical difference. The seven dwarfs are men-children who are distinguished by the different colours of their clothes and an individual characteristic which is reflected in their name (Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Sneezy etc.). They live with a woman, Snow White, however she treats them like children. That allows for their desexualisation and the denial of their manhood altogether.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, stand characters like Tyrion Lannister (from the HBO’s series Game of Thrones, based on the ongoing series of Song of Fire and Ice), who nevertheless appear far more rarely in popular fiction. Tyrion Lannister, born with dwarfism, is a canning man of great complexity. He shows little empathy for his enemies, without of course showing the absurd cruelty of other members of House Lannister. At the same time, he is tremendously charitable to people in weak positions, regardless of their background. He can show compassion both to Brandon of House Stark and to a poor prostitute. He is also the only living character to be depicted as a gentleman. (*spoiler alert*) This is especially prominent in the way he acts towards Sansa of House Stark who is humiliated by her fiancé and uncontrollable teenage king Joffrey. (*end of spoiler*) His understanding of the moral codes embedded to the social status of a nobleman allows Tyrion not only to reclaim his masculine identity, but also present himself as a better man in comparison to his peers.
These characteristics provide him with a certain charm that attracts the viewer/reader. He is a character that doesn’t rely on a disability to become likeable. At the same hand, a lot of his actions and personal traits have been influenced by this medical condition, in the same way that every health issue, life event or characteristic would have influenced the personality of an individual. Tyrion Lannister is a person with dwarfism, but that doesn’t sum up his character or his contribution to the development of the story. The actor depicting him, Peter Dinklage won a well-deserved Emmy Award for his work in the series. However, this is not the first time that Mr Dinklage plays an interesting character: he was also a guest in Nip/Tuck, the provocative drama series on plastic surgery and human vanity. In the series, he had an affair with Joely Richardson’s character and he was shown becoming intimate with her. The show aired in FX in the USA, which, interestingly, just like HBO, is a pay television channel. This could be an indication that the creative staff working in pay television channels experience greater liberty in regards to boundaries that can be crossed and the experimentation with different characters.
Therefore, Tyrion Lannister’s character is a refreshing departure from roles traditionally saved for people with disabilities or other visible differences. Just like in the case of Snow White’s dwarfs, these differences often define the characters’ role within a narrative. When they are playing the bad guys, their deformities are played out for comedy purposes or become the reason behind their grudge against the world (and the noble, handsome and wholesome leading man). When they play the good guys, their physical traits act as a reminder of the misfortune that the main character (thus, the audience that identifies with them) have luckily avoided. Such issues are usually accompanied by sob stories of high school bullying, rejections from gorgeous girls or negligent parents and serve as moral tales. So, characters with disabilities or other visible issues are often presented completely evil or ridiculously good hearted, so nice as if the producers were afraid that any less amount of kindness would prevent the audience from sympathising with them.
However, a well-written character is one of a significant complexity that demonstrates human flaws, thus becoming all too familiar. That is what the example of Tyrion Lannister demonstrates: every character, regardless of their characteristics can be deeply loved by the readers/viewers if it is well-written. It is a matter of effort and desire shown by the writers, producers, directors and actors to dig deeper and find the core that makes a character interesting – its humanity – and rely on that for gags or tears. Then disabilities will become both visible and invisible: visible because they will be presented and invisible because they will not matter anymore.
- Game of Thrones: Season 1 (Review) (them0vieblog.com)
- Tyrion Lannister (thetalkingturtles.wordpress.com)
- The TBTS Movie Character Hall of Fame: Tyrion Lannister (thebrowntweedsociety.com)
- Review: Games of Thrones Second Season Kick-Off (comicbooked.com)
- My other favorite hottie dwarf . . . and GOT. (thearmitageeffect.wordpress.com)
- RECAP & REVIEW: Game of Thrones “Garden of Bones” S2 E3 (fortheloveoftv.wordpress.com)