County Fair Invokes the Freak Show

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The Denver County Fair took place this past weekend, and one of the events has understandably provoked a lot of public outrage: “Midget Wrestling.” As the title suggests, the event featured little people professionally wrestling each other.

For some critics, like local resident and dwarf Katie Haynes, the problem with the fair event is the use of the pejorative term, “midget.” Haynes told a local news outlet, “A lot of people think dwarf is unacceptable, but midget is acceptable, whereas it’s the other way around.” She explains that the “m-word” invokes the freak show tradition, in which persons of short stature were publicly displayed along others perceived to be different, such as “the bearded lady.” Given this history, the term is very hurtful toward those like herself, who live with dwarfism. “We’re not freaks, we’re people,” she says.

Haynes clarified that it wasn’t the event itself that disturbed her. “Honestly, for me, that’s their profession. That’s what they choose to do, which is awesome. . . But it’s just the terminology that’s associated with it. I would be happy with anything else other than the m-word.”

“#Dwarf people were often forced to fight each other or animals in public. In many ways (but not all), dwarf wrestling today is a continuation of that spectacle.”

For others, though, the wrestling event itself is also problematic. Eugene Grant (@MrEugeneGrant), who is also a dwarf, responded on Twitter by noting that the event invokes a legacy of violence against individuals with dwarfism that goes back to Roman Times: “#Dwarf people were often forced to fight each other or animals in public. In many ways (but not all), dwarf wrestling today is a continuation of that spectacle.”

Turning to WWE and other instances of dwarf wrestling, Grant notes that the character names for these professionals are highly problematic, since those names imply moral failing (i.e., “Hornswoggle”) or refer to other characters (i.e., “mini-something”). In other words, these characters are either bad people or not full-fledged people in their own right. Both fuel existing stereotypes of the dwarf community.

Among other criticisms, Grant notes the “horrid” language that is often used to promote these events. This language is very sensational, as suggested by the advertisement for the Denver County Fair event: “Extreme Midget Wrestling will shock and delight you!”

Disability activist Rebecca Cokley (@RebeccaCokley) criticized the Denver County Fair organizers for allowing such a spectacle. Cokley tweeted, “how does THIS fit the definition of a ‘family’ event? What kind of family DO YOU HAVE? Do you do dog fights and cockfighting too or is that too inhumane?”

Representatives of the Denver County Fair told the above-mentioned local news outlet that the event was booked by the professional group, Extreme Midget Wrestling, implying that the fair organizers are not responsible for the offense. The wrestling organization also defended itself to the news outlet, saying that participants are not offended by the term “midget” and do not regard their sport as demeaning. However, neither organization has responded to the many critics on Twitter.

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About Author

Audrey Farley is the Editor in Chief of Pens and Needles. She recently earned a PhD in English from University of Maryland, College Park, where she studied contemporary American fiction, popular culture, and the medical humanities. She has written for various peer-reviewed journals in the literary fields, as well as outlets such as Public Books, ASAP/J, and Insulin Nation. She lives with chronic migraine and is the parent of a child with Type 1 diabetes. Follow her on Twitter @AudreyCFarley.

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