How much have we improved?
The Victoria Era of the 1800s was pervaded by a desperate desire for adherence to standards. The importance of standards of dress, social conduct, religion, manners, intelligence, occupation, and knowing one’s “place” was constantly affirmed. Only “gentlemen” were allowed to learn Greek, women had to constantly occupy themselves with things other than learning, such as visiting, sewing, and socializing. Women who performed any kind of labor were automatically demoted to the low recesses of the stone-carved social ladder. Controversial writers like Pater and Wilde were shunned because of their “risqué” perceptions of life, and female authors were forced to write under the guise of names like George Eliot to achieve publication. Fascination with the human form was often covered up or censored, as all matters of “decency” did not allow for such talk. These conditions, among others, fueled an aggressive adherence to “normal” societal behavior, and pushed many people into defined stereotypes that dictated their class position.
Needless to say, those with genetic disorders were not included in the “normal” social order. “Freaks,” as they were called, were used primarily for entertainment. They traveled in circuses, worked as live entertainers in restaurants and pubs, and some served as personal jesters for the aristocracy.
Now, in the twenty-first century, people assume that society is more tolerable that it was two hundred years ago. They pat themselves on the back for accepting women into college, desegregating schools, allowing gay marriage (in some states), and diagnosing mental disorders. However, how can we, as a society, have come so far in social acceptance and overlook the fact that midgets/little people/dwarves still remain employed as social entertainment for anyone curious enough to watch?
The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Little People Big World, Austin Powers, and Elf are only a few that still represent dwarves as entertaining because of their “abnormal” size and looks. Societal standards have changed since the nineteenth century, but the premise of laughing at people who are different has infiltrated modern entertainment. How can we claim to be socially aware, sensitive, and accepting people when we allow for humans to be seen as “freaks”?
As society moves forward, will the principles of genetic engineering one day allow for parents to choose all physical traits of their children? How will that affect the importance of physical normalcy and attractiveness, and will it place more value on physical beauty than intellect? In Mendel’s Dwarf, Benedict’s intelligence is his strongest attribute. He knows that he is smart. However, if he were offered the choice of being “normal” looking and less intelligent, I believe he would take it. The concept that abnormal looks can inhibit a normal lifestyle, regardless of intelligence and personality, is an old-fashioned concept that is still prevalent in society today.