This past Saturday night, business owners, politicians, and socialites rubbed elbows at the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce's 97th-annual gala. The Dr. Seuss-themed shindig included a handful of performers dressed as iconic characters such as the Grinch and the Cat in the Hat.
Among those hired to entertain partygoers was a pair of dwarf performers portraying Thing 1 and Thing 2. As attendees circulated photos of the event on social media, they sparked an intense debate about whether the chamber's use of the performers was offensive.
"The Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce exploiting dwarfs for amusement at their gala is gross, lowbrow, and offensive," commented one member of a private Miami Beach Facebook group, according to screenshots sent to New Times. Though many people made the point that the entertainers were there of their own volition, others were uncomfortable with having little people there as a spectacle.
In a statement, the chamber said the performers were brought on by an entertainment agency.
"We did hire a management company to create a Dr. Seuss-themed event, and the characters cast to play Thing 1 and Thing 2 were among a host of other professionals hired to play various roles," the organization stated. "The bigger take-away is that the event raised much-needed funds for Miami Beach public education to help hire a mental health counselor in our high school. It was a beautiful evening for the city, and we thank everyone who attended."
People with dwarfism — who generally prefer to be called dwarfs or little people — have historically been marginalized and in many cases forced to resort to work in carnival sideshows. Literature and art have often depicted little people as freaks or deviants. While the public perception of dwarfs has drastically improved in recent years, researchers say many little people still face discrimination.
"Although large traveling companies and midget villages have disappeared, and sideshows are rare, even today dwarfs continue to be sought after for various peripheral entertainment venues, usually more for appearance than talent," says an article in the journal Disability Studies Quarterly. "Dwarfs' appearance and mythological associations continue to arouse fascination and ambivalence, often causing them to be '[reduced] in the minds of strangers from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one.'"
Cultural anthropologist Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, a Miami Beach resident who's writing a book about minstrelsy and blackface, is one critic who believes the chamber's use of the performers was dehumanizing.
"If you want to hire little people, hire them to do any job," she says. "Hire them in normal roles. Don't hire them to play animals with T-shirts that say, 'Thing.' I think it’s appalling."
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Hernandez-Reguant also questions why the event's organizers would choose a Dr. Seuss theme, given the author's racist portrayals of people of color.
"We all love Dr. Seuss, but you have to be critical," she says. "Of all possible children's stories, why would the Chamber of Commerce choose a story like that? All you have to do is Google it."
Then again, Miami Beach has a not-so-great history of discrimination that includes deed restrictions preventing Jewish people from buying property, hotel policies banning black guests, and racist hiring practices in the restaurant industry.
"A part of me thinks this is more of the same of the structural racism we have been suffering," Hernandez-Reguant says. "There’s a lot of bigotry in this city."