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Peter Dinklage's miff with Snow White

January 29, 2022

The "Game of Thrones" star has said "Snow White" depicts dwarfs in a "backward" way. But the question really is, should looks determine what role actors play?

 Peter Dinklage
Peter Dinklage, best known for his role of Tyrion Lannister Image: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Recently in Marc Maron's WTF podcast, "Game of Thrones" star Peter Dinklage criticized Disney for a planned Snow White remake. Disney had proudly announced it had cast a Latina actress to play Snow White.

Dinklage commented he was taken aback by the fact they are "still telling the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . Take a step back and look at what you're doing there. It makes no sense to me. You're progressive in one way, but then you're still making that fucking backward story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together?"

Film still, animated movie Snow White, prine and dwarves surround Snow White's coffin
The 1937 movie is a cult classicImage: Disney/dpa/picture alliance

Disney reacted promptly, saying it wanted to avoid reinforcing stereotypes from the original 1937 animated film. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was Disney's first feature-length animated film and is considered one of the studio's classics.

Dinklage's criticism raises the question of what diversity in the casting of dwarfs means for film and television today.

Dinklage adressed a sore spot

The debate Dinklage triggered actually comes up again and again, says Michel Arriens of the German Federal Association of People of Short Stature (BKMF). "Should people of short stature play dwarfs? Yes, No. Should people of small stature be allowed to say 'midget'?" The debate also points out the lack of topics concerning their very complex lifestyles, Arriens says, adding that is an issue for lively discussion even within the association.

 Peter Brownbill
Peter Brownbill runs an agency for actors of short statureImage: Robert Eikelpoth

Peter Brownbill, Germany's most-booked dwarf actor, says Dinklage is right, but that he is privileged. "Once he played a dwarf in Narnia, but other than that, he was able to choose," the actor told DW, adding Dinklage would hardly have the clout he has if he hadn't had such huge success with "Game of Thrones." Dinklage champions against stereotypical portrayals, Brownbill says, but he's not taken much of a stand for people of short stature."

'Dwarfs are mythical beings'

Brownbill basically agrees that the issue needs to be more diverse, but isn't sure whether Snow White needs to be made an example of, arguing he lacks the imagination of "how to do it in a way that doesn't mutilate the fairy tale, while preserving the author's story."

Film still Snow White 2019, a woman surrounded by smaller men
A German Snow White television remake in 2019 cast people of short stature as dwarfsImage: ZDF/dpa/picture alliance

Brownbill played Doc, leader of the dwarfs, in the 2019 German Snow White adaptation, "Snow White and the Magic of the Dwarfs." "At the end of the day, we're still talking about mythical creatures and not little people out and about with Snow White. That's why I personally think it's friendlier to have dwarfs play the roles."

Rethinking has begun

"Cyrano," the latest film starring Dinklage, however, shows a process of rethinking in the industry. "The main character in films no longer has to look like a Romeo. It can be a short guy, it can be a fat guy, it can be someone from Asia. Looks don't matter at all," says Brownbill.

Peter Brownbill was asked to play the role of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony in the late 15th and early 16th century, at the 2021 Nibelungen Festival in Worms. We don't know that he was short, paintings show him as chubby, says Brownbill, adding he was pleased about the offer because "the issue should simply be solved in a diverse way."

'Other roles will be possible'

Brownbill welcomes the fact that short people are no longer cast only as dwarfs in fairy tales, but that "other roles will also be possible in the future." In fact, Brownbill says he has noted rethinking going on in Germany these past two years.

Peter Dinklage  on stage holding a trophy
Peter Dinklage has won four Emmy Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama SeriesImage: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Society is still a far cry, however, from casting people of short stature in roles that weren't expressly meant for them, Brownbill adds. "Ultimately, that's how books and movies work — if they portray a femme fatale in a detective novel, the reader has a certain idea that has to be catered to."

Many actors of short stature decide to be more active in public to lessen stigmatization. Brownbill addresses height in his comedy program, for instance. "I think it's good to try to make things happen, but without being patronizing," he says. Using satire, provocation or a comedy program to grab people's attention is a chance, he says, adding that it takes a certain amount of self-confidence.

Role model function

Like it or not, actors who are in the public eye have a role model function, says Michel Arriens.

Peter Dinklage is a very good example, he adds. "For him, short stature comes second. First and foremost, he is Peter Dinklage, next he is an actor, and then a dwarf. He makes that clear all the time — it's pretty clear in his choice of roles." Acting is what comes first, not his stature.

 Christine Urspruch with two men in a morgue
Christine Urspruch is a well-known German actor Image: Henning Kaiser/dpa/picture alliance

In Germany, actor Christine Urspruch has also managed to create a very good representation for the dwarf community. "She plays roles that are multi-layered," Arriens says. All the same, Germany lags behind. Actors of short stature may be in a position to do a lot for the community and help reduce stigmatization, says Arriens, "but where are the news anchor and reporters of short stature?"

The association would like to see filmmakers show more courage and creativity. The diversity propagated by Disney and other streaming services should take it a step further, he says, adding perhaps short stature should no longer play a role in a fairy tale that includes a father of short stature. That would please Peter Dinklage and Peter Brownbill. People of short stature would no longer be told, "there are no roles for you anyway, except that of the Dwarf Nose."

This article was originally written in German.