by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 23, 2002
LIGHTEN UP, AMERICA!
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Americans these days are humor-impaired. Although few of us make cruel jokes intended to hurt people, the daily give-and-take of American life provides rich material for humor that we're suddenly afraid to touch.
There's a sign on the wall at Reagan National Airport, for example, that says, "No jokes." At Bradley International Airport, a voice-over message says: "It is a federal crime to joke about bombs and hijacking as you board the aircraft."
Humor is one of our main weapons against fear, and I can't think of a better place than an airport for making bomb and hijacking jokes. In fact, it's the only place I ever think of making bomb and hijacking jokes.
But the United States is no longer safe for comedy. Ask Robert Reich. The former Clinton labor secretary is now running for governor of Massachusetts, and because he is 4-foot-10 inches (half an inch over dwarf status), he knows that the first thing people notice is his height. To put them at ease, he makes self-depreciating jokes. He starts his speeches, for example, with "They told me to be short." He uses a step stool and declares, "I am the only candidate for governor with a real platform."
For having a sense of humor, Reich is currently under an organized, nation-wide attack by short people. I find his experience interesting because something similar is happening to me.
Some people are naturally funny; I'm not one of them. But every now and then I write a column that I hope will entertain or make people laugh.
One of those, a few months ago, was called "The Incredible Shrinking Movie Stars." My thesis, lame as it was, was that if Hollywood is going to pay $20 million to a movie star for six months of his time, shouldn't they get as much - dare I say bang? - for the buck as they can? So, I was wondering, why are so many male movie stars short?
Notice that I wasn't taking pot shots at regular people, but at movie stars. It's their job to entertain us by living their lives in public - they claw their way to the top for that privilege - and that makes them, in my opinion, fair game.
Suddenly, on the Internet, I was fair game.
"I was left feel at bit amazed at just how openly and brazenly Ms. Marcel takes to bashing short men," said one email. "Short men in particular make easy targets for piggy people like Ms. Marcel... Wake up and stop giving piggies like Ms. Marcel a bully pulpit for such nasty attitudes."
Ouch! Oink! I was accused of believing that, "Short men are inferior to taller men." For the record, I don't think that. I think, "Who cares?"
All the nasty emails were from men, and none of them were concerned about short people ("people" includes women). They were concerned about themselves.
"What she's really saying is that she does not like short male actors playing the role of a 'real man,'" said another. "She can tolerate them only as light-hearted little playthings and nothing more... I wonder what would happen if she compared black people to monkeys the way she freely compares short men to 'shrimps.'"
I got two copies of this letter, by the way, each with a different signature.
Another man said, "It just sickens me that I seemed tall enough to serve four years in the Navy, to protect the freedoms of this country, but because of my lack of height, I should be restricted from partaking of those freedoms. Does that seem fair, Joyce?"
The letters reminded me of Randy Newman's experience after he wrote "Short People." Remember? "They got little baby legs/ That stand so low/ You got to pick 'em up/Just to say hello." He never dreamed that anyone would take his lyrics personally. That's the way I felt about my column.
Short people have some real gripes. Studies show that more than half of the top 500 CEOs in the nation are over 6 feet tall, and only 3 percent are under 5-foot-7. On the average, short people tend to make less money in their jobs.
On the other hand, there are also statistics showing that thin, attractive women make more money and have more success than larger, less attractive ones. This is about body image, and Americans won't have healthy attitudes about their bodies until we dismantle the advertising industry.
These days, a columnist who hasn't had to retract a column or apologize for something she says is rare. But I believe that even if a joke is weak, I have a right to tell it.
"The right to tell a joke that may offend others is as critical to our way of life as it is to stand on the proverbial soapbox and raise one's voice in protest," said Kenneth A. Paulson, the senior vice president of The Freedom Forum and executive director of the First Amendment Center.
Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Denzel Washington may have charm, acting talent, looks and money. They're also short. I was wondering why; it might make a good article for Psychology Today.
In any case, the salaries of these short movie stars probably shoot the short-men's-average-salary statistics through the roof. At least, that's what my height-impaired, Navy-serving correspondent implied in the last line of his email:
"I guess we are just going to have to be on your local movie screen, making the money we can't make in the business world and laughing our little elf selves down the yellow brick road to the bank," he wrote.
I couldn't have said it better. But if I did say it, they'd come after me with pitchforks.
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist who lives in Dummerston and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.