Jamie Walden asks if there’s any need to get worked up about the new BBC sitcom Life’s Too Short.
A coalition of problems has been raised regarding the series which conclude that Life’s Too Short is offensive, on the grounds that a dwarf (Warwick Davis) or dwarfs in general are being mocked.
I must confess I have no idea what the experience of being offended is like. This may be a failing on my part but I do suspect there may not actually be such a sensation at all. When one whines that something you have done or said has offended them, they tend to mean that you have disagreed with them. However telling somebody that you disagree with them is unlikely to draw any concessions. So the language is lifted to a more sensitive altitude where “you disagreed with me and I don’t like it when that happens” becomes “you have offended me”, as if the word offence has a magic power which makes the alleged giver of offence feel guilty. The one who is offended pity’s him or herself and wants to make the offender pity them as well.
Occasionally remarking that somebody should not have done or said something is accurate. But the accuracy of your criticism is not given added force because you claim to have experienced the sensation of being offended. You have to express coherently and logically why the thing which caused offense should not have been done or said. Relying on being offended alone rightfully should get you nowhere.
After (and before) Life’s Too Short was broadcast many popped into their munitions warehouses to draw this linguistic weapon out for use. The weapon of pretending one is offended and thinking that alone proves something.
Warwick Davis is an adult male dwarf. Unsurprisingly then he plays ‘Warwick Davis’ an adult male dwarf. The show absolutely has to make references to the fact that Warwick is noticeably short. It would be an incredibly unrealistic programme if the issue was never raised.
The character, like most of the significant sitcom characters in comedy, is incredibly flawed. ‘Warwick’ is therefore constantly embarrassed and humiliated because his pretentious view of himself as a top Hollywood star and thus inherently impressive is publicly contradicted. He ends up, often through no fault of his own, but through the fault of less intelligent characters, in ridiculous slapstick scenarios which reveal to people that ‘Warwick’ is a bit of a twit, despite his attempts to conceal this. This is where it is claimed that offence is caused. A fictional dwarf, played expertly by a real dwarf, is being made to look a bit of a twit.
Is it in some way offensive that Warwick’s character has been given flaws? If you are going to fictionalise a disabled person do they have to be perfect in every way, or else you are guilty of mocking a disabled person?
No it isn’t and no they don’t. In fact, far from being offensive, the show raises a multitude of urgent disability issues.
Disabilities are socially constructed. Inabilities, of course, are not. If you are blind you are unable to see however the social world is constructed. But the disability, as opposed to the inability, of blindness (or of being small) does depend on the construction of the social world around you.
I do not have any disabilities (at the time of writing at least). However, I have an endless list of inabilities. For example, I cannot fly unaided. This is not a disability because the social world of which I am immersed in is arranged for people who also cannot fly unaided and so it rarely hinders me. One might say “well, nobody can fly unaided”. My reply is, “so what?” It is still an inability. Inabilities are inabilities no matter what proportion of people have them.
The social world in which we live in is arranged for people with common inabilities. It is to a far lesser extent arranged for those with rare inabilities. Staircases, elevators and lifts conveniently aid our transportation from floor to floor in buildings. Yet imagine the majority could fly unaided. Unfortunately for you, you are one of a flightless minority. Others simply levitate from floor to floor, whilst you, the flightless minority, have to seek the rare buildings which have adaptions in place for the disabled non-flyers. The inability, which in reality we all have, has become a disability in this hypothetical scenario, because the social world is arranged for those who can fly.
Thus, when ‘Warwick’ is unable to reach the buzzer to the Gervais/Merchant office in episode one or the door handle of the flat he is being shown around in episode four, a very interesting point is being raised. It is not mocking him for being short. Dwarfs must constantly be stalled in their day to day lives by the positioning of door handles and other problems a regular sized person would never have had drawn to their attention.
The comedy ensues in the office buzzer scene when the passer-by who buzzes on ‘Warwick’s’ behalf does not recognise him. ‘Warwick’s’ bubble of pomposity is then pricked as, being obsessed with his own fame and having convinced himself that he is widely known and admired, he is embarrassed by the member of the public who does not know or care who ‘Warwick’ is. The fact ‘Warwick’ cannot reach the buzzer is not funny in itself, it is simply an observation on the obstacles little people face. The observation then leads to the encounter with the passer by, which is where the comedy is situated.
Similarly the lavatory door handle scene in episode four is funny because ‘Warwick’s’ nice but dim assistant leaves the flat and ‘Warwick’ remains locked in the bathroom, desperately trying to grab her attention outside. The humour was not intended to be derived from the fact ‘Warwick’ could not reach the door handle. It was derived from the Basil Fawlty like ranting of ‘Warwick’ who had been made to look a fool through no fault of his own, but instead through the fault of a much less intelligent character, whose mistakes nevertheless always make ‘Warwick’ look foolish, rather than her. It is the same classic comedy structure as the Andy Millman and Maggie Jacobs relationship in Extras, the Del Boy and Rodney relationship, the Blackadder and Baldrick relationship and the relationship between Laurel and Hardy.
Whilst being a sitcom about a little person, and a sitcom in which we are encouraged to laugh at a little person, the fact that he is little is not the characteristic that we are encouraged to laugh at in Life’s Too Short. Perhaps it is those who feign offence who find watching a little person playing a properly three dimensional character with flaws in his personality, like a regular sized character would have, to be an uncomfortable experience. That would be their problem though, not the show’s.