My daughter and I were perusing some beautiful artwork at the art show in the Mt. St. Helen’s science center. The artist had shared his vision of the volcano, and we were taken with his work.
“Do you know Herve Villechaize?” a voice interrupted our conversation. We both turned around, not sure the question was directed at us.
Oh, but it was.
“I’m sorry?” my daughter said, plastering on her friendly-but-guarded face.
“Herve Villechaize. He was a wonderful actor and my good friend. Do you know him? You look just like him!”
I knew *exactly* where this was going, but my daughter didn’t. She is too young to even know the name, but I was once a fan of Fantasy Island, the ultimate 70s objectifier of people with disabilities. Well, just that one person. Mr. Villechaize.
“Oh,” I said, turning on my customer-service-warm-and-engaged voice, “Isn’t he part Asian? My daughter’s half-Asian, that might be why you’re seeing the similarity.”
Our visitor shook her head slowly, “Oh, no, he’s Francais!”, with a flourish, “And he did a film with my father.”
“Your father worked in films! How wonderful!” I was relieved for the chance to turn the conversation away from this woman’s inappropriate invasion into my daughter’s personal space and back where it belonged, on the woman’s belief in her own importance.
“Yes, he was a small-part actor who did several films. His name was Blankety Blank, look him up!” She stood grinning ludicrously for a moment. I smiled back.
“So, Sophia,” I said, handing her the print we considered purchasing, “Do you like this one?”
Our visitor waved her batik-shrouded arm at us, said “Yes, that’s a beautiful piece! Okay, great, have a wonderful day!” and returned to her own artwork-selling station to help a potential customer.
I know nothing about Mr. Villechaize except his role on Fantasy Island and in a James Bond movie as (but of course) a villainous henchman. He was the only Little Person (although he preferred “midget”, apparently) many people in the 70s ever saw, famous for speaking the line “Da plane! Da Plane!”
As it turns out, he was also half-Filipino, just like my daughter. So the woman had a point there, despite her ignorance of her “good friend’s” heritage. After all, you CAN be French AND half Asian.
The resemblance to my daughter ends there, because Mr. Villechaize had a condition known as dwarfism, and my daughter does not. While this interaction was pleasant all around, largely because it was interrupted by someone wanting to buy decidedly unattractive pottery, I felt that same creeping protective sensation that makes me want to stand in front of my daughter and beat back rude people with a spiked stick.
It happens in bathrooms when young girls stand stock-still in front of my daughter, jaws dropped, and glance at me with a weak smile as if to say “I’m smiling so you don’t notice how rude I am” and proceed to ignore my daughter when she asks them to move so she can reach the sink. When I am there, I will follow up her request with “please move, she needs to wash her hands.” They’ll shuffle slightly out of the way and continue staring, amazed at their opportunity to see a real live person with a disability out here in the wild. These encounters invariably end with me saying “Please don’t stare. It’s very rude.” Every single one of these kids responds the same way: another weak smile, a glance at their mothers, and their revolting return to staring at my daughter.
In my daydreams, I imagine putting my hands on the sides of their heads and turning them gently in another direction. The same way I move my dog when I want him to learn a new command, the way I would redirect my own children when they were very young and not complying. I know this is new information for these kids, but they clearly aren’t understanding the words I’m using, and I think this technique would be very useful, if it weren’t a violation of *their* physical space. And, most likely, against the law. As I said, it was my fantasy.
Can we outlaw rudeness borne of entitlement? Can we allow enforcement of manners?
It pisses me off that my daughter has no recourse for this behavior. She has to tolerate these intrusions every time she leaves the house. Wouldn’t a little physical training help the population at large? Or even just a tiny dose of Jedi mind tricks. Or a non-contact Taser! A little jolt that gets them out of their trance.
It’s a good thing I wasn’t around later for the guy who approached my daughter and told her she was so beautiful and he wanted to take her picture. He appeared to my husband to be mentally ill, and I was glad Tim was there to provide protection, if necessary. I have been with my daughter when she’s been approached by people affected by some mental disorder, and her vulnerability in those circumstances terrifies me. She would not be able to fight them off, should they decide to place their hands on her. One guy wanted to pick her up and hold her like a baby, and if I hadn’t been there, he probably would.
Do you see why I would like to Tase people?
The conversation about Herve Villechaize is tolerable, even a tiny bit amusing. Her fragility in public spaces is not.
So I’ll reiterate: respect the right of ALL people to exist in the public sphere, whether you’re curious about them or used to them or not. Every single one of us is JUST A PERSON, not an object for your education or amusement or condescension. Approach her as another human being and not your as stand-in for experiments with the disabled. It’s not her job to educate you on her condition or on life in a wheelchair or to make you feel better about yourself for talking to the cute little girl in the a wheelchair. It’s your job to do those things for yourself.
Leave my daughter out of it.