- Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies by Lynne Vallone
Lynne Vallone, Tim Grieve-Carlson, cultural history, embodiment, little people, giantism, gigantism, bio-politics, dwarfism, fairies, elves, dwarves
In Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies, Lynne Vallone makes a convincing case for size as an important and relatively unexamined marker of human difference. By defying cultural expectations of the ordinary body, Vallone argues, the bodies of "out-of-scale persons throughout modern history" have been the site of cultural expressions of both anxiety and aspiration, revulsion and beauty (3).
In summarizing the thesis of the book, Vallone writes that size "informs human identity and culture–as do race, gender, and class" (1). Size does not always operate as an independent signal of difference and meaning in Vallone's analysis—rather, it interacts with these other categories in complex ways. Throughout the book, Vallone demonstrates how extraordinarily big and small human bodies are often portrayed and understood in racialized, gendered, and/ or classist terms. Vallone points to particular cultural associations between gigantism and masculinity, blackness and short stature, and poverty and obesity, among others. These interactions vary considerably across cultures and throughout history, and Vallone is able to demonstrate the shifting and unstable meanings of anomalous embodiment throughout the text.
Big and Small is arranged into two sections. The first and much larger section concerns "Small Bodies," referred to as "dwarves" in the text. Scholars of European magic and folklore might find this section useful for its illustration of early modern to contemporary cultural understandings of small bodies, which, Vallone notes (citing Andrew Solomon), are somewhat unique in the spectrum of human difference for their important role as supernatural beings in folklore, fairy tales, and fantasy literature. Unfortunately, Vallone does not delve too deeply into the role of little people in folklore and fantasy, and her discussion of folkloric or magical ideas surrounding small bodies is limited to a section on medieval and early modern alchemy and Paracelsus's recipe for creating a homunculus (39). Readers of this publication will probably acutely notice the relative absence of this highly relevant material. The second section, "Big Bodies," is comparatively much shorter, has very little biographical material, and is focused on cultural understandings of [End Page 286] giant robots and obese women as two examples of gigantism at work in culture. While still offering a useful analysis of gigantism in general, this second section is somewhat less complete and more idiosyncratic than the first.
While Vallone refers to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's Monster Theory: Reading Culture in several sections of the text, Big and Small does not advance or follow a particular theoretical or critical framework. Vallone employs a variety of methods to read a variety of sources, and the result is a wide-ranging but occasionally unfocused cultural history of extraordinary embodiment. With sources from the late medieval period up to the present, Big and Small does not always provide precise, exacting analyses of each of its subjects or sources. Rather, Vallone paints with broad strokes and makes frequent comparisons between her sources and contemporary cultural phenomena. In one instance, Vallone connects the character Tom Thumb and early modern scientific discourse on conception with the contemporary political controversy surrounding abortion and fetal personhood in the United States. This approach allows for a wide range of topics and frequent comparisons with contemporary culture, but it prohibits deep dives into cultural understandings of extraordinary bodies within a particular time or place.
Vallone is a scholar of childhood studies, and Big and Small draws heavily on children's literature as source material. Her study of giants begins with an analysis of the trope of the gigantic robot in children's literature (especially that which is directed at boys), which, she argues, represents a combination of idealized masculinity and utopian aspirations for the future. Her chapter on "Dwarves in High and Popular Culture" contains an extensive analysis of the appearance of little people as accessories in royal portraiture. While Big and Small is mostly...