A beautiful and vibrant still from The Secret World of Arrietty featuring a boy looking at a very small girl standing on a rock obscured by yellow and pink flowers.
From The Secret World of Arrietty, courtesy of GKIDS.

The Imagination of the Tiny

The tiny archetypes in film and how they connect us to something bigger

THE FIRST RULE OF BORROWING, a father tells his daughter in Mary Norton’s Borrowers, is that “a Borrower must never be seen.” But like in Fight Club, the story is dependent on this rule being broken. And so Arrietty, a girl two and a half inches tall, steps forth onto a boy’s palm and looks at his skin: a landscape, a touch, a stage. This is the most intimate it gets, for two beings who are too far apart in scale to hold a handshake or a kiss. If our imagination of the gigantic is of calamity, of sudden, unexpected disaster—Godzilla emerging from Tokyo Bay, tsunami and nuclear devastation embodied in one lurching beam—then the world of the tiny is about the everydayness of extinction. Perched on a giant hand, Arrietty’s mind works through her creaturely instinct for survival and her human want to see and be seen. To be noticed by humans means entrapment, a speedy death. But who cares about that if the alternative is to remain undetected, unremembered?

The triumph of the little over the large is a story so familiar to us, almost condescending in its simple lesson: that a person is not necessarily limited to their size. But the tiniest person, with the ability to disappear, hints at something more complex: the possibility that size can want, but refuse, to speak.


THERE ARE TWO TYPES OF TINY-PERSON STORIES, that of the always tiny and that of the shrunken person. The former is the territory of magic and folktales, of  industrious elves living in shoes, Lilliputians dancing on Gulliver’s palms, Thumbelina and Tinkerbell. These tales teem with uncaught activity, signs that bother the corner of the eye. Tiny people are always busy, flitting, ever industrious. A giant’s activity is unmissable— Odysseus must blind the Cyclops when he is asleep. But the Lilliputians are never caught sleeping; they nudge Gulliver awake with dozens of arrows, working to feed and clothe him. They are, as Gulliver notes with annoyance, constantly leaping and creeping; they are invisible labor, registering the irritation and fear that greet those whose work cannot be untangled from the idea of insignificance.

The story of the shrunken person is concerned with reverting to the norm, how to de-shrink and resume the everyday. It often revolves around machines—not just the hypothetical shrinking ray, but also modern instruments that make people appear tiny, like a television or a satellite telescope. Sometimes the shrinking is an accident. For these protagonists, the normal becomes dear; their enemies are spiders, house pets, and humans who may forget them. Other times, the shrinking is a technology, and the question is one of resources: who gets to use it, as a superpower or a weapon of warfare. The scope becomes multinational, the language corporate; the tiny are visualized as the militarized horde, or the miniaturized masses.


THE FIRST FILM TO FEATURE A SHRINKING PERSON was Georges Méliès’s 1901 The Dwarf and the Giant. It is one of my favorite shorts of his, perhaps because the main character simply doesn’t stop laughing—as he throws off his toga, as he becomes two via split screen, as he yanks on his head to grow a little bigger, as he shakes confetti on his tinier self, as he sidesteps into one person, as he splits into two again and walks, separated and together, off the frame. In sixty seconds Méliès shows us the foundations for many of the shrinking-person films that followed it: the immediate, arbitrary dominance that the big exerts over the tiny, the tiny framed alongside other tiny things, and the idea that the dwarf and the giant start and end as the same person. The film asks: What does size have to do with the individual? What remains the same between the tiny and the giant?

A small man stands next to a very tall man in a darkened doorway in this black and white image from The Dwarf and the Giant

From The Dwarf and the Giant

MOST SHRINKING-PERSON FILMS ARE about masculinity in crisis. In Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, this takes place in the average American home: the small scientist-inventor never leaves the attic, while his all-American neighbor (a former athlete obsessed with telling his two sons “The bigger man, the better”) is continually packing for his next fishing trip. Both are absent fathers, and when their children shrink, they must find a way to work together and get them back. The two men’s particular obsessions with bigness—“big” brain, “big” brawn—are made fun of, but only to argue that one has something to learn from the other. In an act of macho self-sacrifice, for instance, the athlete father volunteers as a test subject to be shrunk and enlarged again, and the scientist father puts aside his work to “get out of his head” and figure out what happened to his children. Becoming tiny is simply an interlude for mind and body to work as one. The last scene of the film has both blond families rowdily sitting around a table, eating an absurdly over-size turkey. For the scientist and the athlete, bigger is, ultimately, better.

In contrast, Innerspace, a story about a man who is miniaturized to enter another man’s body, presents us with two models of useless masculinity: alcoholic Tuck, slurring at a party, mid-brawl; and hypochondriac Jack, mid-chatter in his doctor’s office. One man looking inward and finding nothing, one man swinging outward and finding nothing. Both are stuck: Jack in his job as a grocery store clerk, Tuck in an on-again, off-again relationship with a journalist named Lydia. Tuck accepts a job to become the first man miniaturized to fly a pod into the body of a rabbit, but on the day of the procedure, a rival team of hired guns breaks into the lab to steal the technology. Tuck, now shrunken and floating in a syringe, is confiscated and brought to a mall, where in a desperate attempt to keep him from falling into the wrong hands, he’s injected into the first passing safe haven: Jack’s butt.

For the first half of the film, the film insists that the relationship between these two men is brotherly. There’s Tuck, perched on Jack’s cornea, coaching Jack to “be a new man.” Tuck massaging Jack’s adrenal glands to make him swing his fists and act bigger, more masculine. When Jack falls for Lydia, he puts on Tuck’s clothes and sees himself in the mirror no longer as Jack, but now as two men, one over another like a Russian doll. For a split second, the transformation of hypochondriac Jack to “big Jack” (that is, Tuck) seems possible.

A tiny man and tiny vehicle are held between a much larger persons thumb and forefinger.

From Innerspace, courtesy of Warner Bros.

Enter the Cowboy. He’s introduced to us by Lydia as a mediator who will sell the chip that will revert Tuck to normal size. Our first impression of him is a beautiful one, an image of him alone in his room, dressed only in his underwear, ruminating over which shiny pair of cowboy boots to wear. He sings to himself: “I’m a cowboy who’s never seen a cow / Never roped a steer ’cause I don’t know how / Sure ain’t a fixin to start in now.” Midway through the film, in a gambit to snatch the chip from the villains, Jack has his face technologically transformed into the Cowboy’s, a thousand faces spinning to convert Jack’s face into another’s. Suddenly the Russian doll situation gets more complicated: Tuck is in Jack, who is “in” the Cowboy.

What the Cowboy does—with his queer nonchalance and whirling contortion of masks—is make overt what isn’t otherwise expressed in this film about two straight men teaching each other how to become “bigger.” Innerspace points at the latent (or not so latent) homoeroticism of the shrinking-person story. These two men, by using bigness and expansion as a badge of their heteronormativity, are simply spinning in place, terribly and joylessly. This is why Jack as Cowboy can only look at himself in the mirror with confusion and terror, while he was all dreamy when he saw himself as Tuck. It is far more difficult to look the truth straight in the face.

The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle.

IT TOOK A WHILE TO FIND A FILM about a shrinking woman. Perhaps it’s because, for women, going down in size is seen as something to be desired, not feared. To be tiny is to wield social and economic capital; to be bigger is to be excluded from this display. As a salesperson in a couture shop says to a customer in Mean Girls, “We only carry sizes one, three, and five. You could try Sears.”

The Incredible Shrinking Woman, a 1981 remake and parody of The Incredible Shrinking Man, makes fun of how much the shrinking film genre focuses on men and their insecurity about size. To become a tiny person as a woman is not a romp in which you reorient yourself in place and learn to become a bigger person. Instead, the story of Pat Kramer, played by Lily Tomlin, is basically one of unrecognized labor. A Californian housewife, Pat cheerfully generates ideas for her husband’s ad campaigns and runs around shopping, shelving, and tidying after her children. As she shrinks, the work she does gets harder and harder to do, though it cannot be abandoned simply because she is going through an odyssey in size and perspective.

But before we get there: I keep returning to a scene in The Incredible Shrinking Man, when the protagonist’s wife and friends believe that he’s met his demise as an afternoon snack for the cat. Stuck in the basement, shrunk to the size of an apple, he peers through a grate at the backyard. Outside, a bird pecks at some grass. The man wraps his fingers around the wires, watching the bird flutter around the weedy slopes. It is as though the bird is carrying an aerial banner: FREEDOM. But freedom from what? Would reverting back to his normal height—ostensibly what all shrinking men desire—give him this freedom? What would he find in the world beyond the grate?

A man wearing tattered burlap and rope leans again a fence. He is looking towards the distance

From The Incredible Shrinking Man, courtesy of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

This is answered when, in the final scene of the film, he shrinks enough to walk through the holes in the wire. He steps forward into the backyard and announces that he feels the connection between the infinitesimal and the infinite. The grandiose tone is quite a shift from the preceding ninety minutes of the film, which closely follow his perspective as he gradually shrinks. First his clothes don’t fit. In a few weeks, he is the size of a child, then a lapdog. A doll, a pea. With each downgrade, his petulance is sharpened into a finer and finer blade, and he wields it against anyone who tries to give him what he needs: companionship and creaturely comforts. What is the point of maintaining family, lovers, or friends, his reasoning goes, if he’s just going to continue shrinking?

But with a step forward from the empty basement into the green backyard, he embraces his reduction in possessions and size; for the first time, he stops pitying himself and instead sees himself as part of everything. “The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet, like the closing of a gigantic circle,” he says. “I had thought in terms of Man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon Nature. That existence begins and ends is Man’s conception, not Nature’s.” Nature, in its “vast majesty of creation,” meant everything. But “smaller than the smallest,” he says, “I meant something too.”

The Incredible Shrinking Woman never experiences this sublime joining of nature and man, this reaffirmation of size to meaning. In The Incredible Shrinking Man, we see possessions shed and the opening of a path beyond the grate. But Pat Kramer is always surrounded by the trivial, by clutter. She hears talk of monetizing her shrinking—a Pat Kramer doll—and shrieks, “I don’t want to become another product! I’m sick of products!” The film asks, repeatedly: What is revealed when a woman shrinks? How different, really, is this fantasy from what it is like to present as female in the human-size world?

Jack Arnold, the director of The Incredible Shrinking Man, said that he hated The Incredible Shrinking Woman because it doesn’t have a point of view. This is simultaneously wrong and true. Unlike usual tiny-person films, it does not encourage us to adopt the drastically altered perspective of the shrunken person, nor of the people finding them. But what’s so interesting about the film is that this lack of point of view is deliberate. As she shrinks, the perspectives multiply. Lily Tomlin herself plays multiple characters surrounding the shrinking Pat Kramer, most notably Judith, her neighbor and closest friend.

An old poster with seven square boxes. Each of the boxes contains an illustration of The Incredible Shrinking Man in various perilous situations.

Poster for The Incredible Shrinking Man, courtesy of Photofest

In a nifty adaptation of Méliès’s The Dwarf and the Giant, The Incredible Shrinking Woman uses split screen to show normal-size Judith interact with doll-size Pat. As in the Méliès film, we’re asked to hold both Lily Tomlins in our heads at once, one giant and one small, so that we never get pulled entirely into either of their perspectives. Pat never gets to focus solely on her plight. Every time she starts thinking too deeply about how it feels to gradually shrink away from the world, Judith reminds Pat of her duties to other people, treating her as a symbol to fight against corporations, calling her to rally against those who would use the miniaturization technology for ill.

With these constant reminders, The Incredible Shrinking Woman cannot and will never step forward alone into idyllic nature. Pat Kramer does say a version of The Incredible Shrinking Man’s final monologue in the parking lot of a strip mall: She would like to keep fighting for her causes, she says, but “it just feels like I’m part of everything.” She waves her arms upward. But rather than walking into grass, she sinks into a puddle of spilled shampoo.

The way that she says this—slipped in among the screeching, forgettable chaos of the parking lot—feels more true to the sentiment. It’s an exhalation, a minor marvel about how it feels to be part of something bigger. For Pat, there’s no nature; this “everything” is not just the stars and the grass and “the vast majesty of creation,” but also the clutter around her, those insignificant things that are constantly replaced and looked down upon. Becoming a tiny person opens her eyes to how she, and the other Lily Tomlins in the film, have always been treated as “just another product.” To reject those products as separate from the world would mean to exclude herself and others like her.

In the end, she sticks to being trivial, rejecting becoming vast. To being multiple, never singular. Only then could she, smaller than the smallest, mean something, too.

Moeko Fujii is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Aperture, the Criterion Collection, and elsewhere.