The Great American Freakshow Trick

[note: this article will also appear at Shade, a student platform based at the School of Oriental and African Studies]

Last week I got a text from a friend who was watching an episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show, featuring a group of people with facial disfigurements.

Obviously these people had chosen the platform as a way to raise awareness, my friend said, but: “it made this big show of being sympathetic towards disabled people, but it was so patronising and just came across as if their disability was the only thing of note”.

Invasive questions were asked about the guests’ disabilities. Jeremy called the women “love” and addressed questions to their carers. All in all, it sounded like a parade of the sort of subtle, but incredibly pervasive ableism in our society, which sees disabled people as their disability rather than a fully rounded human being.

Before I watched American Horror Story: Freakshow, I prayed “Please don’t be like Jeremy Kyle.”

Opinions I’d heard on this new fourth series of AHS have been mixed: disability activist friends refused to watch it because of the title alone, while others watched and enjoyed it. Another friend said she saw “no intention to shame or mock the characters”, as all the actors had chosen to be on the show. The same friend remarked that, “Hollywood does not give much room for individuals with such severe (as well as minor) physical disabilities to showcase their talent, if anything “disability” is practically invisible in such artistic areas. I was happy to see underrepresented persons on my computer screen.”

So: exploitative freak-fest? Or a sensitive show that gives work and exposure to disabled actors, like the delightful Jyoti Amge, and puts disabled bodies on our screens?

“Please don’t be like Jeremy Kyle.”

I’m not a fan of Complaining About Shows You Don’t Watch, so I sat down to watch it with zero expectations either way. Quick summary: the first episode of the show’s new fourth series is set in 1952 and follows a pair of conjoined twins – Bette and Dot – who are taken to hospital after a milkman finds them injured in their home next to their mother’s dead body. Word spreads. A freak show runner, Elsa Mars, hears about the twins and blackmails them into joining her troupe, and the plot goes on from there. There’s a silly subplot about a killer clown who kidnaps teenagers and imprisons them in a bus, (which would probably have been scarier if Jeremy Kyle had played the clown) but most of the focus is on the twins and the freak show runner.

So… is it awful? Unfortunately, yes. I am an invisibly disabled person, and I’m unhappy to say I hated it. I watched it with my fist in my mouth. I was strongly reminded of the first part of Arundhati Roy’s essay The Great Indian Rape Trick. I quote: “If you say you found the film distasteful, you’re told – Well that’s what truth is – distasteful. Manipulative? That’s Life – manipulative.
Go on. Now you try.
Try…Exploitative. Or.. Gross. Try Gross.”

I felt for people with obvious disabilities, who will inevitably in their day-to-day lives be compared to the characters on this incredibly popular show. I felt it catered to the imaginations of nondisabled viewers, and ignored the fact that disabled viewers would be watching. But mostly, as I watched it, I had the strange feeling that I was being pulled inexorably back to the Victorian age.

In Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiousity Shop, there is a freak show owner called Mr Guffin who speaks about his difficulties with one of his ‘freaks’ being old and unwell: “Once get a giant shaky on his legs, and the public care no more about him than they do for a dead cabbage stalk.” Victorian freak shows were very popular. Not only did they feature disabled bodies, but also Black bodies – like that of the Hottentot Venus – and the bodies of trans people, were put on display for money. This continued for a long time, in fact; in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, partly set in the late 20th century, the intersex protagonist Calliope runs away from home and ends up displaying their body to tourists for money.

Another fun fact: in the Victorian age, disabled people were frequently seen as violent, dangerous, and less than human.

this show persistently, ghoulishly shows disabled people as the violent ones

This attitude is reflected in the show’s portrayal of disabled people. In American Horror Story: Freakshow, a nurse at the beginning says about the conjoined twins, “If I gave birth to something like that, I’d drown it in a bathtub.” For the real-life implications of abuse on disabled people, especially children, look no further than the Issy Stapleton case and the recent incident of a mother who killed her three disabled children and was not prosecuted.

Yet this show persistently, ghoulishly shows disabled people as the violent ones: we see the twins committing a murder, and a group of the ‘freakshow’ performers commit another violent murder later in the episode as retribution for being called freaks.

In real life, disabled people are incredibly vulnerable to murder and abuse, especially by carers and relatives. We are more likely to be killed than to commit murder. Portraying us as violent is another indication that this is entertainment that doesn’t really care about disabled people; the creators care about using a combination of violence, horror, woo-woo spooky music and disabled bodies to get ratings and cause a controversial sensation.

So, I’ll come out with it: yes, it is ableist. To me the point of calling a piece of media ableist, sexist, racist or any –ist word shouldn’t be to show off how offended you can be, or how disgusted you are with The Media. Sure, that seems to be why some people do it. But to me, it’s more important than my own feelings. Media isn’t in its own little, unimpeachable bubble: it’s part of the wider world and a major influence on the way we view other people. There is often a strong correlation between media representation of minority groups, and the real-life impact on those groups.

Witness the impact of South Park: children in many countries watch South Park, and it has been linked to cases of bullying. If I tell people I have OCD, they sometimes bring up television characters like Bree in Desperate Housewives who fit the OCD stereotype.
But more positively, Laverne Cox’s starring role on Orange is the New Black has given incredible media representation to trans women, which gives cis people like myself a way to relate to and discuss trans issues.

Media representation matters. Being able to see ourselves reflected in a positive light matters.

It’s great to see disabled bodies on your computer screen, but it’s not enough to put disabled bodies in your show: you have to write them as people. What I saw was a show that features disabled bodies first and foremost, and disabled people second.

For example, I expected to hear more from the disabled characters themselves, but was disappointed that actors like Amge were only given a few lines and their characters barely fleshed out. Of course, this is the first episode – which introduces a lot of characters at once – but this doesn’t excuse the fact that most of the focus was on characters like Elsa, who appeared to be normal. The disabled actors were clearly playing bit parts.

So the question is: will this show make life more difficult for disabled people?
At the end, Elsa gives a speech which attempts to justify this circus:

“I’ll tell you who the monsters are – the people outside this tent! Housewives… stupefied with boredom… as they dream of strange erotic pleasures! They have no souls! My monsters… they are the beautiful, heroic ones! They offer their oddity to the world! Everyone is living the life they chose! But you, undoubtedly, are one of those soulless monsters.”

But why does the world have to be divided into monsters and “beautiful, heroic ones”? Why can’t we all be seen as real people? Why attack women (housewives in particular) to make a lazy, clichéd point about how The Normal People Are The Nasty Ones Really? We are all – abled and disabled – human beings, who are capable of doing both wonderful things and monstrous things.

Sad that we have so many talented disabled actors in this world, and yet the only show this autumn that features a group of them prominently has the word “Freakshow” in the title, puts its disabled actors in cages, fetishizes their bodies, and portrays them as violent people who have to be “saved” by a manipulative freakshow runner.

Personally I’m holding out for a show that portrays us in a context removed from the fantastically clichéd asylum/freakshow settings. A show that fits with the modern world where disabled people are leading normal lives, with friends, families, hobbies and jobs. An acknowledgement that we exist outside of the asylum, the freakshow or the special ed classroom. Or is that too much to ask?

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