Why ‘Freaks’ Is a Milestone for Disability Representation

Hollywood’s track record of portraying people with disabilities is sketchy at best. We’ve seen inspirational figures, noble martyrs, and lovable oddballs, some of whom have won Academy Awards for their performances, but not many simply live their lives.

The quest for a truly relatable depiction of disability in film history continues, but over the decades many scholars continue to return to perhaps the most surprising touchstone: the 1991 film set in the circus. .

Tod Browning’s most widely known work is Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi, but the following year he broke new ground with a film featuring a large cast of disabled actors. Browning’s “Freaks” (available below) most major platforms) centers on a tight-knit group of circus sideshow performers who rally around a friend who is betrayed by his lover, a trapeze player.

Despite the sensational spectacle, the characters’ sense of both community and subjectivity are prominent, representing a range of experiences (some of which are extremely rare on screen). For example, Harry Earles, the diminutive who plays his betrayed lover Hans, is said to have told Browning about the original story “Spurs” adapted by “Freaks”. Frances O’Connor, who plays a member of the theater company, was born without arms and toured with the Ringling Brothers. And the performer known as Schlitzie is one of the few cast members with microcephaly.

“It was really fascinating to see them form a culture and a community of recognizable people with disabilities,” says Carrie Sandal, director of the organization. Art, Culture and Humanities Program for Persons with Disabilities A professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago said of the film: “They defend each other and have their own acumen and humor.” Sandahl co-wrote and co-produced.code of the freaksis a 2020 documentary that explores the representation of people with disabilities in Hollywood and highlights Browning films as a rare bright spot.

As a hero for disability representation, Browning can be a complicated figure. His interest in the spooky may sound voyeuristic, as he worked at carnivals as both a barker and performer to get into filmmaking. For example, “Freaks” has a gruesome revenge plan. But the film also explores the everyday life behind the scenes of the theater company, and the villain of the story is Cleopatra (Olga Baklanova), a poisonous trapeze artist who has no disabilities.

“What’s interesting is their daily life.” Kristen Rotensocksaid a film studies professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton. “We haven’t seen them in action. It is a space where you can do what you need in your life, such as eating at

By the 1920s, freak shows had declined after a movement to shut them down, not out of consideration for the performers, but to keep them out of public view. Browning’s film also met opposition, was re-edited after test screenings, skyrocketed at the US box office, and was banned in the UK. But in his 1960s and his 70s, the film resurfaced as a midnight movie and a cult weirdness, a period that coincided with the beginnings of film studies as a formal university program.

Freaks gained further prominence in the 1990s with the emergence of the field of disability studies and the reassessment of circus culture. Sideshow has been re-evaluated as a potential venue for some sort of creative vision, and the film has its own ready-made tagline for solidarity. “One of us” chants — When we welcome Cleopatra as “one” of our community — Follow the group’s code of honor: one person’s injury is everyone’s injury.

The over-the-top aspect of “Freaks” also contributed to its kitschy appeal for some viewers with disabilities, Sandal said.

“The embracing of ‘freaks’ is also about a kind of humor called ‘clipping,’ which is an outsider and edgy embracing of what is clearly outsider and non-normative,” she said.

There are those who denigrate “freaks” and their inherently alienating context. However, although the reassessment seems to have an established place in disability research, there is no exact equivalent. Scholars I spoke to described the 1978 dramaGo home(the aftermath of war injuries), 2019’s Chained for Life (starring actor Adam Pearson with a flawed face), to the Farrelly brothers’ 1998 hit comedy About Mary This and that’ (a boy appears), until a person with an intellectual disability).

However, none of the films holds the status of “Freaks” and in some cases it is possible to redeem other films.

“I’ve been on various panels with the Farrelly brothers, and we’ve had this discussion before,” said David T. Mitchell, a leading disability researcher and professor at George University. says.

Regarding the portrayal of people with disabilities, the University of Washington said: “Any representation is good representation, they say, and in the end the film does a good job of being sympathetic to the character. But for me, that’s too low a bar.”

Reed Davenport is a filmmaker who charts his experiences sailing the world.

Award-winning documentary “Wheelchair”i didn’t see you there‘ recognizes the conflicting views of ‘freaks’. It may be offensive and offensive, but at the same time it shows the subjectivity of the characters in a society that ignores them. (In his own feature, he also laments the burgeoning neighborhood circus and the legacy it reminds of.) But the overall history of disability representation in cinema is tragic. he claims.

“It’s very rare that you can look back and say, ‘Oh, let’s keep this,'” he says. “It needs a complete overhaul, and I think there are signs of it.”

Davenport’s research provides one way to faithfully represent the experiences of people with disabilities. Mitchell said he believes the future of disability representation lies in Davenport’s work and what he broadly calls independent disability films.

“Disabled films tend to depict creative, non-prescriptive space voyages,” Mitchell said. “And because life with disability is interdependent, this is like a viable alternative ethical map for living differently.”

Seen in that light, the peculiar and outdated world of Freaks may continue to provide impetus for the better in the artistic portrayal of people with disabilities.

“That’s what really appealed to me. An insult to someone is an insult to everyone. That’s my motto for disability activism,” said Sandal of the University of Illinois. “For example, this store may not have a ramp for me to enter, but I am not the only one complaining. I am going to do something.”

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