Who Wins the Ultimate Freakshowdown?
The portrayal of people with disabilities in cinema has a surprisingly long and sordid story. One of the earliest, and in my mind the most interesting, is the 1932 seminal classic Freaks. Directed by Tod Browning, following the smashing success of his horror masterpiece Dracula (1931), Freaks chronicles the life and times of a troupe of circus freaks. The story centers on the doomed love affair between a bombshell blonde and a precociously charming midget, surrounded of course, by all the classic characters of a turn of the century freakshow. You’ve got the bearded lady, the mongoloid sisters, the corrupt and manipulative ringleaders and the man with no limbs; who in a particularly intriguing scene, whips out what we presume to be a joint, and proceeds to light it with a box of matches using only his lips; all while carrying on a conversation. As I personally have no control of my extremities, and write this article using my lips, I must say I’m quite impressed. An interesting note about this film is that most characters were in fact played by people with real disabilities. I can’t help but wonder if this film was a ploy to revive the dying concept of the freakshow by transporting it to the silver-screen. Perhaps. Unfortunately, the film was a dismal failure at the box office, despite having a tremendous surprise ending which I will not spoil here. Let’s just say that the creativity of the revenge the “freaks” exact upon their tormentors is nothing short of genius.
In the same vein of the carnival sideshow, we come to a personal favorite of mine, Elephant Man. Released in 1980 the picture was given direction by David Lynch and the screen was graced by none other than Anthony Hopkins. The story is set in Victorian London, right around the time of the infamous Whitechapel murders. We are introduced to a characterization of the real life John Merrick. He is a hideously deformed man living, if you can call it that, in the filth and squalor of his abusive employer/owner’s freakshow. Mr. Merrick earns his room and board by modeling as the bastard son of a woman allegedly violated by an elephant. After being rescued by the kindly doctor played by Hopkins, Joseph Merrick is considerably better off. He even garners the friendship of a famous actress. But not all is well for the Elephant Man. While being harassed by an angry mob, we reach the most powerful scene in the film. After being unmasked and humiliated by the mob, John Merrick proudly raises his head and opens his mouth and declares, “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am… a MAN!” With these simple words we, as an audience, are granted the opportunity to see something rare and beautiful. It is a declaration of humanity, an affirmation of will and a demand for dignity. In this single scene we see the macrocosm of the whole human race condensed into a single man. Do we not all demand to treated with respect? Do we not find the atrocities against humanity being committed across the globe repugnant and contrary to our collective values as humans? Should we not all stand like John Merrick and demand that our brothers and sisters be treated like what they are; human beings?
As with many things, cinema is a reflection of the times. In the past hundred years there has been a paradigm shift in the depiction of people with disabilities. From the depths of squalor and despair, this group has slowly been rising to a social level equal with many others. Instead of life limited to a peon in some demeaning sideshow, there is life as a physicist, glorified in The Theory of Everything (2014). This film is very captivating and presents issues of disability in a mature and meaningful way. One thing however, did not sit well with me. At one point in film after an emotional party where Hawking nearly chokes to death on his lunch, Jane, Hawking’s wife and caretaker, emphatically declares that “We are not a normal family!” This strikes to the core issue that people with disabilities face today.
To accept the label of abnormality is to be treated as such. Is it any more abnormal to be disabled than it is to be LGBT, or African American? This is central issue of disability rights; to be viewed not as a freak, but as a somewhat more abstract rendering of the human form. If Marlon Brando is Da Vinci, then Stephen Hawking is Picasso.
Disability is a rising social justice issue that has a lot to be learned about and, in my opinion, a bright future. It’s the next battle for equality. And historically one of the most difficult. In bygone eras having black skin was seen as a curse, an affliction from God. Is it not easy for today’s society to see disabled folk in similar light? Some religions still even go as far to blame the parents of people with disabilities for having their unreconciled sins exacted on their children.
Is having a disability any different than being a queerly identified person? Neither position was chosen, both are written in the individual’s great compendium of genetic knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with it, it simply is. There’s enough energy spent thinking about what makes us separate, it’s time to put some thought into what makes us similar. This is part of the beauty shown in The Theory of Everything. The film demonstrates that although there are superficial physical differences between all of us, it is what we create and contribute to the human race that binds us together as people.
And what can we expect the future to hold? Perhaps in some time we will live in a world where equality is assumed for disabled folk. Perhaps, even, the Stephen Hawkings of the world will win out and all people with disabilities will placed on a pedestal and expected to be a genius.
What I know for sure is that the future holds countless possibilities, many of which are unimaginable to us today. As filmmakers and freethinking audiences, we hold a stake in not only how social justice issues are interpreted, but how they are portrayed. Let’s make the most of this power and demand equality for everyone.