“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Sunday, September 05, 2004


I had been reading the reviews of the release to DVD of a film made in 1932 entitled Freaks. The critics have acclaimed the picture as one which places people with physical disabilities (mostly) in a positive light in comparison to the evil of those who are not disabled. The first day that the DVD was available I bought one, but hadn't had the opportunity to watch it till last evening.

My first impression is as a historical piece which provides insight into perceptions of persons with disability at that time in American history. Many of the stereotypes are supported in the film.

I must state that the film by design is a horror film, and the disabled actors (at least those with normal intelligence, there were some who were severely cognitively disabled), must have been aware of how they were being portrayed. In spite of this, additional material provided on the DVD indicates only one actor appears to have felt the experience was a positive one. The film's disabled actors were largely carnival side show "performers" so the opportunity to appear in a film was likely seen as a positive carreer move. Several of the "little people" or actors with short stature disabilities appeared in other films including "The Wizard of Oz" and apparently had relativly successful careers.

In the additional material, each of the actors in the film, disabled or otherwise, are discussed briefly. It is noteworthy to consider the careers of the disabled actors. To the DVD's credit, side show performance is treated with some degree of respect, but the comparison made between a singer with an unusually good voice and a person with a particularly aberrant disability is a stretch. Still each actor's career was discussed, including films and other work performed as well as some information about their personal life.

It is true that in the film itself, the beautiful trapeze artist and the handsome strong man are the evil characters who attempt to take advantage of one of the "disabled" members of the side show. In the climactic scene the side show performers are going after the two. The side show performers are portrayed as a disabled gang on an evil hunt. Even the character with no arms or legs attempts to move across the muddy ground with a knife in his mouth. But the thing which really disturbed me, was the poor severely mentally handicapped fellow (a "performer" who most of his working life wore a dress), who was also crawling across the muddy ground with a knife in his mouth. This idea of persons with mental and other disability as being evil was actually pervasive in the early 1900's and even today might cause someone who doesn't know better to pause and wonder if such people are really capable of such violence .

At the time of its release, the film took an already devalued group who were feared for no reason other then that they were misunderstood (largely on the basis of appearance), and puts afinger on this irrational fear, not to squelch it, but rather to inflame it. The film was probably deserving of censorship in received at the time of its release (in hindsight) although the issues causing it to receive the thorough examination it did, were probably unrelated to my concerns.

It provides some insight as a historical piece, but not for the average viewer. One wonders how much actual change has occured in the minds of the regular viewers of the 1930's as compared with those today. Many stereotypes still persist, 72 years later.


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