Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) was a total box office disaster when it was first released and it ruined Browning's promising career. The film's salacious and disturbing material led to its being banned in many cities across the United States and almost a half hour of the original content is considered irrevocably lost. It has since become a cult favorite and is highly regarded by contemporary critics. My own reaction to this film is ambivalent, though I cannot deny its emotional power.
A midget who has inherited a fortune falls in love with the beautiful trapeze artist who plots with her lover the strongman to relieve the midget of his money. The plot is rather mundane, a typical love triangle. It is the setting, a circus freak-show, that is so extraordinary. In order to make this setting realistic, Tod Browning cast people who were actually working as sideshow attractions at the time. Among the cast are people with dwarfism, conjoined twins, a bearded woman, an intersexual individual, and people without either upper or lower limbs.
I felt the need to write about this movie when I read a user review on Imdb deploring the fact that sideshows are no longer acceptable and many congenital conditions that would formerly have left a person few alternatives but the sideshow are now medically curable. Whoever this person is must not know anyone who, in another time (or simply in another country), might have faced that reality. Perhaps this person might want to give living as a sideshow attraction a try.
I was born with a physical disability, technically called phocomelia, which essentially means that my left arm is not "normal." Living with a physical disability means, more than anything else, that people will stare at you and point at you. Perhaps they will even speak aloud about you, as though you weren't there. The sideshows aren't really gone - they're just no longer in tents and no one has to pay to go in. Ignorant people create their own sideshows wherever they find the opportunity.
So why does Freaks still have the power to disturb? Because, plainly and simply, people with physical disabilities are still perceived as freaks, as spectacles to gawk at. Because people who do not conform to the standards of beauty and normalcy embraced by the film industry never appear onscreen. Nearly every portrayal of a disabled person in a movie is played by a person who does not have that disability. Freaks on the other hand has more characters and actors that have disabilities than don't.
Inevitably, Freaks is, at least partly, exploitative because it operates as a kind of sideshow - attention is drawn to the way these individuals eat, light their cigarettes, make love, move around. But at least we are seeing people with disabilities live their lives - love, hate, commit acts of kindness and of violence, hurt each other, help each other. In other words, we are not presented with either of the two attitudes typical in the movie industry. We are not given an "inspirational" viewpoint that celebrates "triumph" over the obstacles and ends with a "victory" - there are a number of releases from the past year that fit this sickeningly condescending profile. We are also not presented with a portrayal of disabled people as mere spectacle, or as the embodiment of corrupt values. Instead, these characters are portrayed as people, flawed, real people, whose lives may be limited by their disabilities but who hardly spend their time wallowing in self-pity. They just live.
The movie's central message is meant to be one of tolerance and empathy - the classic quote is "Offend one and you offend them all." This is not always clear, perhaps due to the extensive cutting and reediting that the film underwent after its premiere. What should be clearer is that disability is limiting precisely because people go to sideshows, people gawk, people stare. The limitations that people with disabilities face are mostly the limitations of being perceived as freaks and therefore of not being accepted as human beings. Freaks is problematic and at times difficult to swallow - but at least the characters with disabilities are deeply human. You know, like all of us that try to live our lives with strangers' eyes glued to our "abnormal" parts.