Realm-o-Ween: AHS Freak Show

Series: Realm-o-Ween

Spoiler Warning: American Horror Story: Freak Show (episode one, Monsters Among Us)

Trigger Warning: Discussion of abuse, violence, murder, possible rape, and ableism. I also use both the q-slur and the word ‘freak’ in the review, uncensored.

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Image from IMDB.com

I had originally planned to review a movie called Asylum this week. Unfortunately, I was unable to finish watching it for personal reasons. Incidentally, I recommend that anyone with a fear of hospitals or doctors either be very careful with that movie or avoid it completely.

Instead, I’m going to be reviewing the season premiere of American Horror Story. Some background: American Horror Story is a TV show currently on its fourth season. Each season stands on its own, with its own story and name, but much of the cast stays consistent from season to season. Season one was “Murder House,” two was “Asylum,” three was “Coven,” and this season is called “Freak Show.”

I’m going to divide this post into two sections, because there are two different sides to this, and I want to make sure that they are both properly expressed. On the one hand, there is my review of the first episode, and my expectations for the show. On the other hand, there are the opinions voiced by the actors, many of whom are different-bodied themselves (different-bodied is a term one of the actors used in an interview; I avoid the term disabled because not all of the differences are disabilities, and because I do not want to impose a disabled label on people who may not consider themselves to be disabled. In this section I will also address the issue of reclamation and the idea of freak shows themselves, as is relevant to what the actors have to say.

A quick disclaimer before I start in on my thoughts: while I am  physically disabled, I am for the most part not visibly disabled. I do not personally feel comfortable reclaiming the word freak, as I don’t believe it would be applied to me in the same way; however, I do use it throughout this review, uncensored, both for ease of reading and because it is how many of the characters identify.

The Season Premiere

The first episode, which was longer than a normal episode, was basically divided into two halves. The first half seemed to play the disabled monster idea fairly straight, along with a few other tropes. There were several scenes where the camera moved through doors, curtains, and down long halls, leading up to a big suspenseful reveal of what the “freak” being introduced looks like, and very much playing up the shock value of how these people look. While it may be intended to establish an atmosphere reflecting the prevailing attitude about disabled and different-bodied people at the time (the show is set in the 1960s), I don’t know that it was necessary. I think, too, that it could serve to alienate any disabled or different-bodied people in the audience. This was an impression I got throughout the episode: that people like those in the freak show are not the intended audience of this show, which is an issue I will address further in the second part of the post.

The two characters who this episode focused the most on, particularly in the first half, were Bette and Dot, conjoined twins who are connected below the neck, sharing most of their body. What stuck out the most to me about these characters, to be honest, was the fact that they seemed to be communicating telepathically. Of course, it is entirely possible that they were simply communicating through microexpressions: having lived together that closely for that long, they might indeed know each other so well that it could appear to outsiders that they were communicating telepathically. My older sister and I can communicate a fair amount without words, and we have never even lived together, much less been attached our entire lives. The way it is presented to the audience, however, we actually hear their conversation aloud, which gives the audience the impression that they have a telepathic connection. The stereotype of disabled people as magic or psychic can be very harmful for a number of reasons, including that it is a way of further othering us.

While there were certainly some elements of the episode that could turn into something good in the long run–a disabled man being presented in a sexual situation, for example, one where he has agency and is able to pleasure women, for the most part I was unimpressed, and my expectations at this point are not high. The episode included a scene that could easily qualify as gang rape by the “freaks,” in which a young girl of unspecified age is given opium and passed around the room. How much of it was consensual is unclear, given the drug use and the possibility that she is a minor, but in the morning she certainly doesn’t seem to think it was consensual. The people killed by disabled people number, I think, five in this episode alone. Three of these are by one person. Whether he is actually disabled I found little unclear, but we are clearly supposed to think he is disfigured. Of the other two killings, one comes after years of abuse: Dot and Bette were kept in the house by their mother for most of their lives, and not allowed to go out. While their mother’s reasoning is understandable–people have evidently attacked them before–it is still abusive, and so I can hardly blame Bette for eventually breaking down and killing her mother. (Adding to the amount of violence from disabled people, Dot later stabs her sister, and, by extension, herself.) The final murder involves a disabled man, one of the Freaks, killing a police officer who wants to arrest  Bette and Dot.

To be honest, I cannot particularly blame the killers in either of the latter cases. They are living in a society that is entirely against them. In one case, their actions are the result of abuse, in the other, they are defending their community. However, the show is still promoting the idea that disabled people are violent, dangerous, and horrifying, particularly since the only physical violence we see comes from the disabled characters. If they are trying to subvert traditional horror movie tropes, they are doing it very wrong.

By the end of the episode, I got the distinct impression that the message they were going for was “don’t be ableist or the disableds’ll get you” (ableist phrasing and all). That’s not an anti-ableist message. If the only reason you have for treating disabled people like human beings is that you are afraid, then you probably don’t really think of them as human beings.

The Actors

Five of the shows actors are actually disabled or different-bodied in a way that is reflected on the show. Erika Ervin is a giantess (as well as a trans woman, although the woman she plays on the show is not trans, to my knowledge), Mat Fraser has phocomelia of both arms, Ben Woolf has pituitary dwarfism (although his character is limited in his ability to speak, unlike Woolf), Jyoti Amge is the smallest woman in the world, and Rose Siggins really did have both her legs amputated at the age of two.

Each of these actors was interviewed about the show. The interviews can be seen on YouTube:

These actors seem very happy with their roles on the show, and they evidently feel that it is doing something good for them, and may doing something good for others. Let me say first that they are entirely entitled to that opinion, and nothing I or others feel makes it invalid. And having seen these interviews, I do have a lot more hope for this show then I did previously. I think, however, that the issue is a lot more complicated than just whether or not these actors think it’s a good show.

Every one of the five actors above is entirely within their rights to reclaim both the “freak” label and freak culture. The writers and producers, as far as I can tell, are not. The show runners are not physically disabled as far as I could discover, and I don’t believe any of the guest writers are either. Furthermore, there are plenty of actors on the show who don’t have the conditions they are representing (for example, the actress who plays Bette and Dot), and they can’t reclaim the word “freak” either. So for some of the performers this is an act of reclamation and personal exploration of their identity–but the story they’re acting in, and the words in the script, are written by people who have no right to reclaim this culture.

Much of the audience also has no right to reclamation of the term or culture, and I hope that people will remember that when watching the show. As I mentioned earlier, I did not get the impression that disabled people were the intended audience. Aside from the fact that this is a mainstream TV show, and so unlikely to be aimed solely at that particular niche, the ableist elements of the first episode combined with the tone of the promotion–which was done almost as if it were an actual freak show being advertised–seems likely to drive off a lot of disabled audience members. (I certainly would not be watching the show if it weren’t for this blog, although as mentioned, I am not visibly disabled.)

Reclamation is a very personal thing. In general, a term cannot be reclaimed for an entire community. It can typically only be reclaimed on a personal basis. This is actually an issue with the word “queer” at the moment, one that I struggle with myself. Although this word is a slur, and there are many people who are still uncomfortable with it, a large portion of the community feels that it is fine depending on context, and will refer to others as “queer” even when those they are referring to do not identify that way. Some of the younger people, like myself, did not enter the community until after the word was largely reclaimed, and many of us do not realize or remember that there are people who are not comfortable with it and do not identify with it. Those people are completely entitled to feel that way, however, and we need to respect their feelings on the word. In the same vein, while some people may be comfortable reclaiming the word “freak,” many will not, and that is something that I hope both those working on the show and those in the audience keep in mind.

I do think this show has potential. It is good to see disabled and different-bodied actors on television performing with their own bodies. But there are still a lot of problems and potential problems here, and the show will have to do a lot in order to change my impression of it by the end of the season.

I do plan to revisit this season again later on, certainly after the season finale and possibly before then, although I will not be doing regular reviews. Next week, more horror movies.

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