In the Blog
American Horror Story: Ableism, Voyeurism and Popular Culture
Image: FX Canada
Where are the freaks? I’m getting bored.
On October 8, 2014 the fourth season of American Horror Story, Freak Show, premiered. The season aired for four months, concluding on January 21, 2015. The trailer’s (watch here) opening line speaks to the tangible ways in which ableism - any form of discrimination or social prejudice against Persons with Disabilities (PWD) - and voyeurism - the fervent observation of sensational subjects, typically from a distance or secret vantage point - continually intertwine to reinforce the cultural subjugation of bodies that fall outside normative conventions. The central focus here is the problematic messages embedded in the preview; more specifically, how and why the trailer appeals to its audience base.
American Horror Story is a fictional horror series produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. The seasons exist independently of one another, each situated in a novel place and time. Freak Show takes place in Jupiter, Florida during 1952 and like the second season, Asylum, draws on exploitative and oppressive visual tropes to entice its audience.
Freak Show follows the lives of Elsa Mars, owner of Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, and those she calls her ‘monsters’. Among the ‘monsters’ are Ethel Darling – The Bearded lady, her son Jimmy Darling – The Lobster Boy, Desiree Dupree – The Three Breasted Woman, and Bette and Dot Tattler – The Siamese Twins. Throughout the series Dot is suspicious, concerned that Bette and herself are being exploited for their unique appearance.
Freak Show does exploit; it exploits what Mary Garland-Thomas coins as social disabilities - bodies that are “ugly, deformed, fat, grotesque, ambiguous, disproportionate, or marked by scarring”. It authorizes the notion that the body is a spectacle; its purpose is to be appraised, critiqued, visually consumed. More than that, Freak Show suggests that the disabled body is public property, useful only as a source of entertainment, or as a warning.
The othering of disabled bodies is nothing new. Ableism can be traced back to Aristotle’s musings on what constitutes the perfect human body. For Aristotle “imperfect” bodies were deviant, monstrous and disposable. This is still how we, too often, conceptualize Persons with Disabilities today.
It is not so long ago that institutionalization was a common form of policing Persons with Disabilities - Canada’s last three remaining government operated institutions closed their doors on March 31, 2009. For the countless people who were warehoused and exploited in Canada’s institutions Freak Show is concrete reminder of how the government, and society at large, failed to protect their most basic human rights. It also percolates through popular imagination and tells a very specific narrative, a narrative rooted in mocking, dismissing and silencing the voices of its characters.
While the story itself is fictional, there are salient parallels between fiction and lived experiences. Sara Paulson’s character narrates the trailer: “It was in the fall when I realized the world I had known was forever doomed. I knew I was about to enter the gates of hell, but like the inescapable pull of gravity there was nothing I could do about it”. For the viewer this line acts as foreshadowing to the events that lay ahead; but for those who have lived through the institutional and structural violence it is a reflection of our cultural ignorance, anxiety and disdain towards difference.
As carnival imagery paints the screen, Kathy Bates remarks “This place is as good as it gets for folks like us”. For over a century freak shows were one of the most prominent, and popular, forms of entertainment; as Tim Dean once said, freak shows were “the pornography of disability”. Freak shows allowed the able-bodied community to not only dispose of “undesirables” but also to commodify Persons with Disabilities as property in the same way that slave ownership commodified the bodies of Persons of Colour (POC).
American Horror Story: Freak Show draws on our natural sense of curiosity and warps it into a shameful performance. With over 6 million viewers we need to question American Horror Story’s appeal; perhaps the most grotesque is not in fact on screen but within ourselves.