American Horror Story: Freak Show is one of those shows that really got me thinking about representation. My roommates and I were all excited for the show to start, but the seeing as the story revolves around a group of “circus freaks”, I questioned if this show could be problematic. Could it help perpetuate negative stereotypes of the disabled? Despite my initial worries, I went ahead and started watching the show, hoping that perhaps Ryan Murphy would prove me wrong. Even after watching a few episodes, I was still unsure of how I should feel about it.
It seems that Freak Show is all about confronting our preconceived notions about what it means to be a freak and the way that those whose bodies do not conform to our idealized norms are marginalized. The message seems to be that those who we see as freaks are likely good people with good hearts and are just like you or me. It’s even stated in multiple episodes that these so-called freaks are indeed just like everybody else. In the premiere, “Monsters Among Us”, there’s even a whole scene dedicated to that message. If that’s truly the case, there are certainly noble intentions behind this show.
This whole message is negated, however, by the fact that many characters are not exactly likeable. Multiple characters have committed murder, Jessica Lange’s character, Elsa, exploits her circus family, and certain characters just plain come off as assholes. It’s hard to see the “heart of gold” underneath the difference if you’re not willing to look beyond the flawed personality.
This is where a little something called the “Gawker Factor” comes into play. Freak Show presents us disabled bodies and asks us to look at them as normal people. However, there is still voyeurism occurring. We are given the chance to look at what’s considered “otherness” while still feeling good about it. If they’re being portrayed in a positive light that may make gawking seem alright.
This also brings to light a problem with Elsa, the driving force behind the Freak Show. Elsa is a double amputee, meaning that she is disabled and different, just like the rest of her “freaks”. She does, to an extent, try to treat them like family, but in the end, she has no problem exploiting their misfortunes for a profit. It brings into question the idea of passing privilege. What it means is that even though the character shares some of the same struggles as everyone else on the show, it’s easier for her avoid comments being made about her disability, people do not pity her as much, and she’s not seen as “suspicious” as others in the Freak Show. Basically, she passes as a “normal” person because she’s able to assimilate better into the dominant, able-bodied group.
Additionally, the time during which this series takes place causes other concerns. In the year 1951, disabled people were treated much differently than in today’s world. Because that was the way things were at the time, it justifies writing this kind of behavior into the story. The problem becomes that, if we choose to look at the show with that frame of mind, it implies that the disabled do not deal with street harassment, workplace discrimination, or violence any longer. That simply isn’t the case and therefore, we cannot allow the idea that these problems no longer plague the disabled. Basically, there’s a lot that could go wrong, even with a well-intended message.
Among the criticisms, however, I can’t overlook some of the good that’s come from this show. American Horror Story casts, in the words of one of the actors, “uniquely different” people to portray the “freaks”. So often, we see able-bodied people cast in these roles; it’s refreshing to see these people have the opportunity to embrace who they are. In fact, the show’s YouTube channel features a series of videos called “Extra-Ordinary Artists”, giving the viewing public a chance to meet the people behind their favorite freaks and see a more human side.
For example, Rose Siggins lost both her legs as a child and now portrays Legless Suzi on Freak Show. In her video, she talks about how losing both legs has affected her life, as well as things as “normal” as her life with her children. Additionally, she discusses her positive experience on the show, explaining that very rarely does she find herself surrounded with other individuals who fit outside of what our society considers normal because of that, they’ve formed a supportive family on the set. All five of the interviews can be found here and are worth the watch.
So, will I be watching American Horror Story despite some of its more problematic elements? Definitely. In fact, through some researching, I’ve decided that if there were any season I’d like to support, it would be Freak Show. While there are issues that we cannot overlook, the show does seem to be doing it’s best to portray the “freaks” with as much respect as possible, as well as making the effort to show the world who these people are at their core; they’re not being used simply for exploitation. Additionally, I applaud the forces behind the Extra-Ordinary Artist videos because it’s through these that I learned the actors don’t find themselves to be defined by their differences and they’re happy to have a chance to share their amazing stories with the world.