I anticipate that this October will be the month of “freak,” and not because of Halloween. Though that won’t help.
Because the media can’t resist trend stories, and any three or more items with a common link can constitute a trend, the confluence of the AMC series Freakshow; the new season of American Horror Story, entitled “Freak Show”; and the Broadway musical Side Show, with its opening number inviting audiences to “Come Look at the Freaks,” will prove irresistible. However, they may also engender more frequent use of the word “freak” to apply to people with disabilities, bringing into vogue a term used far too often to marginalize those who don’t match up with what is far too often termed as “normal.” What, after all, is normal anyway?
“Freak” is a particularly ugly word when applied to a person with a disability, since it is not only designed to clearly label them as being something other than the prevailing “standard,” but it has been layered over centuries with implications of fear and horror and objectification. Many people went to see side shows in order to gaze with at best fascination, but often with superiority or revulsion at people who, in some cases, could find no other employment (and developed extraordinary skills to combat that) and for whom medical treatments and assistive tools were unavailable. That connotation lingers.
Part of the challenge that’s barreling towards us in the next month comes from how these works are advertised. The deeply unsettling ads for American Horror Story, whether in TV or on subway signage, are determined to link “freak” with “scary” and “strange.” In an effort to recall the very side shows in which John Merrick was displayed, the pending Broadway revival of The Elephant Man already has theatre signage imploring passers-by to “Behold an extraordinary freak of nature.” And how many people may come out of Side Show humming the often-sung and whispered, “Come look at the freaks/Come gape at the geeks/Come examine these aberrations/Their malformations/Grotesque physiques/Only pennies for peeks”? It’s quite possible that more people will see or hear the word “freak” than will actually see the shows that contain or employ them, reinsinuating the term back into common parlance, devoid of context or understanding.
Each of these examples may be very different works – one a reality TV show, one a fictional horror fantasy, one a Broadway musical – but they’re all rooted in the setting of a circus or carnival sideshow or, as they were often known, freak show. The side show has proven a rich location for tales of fiction and fact for many years, from William Lindsay Gresham’s noir Nightmare Alley to an early and rare Spalding Gray monologue In Search of The Monkey Girl to Katherine Dunn’s family saga Geek Love. The legacy of Tod Browning’s film Freaks lingers after 80 years, along with the debate over whether it was utter exploitation, or something more.
This is not to suggest that we can entirely eradicate “freak,” but that as these depictions proliferate, we should be thinking about the context in which they’re used. In the various accounts being told, it would be dishonest to pretend that “freak” was not a common term for people with disabilities. Within each work, it’s an accurate term (although in its out of town run at The Kennedy Center, I noticed Side Show’s careful use of “disabled” at one point, anachronistically but diplomatically), no different than the term “crippled” in Martin McDonough’s The Cripple of Inishmaan, which played on Broadway in the spring.
But Inishmaan is also the example that provokes my concern about “the fr-word” this fall. While in Ireland in the 1930s, no one was stopping to find a more proper term for the boy they all called, to his own frustration, “Cripple Billy.” But when the show was discussed or written about, the term was used over and over again, with some critics seemingly of the opinion that since it was spoken so often in the play, they could use it in their own writing. But those critics were writing in 2014, not 1934, and their language should not have been the language of the play except when making direct quotes.
Just like the language regarding race, the best term for discussing those who have disabilities has been evolving. Terms like “handicapped” and “differently abled,” which were seen as proper not so long ago, are now problematic; for comparison’s sake, think about how terms like “Oriental” or “Negro” seem today. Worth remembering is that the long-prevailing language was imposed upon minority groups without consultation or consent; now it’s incumbent upon us to employ the preferred terms that groups choose for their own self-definition.
That’s not to say the word is never to be uttered. Beginning in the 1960s, the counterculture embraced “freak” specifically to define themselves as outside of conventional society, but the term was usually dissociated from physical attributes and was more of a state of mind; we began to hear about “freak flags flying” from groups that assiduously wanted to be perceived as outside the mainstream. There are nouveau side shows in a number of places, including Coney Island and Venice Beach, but on recent looks, their bills of fare were just as apt to favor people who displayed outré body art or performed stunts than those with disabilities, and in every case the performers are there under their own agency.
Indeed, just as LGBTQ activists embraced the derogatory “queer” as an emblem of their own efforts at acceptance, and to confront those who sought to suppress them, there are those in the disability community who proudly call themselves “freaks” or “crips,” and those names are often claimed by performers with disabilities as well. But no differently than someone straight should call a member of the LGBTQ community “a queer,” no one should think that they have the right to label someone with a disability “a freak.” Those individuals can self-identify as such, but it doesn’t cut both ways.
As Christopher Shinn wrote so eloquently for The Atlantic, disability is not a metaphor. I would add to that sentiment that “freak,” when applied to a person, is not a title of mystery and wonder. It’s a slur. So see these shows according to your own taste. But think carefully about how you’re going to talk about them afterwards.
This essay appeared in a somewhat different form as part of The Guardian’s op-ed section, “Comment is Free.” Click here for that edited and condensed version.