Throughout the entire process of researching the topic of disability, one film kept popping up in every article about historical representations of disability in media, and that is Tod Browning’s 1932 box office catastrophe, “Freaks.” The film, which was wildly controversial upon its release, marked the first time a cast of mainly physically disabled individuals took the big screen. Many people were extremely offended by the portrayal of the so-called “freaks” in this movie – but not for the reasons you might expect. While some people were upset about the exploitation of the disabled in the film, many people met with outright revulsion toward the disabled cast. Variety Magazine reviewed the movie, stating that it “is impossible for the normal man or woman to sympathize with the aspiring midget,” in reference to the film’s main character, Hans.
For many years, the exploitative film was banned in the United Kingdom. It didn’t even complete its final run in the United States before it was pulled, mostly due to the fact that it was hemorrhaging money. It was clearly an unsuccessful film in its own time.
However, despite the negative reviews surrounding it, it has risen to almost a cult-classic status. There’s no question that the freak shows of the early 20th century were horrifically exploitative, and no question that Browning’s movie propagated this. But some people argued that movies like this helped give at least a semblance of visibility to people with physical disabilities in movies. People, unless they went to sideshows and witnessed the conditions that these disabled people were living in, didn’t really understand their plight. However, a strong concurrent story within the film is the “freaks” trying to thwart the plot of a non-disabled woman to steal money from them. It gave them, in a twisted sort of way but in a way none the less, some sort of agency in an era where the representation of anyone other than demure white model citizens was unheard of.
In no way am I saying this movie is a bright spot in film history – quite the contrary. But it is important to study the history of how different types of people were represented in film, and I think Browning’s movie is a good place to start researching.