Disability And Gender-Based Discrimination Represented In The Movie Freaks
Released in 1932, Freaks is an extremely controversial film produced by Tod Browning. The film intended to introduce the story of a circus community. Disability and gender are the two features of identity that played a significant role in this film. One of the main aspects of Freaks is the dissimilarity between the circus performers with a disability and those without a disability.
Freaks focuses on exploring the identity issues in the lives of those disabled circus performers. While there were no laws that protect or accommodate the disabilities, those performers without any kind of physical abnormality regard themselves to be superior. Browning referred to the physical characteristics of the main characters in this film in order to feature disability as a primary component. The “freaks” are trying to live the normal lives regardless of their physical deformities. This lifestyle can be clearly seen in the scene when Frieda, the little person, is doing her laundry with Venus, one of the “normal” circus performers. Although Venus has no disability, she did not discriminate against the “freaks” because she did not believe that disabled circus performers are inferior. Rather, she treated them equally as every other circus performers. However, not every character in the film thinks the same.
Discrimination against disability happened in the circus community. This attitude can be seen in the scene when three “pinheads,” the half boy and the half-women-half-man were dancing in the jungle with Madame Tetrallini. Even though they did not commit any crimes, the guards forced them to leave because their abnormalities are regarded as a shame to the public. This scene reaffirmed the common ideologies Americans had on those with disabilities.
Gender also plays a major role in the formation of identity in Freaks. Gender refers to the social classifications of masculinity and femininity. There are multiple ways that Browning defined identity based on gender. Cleopatra is a great example of how a woman in the early 20th century should look and behave like. Cleopatra is used as the contrast of female freaks to display the code of ethics of femininity. In the first part of the film, Cleopatra was depicted was the perfect women. Nobody would have expected the devil side of her when she attempted to murder Hans with poison. This shocked the audience because Cleopatra appeared to be the role model for women in the 20th century until Browning revealed her as the opposite of that image. In the second part of the film, Cleopatra abused the sideshow performers because she considers herself to be superior. She had the courage to behave like this because she knew that the society would instantly assume her to be the victim and the freaks to be the bad guys due to their disabilities. Again, this is the representation of how the society mistreated the disabled people.
Another instance of gender-associated standards can be clearly seen between Cleopatra and Hans. Because of Han’s size, Cleopatra did not regard him as though he is a man. Rather, she often considers him to be childish. Although Cleopatra demonstrated an extreme, she actually represented how cultural depictions and daily interactions can impact gender identity in the long run. Gender identities is one key aspect that Browning was trying to convey to the audience. Watching Freaks, one is able to understand many assumptions about ideology in the early 20th century. A social location is a group of factors that define where a person stands in the society.
One can conclude that people who have the same social locations tend to share the similar experiences in their lives. Two social locations are implied in this film, such as the “freaks” and the “normal” circus performers. The “normal” performers discriminate against the “freaks” because they were convinced that they were more superior. In their article “Identities and Social Locations,” Kirk and Okazawa-Rey stated that “maintaining a system of inequality requires the objectification and dehumanization of subordinated peoples”. Disability and gender are the two main reasons for the identity problems, as featured in this film. Browning’s attempt to represent these features through such an extreme, yet, interesting film was very successful. In the early 20th century, disability can be described as the deviation from normalcy, whereas gender inequality is different from disability because they are constructed from a social stand point. Freaks, the story of a circus community had successfully conveyed all of the points to the audience.
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