“American Horror Story” Is Not As Progressive As You Think
Despite the sordid history of human display, it’s clear that audience sympathy in American Horror Story: Freak Show is meant to lie with the performers in Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. “Don’t call us freaks” is a refrain, and, although owner and headliner Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange) prefers the term “monsters,” the performers are, the show tells us, people.
Though it’s set in 1950s Florida, this fourth season of American Horror Story, which premiered Wednesday night, has its origins in the 1800s, when the “freak show” emerged as a form of human display and the people watching were less sympathetic — audiences confirmed their own normality through viewing these “abnormal” people. These Victorian shows were part of a larger trend: Around the turn of the 19th century, medicine shifted its focus away from health in itself and toward the establishment and attainment of a “norm,” as well as the description of pathologies that deviated from it. These ideas found a lowbrow outlet in “freak shows,” which were presented as both entertainment and science. When introducing the acts in the Cabinet of Curiosities on American Horror Story, Kathy Bates’ non-gender-conforming Ethel, also known as “the bearded lady,” invokes this, saying the performance is “for your amusement and edification.”
What’s also hinted at in the series are the racial dimensions of human display in “freak shows”: Ma Petite hails “from the dark continent, the spice-laden lands of India,” while Meep the Geek, though apparently Caucasian, is hawked as “straight out of the jungle.” In the 19th and 20th centuries, on display alongside people who physically deviated from the norm were racial Others: see, for example, Ota, the supposed cannibal abducted from Congo and taken in 1906 to a cage in the Bronx Zoo, where he was an “educational exhibit.” Ma Petite and Meep the Geek both represent this dimension of the historical “freak shows,” although, in addition to being raced as nonwhite, the characters are physically unusual (Ma Petite is played by Jyoti Amge, the smallest woman in the world, and Ben Woolf, who plays Meep, has pituitary dwarfism).
This systematic Othering of people who did not live up to a particular image of health or whiteness is related to the titillation or discomfort disabled people still trigger in many audiences today. AHS actor Mat Fraser, who plays Paul the Illustrated Seal and has phocomelia, said in a short film that it’s this reaction: “Argh! It’s a disabled person!” And that attitude is inherent in the progression of the series itself: The first season of the anthologized American Horror Story was Murder House, in which a family moves into Los Angeles home haunted by ghosts; the second season, Asylum, takes place at an institution for the “criminally insane” where an evil doctor turns patients into flesh-eating zombies and the devil possesses people; and the third season, Coven, was about witches.
Now we have Freak Show, about people with disabilities. Based on the first two episodes that were sent to press for review, Season 4 fits into the anthology’s supernatural theme insofar as it relies on the “otherworldliness” of disability — most of the main characters perform in the Cabinet of Curiosities, and even the villain wears a mask to hide a facial abnormality. In the first scene where conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (both played by Sarah Paulson) are revealed, as it were, it takes about a minute and 40 seconds for Elsa to ask them, “Have you ever had a boyfriend?” and then another 30 seconds to ask, “Tell me, has anyone tasted your cherry pie?” These are the first non-rhetorical questions she asks the women she’s just met, and she follows them up with, “But do you at least pleasure yourselves?”
It’s an invasive line of questioning that strangers only feel comfortable with if you’re disabled or queer: “How does it work?” the “normal” person feels entitled to know. (Elsa, who secretly wears prosthetic legs but passes for able-bodied, represents the physical status quo in this scene.) By asking those questions so early in the introduction of the twins, Freak Show makes the viewers complicit in this entitlement — You deserve to know, it says to the presumed non-freak audience. Officials in 21 states used the same logic to deny a marriage license to Maurice Lambert and Violet Hilton in the 1930s — Hilton was conjoined with her twin, Daisy, and it was deemed that to grant a marriage license to Violet would be “immoral.” Officials had a right to know just how sex would work, and to condemn it.
There is a standard disability narrative in Hollywood fare wherein the disabled person learns to “overcome” the disability because the real hurdle is an attitude problem, not that disabled people live in a society designed for able-bodied people and thus, they are constantly denied access to it. But Freak Show challenges that narrative: The outside world is shown as callous, while the performers are humanized, their frustrations with the system justified. Confronting a bigoted police officer, Jimmy Darling (Evan Peters), the syndactylous heartthrob who performs as “Lobster Boy,” says of the twins, “Don’t call them monsters.” Shortly thereafter, he sternly says to the same officer, “Don’t call us freaks.” Jimmy explains to his fellow performers at the end of the first episode, “All we’ve ever wanted was a place where we could feel safe and be just the way we are.” The people with the problem are not Fräulein Elsa’s performers, but the normal people, the people who gawk at them in the theater and recoil from them at a diner.
But where the show fails is its insistence that the disabled or different are “just like everyone else on the inside,” as if a person’s lived experience would have no effect on who they are. “If they just got to know us, they’d see we’re just like them,” Jimmy says. “No better, no worse, just regular people.” It’s something you’d tell a child, perhaps, but the tone of the show indicates that this is The Profound Message, that the presumed “normal” viewers are Good People for believing in this. The show itself further supports that message through casting: While there are many supporting characters played by disabled or physically unusual actors, like Amge, Woolf, and Fraser, Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Angela Bassett, Sarah Paulson, and Evan Peters all play characters with physical distinctions that the actors themselves do not possess, because, perhaps, what matters to executive producer Ryan Murphy is not the physicality but rather what’s on the inside.
When Elsa says, “I’ll tell you who the monsters are: the people outside this tent,” she characterizes those who fit “the norm” as bored people, dreaming “of strange, erotic pleasures — they have no souls.” But the show’s title sequence invites the audience to dream as well — one figure has a leg in place of genitals, while the two heads of a set of conjoined twins begin to kiss each other. Fraser has talked about how certain disabilities are acceptable in certain situations, like blind musicians, for example. “If a member of the Pussycat Dolls had cerebral palsy, that would be pretty radical,” he said — showing disability in an “unexpected” place. Portraying disabled people as people, which Murphy says this season does, is literally the bare minimum that anyone can do. It shouldn’t get any extra credit.