Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Buy It: I, Claudius (the book)

From the Amazon.com listing:

"Considered an idiot because of his physical infirmities, Claudius survived the intrigues and poisonings of the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and the Mad Caligula to become emperor in 41 A.D. A masterpiece.”

This book and it’s sequel, Claudius The God: And His Wife Messalina and the BBC miniseries take ample artistic license, but Emperor Claudius really did have disabilities, most likely polio and epilepsy. Claudius is one of my historical heroes, and should be for everyone born with disabilities.

AHS: Freak Show ... It Could Go Either Way

Picture of an old style television set with the wheelchair symbol on the screen
I see that promotions for American Horror Story: Freak Show now include interviews with some of the actors who will portray the “freaks” … two of whom are actors who have the disabilities they portray. This is an interesting strategy. It suggests that at minimum, Ryan Murphy and company are aware that their subject is potentially offensive, and they want to reassure potential viewers that it won’t be, or that watching it won’t be morally questionable. If they care enough to address this, it might mean they care enough to at least try to be provocative without being offensive.

Hiring disabled actors does put AHS: Freak Show on the “right” side of a debate going on almost entirely within the disability community … how much it matters whether or not disabled characters are played by disabled actors. There are issues of representation of course, but even if you’re not tuned in to the philosophical questions, there’s the more concrete fact that there are thousands of disabled people trying to make it in the entertainment industry who not only face barriers playing “normal” parts, but they don’t even get cast for important disability roles. In this respect, AHS: Freak Show might be more progressive and admirable than, say, the short-lived Ironside remake, a much more obviously “respectable” show, which could have easily hired a disabled actor and didn’t.

On the other hand …

Actual Freak Shows of the late 19th and early 20th century advertised themselves as scientific and educational, and to a lesser extent as employment opportunities for physically disabled people who would otherwise be destitute. They pushed these arguments deliberately so that audiences could give themselves permission to enjoy essentially “low” entertainment (laughing or gasping at “freaks”), without guilt. Is that what the AHS: Freak Show producers are doing here? Are they telling us that it’s okay to watch whatever awfulness they are about to present, because hey, these actors are happy and employed?

The other potential problem I get from the interviews is a possible confusion over what freak shows were and what we today realize they could have been or maybe would be today. The actors talk about the freak show being a family, of giving them a sense of control and power with their bodies. While that may occasionally have been true in actual freak shows, I suspect it was very rare. Viewing freak shows of the past through today’s disability and diversity paradigms is interesting, but it may be very misleading. I’d hate to see some kind of freak show revival because people get the wrong idea about what they really were. Empowerment and exploitation can happen simultaneously, but the exploitation doesn’t go away just because you manage to perceive some empowerment there.

Just to be clear, for those who may be completely oblivious as to why this show might be disturbing. "Lookin' at freaks" is equivalent to staring at disabled people you encounter in real life. Even in the olden days, people knew there was something distasteful and ugly about gawping at disabled people as objects of morbid curiosity. It is not the same thing as healthy curiosity, or appreciation of difference, especially when it is in a TV show where "horror story" is in the title. Plus, even though the actor interviews are legitimately interesting, it doesn't mean everyone with a disability has a fascinating life story they're just dying to share with you while in line at Starbucks. That's what this controversy is about.

Of course, it’s all going to depend on the actual content, what the show itself says. Any subject can be done well and can express human decency. My concern is that American Horror Story’s brand is sensationalism, and only occasionally includes actual ideas. That’s worrisome. However, I will watch tomorrow night, and I will do my best to keep an open mind. It could be terrible. It could be wonderful.

I am also planning to watch Carnivale, a series from several years ago set within a traveling carnival, and including, I believe, at least a few disabled characters who are in that carnival’s freak show.