In 1932, Tod Browning directed the film Freaks, the story of a circus troupe and their efforts to save fellow performer Hans from a slow poisoning by the able-bodied, scheming Cleopatra. Divisive at the time it was made, Freaks has evolved into a cult classic and one that explores important narratives of representation, community and exploitation. Browning hired circus performers and disabled people to play disabled characters, a rarity even now, where the world of biopics and inspiration porn is dominated by able-bodied actors on a learning curve (Indiewire, 2020).
Pre-Hays Code opens in new window horror cinema relied on disabled tropes to elicit fear from their audience – this is where Freaks differed from the norm. While Freaks and director Browning “definitely exploits the sensationalistic thrills of the freak show, presenting these bodies as deviant and threatening, but only after it shows us that these performers are quite ordinary people, driven to defend themselves against supposedly ‘normal’ individuals who prey on and harm them.” (Indiewire, 2020).
How much has changed in film and television in the past 90 years? The backbone of the horror movie industry is still built on playing with peoples fear of difference.
Think of how you see disability represented onscreen – how many of the actors playing disabled characters are actually disabled? What kind of disabilities do we see depicted most often? Are there stereotypes or tropes we see only in relation to disabled people – superheroes, villains, or childish adults? The portrayals of disabled people in media have real life implications on the lives of disabled people, the policies, systems and cultural attitudes that govern their lives.
By hiring, engaging with and foregrounding disabled voices, media outlets can help disrupt harmful narratives and break new ground on ways that media can represent disability. Disability is a diverse and broad spectrum that deserves to be explored, and disabled people deserve to be at the writer’s table, behind the camera, in the editing room, and bringing those stories to life at every level.
Image: Graffiti silhouette of a person with multi-colour handprints Image credit - Anne Zbitnew
- Assess representation of disability in media in order to apply a critical lens to how media depicts disability in positive or negative ways.
- Understand how representational language is used to influence the public.
- Review the importance of mindfulness of representation of disability in the creation and production of media on a variety of platforms.
Terms and Concepts
Select the term or concept to learn more.
The United Nations (UN) suggests that images and stories in the media can deeply influence public opinion and establish societal norms. Persons with disabilities are seldom covered in the media, and when they are featured, they are often negatively stereotyped and not appropriately represented. It is not uncommon to see persons with disabilities treated as objects of pity, charity or medical treatment that have to overcome a tragic and disabling condition or conversely, presented as superheroes who have accomplished great feats, so as to inspire the non-disabled.
Stella Young coined the term “Inspiration Porn” to describe how disabled people are thought to be “inspirational” just for existing.
“Intersectionality” is a term coined by American critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s. Intersectionality is an approach to understanding how and why individual circumstances (being a woman or being Indigenous), social systems underlying inequalities (ableism, sexism and racism) and social institutions (the education system and government programs) combine, shift and change to shape the experiences of individuals and broader communities.