The "Gawk Factor" Problem with American Horror Story: Freak Show

We’re now two weeks and 2.5 hours into American Horror Story: Freak Show, which means we’ve experienced two anachronistic musical numbers and approximately 1,000 Twisty the Clown nightmares. It’s time to take stock of what exactly the hell is going on with the latest installment of Ryan Murphy’s creepy shockfest.

the cast of AHS Freak Show We're all stars in the Freak Show.

The idea behind American Horror Story is that each season of the show brings back actors from previous seasons, casting them in an entirely new storyline that’s a unique kind of horrifying. Freak Show is set in Jupiter, Florida in 1951 and centers on a troupe of circus performers of varying degrees of “freakiness,” led by an eccentric German woman named Elsa Mars (Jessica Lange). Like its three AHS predecessors, Freak Show packs a tall political agenda: It asks us to confront our notion of “freaks” and the marginalization of those whose bodies don’t conform to our ideals—be they bearded women (Kathy Bates), “lobster” boys (Evan Peters), or little people (Jyoti Amge). By getting to know these characters for who they are, the goal seems to be that viewers will no longer see them as freaks and start seeing them for the likeable humans they are. In fact, Peters’ “Lobster Boy” Jimmy Darling utters the phrase, “We’re just like everyone else!” at least three times per episode. The problem with Freak Show is that the more we get to know these people, the less there is to like.

The point of the show so far, beyond giving us a reason to watch Jessica Lange sing “Life on Mars,” is for us to connect with the freaks and see beyond their differences to the hearts of gold within. Only these people do NOT have hearts of gold. In just two episodes, no fewer than four of them have committed murder and most of them seem like serious assholes (lookin’ at you, Michael Chiklis). They’re ostracized from society because they’re different and that’s wrong, of course, but it’s hard to sympathize when they’re killing people left and right. Not just that, but instead of engaging with disability politics by showing us how they’re treated by the non-circus world, Freak Show invites us to gawk at various people with disabilities and feel good doing it.

Elsa Mars is a reprisal of Lange’s characters from Murder House, Asylum, and Coven: a vain, jealous, and fabulous woman who’ll do anything to keep from growing old and fading away. Elsa craves the spotlight, which is why she collects freaks and exploits their talents for her own gain—even the conjoined twins (Sarah Paulson and Sarah Paulson) who were promised they could headline the freak show have to open for Elsa. While she treats her “monsters” like family and is herself a double amputee, she’s also an outsider with passing privilege who has no problem profiting from the very injustices she claims to abhor. It’s not much of a stretch, then, to see Elsa Mars as a stand-in for Ryan Murphy himself. A showrunner of sorts who both champions and exploits marginalized communities, Elsa invites the public to rubberneck at a bunch of freaks in the hopes of becoming rich and famous herself. As viewers, we too are invited to stare, but in our world it’s Murphy who takes our discomfort to the bank.

Whether we’re peering through our fingers as Meep (Ben Woolf) bites the heads off live chickens or shamelessly ogling Desiree’s (Angela Bassett) extra pasty, the show lets us look at these different bodies from the comfort of our living rooms, through the comfortable remove of our television screens. Not only that, but its 1951 setting implies that this type of othering is a thing of the past, as though disabled people weren’t still subjected to higher rates of street harassment, workplace discrimination, and violence today (they are).

This is not to say that Ryan Murphy’s an evil genius and Freak Show is his sinister plot to exploit disabled people—I do believe the show wants to engage with the notion of what makes someone a “freak.” So far though, Freak Show is having its cake and eating it too, preaching about acceptance while parading nonconforming bodies in front of the screen like, well, freaks. Is this progress, or just an acceptable way to stare at a legless woman or an armless man without fear of reproach?

Walking this line, as Sady Doyle writes in Global Comment, is nothing new for American Horror Story:"Horror speaks in symbol and dream-logic. But there’s a difference between telling your story in metaphors, and using someone else as a metaphor for you — in this case, using already marginalized people as metaphors for the marginalization of something else." Nuclear families, reproductive rights, mental illness, and race have all been subjected to the Ryan Murphy shock treatment in past seasons, and while Freak Show might be more blatant (no small feat considering last season featured sex with a minotaur) it’s not much different. Feminists who watch this show cover their eyes to block out killer clowns, but also sexism, ableism, and racism. Freak Show demands even more. It wants us to like its titular characters as they lie, cheat, steal, and murder their way through Jupiter.

We’re less than a quarter of the way through the season though, and if we know anything about AHS it’s that things are bound to change. More characters join the cast in tonight's episode, and there’s plenty of time left for the series to get better instead of worse. My hope for the rest of Freak Show, then, is that it succeeds not only in scaring the pants off of us, but in humanizing its characters without further exploiting them.

Related Reading: Just How Witch-tastic is American Horror Story: Coven

Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs. 

by Kelsey Wallace
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

I understand your point of

I understand your point of view, but as someone who works in the entertainment industry I appreciate the opportunity for casting differently bodied people in a major production. I have witnessed more than enough discrimination in this arena even for roles that are differently bodied, and I will continue to celebrate the actors in following what they choose to do with their lives.

I get this completely

I COMPLETELY understand the point in this article, but I don't think featuring disabled actors on the show is a bad thing. I would feel really mad if they had a show titled freakshow, but used perfectly able-bodied actors to play "the freaks". In fact, I think one of the best things this show has done was show actors that weren't your run of the mill pretty skinny/fit actors. They had a reocurring role for Jamie Brewer (the young actress with down syndrome in seasons 1+3) and even have special interviews and behind the scenes features for the actors with disabilities. They are showing that these people are capable of acting, and acting well. They are GIVING these people an opportunity to have people embrace who they are.

Yes, they murder someone on the show, but doesn't everybody in every AHS season ever? You can't expect AHS to not have 75% of their characters be murderers. If this were a show about regular non-haunted circus acts, i would see the outrage, but I don't think they want anyone to associate murder with people with disabilities.

I think if we were to talk about anything, it should be the fact that AHS CONSTANTLY uses rape as a means of story progression, which is NOT okay, and simply, cliche.

That's one thing good I could say about AHS. They never discourage actors with disabilities.

Completely agree!

Thanks for your comment AshleyEliza—I agree! I absolutely appreciate the disabled actors on the show and I should have made that more clear. My issue is with the way the characters are handled—I don't think we've gotten enough context (yet) to turn this from a freak show to a show about a freak show, if that makes sense.

That said, there are some pretty great interviews with a few of the cast members who have disabilities on the AHS YouTube channel: I hope the show eventually gives us this much back story!

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