"There is little to be said about Freaks
(1932), Tod Browning's celebrated film, except that it does
not merit that reputation for cruelty accorded it by the litany of belated
surrealists. On the contrary, what I found touching was the human being's
prodigious capacity for adaptation. Seeing the armless man light a cigarette
by using only his mouth leaves us breathless with admiration. This story
shows the infinite ingenuity and the greatness of man. But enough moralizing.
Freaks is a very honest film that can be seen with more pleasure
Jean Douchet, Cashiers du cinema, Nov. 1962, p. 32
Prejudice against Mr. B, with his single arm, makes no more sense to me than prejudice against my mother, with her two languages. And to propose abortion because the fetus is missing a limb or two sounds, to my horrified ears, like wishing that Mr. B had bled to death after the railyard accident that claimed his arm and leg. Hitler had his full arm and leg count -- did that make him more of a man than Mr. B? The visible differences aren't always the important ones. The monster isn't the armless man; it's the heartless man.
That's the message of Tod Browning's misunderstood masterpiece, Freaks. Tragically, the medium drowned out the message. Audiences were easily able to see the physical differences of the professional "freaks" Browning cast in his cinema sideshow, and they turned away without ever seeing how superficial those differences are. Perhaps "normal" people fear seeming ghoulish. They don't want to seem to be staring at those misbegotten unfortunates. Well, through the magic of modern technology, Freaks is available on video. We can now gawk and stare in the privacy of our living rooms. And through the magic of the Internet, we can order Freaks online and get it in the mail, sparing ourselves the embarrassment of being seen buying or renting it. We can watch again and again, until the initial shock wears off. We can watch until we actually start to see the people.
First, a caveat. The "Code of the Freaks" is a myth. Browning knew this from his own days as a carnival worker. In the sideshow, there was no more bond among the "human oddities" than among other workers. In relation to the rest of the world, it was carneys united against marks (outsiders), regardless of the number of limbs the carney had or how tall he was, just like you'll find employees at any workplace standing together against outsiders. And inside the carnival, it was the same kind of cliques you find in any workplace, based on personalities and interests. Extraordinary stature, missing limbs, and so on, had all the significance of red hair or love handles in any other workplace.
One thing Browning did well with Freaks was give the audience a glimps of the "human oddities" as ordinary people. Tiny Frieda confides in Venus about her romantic worries as she hangs up her laundry. Violet argues with her brother-in-law as she and conjoined sister Daisy make their bed. Limbless Randion lights a cigarette as he listens to a friend's bragging. The "skeleton dude" passes out cigars as his bearded wife shows off their new baby. Armless Frances eats her dinner as she and Koko "the bird woman" worry about a troublesome man. Legless Johnny helps Phroso the clown work on a new gag. It's business as usual, even for people whose bodies deviate from the norm.
Related Areas at Pro Life Views
- The Finkbine Abortion
How the Romper Room lady's quest to abort her Thalidomide baby won sympathy for abortion advocates.
Information and links about incomplete twinning, in which the two fetuses remain attached to one another in various ways.
Abortion and eugenics still go hand in hand after all these years.
Information and links about congenital absence or deformaties of the limbs.
Quality of Life
Activists often use the poor quality of life of vulnerable people as a justification for abortion and euthanasia. Pro life efforts attack causes of suffering, not suffering people.
Elsewhere on the Web
Bad Baby Blues"
Reflections on abortion of handicapped children.
The Politics of Prenatal Testing, from First Things.
Online magazine for parents and caregivers of children with special needs.
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