One of Us: What Freaks Tells Us About Evolving Attitudes Towards Disability on Screen

Posted on May 5, 2022 by Tanya Charteris-Black

Categories: FEDS Scheme

In this blog we hear from Tanya Charteris-Black, one of our recent cohort of FEDS Trainees based at Tyneside Cinema, about the complex certification history of Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks, the nature of censorship, and the evolving attitudes towards disability on screen.

When I began my FEDS placement at Tyneside Cinema, I was thrilled to learn that thematic seasons are a regular part of the programme. My fascination with film and desire to work in the industry stem from an innate curiosity about the complexities of human nature, and I find that being able to watch repertory cinema on the big screen allows for a deeper understanding of how society evolves over time. As part of my training, I attended a session ran by the BBFC where I learned about the extensive research carried out over the past 100 years to carefully monitor the British public’s fluctuating ideas, attitudes and beliefs. Tod Browning’s Freaks, which recently screened at Tyneside Cinema as a part of the thematic season Carnival of Souls, has a very complex history of censorship with the BBFC. Following the film’s journey from its initial ban to its eventual release raises some interesting questions on the nature of censorship and how societal attitudes towards disability have changed over time.

‘Freaks’

Riding on the success of Dracula (1931), director Tod Browning was supported to make Freaks (1932): a divisive yet remarkable cult classic that was banned in the UK for 32 years. Inspired by Tod Robbin’s short story Spurs and his own experience of growing up as part of a travelling circus, Browning wanted to pay tribute to the people with disabilities working in what was then called ‘freak shows’ in an attempt to destigmatize them. Badly mistreated and disregarded by society, the so-called ‘freaks’ adopted a code of ethics that stated ‘the hurt of one is the hurt of all and the joy of one is the joy of all’. Browning wanted to celebrate this solidarity and highlight, to audiences in 1932, that they are people too.

Freaks tells the story of a close-knit group of outcast circus performers who discover that the leader of the side-show, little person Hans (Harry Earles), is being duped by Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a beautiful and able-bodied trapeze artist. When Cleopatra learns that Hans inherited a large amount of wealth, she hatches up a cruel plan to trick Hans into marrying her so she can poison him and steal his fortune. Cleopatra pretends to be in love with Hans, all the while ridiculing him behind his back with her secret lover, strong-man Hercules. When the rest of the troupe uncovers Cleopatra’s malicious betrayal they band together to protect Hans and enact their violent vengeance upon her.

Whilst certainly a provocative story, what is so beautiful about Freaks is the love and affection the performers have for each other and the strength of the community they have built. Browning presents the mysterious, macabre world of the circus ‘freak show’ as normal and everyday. He flips expectations on their head and presents the ‘monsters’ as the able-bodied individuals who attempt to ridicule, exploit and harm members of the troupe. Outside the central plot we see various storylines detailing the day-to-day lives of the performers; they are presented as resilient and adaptable human beings with rich and complex emotional lives. Sadly, many of these scenes were viciously cut by the film’s studio and Freaks was transformed into a horror aimed at able-bodied audiences, who in 1932 were not ready to confront human variability and difference.

Certification and Censorship

A box office flop, Freaks effectively ended Browning’s career and was refused a certificate in the UK on the grounds that it “exploited for commercial reasons the deformed people that it claimed to dignify”. The film was labelled as ‘grotesque’, ‘abhorrent’ and ‘loathsome’, some of the able-bodied actors were blacklisted and many of the actors with disabilities returned to work in circuses or went on to feature in films that presented them as ‘monsters’. In 1952 the film was picked up by Adelphi Films, whose attempts to have it released were rejected. Finally in 1963, with yet another distributor onboard, the film was awarded an X certificate and audiences were warned of the nature of the film so that “those to whom such sights are displeasing will not see it”.

In 1994 Freaks re-emerged for home entertainment release classification and was awarded a 15 due to the climactic scene in which the performers take their sadistic revenge on Cleopatra. The troupe are seen crawling through the rain, brandishing weapons, and it was argued by the BBFC that it is at this moment they are used and turned into monsters, which risks replacing the audience’s feelings of sympathy with fear. It was agreed that rating the film at 15 meant the viewer had the adequate maturity to understand that this sequence was part of the narrative and not an attempt to exploit or sensationalise the actor’s disabilities. In 2001 Freaks was resubmitted for a theatrical release and granted the 12A certificate it holds today, as it was believed that the film would help young people in Britain formulate tolerance towards those with physical abnormalities.

For me, the decision to ban Freaks for so many years on the grounds of exploitation feels ironic, as was best argued by Adelphi Films in 1952: “… the exploitation of human deformity in circuses, fairgrounds and variety theatres was a fact and hiding the subject away behind a display of moral righteousness made it impossible to deal with such exploitation”. This raises a question: how much of the decision to ban the film came down to an unwillingness to confront the lived reality of these individuals and a desire to hide from view those who had already been cast aside by society?

Disability Representation Today

When watching Freaks through the lens of today, it is clear that we are meant to sympathise and identify with the ‘freaks’ from the beginning. Browning wanted to challenge the disturbing notion that ‘undesirable’ physical appearances could reveal inner deviance and even immorality, a belief that was deeply rooted within society at the time. Unfortunately, his attempts to hail characters as heroes who are typically presented as villains were deeply misunderstood. What is even more shocking is that the use of facial disfigurements and deformities as a visual motif of the villain is still very prevalent throughout the film industry today. And on the rare occasion that a protagonist does have a disability, they are often inauthentically portrayed by able-bodied actors. Whilst the industry is making strides towards a more inclusive approach, filmmakers and actors with disabilities are still fighting for genuine, truthful representation 90 years later.

Whether you see Freaks as exploitative or empowering, it’s undeniable that Browning’s controversial cult classic was astoundingly ahead of its time. It redefines the concepts of love, beauty and difference, leading the viewer to confront their own prejudice and realise that how we perceive abnormality has more to do with the societal norms at the time than the person who is being observed. It speaks volumes that Freaks is still being spoken about and screened in cinemas today. After all, looking back is the only way to see how far we have come and how far we still need to go.

A moving, beautiful tribute to outsiders everywhere, Freaks remains one of the only US feature films in history to feature a predominantly disabled cast, highlighting just how much progress is still needed to ensure people with disabilities have their own authentic, original and nuanced stories represented on screen.

Following her FEDS placement, Tanya Charteris-Black continued her involvement with Tyneside Cinema as their Film Programme & Audience Development Assistant. Tanya previously worked on the programming and marketing teams for FilmBath, AMPLIFY! and Wales One World Film Festival where she developed a particular interest in cinema that champions the underrepresented, disrupts the status quo and sparks conversation.

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