Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is dedicating each Tuesday this month to examining and deconstructing historical depictions of disability in film. This is important.
Back in 2006 and continuing to the present, TCM has devoted one month each year to exploring how a particular social and/or cultural group (e.g., racial, ethnic, queer) has been portrayed on the big screen. Now, the disability community is finally getting its turn with what’s been titled “The Projected Image,” a nod to the fact that many depictions of disability historically projected nondisabled moviegoers’ fears of illness, isolation, and “otherness” onto disabled individuals. This is a momentous project for many reasons. First, we’re actually being recognized by the mainstream media for what we are: a cultural group. This remains a foreign concept for many who are unfamiliar with the disability communities or who perhaps have only ever conceptualized disability in terms of the outdated, damaging, impairment-based medical model. (Imagine me booing, hissing and giving a big thumbs down when you read about that specific model of disability). Second, to my knowledge, there has never been any television series in the US that proffered insightful analysis and critique of evolving media representation of PWDs (people with disabilities). So this is a big deal.
TCM, in conjunction with Inclusion In The Arts, will show over 20 films this month highlighting a range of disabilities and issues. Hosted by Ben Mankiewicz and series curator Lawrence Carter-Long, the series spans various decades and genres, addressing different impairments and their social repercussions. This includes an evening of films devoted entirely to returning veterans who acquired their disability through war—obviously a timely reminder that history repeats itself.
I’m particularly excited that one of my all-time favorites, Freaks, will premiere on October 30th. This is undoubtedly a controversial, polarizing movie. It is after all about 1930s “carnival freaks,” and the title alone makes some people squirm. There is absolutely no way it would ever get made today—Hollywood would never allow that many disabled people in one movie (ZING!). However, the film and actors involved have unbelievably fascinating backstories that are well-deserving of films of their own. Freakshows happened. This is a part of our history.
When I saw the movie for the first time I was fully bracing myself for the worst: trashy exploitation, objectification, disabled people portrayed as horrific monstrosities. And of course some of that is there. The tagline on one movie poster asks, “Can a full grown woman truly love a midget?” which is of course offensive, yet also absurd to the point of being comical. And there is so much more to the film than cheap advertising gags by 1930s MGM studios. There are surprisingly rich layers of disability culture found in this movie, and ultimately the so-called “freaks” end up as sympathetic characters, confident in their “otherness,” and happily part of a loving, diverse family that they weren’t born into but instead created. Contrarily, the nondisabled “normals” reveal themselves to be the ones who are truly grotesque.
One of my favorite scenes is the infamous wedding feast, where the closeknit group of carnival performers chant to the lone ablebodied Cleopatra, “we accept her, one of us” (which punk fans will no doubt recognize as a major inspiration for The Ramones).
The so-called freaks weren’t looking for acceptance by the nondisabled world as they had no use for it. They already belonged to a fiercely loyal community of misfits and instead, chose to invite their version of an outsider—what most of society labels as “normal”—into their inner circle. The reversal of traditional power dynamics in that scene is still incredibly profound and deeply resonates with the part of me that will always feel like an outcast. But it also reassures my position as an outcast in a community of likeminded, beautiful outcasts. Whether you love the film or hate it, it’s unlike anything else out there and an important historical documentation of one aspect of disability culture. This is just one example of the intriguing disability cinema to watch on TCM this month. You can peruse the schedule of all the movies here.