The Politics of “Cripped-Up” Acting

Curator's Note

by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

AHS: Freakshow could have been a show about radical disability justice. It could have been an incredible tool to show able bodied viewers the horrors of disability in an ableist world – and to some extent it did.

Freakshow got a few things right. From the horror of the fictional version of the Mutter Museum, seeking unusual bodies for their display, and therefore taking the bodies of disabled people by force, we get a really visceral look at the concept of being Othered. There’s nothing quite as horrifying as being murdered in order to become an object on display.

The problem is that, externally, the non-disabled actors were the ones fighting back, the ones giving inspiring speeches to their comrades – those who “cripped up” got visibility, those who were already disabled often died in service to story.

The “Horror” element here was absolutely able bodied people — a fact which I as a disabled viewer greatly appreciated. This is a lens that doesn’t often get used; typically the Other is seen as the horror, and the standard lens is that of Good. Flipping the script helps to contextualize disability as not evil – yet somehow I still came out of the show feeling dissatisfied. With all the violent onscreen deaths of disabled characters, it felt like voyeuristic murder of the Other, rather than a compassionate look at the disabled perspective.

Freakshow could have been a lot of things, but ultimately, while it made some interesting choices, it ended up only playing out the same old stories: abled people are able to take care of disabled people better than disabled people can take care of themselves. The show didn’t fulfill the promise of disabled characters winning the day.



Stevi Costa's picture

The Voyeuristic Murder of the Other

Thanks so much for this mini-essay, Elsa. I think this contributes a lot to the greater discussion about the representational politics of disability and “cripping up” in the performing arts.

Your comment about “the voyeuristic murder of the Other” really resonates with the way many marginalized communities are treated on AHS. I think about all the times Murphy has asked us to watch lesbians die at the ends of men (ESPECIALLY on Freakshow), and the gruesome use of black male bodies on Coven. We might claim that the show, and horror in general, traffics in this trope: voyeurism, destruction of the Other. But on AHS, this brushes against the show’s surface-level progressive politics: casting actors with disabilities (on almost every season), casting queer characters as both queer and non-queer, creating space for powerful black actresses.

How do we even begin to reconcile these two opposing forces in the broader universe of the show? Can we?


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