Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Exploitations of Embodiment: Born Freak and the Academic Bally Plank

David Mitchell
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, IL 60608-6904
E-mail: dmitchel@uic.edu

Sharon Snyder
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, IL 60608-6904


Freak show scholars must openly wrestle with the degree to which they imagine that one can learn something about disability by analyzing the social relations that constitute freak show exhibition. This is partially a question of the degree to which one believes that scholarly commentary can effectively divest interest in freak spectacle from an exploitative relationship. Additionally, one's relationship to this issue tends to rely upon whether the scholarly approach applied theorizes disability as unbridgeable difference from normativity or artificial augmentation of mere human variation into monstrous other. In order to probe this arena of thought — and reflect critically on the utility of the freak show for understanding the contemporary predicament of disabled people — we pursue an extended close reading of Mat Fraser's documentary film, Born Freak (2002), as a productive interrogation of extant critical traditions on the freak show. Born Freak literally takes up applications of various modes of freak show address as if it seeks to try on each one and assess its utility. The film employs its visual terrain as if it were an experimental lab where one can interrogate the pragmatic utility of each paradigm. Interestingly, Born Freak helps to expose the limits of current theories through Fraser's investigation into the experience of a contemporary disabled actor-turned-freak.

Keywords: Mat Fraser, modern freak performance, critique of freak studies

Freak Methodology: Making the Everyday More Evident

Whereas disability offers researchers general opportunities to engage with receptions of biological difference, the freak show context promises to make these everyday social relations more evident. The cultural engagement with disability typically occurs within less obtrusive contexts of stigmatizing interactions — a glance, a comment, an experience in less public — often clinical -- settings. Disabled people are left, as is often the case with other post-colonial subjects, to mull over the degree to which their social relations are mediated by constructed beliefs about variant bodies and minds. While the suspicion of disability as ever-infusing social exchanges remains high, it has been difficult to raise such suspicions beyond a certain level of speculation and anecdotal witnessing; therefore the freak show has provided a key opportunity for disability theorists to make these social belief systems about human differences manifest. The freak show, we might say, allows more submerged stigmatizing conceptions of disability to surface overtly. They are better prepared for analytical scrutiny on the grounds that, as the narrator of Katherine Dunn's cult novel Geek Love (1989) comments, the freak show wears its various ideologies on its sleeve (p. 156). Freak show scholarship proposes that it can unveil beliefs which, originating in Victorian era Capitalism, continue to operate but, perhaps, less openly in today's universe of disability.

Consequently, freak show analysis allows an explicitly political methodology to take shape. One can witness the formulation of a social exposé developing wherein disability scholarship wrestles openly with popular attitudes about human "deviance." Ideologies of disability become tangible surface, and thus, their critique allows readers to make connections between the lure of freak show interests and more general social formulas of "freakishness." A continuum is posited in such relations and the freak show allows one to presume a connection between the exotic mechanisms at work in sideshow spectacle and the less explicit investments that infuse daily disability interchanges. The freak-show exposes hierarchical relations that might otherwise go un-remarked — or, at least, less remarked.

In this paper, we will analyze disabled performance artist Mat Fraser's documentary Born Freak (2002) as an important exposé of the lure that freak shows pose to even the most savvy disability-based analyses. In undertaking this reading we don't intend to argue that the freak show should be placed off limits to scholarly inquiry. But rather that the allure of the freak show — even as a scholarly object — comes replete with significant conflicts of viewer-ship for consumers and researchers alike. We are interested in trying to anatomize the obstacles presented by the freak show to successful research initiatives into its sordid exhibitionistic tendencies. Fraser's documentary carefully explores the potential and, ultimately, the significant limitations to reclaiming the freak show as a viable political terrain.

Our readings suggest that there is something too easy about scholarly attempts to posit a continuum (or not) between disability and freaks. To date, many studies surface from their descent into the freak show context relatively free of broader disability theorization. Most of all the distance of scholarly investigation can falsely operate as a form of domestication on the more unruly aspects of freak show life. This is one of the key points made by Avital Ronell in her monumental work on science and technology: The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. For Ronell, medical theater performs an operation on the power of the grotesque in that it tries to contain the threatening power of deviancy within a cocoon of empirical neutrality. Likewise, Disability Studies scholarship on freak shows often rest comfortably in their containment of freak difference by forwarding freaks as safe objects of academic inquiry. Nearly every scholarly work on freaks substantiates their analyses by inserting freak visuals, making parallels between medical and performance classifications openly, and championing freak resourcefulness as entrepreneurs of the stage. Freaks become scholarly specimens we can gaze at from the safe perspective of academic analysis without being sullied by their status as historical spectacles. For the space of a scholarly study, freaks are transformed from oddities into material bodies and we are encouraged to rest assured that they have now been divested of their power over ourselves as researchers working in critical Disability Studies. Our politicized perspective renders them as an artifact of antiquity.

Born Freak: Social Analysis and False Salvos

The opening of Born Freak begins with an overhead shot of Mat Fraser lying on an artificial grassy landscape reminiscent of the British children's show Teletubbies. The location of the disabled actor's body within such fantasy landscape situates Matt cozily dreaming about his "big break" in show business. The Teletubbies-like background establishes the chasm that separates him from accomplishing a successful entrance into a "serious" acting career. The scene fades into an action hero set with Mat dressed in an all-black, James Bond-like costume. As he karate-kicks his way across a set, acting out the fantasy rescue of a "damsel in distress," a barrier quickly looms: the abductors laugh at the sight of a male hero with a disability. Fraser turns away with a dejected look, humiliated by having been seduced into a narrative that would remark upon his body as laughably unfit. The juxtaposition of these opening fantasy sequences gives us Mat's quest for a stage in which to participate as a matter of the gulf between professional ambition and bodily nonconformity. The protagonist's identity as an actor is constantly threatened by historical definitions of disability as exotic spectacle, unproductive labor, and shameful deviance. Most pressingly, the freak represents an existence that barely looks back. In disability movement terms, freaks invite looks and stares from audiences and researchers. They don't stare back. Sometimes one can go backstage and obtain a further story of real life history, such as in the off stage moments of Tod Browning's Freaks or in the questing of Eli Clare to ask historical figures about their own reactions to display and exhibition. In contrast, Disability Studies and authorship has sought to stare back from the vantage of the exhibited.

Fraser's encounter with his own imposed freakishness motivates his journey into the historical contexts of the freak show. If Mat is to learn from past examples of other disabled performance ancestors then the freak show may serve as a useful way to realize his professional aspirations. Through historical recovery of the freak show Fraser may better assess his performance options. Consequently, Part 1 of Born Freak inquires into this history much in the way that current Disability Studies research approaches the topic. The documentary sets out to comprehend whether the aesthetic, social, and professional residue of the freak show informs the reception of disability on stage today.

A number of Disability Studies researchers have argued that the freak show replaced more metaphysical conceptions of disability as monstrosity (Adams, 2001, p.10). Whereas monstrosity traditionally contextualizes disability within a religious moral discourse of sin and bad karma, the freak show functioned as a transitional cultural space on the historical cusp between monstrosity and medicalization. This transformation of disabled people from fantastical hybrids merging human, animal, and vegetable characteristics into hyper-real human forms with extraordinary oddities, brings the monstrous down to earth so to speak. To a significant extent this metamorphosis was underwritten by medical explanations of human variation. Rather than the three-way, other worldly amalgam posed by monsters, freak discourse imposed a duality that positioned its subjects as part diagnostic condition and part curiosity. Freaks were both born in a medical-scientific sense and made through appeals to consumer fantasies of deviance. The natural and the supernatural conjoined to produce radically atypical bodies.

A key disability research question, then, informing contemporary studies of freaks concerns the agency of individual performers in their creation of artificial stage personas. For instance, were freak actors able to interrogate the bases of normalcy in their live performance routines? If so, to what degree and where would one find such evidence given the relatively sparse records? Is there some inherent insurrectional potential in freak display itself as Leslie Fiedler suggests? Most scholars explicate degrees of agency in the performances of freak exhibition when available. The choice of exhibiting one's self may not have been a choice at all. If a disabled person had no other options for economic livelihood, then freak exhibition proved a Hobbesian choice at best — the interaction with audiences in the freak encounter could potentially serve as a site of insurrection. As Arturo, the seal man, in Geek Love poetically recites to his curiosity seekers: "I get glimpses of the horror of normalcy. Each of these innocents on the street is engulfed by a terror of their own ordinariness. They would do anything to be unique" (1990, p. 223). In making such a commentary Arturo inverts traditional formulas by identifying normalcy as the condition from which those who view the freak show seek to escape. Uniqueness becomes the capital of the freak and those who consume spectacle search to shore up their own lack of originality.

Yet, unlike Dunn's novelistic representation of freak repertoires as resistance, there is little evidence offered in any of the current studies that freak politics could be effectively mobilized. Instead, freak show performers tended to find themselves narrated by the terms of their diminished capacities. Most exhibits emphasized their ability to carry on banal activities — smoking or drinking tea for those without arms, performing a handstand without legs, individuals of short and tall stature standing next to each for purposes of heightened scale, etc. Freak show exhibitors argued on behalf of the "humanity" of their exhibitions at the lowest common denominator; that is, that the individual performers had a "humanity" glimpsed by the fact that they could perform menial activities. The freak was comprised of a deviant body with alternative ways of performing largely taken-for-granted tasks.

"Ends" of the Freak Show

At a key point in Part 1 of Born Freak, Frasier explains, in tandem with a scholarly freak "expert" from the U.K., that Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, represents a critical turning point in freak show history. Whereas most freak performers sought to establish a rapport with their audiences, Merrick turned himself into a pure object. The Elephant Man act cultivated no verbal interaction and allowed himself to be gazed upon without interruption. Thus, Merrick "realized" the full promise of the freak show: permission to stare without fear of recrimination in the encounter with another's humanity. Ironically, Merrick's performance may be the most explicit form of "resistance" that freak show scholars have unearthed to date in that his pose as pure spectacle undermined the tenuous pleasures of freak show gazing. As Fraser points out, the Elephant Man's refusal to engage his audience led directly to calls for the end of the freak show in the U.K. Even those who indulged in the prurience of freak show viewing felt utterly unnerved and exposed in their own scope-aphilia. This critical insight into performative resistance provides the first significant contribution of Born Freak to our current knowledgebase on freaks. It also demonstrates the relative failure of individual efforts to turn the freak show into a politicized encounter with normalcy.

While Merrick's refusal to address his viewers proved critical to the upending of freak show pursuits, Born Freak goes on to identify at least three other related causes: 1) a scandalized public morality that could not be successfully recouped by "entertainment" rhetoric; 2) the expansion of humanistic medicalization that argued containment in hospitals was preferable to barbarous displays of human aberrancy; and 3) progressive era do-gooders and pre-eugenicists who found in freak exhibition a cause against which to struggle on behalf of the "victimized." In recounting the historical denouement of the freak show, Born Freak quickly encapsulates much of qualitative freak show scholarship with modern disabled actors who recreate well-known freak performances. The film could end at this point by accomplishing two key goals: 1) an effective analysis of freak show contexts and history; and 2) through its success at employing disabled actors in its re-creation efforts. By the conclusion of Part 1, Born Freak effectively exposes the constructed nature of freak exhibits while also analyzing the form's rise and fall as a legitimate form of entertainment.

Yet, this historical recovery proves only partially satisfactory. The use of disabled actors to recreate freak show acts cannot be successfully recuperated from our politicized vantage point. Fraser's investigation surfaces with many questions in regard to the effort to establish a viable continuum between yesterday's freaks and today's disability attitudes. The protagonist's academic, authoritative pronouncements on the stereotypical diminishment of participants in this seemingly antiquated form of performance art fails to significantly undermine the objectifying spectacle for contemporary documentary viewers -- nor do they unravel the continuing power of human exhibition.

Additionally, the project of recreation provides a further source of conflict through which the documentary transitions into Part 2. The second segment of Born Freak begins with a static camera situated at an extreme low angle on the grounds of a modern day carnival. Mat Fraser walks directly toward the audience and his body gradually fills the frame while discussing recent incarnations of the freak show. This documentary "breaking of the third wall" through a direct address of viewers tries to recoup Fraser's (and, consequently, our own) earlier participation in the freak show spectacle. Although the U.K. provides the backdrop for freak show history in Part 1, the U.S. becomes the location for our contemporary consumption of renewed sightings of freak show practices in Part 2. While historical re-enactments provide an opportunity for the film documentarian to insert disabled subjectivities into a predominantly objectifying historical record, re-creations of freak performers offer little solace to Fraser's personal effort. In fact, these resuscitations of the past revivify the original objectification. In spite of the analytical commentary delivered by Fraser and other scholars, there is no cathartic recovery of "disability" through freak show re-creations. Born Freak helps to chronicle how re-appropriation of freaks proves difficult at best. The freak show spectacle cannot be undone so easily and historical methodology leaves processes of objectification largely intact.

Instead, Part 2 moves most radically toward a recognition that the discussion of freak shows within an analytical frame of academic commentary results in its own objectifying project; not that the prurient gaze of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is simply reconvened, but rather that our own spectatorial proclivities need to be examined as well. In order to expose the false distance provided by academic analysis on freaks, we next encounter Fraser positioned at the top of a tall, partially enclosed children's slide. Part 2, consequently, reiterates another version of the infantilizing landscape that characterized Part 1's Teletubbies opening. The slide is strategically positioned in the scene high above the carnival grounds of Coney Island. One first gets the sense that this bird's-eye perch provides Fraser and the viewer with an overview of the carnival's layout. We are being treated to a near-omniscient perspective as if a visual mapping of Coney Island will deliver us to an even more comprehensive understanding of its modern mechanisms of exploitation. The documentary asks us to physically map the freak show in our own minds if a hope of escape proves possible. Yet, as the camera pans across the grounds from its perch, our view is partially obscured by the sides and bars of the slide. No pure overview is available as the safety provisions that keep participants within the plastic tube serve as a partial hindrance to a more direct encounter. Consequently, the promise of analytical mastery through visual omniscience proves partial at best.

To further emphasize this failed perspectival mastery of the freak show's coordinates, Part 2 replays this scene a bit later on in a tower ride. Fraser gazes out the window of a rotating pedestal that moves up and down a phallic trellis. To the more symbolic-minded the tower might make reference to "ivory tower perspectives" as well as the patriarchal organization of freak shows past and present. But even if the metaphoric equation is not intended, the tower ride, like its predecessor shot on the slide, offers no significant insight to the researcher-manqué that Mat's character represents. There is no ultimate systemic overview available because the freak show functions as a house of mirrors. Participants manage to wind up trapped in a maze of prurient options that cannot be transcended by even the most expert commentary. Born Freak asks us to contemplate the degree to which the documentary exposé undermines its own critical efforts. We remain tethered to the ministrations of spectacle through the continuing discourses of popular entertainment forms accompanied by rampant medicalization. Rather than providing an opportunity to re-signify freaks, freak show research re-entrenches us in the very apparatus that critical analysis would destabilize.

Consequently, neither history nor qualitative methodologies offer us a perspective that can successfully apprehend the freak show by undermining its allure. Yet, perhaps, as many postmodern analyses of the freak show argue, the mystery of the freak show can only be chased down in its rhetorical dimensions. If the freak show depends upon the power of semiotics, then rhetorical analysis may provide a better handle on the practice of human display. The freak show was consistently structured in a formulaic manner that relied on the power of oral contextualization: Potential consumers found themselves lured in by the larger than life paintings of freaks positioned along the façade and/or by the cries of the freak show barker. The barker filled the surrounding carnival area with rhetorical promises of exotic encounters. A form of contextual staging is at work in this hyperbole: One encountered the freak even if you did not pay the entrance fee to physically enter the theatrical space. Calls to enter the domain of the freak served as preparation of the potential consumer for the "material" bodies within.

Much like other reflexive postmodern research projects, Born Freak follows Mat Fraser as he undertakes his own personal investigation of freak show rhetoric. Part 2 is dominated by the protagonist's efforts to track down working barkers, freak show promoters, and contemporary freak show performers. The film sheds the historical methodology of Part 1 and now undertakes a more explicitly sociological, qualitative study. Fraser pursues this goal in order to better understand the verbal nuances of freak presentation. While he arrives with his own theoretically informed perspective on the made nature of freaks, his interviewees rebuff his perspective with an essentialist commentary. For instance, as a response to Mat's question about "what makes a freak?", one sideshow barker states, "Anyone who is different or strange" in some way. The freak show privileges corporeal difference — particularly congenital etiologies — in that performed difference lacks sufficient authenticity. As Dunn's disabled narrator tells us in an ironic inversion of Simone deBeauvoir's famous constructionist adage about gender: "a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born" (p. 20). A pure rhetorician's insight to the made nature of the freak show immediately turns insufficient for explicating freaks as verbal concoctions. Even if the verbal score of the freak show sets the stage, bodily differences serve as the privileged foundation of effective spectacle. As Fraser learns during an interview with a modern day "bearded woman," freaks depend upon the authenticity of their differences that no amount of linguistic acrobatics can produce. Fraser seems to accept this argument by commenting on the connection he feels with his interviewee on the basis of their shared bodily differences. As he tells her in a moment of political solidarity based on embodiment: "I feel this kinship, you know."

Material differences, as Rachel Adams argues, may be supplemented by "gesture, costume, and staging . . . [but] Freak shows are guided by the assumption that freak is an essence, the basis for a comforting fiction that there is a permanent, qualitative difference between deviance and normality, projected spatially in the (physical) distance between the spectator and the body on stage" (p. 6). Freaks are "material" entities performing in such a way that their differences are hyper-dramatized. Their performances hinge upon intersections of the corporeal and the fantastical. For Adams the body of the "visibly different" born into freakdom remains central: "Although the components of freakishness change with time, the centrality of the body remains a constant and determining feature of the freak's identity" (p. 6). Possessing a body that identifies him as an automatic qualifier for freak show employment, Fraser has little choice but to acknowledge that linguistic hyperbole only goes so far.

As if surrendering one analytical avenue in favor of another, Fraser next pursues industry details of formulas for freakishness through the issue of coercion of performers by freak show handlers. During a job interview to see if he "has what it takes" to be a contemporary freak he asks one promoter: "How do you get these freaks?" The response he receives invests full agency in the performers: "They come to us, we didn't find them."

Freak show handlers deny coercion of any kind and display a form of postmodern politics in their own defense of the freak show as a viable form of entertainment. Individuals seek out a life on the stage, and the freak show provides little more than a venue for their "self expression." Individual agency does not have to be compromised in order to staff the modern day carnival and, consequently, the industry decries all insinuations of manipulative tactics. Additionally, as Fraser quickly discovers, the pay is quite ample, particularly for a "born freak," and his own desires for economic autonomy and the acting limelight lure him into accepting the offer almost without hesitation. He walks away from the exchange assuring the audience and himself that all will be well. He is in control and, armed with social model theory, he will adeptly avoid any exploitation of his own body. This is a cash-and-carry opportunity and the only exploitation will be his manipulation of the system. And for a good cause as the "findings" will be in the name of "research!"

But irony abounds at the freak show and we quickly follow Mat into the complete reversal of his own expectations. The economic and physical realities of freak show performance life press upon his body and social conscience from the first day. There are substantial demands made upon performers' bodies by those attempting to keep up with the exhausting schedule. Like all live exhibitions, the freak show extracts not only economic livelihood from its audiences but human labor capital from its actors as well. Born Freak exposes the inhuman schedule of the freak show as an unexpected source of exploitation; keeping up a regimen of seven shows a day, six days a week immediately undermines any fantasies of an easy money gig. It also quickly saps the pretense of effective political resistance. The film brings us behind stage and we watch as Fraser's character increasingly wilts beneath the demands on his time, energy, and rapidly dwindling efforts at theatrical exposé. In spite of his best efforts, Fraser finds it impossible to outmaneuver the debasement of the freak show form itself. The camera emphasizes this fact by showing the protagonist literally double over at his make-up mirror awash in exhaustion, personal humiliation, and frustration over his incapacity to transcend the terms of the historical institution.

Of course, in addition to the physical stressors accompanying his new life in the freak show, Fraser also experiences his own inevitable degradation. His stage performance, which literally recreates an exhibition of one of his 19th century freak show ancestors, Seal-o, fails to achieve the desired level of political satire. In the process of duplicating the comments and actions of his predecessor, we watch as the act increasingly mires the performer in degrading spectacle. Fraser finds no effective politicized venue within the carnival tent and, as if to emphasize this fact, the camera performs various pans across the faces of Fraser's audiences; they stare at the performance with a collective discomfort and the show seems almost too humiliating to witness from an "enlightened" freak show audiences' perspective. The act of simply occupying an objectifying gaze is no longer possible — if it ever was to begin with — and the performer's audiences are caught either looking away in embarrassment or staring with some difficulty.

The freak-show performance literally pulled down from the shelf of historical relics cannot be simply recreated from a knowing, critical perspective. Rather the diminished performance potential of asking audiences to re-enter a compromised space of gazing ultimately reduces the experience to a renewed level of objectification. The mundane "abilities" on display in the act — shaving, sawing a board, playing drums — were all intended to re-masculinize the male freak and restore a semblance of his likeness to audience members. Yet, from the perspective of a late 20th century on-looker, little is left to the gaze other than a detached "sociological" perspective. Pure prurience has been evacuated and audiences peer at the spectacle with a look somewhat akin to a contemporary researcher's expression of critical distance on an exploitative display. We know full well this is a debased form of consumption yet we allow ourselves to look in the name of a politicized enlightenment. The documentary ultimately points out that no such assurance-in-detachment is available.

As researchers, this conflict of gazing becomes the source of the documentary's most profound insight: Sociological distance merely gives way to a new formation of the gaze. In fact, it provides a model that allows the freak show gaze to continue while seemingly disguised behind a façade of interpretive skepticism. The contemporary freak show spectator now rationalizes the freak show gaze as a form of "sociological" knowledge gathering. During a close up interview in the back stage dressing area, Fraser explains his anxiety about having to work on the bally platform as particularly demeaning. Derived from the term ballyhoo, meaning a sensationalized promotion, the bally plank serves as an area near the barker where one or two acts give potential spectators a taste of the exotic spectacles waiting inside. This aspect of the performance proves particularly distasteful and Fraser describes the experience as pure objectification of his disability; he is out of control of his own presentation and subject to the dehumanizing commentaries of those around him. Additionally, he also bemoans his inability to achieve a dynamic rapport with the audience. The gambit in the freak show is that a performer will be able to strike an intimacy that will effectively shame the audience into a realization of their own prurient desires. However, this productive value is also overturned in the film. In its place, a new gazing formation occurs: in order to rescue itself from the shame of its own desires, contemporary audiences now adopt a quizzical (one is tempted to call it "critical") relationship to the embodied spectacle of the freak show. Our contemporary spectatorship can now be characterized as a "knowing" one, but this does not dismantle practices of objectification inherent in freak show gazing.

At this point the documentary begins to allow Fraser's own investments in the freak show undertaking to undergo scrutiny. This shift in focus occurs most explicitly in his interview with Lori and Reba Schapelle — two women conjoined at the head that are the subject of a documentary feature in their own right. Following the redress of his arguments about the freak show with promoters and barkers, Fraser pursues a justification of his participation by asking Reba Schapelle for her take on carnival exhibition. After all, he presumes that the Schapelle's experience of spectacle, daily gawking, and patronizing interactions must be parallel with his own experiences and that of other disabled performers. Reba immediately rejects this version of audience responses to her performances and scoffs at the idea of debasing one's body in any carnival-like setting. She and her sister both critique their interlocutor's version of spectacle-ridden presentation as the only option available. In turn, they both claim a sincere investment on the part of their audiences in talent (particularly Reba's country music singing aspirations) and full dignity as human beings.

Fraser seems noticeably stung by Reba's disregard for the freak show and her steadfast claim that she "would never do anything that required taking off my clothes." Prior to this scene we have witnessed excerpts from Fraser's recreation of Seal-o's act where he removes his shirt and pants in order to display his agility as a "man without arms." As Fraser leaves the interview and returns to his apartment in a cab, we listen to his voice-over commentary offer a somewhat sarcastic blessing to the Schapelle sisters: "I know the music industry and it can be a harsh place so good luck Reba Schapelle." Unlike his embrace of the freak show as inevitable, the Schapelle sisters refuse to acknowledge any deterministic relationship to objectification. Viewers are left with a feeling that Fraser may pose as a more "realistic" evaluator of Reba's claim. At this point in the documentary, we may share in this cynicism while still holding out some hope for Reba's less deterministic perspective.

As if to visually represent the degree to which Fraser has settled into the terms of his findings (no matter how dispiriting) to this point in the film, Part 2 ends with the protagonist asleep in bed. The camera, in deep blue filter to simulate nighttime, pans slowly — even caressingly — across his prone body. The combined effect of these techniques is to place the viewer in soft focus conventions reminiscent of soft porn. The scene puts viewers, at first, as possessors of a delicate intimacy. In contrast to the harsh spotlighting of the freak show stage, the slow pan and blue filter on Mat's body momentarily reclaims his body in a less dehumanizing fashion — as if he can be purged of the experience through an assurance that the filmmaker has not abandoned him to the objectifying role of a research specimen.

Over the course of the film Fraser's character occupies a variety of roles from disabled actor to historian to qualitative investigator to freak show performer. Part 2 closes with a scene that assuages lingering anxieties about the freak show by reminding us that the disability-identified viewer remains in full possession of his/her own humanity.

Yet, this act of visually caressing Fraser's "non-freakish" body also leaves an unsettling aftertaste. If we can be assured that other viewing positions on the disabled body remain available, such assurance relies on the necessity of contrasting his near-nude body with the more demeaning images that have come before. One (less?) objectifying representational mode supplants another. The contemporary disabled body exists by virtue of a visual residue from the freak show past through a contrast that continues to conjure up the freak as potent image in our interpretive reservoir. Our "humanization" is trapped in the necessity of referencing dehumanizing representations of prior histories. These representational modes call each other into being.

As if to emphasize the inability to simply leave behind the freak image, the concluding section of Born Freak opens with a static camera situated at the end of Fraser's bed. His body moves in time-lapse motion across the mattress as if tormented by freak show nightmares. Images of the freak show from earlier in the film project on the stark wall next to the bed. The combined effects suggest that Fraser relives these scenes in his sleep — his research expedition literally haunts him. Pointedly the sleeping body has rolled the length of the bed into the corner nearest the wall where he is literally trapped without an escape route. The third visual effect — a seamless split screen — is introduced with Mat's sleep deprived figure seated in the foreground while his sleeping figure and the projected film images remain to the right of the frame and behind him. The mise-en-scene visually represents the conflict that the documentary has pursued throughout the film — the incapacity of even the most socially informed research to overpower and tame the cultural damage wrought by the freak show. The documentary literally suspends time in this sequence and leaves viewers to contemplate the ways in which the past cannot be past — disabled people continue to live in the midst of the historical wreckage that inform our public reception.

The post-corporeal insight enacts a juxtaposition that situates the research enterprise as subject to its own immersion in the constitution (or reconstitution) of its research object. There is no ultimate domestication of the freak show in the operations of historical, sociological, or postmodern efforts to divest power from a mode of gazing. Perhaps, at best, these modes of analysis can serve as a transitional device on the path to a less objectifying relationship that has yet to arrive. However, even this less diminished goal remains unclear.

The remainder of the film ironically portrays Fraser as if he were an addict succumbing to his own historical legacy. The documentary's following scene shows Fraser participating in a performance art festival in Edinburgh, Scotland about the politicization of cultural differences. In this festival he has resurrected the Sealo act again; only this time he performs a version of his own developing split subjectivity as the basis of the performance. Whereas the Coney Island carnival act simply reproduced Seal-o's performance, the new version moves between this freak recovery and a character named, Tam (Mat spelled backwards). Tam allows Fraser to more directly comment on the limited options for his predecessors by representing the more everyday struggles of people with disabilities in contemporary society. By fusing these two versions of himself, the act promises to serve as an earnest embodiment of disability's social conundrum, while also trying to make a more direct linkage between former modes of spectatorial viewing and pragmatic political concerns of today. The camera captures images of audiences who seem much more involved — and, therefore, less uncomfortable — with this open political commentary. In fact, almost all of the discomfort from the Coney Island performances seems to fall away; the Edinburgh audience rests more contentedly with the idea that this is a collective political endeavor, one that removes the prurience of human difference as exhibition and substitutes it with a purer "sociological" purpose.

In order to refute any simple resolution to the freak show dilemma, Born Freak follows Fraser to one more performance venue -- another modern-day U.K. freak show where he appears under the headline act as the "Thalidomide Ninja." This literal reincarnation of the late 19th century freak show overlaid with a popular entertainment superhero formula also resuscitates the role of the barker and medical context in the guise of an actress dressed as a nurse. The presence of these two figures return the freak to an anomalous figure strung out between the prurience of entertainment and medical theaters. The barker calls out his hyperbolic promise of amazing feats about to be witnessed followed by the nurse's diagnostic commentary that rehearses, x-ray in hand, the coordinates of Fraser's "skeletal" disability. No longer just an external spectacle, the x-ray accompanied by medical description provides an internal landscape for freak-ish objectification as well.

Following the performance where we watch the protagonist break a cinder block with his forehead, we follow Fraser outside into the damp cobblestone streets. His voiceover exclaims guiltily: "OK, so I did it again." The battle with his own personal angels from the night before continue and, in a moment of visual continuity that digitally recalls the previous scene in bed, the split screen returns and Fraser literally follows himself in a circle while making admonishments about his appetite for the grotesque. By this point the film has taken its methodological critique full circle as well and we are left without a political, economic, social, or academic avenue of pure progress to pursue. The freak show has effectively rematerialized out of the past and eclipsed our modern strategies for rendering it more politically palatable — or, perhaps more to the point, this new "palatability" is exactly the problem. Like the image on Derrida's dime that wears down but not away, disability continues to experience the press of the freak show as a ghostly counterpart. For Fraser, the research mission has not proven libratory and the film leaves us to contemplate its own marked incapacities.

Conclusion: The Academic Bally Plank

Born Freak provides viewers with a series of impossibilities born out by its own research findings: first, the distinct possibility that no viable place in the professional world for a disabled actor exists outside of some freak show context — the freak show comprises a near-deterministic legacy to which the disabled body is bound. Second, even a systemic critique of the freak show offers little salvage from its dehumanizing effects. Spectacles of prurience continue to resuscitate modes of objectification they set out to undermine. Third, the economic motives of the freak show mire participants in a base, pornographic activity that significantly compromise arguments about professional agency within modes of capitalist spectacle. Fourth, the born freak is not simply equivalent to the made freaks of gender, race, or sexuality and a credible research undertaking must at least refute the ease of comparison that such an approach cultivates. Fifth, no amount of performative acumen can redeem participants on the basis of their talent, economic necessity, social model analysis armature, etc. There is no amount of professional or academic triage that can redeem one (no matter how personally beneficial) from the freaks' exploitation of embodiment. Consequently, there is only a tainted politicized rescue available by critical freak discourse; instead, one is asked to contemplate our own insufficiency to turn the freak show into a vehicle of disability reappropriation, resistance, or reclamation.

Born Freak leaves us without a program in the sense that Eli Clare means when he writes:

Now with this history (the freak show) in hand, can I explain why the word freak unsettles me, why I have not embraced this piece of disability history, this story of disabled people who earned their livings by flaunting their disabilities, this heritage of resistance, an in-your-face resistance similar to "We're here, we're queer, get used to it?" Why doesn't the work freak connect me easily and directly to subversion? The answer I think lies in the transition from freak show to doctor's office, from curiosity to pity, from entertainment to pathology. The end of the freak show didn't mean the end of our display or the end of voyeurism. We simply traded one kind of freakdom for another (1999, p. 87).

Clare's analysis anticipates the findings of the disability documentary Born Freak quite well. As part of the new disability cinema, Fraser's effort helps to demonstrate the power of the analytical contribution that might be made to Disability Studies discourse by digital video. Nor have we, in this paper, avoided the problems inherent in undertaking freak show analysis. There is something alarmingly recalcitrant about efforts to destabilize, re-appropriate, or politically expose the freak show as a bygone representational mode. Its objectifying formula threatens to transcend its historical moment; even sepia-toned obituaries of the form wind up invested with a strange nostalgia. Analytical efforts to divest the freak show of its prurience construct their own equivalents of bally plank exhibition. The exploitation of human embodiment is somehow still too much with us and we fail if our own prurience is presumed insulated by virtue of our politics or the "distance" of academic discourse. Our freak show discourse can only end on a cautionary note: Even Disability Studies rolls across the stage of the freak show at its own risk.


Adams, R. (2001). Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bogdan, R. (1990). Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clare, E. (1999). Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Derrida, J. (1974). White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy. New Literary History 6: 11-74.

Dunn, K. (1990). Geek Love. New York: Warner Books.

Fiedler, L. (1978). Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ronell, A. (1991). The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Sapin, P. (Director). (2002). Born Freak. [Television broadcast]. United Kingdom: Wild Planet Productions.

Copyright (c) 2005 David Mitchell, Sharon Snyder

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