“It’s All the Same Movie”: Code of the Freaks Cracks Hollywood’s Ableist Legacy Wide Open

Sarah Duncan
Content Warnings
AbleismAssault/Abuse/ViolenceSexual ContentPTSD/Mental IllnessHospitalization
“I’m having a hard time writing this review,” I told my partner on the phone...
Dec 29, 2021 7:37 PM

Written by Sarah Duncan, blog contributor for Monstering

CW: Discussion of ableism, police violence, sexual violence, murder, psychiatric and institutional abuse

“I’m having a hard time writing this review,” I told my partner on the phone. “Usually I’d take a film or show to task, dissect it. But my main feeling about Code of the Freaks is just that it was awesome,” I continued. “Do you think I could just submit a document with five stars?”

Clearly, I decided against an essay filled with clip-art. But my glowing sentiments remain: Code of the Freaks, directed by Salome Chasnoff and created by Susan Nussbaum, Alyson Patsavas, Carrie Sandahl, Jerzy Rose, and Crom Saunders, is a phenomenal piece of cultural critique and fierce manifesto, all in one. The film is a stark, indicting revelation on Hollywood’s exploitation of disabled people and communities for financial gain. Expertly edited by Jerzy Rose, this documentary feels like a tour of a museum, with each new harmful Hollywood ableist trope an exhibit boasting arrays of evidence to back the film’s claims.

The evidence is in Code of the Freaks’ impressive source archive, which ranges from Hollywood’s earliest days to movies produced in the last two years. An archive this large could easily have been too unwieldy for viewers to grasp, but Chasnoff’s pacing of the film balances the clips and analysis with aplomb. The film is guided by insightful, clever commentary from a group of disabled writers, theorists, and artists: Lawrence Carter-Long, Candace Coleman, Mike Ervin, Mat Fraser, Timotheus “TJ” Gordon, Jr., Tsehaye Geralyn Hebert, Tommy Heffron, Riva Lehrer, Tekki Lomnicki, and the creators themselves.  Together, their critical remarks demonstrate that since Hollywood’s inception, ableism has been a core aspect of the film industry, not merely a hapless mistake from otherwise well-intentioned able-bodied directors, writers, and actors. Ableism is a choice the industry routinely makes in order to reap rewards.

And reap they do. At the end of the documentary, viewers are shown a long, visual catalogue of clips of able-bodied actors winning Oscars for their portrayals of disabled characters in acclaimed — and monetarily successful — films. Here, Susan Nussbaum points out that seeing able-bodied actors walk up to the stage to accept their awards as a kind of visual “gotcha!” The world sees the actor able-bodied and well, having discarded disability after it has ceased its usefulness for the industry. In a sense, Nussbaum states, these awards ceremonies are a kind of “cure.”

At first, this confused me, until I thought more about what the ideology and practice of “cure” does in our society. The medical model of disability believes disability to be an error to be fixed, and as a result, this model has fostered broader ideologies of cure that position disability as a bad, wrong thing in need of medical — or otherwise — correction. This correction comes in many forms, but it’s crucial to note that ideologies of cure do not account for the agency of disabled people. Disabled people may or may not want certain kinds of medical help or treatment, but the medical model’s curative approach strips disabled persons of their dignity, treating disabled people as ignorant, childlike, and simply unable to participate in their lives or their care. This is why medical corrections (found throughout history and modern day alike) include abusive and violent methods like lobotomies, forced institutionalization, and non-consensual sterilization.

Furthermore, curative rhetoric unabashedly promotes death as a solution to disability, and as Code of the Freaks teaches us, Hollywood does too (Ex: Million Dollar Baby, Elephant Man). Ultimately, when a disability cannot be cured (so-called) scientifically by the medical industrial complex, disability has routinely been cured in other ways — namely, erasure, either by removal from society and life itself, or forced assimilation into it.

It is this kind of “cure” that Nussbaum is pointing to when she says that awards ceremonies are curative. Real disabled people, and our full, complex lives and bodies, are absent from the films and the award ceremonies. Hollywood reframes its exploitation of disability in the name of honoring so-called inspirational stories where disability is overcome through sheer will and white privilege (Soul Surfer) and or used as a conduit to help the able-bodied people learn to be better human beings (or less racist, like in Radio). Any claim of benevolent representation is, of course, a facade. Code of the Freaks cuts through the bullshit, never letting us forget their main argument: Hollywood is using the disabled community for a quick buck by constantly erasing us (replacing us, misrepresenting us, killing us off) and putting us in danger in an already hostile, ableist world.

While the documentary is far more comprehensive, here is a list of most of

the ableist depictions discussed in the film:

1) A disabled character is lobotomized.

2) A disabled character is institutionalized against their will, but it’s for the best.

3) A disabled character goes out into the world, but then chooses to return to the institution because they like it better. Institutions are overwhelmingly nice, safe places to be.

4) A disabled character overcomes their disability, usually to do some kind of physical feat or sport, but sometimes also in order to fight crime. This inspires the able-bodied people in the films, the audiences, and the awards committees.

5) A Black disabled cis male character is depicted as childlike and futureless. Somehow, the character manages to teach an entire community of white middle class people that racism sure is bad. [Note: there was little to no mention of tropes regarding Black disabled women, which was, itself, an illuminative of a harmful trope — one of absence and exclusion].

6) Little people are magical or whimsical, as are some Black disabled characters.

7) Blind white women are hyper sexualized, and they are dominated by seeing men. Often in bathtubs.

8) Blind white men, on the other hand, do “masculine” things to “compensate” for their blindness, which according to Hollywood means driving very fast or waving a weapon.

9) Deaf women are mysterious and unknowable, a special foreign land to be conquered by hearing men.

10) Disability magically disappears. Not overcome, per se, it just… vanishes. Poof, Heidi can walk now. And Secret Garden kid just needed trees.

11) Disabled characters are almost exclusively in romantic and sexual relationships with able-bodied characters who are, either implicitly or explicitly, doing the disabled character a favor. Usually a sexual one.

12) Villains (and monsters, but especially villains) are often disfigured.

13) Intellectually disabled people are harmless, adult children, or violent, uncontrollable people who need to be outright put down (age old example, Of Mice and Men).

14) Mental illness — (especially depictions of Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly MPD) causes characters to be violent or downright evil. Which leads to perhaps the most horrifying ableist trope of all —

15) A disabled character kills themself — or is euthanized — because disability is portrayed as a fate worse than death. Usually, when this happens, some kind of beautiful music plays and we see a shot of the night sky.

So: so what?

“It’s just a show!” some people will say.

“Can’t we just enjoy things?”

“It’s only a joke!” We’ve all heard these things. At one time or another, we may even have said them, thought them, or listened to some C-list celebrity comedian say them. Even if we wouldn’t admit it. Why care? So none of the disabled panelists in the film could name a single Hollywood film they liked or felt was responsible, what of it? Why care?

All of these disabled people had their lives stolen from them by police or other people with systemic power. Many of these people were people of color, because ableism and racism are inextricably tied. All of them were murdered because they were perceived as violent threats. Officers regularly escalated to fatal shootings because they felt the victim was being maliciously uncooperative when they didn’t speak or respond. It never occurred to these officers that the people they were cornering were autistic, or deaf, or traumatized, or intellectually disabled, or mentally ill.

The officers didn’t think about this — or did, but didn’t care — because the real lives and needs of disabled people are actively erased or maligned in our society. According to the National Institute of Mental Illness, roughly half of the people killed by police are disabled people. This study by The Ruderman Foundation states the same thing. So does the Center for Disability Rights. And this Guardian article.

Other statistics are just as horrifying. Disabled people are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of violence, and three times more likely to be the victims of serious violence crime. Mentally ill people (like myself) are 16 times more likely than the general population to be murdered by police. Hate crimes against disabled people have been on the rise since 2018. Developmentally disabled adults experience high rates of abuse and violence, and 82% of this is executed by the institutions that are supposed to take care of them. Over 90% of people with developmental disabilities will be sexually abused. And disabled children are far more likely to be physically restrained in school environments.

Many (if not most) able-bodied people will be shocked to read these statistics. The statistics are horrifying, but they are less shocking for disabled people like myself. Able-bodied people have simply never thought about disabled people in any real, daily, way. If they have thought about disabled people at all, it has likely been in connection to a character in a film, tv show, a person in a history book (Helen Keller, RIP radical socialist badass), or someone on the news who was murdered by police.

Which speaks exactly to the argument of Code of the Freaks. The “so what?” of these tropes is that, like Candace Coleman explains in the film’s discussion of Million Dollar Baby, these tropes literally kill people. They are a death sentence. Both Alyson Patsavos and Tekki Lomnicki expand on this. Movies are educational and belief-shaping, they explain, and movies function as a societal teaching tool. People see films with disabled characters and they think they know what disability is. And it isn’t that, in and of itself, one movie plot of a single disabled character being evil, or violent, or choosing an institutionalization, or driving fast while Blind, or even killing themselves inherently creates a cultural narrative that leads to countless, real world deaths. But as the documentary shows us with its focus on the sheer volume in the patterns, repetition and lack of variety are the death knells. If Hollywood had disabled writers and actors who produced a large variety of storylines that at least attempted to portray the nuance, beauty, pain, complexity, injustice, humor, and even mundanity of our full lives as disabled people, then maybe the occasional superhero movie where the villain is disabled, or where a character was magical, or even where a character was killed, would not be so harmful or lethal.

We don’t have anywhere close to that kind of creative assortment yet. Hollywood has only ever offered formulaic repetition. So, unsurprisingly, after seeing tropes over and over and over again, people have been taught that:

2) Disability can (and definitely should) be overcome by anyone if they simply try hard enough.

3) If the disabled person must remain disabled (guess they didn’t try hard enough), at least they can inspire the able-bodied people around them. And if that fails? According to Hollywood? Disabled people who can’t improve, inspire, or be convicted for a crime are better off dead, like in Elephant Man, Million Dollar Baby, and Me Before You.

When the deaths of disabled characters in high profile films are depicted as compassionate, or inevitable, or that those who kill them are sympathetic — is it really such a shock that, for instance, over seven hundred disabled adults and children in the last five years have been killed by their own families?

Has Hollywood ever gotten it right? All of the commenters said, in effect: not really. But I’d be remiss if I left out that the documentary took its title from a film that does get some things right: Freaks. Freaks is a horror film produced and directed in 1932 by Tod Browning, based on a story by Tod Robbins. Code of the Freaks tells us that, unlike in the Hollywood films that would follow, the disabled characters in Freaks are protagonists with dignity and agency, ones the audience roots for and identifies with. Furthermore, the disabled characters (the “freaks” in the film) are played by actual disabled people, many of whom have congenital deformities, which the documentary takes care to point out is very uncommon on screen. The “freaks” are portrayed as a collective that takes good care of each other, welcomes outsiders, and always has each other’s backs (which is an accurate portrayal of the disabled community to this day, in my opinion. Check out this book for more).

In the clip, an upset looking white, blonde able-bodied woman stands awkwardly while a group of disabled people joyfully eat and dance around her. It becomes clear that they’re celebrating because they’re accepting this blonde woman into their community. (Which, as a side note, seems mighty generous of them considering she appears to be a bummer). The “freaks” begin to chant: “One of us! One of us! We welcome her!” (This is definitely a little horror movie-esque because regardless of who's doing it, chanting in unison at a party is never quite neutral, but that’s besides the point). While continuing to chant, they give her a very large glass of wine to drink (called “the loving cup”). The white, blonde, upset woman looks at the glass, still for a minute. Will she take it?

Of course she won’t. She refuses the drink, loudly crying out in horror, and proceeds to throw the glass on the floor as a violent rejection of their offer of community and solidarity. Like I said: a real bummer.

This scene, commenters Mat Fraser and Tommy Heffron offer, can be read as an analogy for the relationship between disabled people and abled society. After all, as we disabled people remind the ableds, able bodies are temporary bodies. If we are not already, we will all be disabled at some point in the arc of our lives. Yet, abled society rejects this reality with such vehemence, expressing hatred and disgust at disabled bodyminds through its attempts to erase or fix us. Abled society balks at the mere idea that a disabled person could have a full, complex, rich life worth living not despite their disability, but because of and including it. We are not hiding this reality. It is abled society, not disabled community, that doesn’t want to acknowledge this. We invite them to the party, partly to show them that we have so much to celebrate that they don’t understand. But what do they do in (metaphorical) response? Only scream and break our dishware.

“Hollywood has never let us be real,” Fraser says at the end of the film. He goes on to call for action: disabled people need to gain more power so we can demand that Hollywood let us be real.

Fraser is right. Capitalism being what it is, Hollywood isn’t interested in the ramifications of its products. The industry won’t stop using disability as a bid for profit cloaked under soundbites of support and artistic freedom as long as there is money and status to be gained — until doing right by the disability community is also profitable, that is. I suspect that is a long time coming.

The good news, though, is that the disability community clearly isn’t waiting for that. We continue to gloriously and relentlessly demand that nothing about us should ever be without us — both Code of the Freaks and the more recent film Crip Camp (up for an Oscar) are proof. And while I know I may not live to see it fully actualize, more and more frequently I’ve caught glimpses of a disabled coup d’Hollywood gleaming on the distant horizon. I think it’s getting brighter.