In a course last semester about disabilities and community, I scrutinized media portrayals of people with disabilities, and found that the more often lack of portrayal conveyed a message in itself. I connected the way people with disabilities are treated onscreen to the way Asian Americans traditionally have been—-members of both groups are either invisible, given minor non-speaking roles, or cast as perfectly stereotypical characters.
In the disabilities class, we watched Tod Browning’s “Freaks,” a film made in 1932. "Freaks" is about a circus group that includes Hercules the strong man and the beautiful Cleopatra, but also, of course, “freaks”: midgets, conjoined twins, and individuals with “shrunken” heads or no limbs at all. The beautiful and boastful “normal” performers treat the freaks with great disdain, although there are able-bodied characters who show kindness and befriend the sideshow characters. The midget Hans falls in love with Cleopatra, and as she toys with his emotions a tragic story develops. At the end, the “freaks” stage a violent, revengeful attack on Hercules and Cleopatra that leaves the two victims disabled as well.
Throughout “Broken Blossoms”, I continually found parallels to “Freaks” that stand stronger now as I look back on both. Filmed in 1919, “Broken Blossoms” is perhaps an earnest attempt at progressiveness in the same way “Freaks” was. The intended message is that the Yellow man is an “Other”, though with a kind heart and good intentions. He finds himself enamored with the helpless girl, Lucy, and does all he can to please her. At the end, he kills her abusive father and stabs himself in grief over her death.
In both films, the “Other” is presented as good-natured, but the difference and potential for danger looms in each (only to be realized at the end). Both stories are products of the times: mainstream audiences have explicitly prejudiced conceptions of Chinese people or people with disabilities, so the directors’ attempts to tell an alternate story are still tainted by prevailing assumptions. My question is: does the overwhelming context of prejudice surpass the overarching attempts to challenge stereotypes?