On September 30, American Horror Story posted the following to their Facebook page:
“Want to show the world your freaky side? Create an Instagram video that celebrates what makes you unique, post with #WeAreAllFreaks, and we might select you as our Freak of the Day. We can’t wait to meet you all.”
A similar message appears on the American Horror Story: Freak Show page on FX’s web site:
“Are you one of us? Create an Instagram video that celebrates your unique side and post with #WeAreAllFreaks. Our favorite videos will be featured, and you could even be our Freak of the Day. Be positive, creative, and celebrate the freaky side that exists within us all.”
Cast members Emma Roberts and Finn Wittrock, holding #WirSindAlleFreaks signs, provide examples of what makes them “freaky”; Roberts was born with six fingers, and Wittrock likes hot sauce on everything. User-submitted videos include demonstrations of double-jointedness, magic tricks, piercings/tattoos, long tongues, fire-eating, and scary make-up.
I clearly see the intent of this #WeAreAllFreaks Together campaign; the goal is to celebrate individuality and recognize difference not for the purpose of divisiveness, but rather community. And it may be an effective means of engaging the audience and publicizing the show.
However, while equating “freak” with “uniqueness” or “outsider status”—a strategy notably employed by the counterculture movement of the 1960s—may prove liberating for an individual co-opting the term (the perjorative word actively flipped to mean something positive), this analogy has potential, unintended consequences. Using “freak” as a blanket term for all forms of difference blurs its very specific reference to the performative role certain disabled people assumed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Individuals with bodies perceived as “deviant” worked as freaks for the entertainment of audiences at side shows and circuses; historians may argue over the extent to which these actors were exploited, but whatever the case, it is important to remember that being a freak is a specific type of (not necessarily positive) experience and a job to which most us are not privy.
Furthermore, even though there is a wide range of attributes that the #WeAreAllFreaks audience deems “freaky,” encouraging individuals with atypical bodies or impairments to sign on as “freaks” strengthens the link between disability and freakery. While it’s true that many freaks exhibited some sort of physical difference, certainly not everyone with a disability is a freak. Freaks performed their differences, which were enhanced with narration, costumes, and demonstrations of artistry—or mundane tasks like sewing or shaving. The freak character was distinct from the identity of the actor, as is true in most dramatic performances. And freak shows were a business; freaks performed for money. Thus, just as attaching the term “freak” to anyone with a unique body, behavior, or talent distracts from and obscures the realities and lived experiences of actual freaks, equating disability to freakery—even if it is just suggested—can be a disservice to people with disabilities who are not choosing to perform those disabilities for a paying audience.
Once again, I applaud the good intentions behind any campaign that fosters community and casts a positive light on individuality. And I am very pleased with FX’s highlighted interviews with cast members Mat Fraser and Rose Siggins, who speak first-hand about their “radical differences.” I simply hope that, even amidst AHS’s celebration of uniqueness and the breezy “Freak of the Day” awards, Ryan Murphy and company remember that “freak” is a historically fraught term that should be used with care.