Watching David Lynch’s “Elephant Man” made me think about the way I and most people interact with so called freaks (I will use the word “freak” in the absence of a better general term to describe persons with any disorder, disability or unusual appearance, despite of its offending connotation. In addition to that, I intentionally use “freak” to create a judicial connection between the exposure of “freaks” in freak shows and in modern TV-shows).
During a discussion in class, my impression, that this question cannot be answered easily, was affirmed. I think, the main problem is our own uncertainty and our lack of experience in this field of interaction. We do not know if the freak is fine or offended if we look or even stare. We don’t know if it is okay to joke around or if the freak feels ridiculed and humiliated by it. Do we better ignore the disorder or make it the main topic? Of course, we need to be as compassionate as possible and pity the freak…or don’t we?
Yavannie already wrote about Modern Freak Shows and how they are still present in today’s media.
The usual concept of modern TV-(freak)-shows is to present a freak, explain the medical background and to show extensively how the freak’s life looks like. This concept made me remember an early episode of South Park.
In South Park’s second season episode “Conjoined Fetus Lady“, Nurse Gollum is introduced.
The episode starts very casual with the children playing Dodgeball in PE-class. When Kyle is hit by a ball and is sent to the school nurse because of his bleeding nose, the mood changes. Background music that we usually hear in horror music underline the other childrens’ conversation.
“I heard, the school nurse is hideously deformed.”
“I heard she has tentacles and eats children for lunch.”
“Has anyone actually seen the nurse and come back to tell about it?”
“No Cartman, nobody ever has.”
Kyle’s fear is confirmed (at least for him) as soon as the at first ordinary looking nurse turns and reveals a dead fetus attached to her head.
While Kyle can’t stop screaming, the surprised nurse explains in a very calm and comfortable way:
“Oh, I see you’ve noticed my disorder. I have a still-born fetus growth attached to my head.”
Later, when Kyle’s mother Sheila overhears the children talking about the nurse, the freak show found its manager. With – of course – only good and charitable reasons in mind, the highly motivated cliché charity-parent starts a crusade to “make the public aware of her” and her disorder, the “conjoined twin myslexia“.
“Her disease should be brought to light so that it can be understood rather than made fun of.”
How clearly uncertain and uncomfortable people usually are, when they are confronted with a grotesque body,is impersonated by the different dinner guests at the dinner that Sheila organized for Nurse Gollum. While Gerald can’t stop to nervously confuse words and therefore to use “dead fetus” in every sentence, Mr. Mackey tries to completely ignore that anything is unusual even when the conversation-topic is fetus-related. Nurse Gollum seems to be the only “normal” person at the table but her statement that she is “a pretty happy person” doesn’t stop Sheila and Principal Victoria to commiserate with her and to offer her different hats that she could wear (to look normal).
The two charity-ladies are so happy and enthusiastic about their movement, that they organize the “Conjoined Twin Myslexia Awareness Week”, consisting of a parade (including only Nurse Gollum), an award-show for the “Lifetime Conjoined Twin Achievement Award” (“This award goes to outstanding conjoined twins who have made a mark on society”), the obligatory video of “the brave life she has lived” (showing her grocery-shopping, in the post office or on her toilette) and another huge event where all people of the audience wear conjoined-twin-hats.
Expecting a grateful and touched speak, everyone is surprised by what Nurse Gollum actually says:
Nurse Gollum: “Thank you, Mayor. I uhhh, wa-I… I don’t know what to say; this has been quite a week.”
Sheila: [wiping away a tear] “She’s really touched.”
Nurse Gollum: “What I really wanna say is… well, -egh this may sound odd coming from a woman with a fetus sticking out of her head, but… you’re all a bunch of freaks!” [the crowd is stunned]
The Mayor: [taking the mike] “Uuhh. Freaks with big hearts! And now, le-”
Nurse Gollum: “Don’t you realize that the last thing I ever wanted was to be singled out?” [Sheila and the priest look betrayed] “I just wanted to do my job and live my life like any normal person, but instead, you’ve made everybody focus on my handicap all week long.“ [the look is spreading] Look, I don’t want to be treated different. I don’t want to be treated special orh-or treated gingerly or-I just want to be ridiculed, shouted at, and made fun of like all the rest of you do to each other.” [people are listening] “And take those stupid things off your heads!” [she turns and walks off the stage]
The Mayor: “Oh, my. What an ungrateful bitch.”
Sheila: “Yyeehh, the nerve of some people!”
Kyle: “Hey, you know. That nurse is actually pretty cool.”
Stan: “Yeah. Maybe that dead fetus makes her smarter.”
I think, it’s not necessary to comment on that last scene as it explains my point itself. Of course, this episode does not give us a guideline on how to behave when we are confronted with a “freak”. What it does, is to show us how “freakish” our behavior can be turned by our insecurity and discomfort. There is nor right or wrong or perfect pattern of behavior towards “freaks”, because everyone (“freak” or “normal”) is an individual that needs to be treated individually.
In my opinion, the important message is, that we need to question our own behavior and to calm down and let things flow naturally instead of “freaking out”.
Sources and additional reading: