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  • It's All the Same MovieMaking Code of the Freaks
  • Carrie Sandahl (bio)

I have developed a reputation among my students as being a "disability wet blanket." Why? Because I "ruin movies" that feature disabled characters. Even though my students make these accusations with tongues firmly in check, I take them seriously as compliments and as evidence of the argument that all movies featuring disabled characters are essentially the same movie. Once they see this sameness, they cannot "unsee" it, and unless they develop resistant viewing strategies, these movies do tend to get ruined. Whether disabled characters at the purported center of these narratives are cured, killed, institutionalized, or heroicized, they all serve the same purpose: to inspire nondisabled characters or viewers, or both, to become better people through valuable lessons about life and love learned in their encounters with the disabled Other. Furthermore, the disabled character's purpose holds true across genre, rendering romance, horror, biopic, action-adventure, and drama practically interchangeable. What differs across specific characters, genres, and time periods are the particularities that these "lessons" teach the nondisabled, as the lessons are specific to the social anxieties of any given time. Disabled characters in mainstream movies reflect little of the interesting complexities of our actual lives. I am not arguing naïvely that the movies should correct this problem simply by representing disability experiences "authentically." Authenticity is never achievable in any case, and attempts at it can be, frankly, pretty boring. Although I do not believe that authenticity is achievable or even desirable, we can draw on authentic disability experiences and community to begin enlivening alternative representations. We can also learn from the disability community's viewing strategies to engage critically with existing disability-themed films, rescuing them from total ruin, and we can have fun doing so.

I am part of a collaborative behind the forthcoming feature-length documentary Code of the Freaks (Salome Chasnoff, 2019) that takes on the challenge of pointing out how disability functions as a narrative device in mainstream film and how these films affect actual disabled peoples' lives.1 Our creative team includes the playwright and novelist [End Page 145] Susan Nussbaum, the disability studies scholar Alyson Patsavas, the feminist documentary film director Salome Chasnoff, and the independent filmmaker Jerzy Rose. Three members of the team identify as disabled themselves and are active members of disability communities. We call ourselves the "WPA" collective. The acronym stands for "What Pa did to Axel," a line from the almost-universally-hated-by-disabled-people movie Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004).2 In this movie, the paralyzed boxer Maggie (Hilary Swank) plaintively urges her trainer Frankie (Clint Eastwood) to do to her what Pa did to her pet dog, Axel. In close-up, Eastwood takes a moment to decode her request, his earnest blue eyes pondering while melodramatic music swells against the whooshing of her ventilator and the persistent beeping of her vitals machine. Suddenly, Frankie's face registers recognition: Maggie wants Frankie to "put her down." Without saying another word, Frankie's eyes communicate that killing Maggie is as logical and humane as putting down a dying dog, a logic that equates life with a disability to a death sentence. The WPA collective challenges the logic of such narratives; we channel the disability community's outrage over this film and others like it, calling out Hollywood for perpetuating the belief that it is better to be dead than disabled. When we show this short excerpt from Million Dollar Baby in Code of the Freaks, its melodrama practically parodies itself, exposing the narrative's weak yet pernicious logic.

Our documentary takes its name from Tod Browning's infamous 1932 movie, Freaks, which features a tight-knit community of sideshow freaks who seek revenge on the nondisabled circus performers who have done them wrong. Trapeze artist Cleopatra and her strongman lover, Hercules, have tricked Hans, a little person, into marrying Cleopatra; they have a plan to murder him and steal his inheritance after the wedding. When the freaks discover the couple's plan, they exact revenge by hunting down and mutilating their deceivers in the dark of a stormy night. We open our...


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pp. 145-150
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