Freak Show

by Stephen E. Brown

Steven E. Brown is co-founder of the Institute on Disability Culture

The promotions for Showtime's "Freak City" suggested it might actually get disability right. The manual wheelchair user wore gloves, just like those of us in the real world. That seemingly minor detail gave me hope the movie would be a more realistic portrayal of our lives.

But the movie was maddening.

Samantha Mathis plays a twentysomething manual chair user whose picture-perfect life of tranquillity shatters when the grandmother she lives with drops dead. Mathis's character doesn't seem to have a clue about what to do with her life.

A family friend, who inexplicably possesses power of attorney over her, decides the only reasonable course of action is to dump her friend in an institution, thus setting up the drama of a woman in an institution -- the "Freak City" of the title -- who doesn't want to be there.

Why is she sent there in the first place? The movie never says. She's a bright young woman. Why isn't she in school? Working? Volunteering? Why would her family have given someone power of attorney over her? Why didn't she fight it? Why doesn't she inherit the house? Why doesn't she have any friends? Lovers? Dates? .

The pathetic attempt to explain all this is that she has multiple sclerosis, is angry about it, and "may one day need help."

So what? She seems to have money. Why doesn't she just hire someone to help her out around the house? Why is this intelligent, attractive, apparently healthy young woman living in isolation? .

There is no logical answer.

You'd think these things would have lost their power to bother me. But they haven't.

Peter Sarsgaard plays the love of Mathis's institutional life, a quad who got that way by driving drunk.

Sarsgaard's quad is brilliant, cynical, guilt-ridden, and scar(r)ed. He comes on incessantly to Mathis's character. But when she's ready, he turns her away: he "can't do anything," he tells her.

Why not? Quads generally copulate. Why's he different? Is it a physical problem? Psychological? Or Hollywood's erroneous belief that somebody with a severe injury automatically can't make love?.

To make this character more pathetic, he's accepted into college, but can't go -- he can't find attendants.

Why not? Where's the Disabled Student Services Office? Where's Vocational Rehabilitation? Where's the institution's social worker --another character we've met -- who should be pointing him to these kinds of resources? .

Instead of actually looking into resources, he hangs himself.

The only good part of that scene is that it shows that even a poor helpless quad can kill himself without the Kevorkians of the world to help him.

"Showtime Extras" give us actors and directors discussing their work. Mathis tells us how impressed she is that people with this kind of disability can have a high quality of life. This is not expressed as fact, but amazement.

Another "Extra" gives us Sarsgaard oozing admiration for his character -- because he had such great confidence despite his horrible condition.

How many FDRs, Frida Kahlos, Christopher Reeves, Harriet Tubmans, Abraham Lincolns, Whoopi Goldbergs, Bob Doles, Nancy Mairses, John Hockenberrys, Marlee Matlins do we have to have before people get it? That people with disabilities do the same things everyone else does? That we're people, too, part of the human condition; that we fail, we succeed, we screw, we screw up, we make money, we go broke, we lust for power, we become hermits? .

Given that well over 60 million of us in the U.S. have disabilities, isn't it about time to stop this exclamation of surprise that we actually have the ability to do some things?.

A longer version of this article ran in Steve Brown's online newsletter, Manifesto. Readers can subscribe online to the Manifesto by sending an email to majordomo@tripil.com with the message: subscribe disculture.

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