seen on TV @ TCM
When I lived in Columbus, there was this guy I saw twice, maybe three times. I have no idea what his deal was, but he had some kind of... skin disorder, I suppose you could call it. I can't say for sure because I tried very hard not to look too closely at him, but I thought he looked like a Jem'Hadar from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I wish I were kidding. I'm totally not.
I naturally felt terrible for the poor guy. I mean, this is a fate you would not wish on your worst enemy. Absolutely no one should have to live like this. Eventually, though, I came to realize something: yeah, this guy looked like a monster, but he wasn't letting it keep him from living his life. I saw him at art-related events around the city, part of large crowds of people. He could've gone out wearing a mask or hood, Elephant Man-style - god knows I sure would - but he didn't. I can't begin to imagine the amount of guts it would take to be able to do that. Hell, finding a reason to keep living has to be a challenge for someone like him, yet he does.
Most of us are damn lucky. But for a random chromosome change here, or a bit of genetic drift there, we coulda turned out looking a lot different than we do. Now, it seems, the possibility of controlling your unborn child's genetic sequence, Gattaca-style, is closer than we think. If and when that becomes an everyday thing, the ethics of such a practice will surely be debated. What parent wouldn't want their kids to be healthy and fit? At the same time, however, I can easily imagine some who would classify genetic tampering as going against God's will. And of course, there's the slippery-slope argument: if one can delete any genes that cause deformity - why stop there?
Many of the genetic abnormalities possessed by the supporting cast of Freaks could be compensated for by modern medical science: prosthetic and even cybernetic limbs for those without arms or legs; laser surgery to separate Siamese twins; even gender reassignment surgery to make a woman into a man, or vice versa. As the movie shows, however, they learned how to compensate on their own, one way or another. This may seem like an exploitation movie, but honestly, given the kindly and even sensitive way they're portrayed, they don't look like they're being exploited.
I spent Memorial Day down at Coney Island, as I usually do, and they still have the "freakshow," complete with old-fashioned carnival-style barker. I actually went to it once, with Jenny, and all I remember of it was a "bearded lady" who was more of a stand-up comic than anything else. Coney, of course, has a long history of being home to "freaks of nature," not to mention alternative entertainers in general. Were they exploited? Don't know. I imagine a number of them probably liked the attention.
There are always gonna be outsiders of some sort in society - those who don't fit the norm, whatever that may be. Throughout history, "freaks" could've just as easily have been blacks, or gays, or Jews, or political dissidents, or what have you. Sometimes society learns to accommodate them over time. Sometimes they don't. Either way, outsiders learn to adapt somehow, and the "freaks" of this thoroughly unique film were no exception.
(As a post-script, it's interesting to note that in recent times, the connotation of the word "freak" has changed to also refer to unbridled sexual passion - think of the Rick James song "Superfreak," for example. While there's still a hint of the "outsider" tinge to the meaning, it's perhaps less of a pejorative in this context.)