BERGER: A voice for the marginalized

American Horror Story challenges our stereotypes and speaks up against societal injustices

The FX original, American Horror Story, is a show that is not afraid to transcend conventional television by breaking boundaries and addressing controversial topics.

Though American Horror Story is known on the surface for its shock value, it is much more than that. Throughout the seasons, American Horror Story has featured topics such as sexuality, religion, misogyny, rape, racism, the stigma of mental illness and now the stigma of the physically disabled. Each season not only displays these difficult topics, but also simultaneously highlights the brilliance of the marginalized groups and underlines the evil of those who discriminate against them.

Although there are creepy scenes, these scenes also allow for extensive analysis. Season one, set in a haunted house, portrayed depression and adultery. Season two, set in a mental institution in the 1960s, dealt with mental illness, religious conflict and homosexuality. Season three surrounded the lives of witches and used strong, female characters to defy misogyny, and also used flashbacks to illustrate the horror of slavery and racism.

In this season in particular, American Horror Story: Freak Show, the word “freak” is used not to denigrate the disabled, but to expose the onlookers. This season is about a group of disabled people who work in an Circus-esq attraction in Jupiter, Florida (my hometown) in 1952. What makes these people “freaks” is not their physical differences, but rather the audience’s perception of them. In the show so far, the people who witness the attraction are mesmerized and bewildered by what they see as physical anomalies. However, these same people are shown to be selfish and, ultimately, discriminatory. The word “freak” used to describe the characters is not maliciously intended for the disabled, but instead meant to expose the “freaks” who pay to watch the show, enjoy the dehumanizing display and leave grinning and satisfied — the people who judge, ridicule and see the disabled as sub-human. Other seasons also use this approach, such as in season two where the patients in the mental institution are the protagonists, while the hegemonic figures, such as the doctors and institution administrators, are corrupt, and quite literally possessed by the devil.

Additionally, American Horror Story is known for hiring a diverse cast. Co-creator and Executive Producer Ryan Murphy has said that this well-researched fourth season is no exception. American Horror Story also does a good job of producing “behind-the-scenes” documentaries about the real lives and successes of their disabled actors.

Maysoon Zayid, a comedian and actress with Cerebral palsy, in a recent TED talk, spoke about her struggles as well as her discouragement with Hollywood. In college, Zayid was turned down for the role of a woman with CP. She said, “This was a part that I was literally born to play, and they gave it to a non-palsy actress! College was imitating life. Hollywood has a sordid history of casting abled-bodied actors to play disabled on screen.” She continued, “If a wheelchair user can’t play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can’t play a wheelchair user.”

Zayid’s point underlines just how important it is that American Horror Story cast real people with real disabilities. As Zayid said, “The disabled are the largest minority in the world and we are the most underrepresented in entertainment,” and American Horror Story successfully illuminates the realities of the disabled and the difficulties they endure, using real, disabled people.

That is not the only way American Horror Story uses its power to advocate on behalf of the disabled, though. Jamie Brewer, a young actress on American Horror Story who has Down Syndrome, used her fame gained from her television appearances to become more active in the Down Syndrome community. She was appointed to the State of Texas ARC Board and spoke at the Texas State Capitol to persuade them to pass a law for Texas to abolish the word “retarded" from state legislation. The effort was successful and Texas now uses the term "intellectual developmental disability" in their legislation.

It is easy to assume that American Horror Story is purposefully being offensive when it presents such crude storylines, but such an artificial analysis of the show is unfair. Once you watch an episode, it becomes clear that the generally marginalized group is instead framed as the underdog — the people we root for to succeed. We see through their eyes and are made to hate the onlookers, those of society who condemn the disabled. No one watching Freak Show will finish an episode on Wednesday night and believe disabled people are truly “freaks.” There is far too much character development for the audience to be that narrow-minded. I recognize that American Horror Story is tough to handle on the outside, but on the inside it is an impressive commentary on American society spanning many different decades throughout its seasons.

Meredith Berger is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at m.berger@cavalierdaily.com.

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