“Freak” labels disability as spectacle. The freak stands as an archetypal “other,” a disabled figure on theatrical display before an able-bodied audience that uses the display to define its own sense of belonging.
“Freak” is a prismatic term that refracts the history of disability, including its most sordid past. To track the display of freaks and the history of freak shows over time is to witness some of the most deplorable treatment of people with disabilities—but the close study of freak display also offers a site from which to educe prurient historical attitudes toward disability that might otherwise remain hidden. In contemporary times, the gradual waning of the freak show reflects the medicalization of the freak, but it also parallels the gains made by people with disabilities under the banner of the disability rights movement.
The figure of the freak literally embodies the fundamental opposition that disability studies has aimed …