The Animalization of Disabled People:
Boo Radley, Lenny Small, Julia Pastrana, and other “Freaks of Nature”
Positive representations of disabled people are a modern notion often overlooked in the current social climate. Society, and standards of beauty, are not inclusive so accurate representations of any person who is not white, and not able bodied, are hard to come by. However, the disabled community still fights for just and positive portrayals in popular media, and works to include themselves in political protests and intersectional debates. Some protest the often offensive depictions of people with disabilities, comparing a piece of literature to the Fries test- the Bechdel test of this community. Positive portrayals in a piece of literature would include a disabled character being central to the plot, rather than just an object of pity or ridicule.
Young students read books with potentially problematic depictions of disabled people, in opposition to the wishes of those in the disabled community. Authors uses the “r” word and overcommitt to the supposed hilarity of dumb or feebleminded disablity aligned characters. With such widespread depictions, it is hard to break free of the representation so prevalent in our favorite classic books, such as To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. While both of these works were revolutionary in their time, and have truthfully been eye-opening in many ways, it is essential to move forward and recognize the harmful connection of disabled men and women to simple or violent animals. Afterall, both previously mentioned titles quite literally have animals in the name.
To Kill a Mockingbird has acted as a mode of “wokeness” for white saviorism, and the animalization of characters like Boo Radley and Tom Robinson have reflected the true impact of the text. Of Mice and Men, often seen as a problematic work in Disability studies, goes as far to equate Lenny Small, the gargantuan and small brained man to a disabled dog who gets shot in the head- a fate similar to Lenny’s at the end of the novel. It is not uncommon to have a crazy dog shot in a book with disability aligned characters- a character in To Kill a Mockingbird also shoots a rabies-infected, crazy dog. And in fact, those dogs often act as a metaphor for those “animal” characters. Of course, popular books are not the only example of the raw animalzation and connection to the disabled body- it is extremely apparent in twentieth century freak shows and the gawking of a man who looks vaguely lobster or bear-like. It is essential to discuss the impact of such depictions, and offer a more inclusive view of the disabled body and mind. It is time to forego the offensive characterization of the disabled man to animals.
Many older white women of the baby boomer generation claim that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a literary piece essential to the newfound inclusivity of discussion. However, Atticus Finch, the father and lawyer central to the plot and central to “saving” Tom Robinson, is often seen as too powerful, and as though the black characters would flail pointlessly without his strength. Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, is compared to a harmless mockingbird, but only after his death. Earlier in the book, Atticus explains that it is a “sin to kill a mockingbird”, and later, Mr. Underwood, the town news source, states “it is a sin to kill a cripple” (Lee, 220.) The juxtaposition and relative sentence structure shows that these two phrases were meant to be compared- Lee encourages the audience to see Robinson as a bird. Robinson is a disability aligned character who injured his hand at a young age in a cotton gin accident, rendering it essentially useless. When trying to escape from this wrongful imprisonment, Robinson is shot many more times than necessary, showing the racism and ableism of that time period.
Boo Radley, is described as “frightening” and “animal-like” in his mannerisms. The Maycomb county folklore centering around Boo does little to depict him as the careful, kind, and empathetic character the readers find out he truly is. Jem, Scout’s older brother, and Atticus’ son, emphasizes the horror involved in the crime of Boo stabbing his father with a pair of scissors- then later explains that Boo “dined on raw squirrels and any cats he could catch, that’s why his hands were bloodstained” (Lee, 10).
While the differences between Tom and Boo are apparent, the two animals that they are represented by does little to reflect them in a positive light. Tom is the innocent, sweet, little, weak, bird, but only after being shot seventeen times and unfairly imprisoned based on racist falsities. Representing Tom as something that can only be helped by the able bodied white man furthers his animalization as a delicate mockingbird. Boo, depicted as a wolf-like, dog-like, and bear-like dangerous man, can not elegantly break free of the restraints Lee places on him as a violent animal and freak of nature.
John Stienbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a classic tale of “friendship” and farmhands, commits to the idea of Lenny as a poor, innocent puppy. Lenny is viewed as both harmless, as he is unintelligent, but also as harmful, as his body is towering and extremely strong. Steinbeck takes little time to compare Lenny to an animal- on page four, the first time the audience meets Lenny- he describes his walk as similar to “ the way a bear drags his paws”. This is not the only time Lenny’s movements are described as bearlike. On page hundred, Stienbeck does it again, outlining Lenny’s stride as akin to a “creeping bear moving.” Lenny is also described as a terrier, a small but mighty dog, when George Milton, his best friend, makes him set a mouse free from his grip. George is described as his master, as any loyal dog should have an able bodied master. George often infantilizes Lenny, and in the end of the book, makes a life or death decision for him, much like Candy, another farmhand, does for his old sheepdog.
Because Lenny is both strong of muscle and weak of mind, it is interesting to compare the differences in the wide array of animals Stienbeck compares him to. It is no secret between the characters of the book that Lenny could easily kill any of them- but those same characters treat him as one would treat a small, idiotic terrier. Stienbeck goes as far to equate his personality as both bear-like and tiny puppy-like. Those two animals could not be any farther apart in terms of size and capability. However, Lenny is both meek and boisterous, as are both the animals stated.
The connection of able bodied people and the racism affecting our world is also apparent in these connections. While some wish to “reclaim” their animalazaion as a disabled person, we must recognize the racist roots that animalization clearly has. It is not uncommon for black men and women to be described as ape-like, and in blackface shows, the actors would often make monkey sounds or pretend to throw their feces. Much like the reclamation of the “q” and “n” slur in LGBT and black communities, some disabled people involved in freakshows took advantage of their inherent “animalness”. Percilla Bejano, a notable example of such reclamation, was involved in many freakshows and exploited her hairy body and freak of nature appearance. She later married the “the alligator” man, and the two had a happy life together, working as two animals in love. It is possible that Bejano was insulted by her animal name, but at least maintained some autonomy.
Otis Jordan is another example, a black man billed as amphibian-like, who wished to be referred to as “frog boy”. He enjoyed his life on the road as a disabled performer. Jordan pointed out that, given his condition, there wasn’t much else work he could get, therefore, the freakshow was a positive, money-making experience for Jordan.
Animalization in freak shows can be an overly negative thing. P.T Barnum, whose name is synonymous with the circus, was at the forefront of exploiting disabled people, making them an “animal” entertainment, rather than a human. Circus shows, like the one Julia Pastrana was in, perpetuated the animalization of people with disabilities and placed them in unsafe environments in order to pursue their career. Pastrana, described as the “ugliest woman alive”, had a case of hypertrichosis, which covered the body and face in copious amounts of hair. Pastrana was billed as the “ape-women ”, because of her hair and naturally feminine figure. Because able bodied humans found her so enticing, after her death, she was embalmed with her recently deceased son, to be gawked at for years to come. Even after her death, Pastrana had no peace.
In the theory piece, Beasts of Burden, Sunaura Taylor describes hands as “human” and mouths as “animal.” Her point in detailing this is that able bodied people often view the use of one’s mouth to open things, or to move objects around, as disgusting and improper. Taylor’s ideas are revolutionary- as she does explain in further detail the essentiality of some disabled people using the animal to describe oneself. Much like some overweight people are fighting for the word “fat” to be used as a descriptor rather than an insult, Taylor admits that some of her movements are rather animal-like, and it would not necessarily be unfair to describe them as so. However, she does recognize her privilege in being a white woman comfortable in her animalization.
Essentially, the problem then lies with the able-bodied making decisions for the disabled. George places himself in the role of executioner for Lenny , and Lee and Stienbeck take on the important role of describing a person with disabilities. Pastrana had her whole life planned out by a man of more power, capability, and “normalcy”. This is simply not the job for an able bodied person. All people, including disabled people, must have a say in their depictions, be masters of their fate, especially their mortality. Taylor, Bejano, and frog-boy can do whatever they like with their bodies and physicality, but authors and able bodied characters can’t decide for them.
Animalization is popular in modern media, and even in the books that every child reads in order to pass a required class. It is ingrained in our minds to compare man and animal, and even more so when the man is overly hairy, or his appearance is otherwise aberrant,and thus, doesn’t fit into the abelist ideals of America. Aversion to normalcy is seen as wrong, offensive, and unsuitable, and this is prevalent in classic literature.
It does not matter how it makes the able bodied feel when talking about the disabled body. The disabled body should have say over their bodies and reflections in art and books.