body rhetoric

Twisted Mind, Twisted Body

Think about 1931’s Frankenstein. Doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it. Not really. You can picture the main characters. The big, ungainly monster. The well-meaning, but tormented Frankenstein. His twisted, evil assistant.

We know instinctively that Dwight Frye’s character is evil, and his actions later in the film only serve as validation of our preconceptions.

But how are we so assured of his defective character? Audiences know because of the body scriptwriters gave him. (And it is important to remember that Frye’s Fritz/Igor character was invented for the movies.) That they gave him this body was no accident.

If you ever can’t figure out how something got started, it’s best to go to ancient Greece. And it’s from them that we have gotten our ideas about the body. Plato, one of the most well known philospohers and a huge influence on Western/Christian thinking, considered the condition of the body important for the growth of the soul. And the Roman author Cicero acknowledged that the shape of the soul was determined by the body.

A Sound Mind In A Healthy Body.

What happened to Greek babies that didn’t fit the mold? They were relegated to the shadows, the fringes, or in the extreme world of Sparta, tossed of cliffs.

Speaking of Sparta, there is an Igor in that story, as well.


In the 1961 story, and more than likely in real life, he looked something like this.

But in Frank Miller (and Zak Snyder’s adaptation), the need to emphasize his betrayal exists. (There’s a really great article on the many problems with the movie over here at Disability Quarterly.)

And so he becomes this.

Surrounded by these guys.

This is again, by design, an effort to ensure that the audience connects with the Spartans. Their bodies are like ours. We see ourselves in them. The disabled Ephialtes is rather firmly Othered, only barely human.

Semantically, it reinforces a very negative lesson. The behaviors of these characters are related directly to their bodies; the movies leave no question about this. There is no sound minds in healthy bodies in these characters; they are petty, self-serving, debased. Their attitudes, their reactions are not like ours, and the inference that we make is that it is because of their bodies.

So the body on the screen, in visual representation, and in real life, becomes a signal. This body is twisted, the visual semantics tell us, and so therefore is the spirit within the antithesis of the Roman thought.

But these body types are not the imagination of Hollywood. This is where the problem lies. The semantics invented as visual clues in a movie spill over onto real people who must live in these bodies. As consumers, we must avoid dwelling in the thrill of revulsion offered to us by Tod Browning’s Freaks consider why the characters have been given the bodies they have been assigned, and what we are being asked to think of them.