Elephant Man (1980) is a biographical drama directed by avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch. It’s based on the real life of Joseph “John” Merrick, a man living in Victorian England suffering from a rare medical condition called neurofibromatosis type 1. The condition caused abnormal growths and deformities all over his body with a texture resembling that of Elephant skin giving him the nickname “The Elephant Man”. The growths started to display themselves on Merricks body at 5 five years old. When he reached the age of 17 they had gotten so advanced that it became impossible for him to perform menial labor, thus he had to earn his living being displayed as an exhibit in a Circus Freakshow.
John Merrick is portrayed by actor John Hurt.
Lynch’s films are usually packed with deep symbolism and dreamlike sequences, inviting the viewers to make their own interpretations of events. With my first viewing of this film in my late teens I focused on the individual journey of John Merrick. I meditated on what it means to be an outcast in society, and how one can find dignity in life in spite of being dealt one of the worst hands imaginable. Watching it again in my early 30s I see something different, my perspective has shifted from the narrow individual and emotional to something more structural and broad, leading me to ask a different set of questions.
The plot of The Elephant Man(1980) is set into motion when Dr. Frederick Treves, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins makes a visit to the Circuis where Merrick is on display. The Doctor decides to bring Merrick into the Hospital where he works to use him for academic study. Merrick’s grotesque body challenged what medical science could explain at that point in history. Dr. Treves befriends Merrick and helps him come out of his trauma-induced shell, proving to the other resident doctors that Merrick is not mentally challenged as they previously had assumed. Over time Merrick becomes a small celebrity for the British upper class. They correspond with him via mail, hold private audiences, and invite him to some of their events. One can say that it became a fashion statement for the elites to show compassion for the “freak with a heart of gold”. Actor Madge Kendal for example, declared him a “beautiful soul”, kissed him on the mouth, and dedicated her theatrical performances to him in front of large audiences. This seems oddly familiar, doesn’t it?
Side-by-side comparison of actor Madge Kendal (Anne Bancroft) kneeling before John Merrick and Drew Barrymore kneeling before trans celebrity Dylan Mulvaney.
Much fuzz has recently been made around actor Dylan Mulvaney’s appearance on the Drew Barrymore Show with click- and ragebaity headlines popping up all over the conservative media sphere. Watching the episode myself I found it a lot more innocuous than the snapshot of Barrymore on her knees first made it seem. However, I could not ignore the similarities to what happened in The Elephant Man. The performative compassion and the blatant virtue signaling, it was all there. Mulvaney can even be quoted during the episode saying “I’m not a monster, I’m just somebody trying to be myself and be happy” mirroring the John Merrick quote “I am not an animal, I am a human being”.
I recently remarked on Twitter that the preferred entertainment for both conservatives and progressive liberals is to watch drag shows. The only difference is that the liberals will watch it sincerely, while the conservatives will watch drag shows overlaid with commentary from Daily Wire pundits from a place of disgust or ridicule. The liberals represent the compassionate and self-absorbed cultural elite and the conservatives represent the ignorant mass mob who can’t help themselves but stare at the circus freakshow.
The Dylan Mulvaneys and Katelyn Jenners of the world are our generation's self-made “Elephant men”, filling the public demand for circus freaks, receiving equal praise and scorn in turn. They love every minute of the attention until they don’t. The phenomenon is equally tragic as the real Elephant Man but in a completely different way. Where the story of John Merrick is a tragedy of an individual doomed to a life of disease and alienation from birth because of the limitations of medical science at the time, the modern trans phenomenon is tragic on a societal level, telling the story of a society with highly developed medical science and perverse incentives motivating otherwise physically healthy people to surgically twist themselves into uncanny freaks to their obtain fame and acceptance for who they truly are on the inside.
The question is: did Merrick find dignity, acceptance, and a place of belonging among the upper classes, or did he simply become an exhibit in a more sophisticated freakshow? John Merrick choosing to take his own life at the end of the film by going to sleep in a position that would suffocate him could be interpreted as a resounding “No”. I don’t imagine that our modern self-made “Elephant Men” will have a happier ending when their 15 minutes of fame are over. Only time will tell.