After The Afflicted Freak Show

Many people in the chronic disease community were anticipating Afflicted, the Netflix series about seven people with poorly understood illnesses. In light of Jamison Hill‘s appearance in the show, the ME community hoped to build on the success of Unrest and continue raising awareness of the disease.

But Afflicted turned out to be more than a disappointment, and worse than most people imagined.

After it premiered earlier this month, controversy erupted over the show’s portrayal of the featured illnesses and patients. On August 19, most of the main subjects of the series spoke out in a shared statement, saying that their stories were actively manipulated to frame their conditions as psychosomatic or psychiatric disorders.

Afflicted‘s lie can be summarized with one reviewer’s description of the show as a “human safari.” The show does not present the participants’ stories honestly. Everything–from the experts quoted to the way interviews and scenes were edited–pushes the viewer to question whether the participants have physical diseases or are mentally ill.

The format of unstructured reality TV follows real people who make independent decisions about what they are doing. Their voluntary and enthusiastic participation is a sufficient guard against exploitation, at least according to a 2011 quote from the executive producer of Afflicted. Since it is unscripted and shows real people reacting to real situations, the show appears to be a docuseries: literally, a documentary aired in a series of episodes. But that is not Afflicted.

Afflicted is a modern day freak show that has been disguised as a documentary.

The producers of Afflicted have manipulated the stories for a not-so-subtle wink shared with the audience. Hand over mouth, they point and then whisper, “See that?” They succeed in putting the subjects on display for the entertainment of others, as is clear from viewers’ reactions. The show’s hashtag on Twitter was a stream of horrible comments by viewers who referred to the patients as “whacked out morons” or “you crazy hypochondriac,” and recommended the show for “a good laugh.”

Afflicted filmed humans, suffering. Emotionally well-adjusted people do not take pleasure in other people’s pain. Few people would watch a voyeuristic entertainment show about people struggling with cancer. As documentary, as education, as stories about love and loss—yes. As a comedy based on the misfortune of others—not so much. So why does Afflicted‘s audience derive so much satisfaction from watching the show, and then crowing about “those people” on social media?

Afflicted draws on our culture’s prejudice against mental illness. One viewer said on Twitter, “You can smell the mental illness/ptsd within the first four minutes.” Even if that were true, why would that mean those people deserve the audience’s derision and dismissal? The subjects of the show are human beings whose lives have been devastated by illness. It doesn’t matter what the illness is, or what caused it, or whether you believe them. Even if every single subject of the series is in fact suffering from a mental illness and not a physical illness, they are still suffering. People with emotional and psychiatric problems are just as worthy of compassion and dignity as those with physical illnesses.

Yet Afflicted does not frame its story to elicit compassion from the audience. Worse, it plays on our innate tribalism.

Western cultures have found entertainment in the exhibition of people with rare or unusual physical characteristics for centuries. People with hypertrichosis, microcephaly, gigantism, and achondroplasia are just a few examples of the types of so-called “freaks” put on display. With advancement in medicine (and ethics), it became less socially acceptable to publicly exploit people in this way.

Now, instead of going to a circus to see the freaks, you can stay home and pay Netflix to bring them into your living room. You can gawk at them in private. Yet make no mistake: you are gawking. Their daily struggle has been served up to you, but not for your education, or to share their human experiences, or build your compassion. Afflicted wants you to speculate about their personal lives and mental health. Instead of telling the story to open hearts, the story becomes the vehicle for Othering. “Look,” the show says to the audience, “you are not like them.”

Except some of us are. And every Afflicted viewer who learns to point and titter, instead of listen and understand, will encounter us in real life (if they haven’t already). What will those viewers say and do when they meet us? What has Afflicted taught them to do?

What happens to us, after the Afflicted freak show?


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18 Responses to After The Afflicted Freak Show

  1. Thank you for reviewing this disturbing film. It sounded interesting and so, knowing nothing about it, my husband and I watched it over two days. I felt uncomfortable throughout the whole series, as if I were watching something sensationalistic, not realistic. You put it well when you called it a modern day freak show disguised as a documentary. I spent an hour afterwards reading a piece that was signed by most of those in the film, saying it was dishonest and that they’d been misled by the producers. Then I read comments from viewers that had been posted on Reddit. The latter reinforced not just how far we have to go before people understand physical and mental illness, but just how cruel people can be—a cruelness (I hope) born of ignorance.

    I hope you will submit this piece to some of the online news sites and will also send it to Netflix. I still feel sick at heart about this series.

  2. Laura Logan says:

    One can only wonder what can be done to stop or counteract the showing of this misleading series. Unfortunately, the very people who are most justified in such action, the people in the film, have the fewest resources of money and energy to take action. Jamison Hill has written brilliant rebuttals regarding the film, but what more can he do?
    A massive lawsuit against the producers for defamation of character (that’s my first swipe at it) would be satisfying but expensive. A GoFundMe campaign perhaps.

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      Rather than sue the film makers, I think we can use this controversy to raise awareness of the freak show, the prejudice against mental illness, and the prevailing ableism that makes those possible. There’s been a lot of talk on Twitter about those issues, and I hope it will also happen off that particular platform.

  3. Lolly says:

    Thank you Jennie for the heads up and perspective. I have been off line for quite a while… sounds like this is a conversation worthy of distribution on many fronts.

  4. Nancy Sadja says:

    Yes yes yes! Nail meet hammer. Thank you Jennie for putting this in perspective and calling out the egregious abuse of participants goodwill.

  5. Cecelia says:

    I didn’t see this and now don’t want to, but I want to praise your essay as deep, thoughtful and so helpful, Jennie. The sarcastic, “superior” view is one we’ve nearly all met, whether from doctors, nurses, friends, relatives…It feels especially hurtful when we depend on or believed we were close. This experience is a reminder or hard lesson to hold one’s boundaries around what is true and real in one’s life, and not to be swept away, diminished or eliminated by anyone elses’s false views. Worst of all would be to buy into these views and harm, if not destroy, oneself. That to me is real mental illness and a cause of suicide too.

  6. Cindy Downey says:

    Thank you Jennie, for your analysis. Having never subscribed to Netflix, I have not seen this series, but from your review and others’, it sounds like these programs key into such base instincts as bullying, and “othering” as you say, and the need to boost one’s ego by denigrating others. And, you are so right – mental illness is still seen as the sufferer’s fault.

    How terrible for the people who opened up their lives for view, to be mislead and treated so appallingly. Is there any governing body for U.S. TV that people could contact about this?

    Thank you for your very strong review about this set back for people with invisible chronic illnesses.

    • Jan says:

      The FCC is the governing body for US TV. Here is a link to their contact page:

      There is a link to “tell your story”. Telling a story is does not file a complaint. Rather, “We will share your story internally and use it to inform policy making and potential enforcement activities.”

      I do not currently have Netflix but plan to contact them to voice opposition/outrage and let them know I will not subscribe in the future. Thank you to others who have included suggested wording for a Netflix complaint!

  7. jimells says:

    Hi Jennie there appears to be a bug on this webpage. The “Required fields” are already filled in with someone else’s name and email. I am using Firefox with cookies, tracking, etc. turned off.

  8. Sharon Rousseau says:

    Send along a note to Netflix “you have an opportunity to make an abusive piece of garbage “Afflicted” go away, or face lawsuits and subscription cancellations. Free speech/art in this case contributes towards malice/hateful actions towards vulnerable seriously ill human beings. You are chosing to ignore 10’s of thousands of evidenced based Peer Reviewed Studies proving Myalgic Encephalomyelitis is a serious neuro-immune-metabolic-endocrine disease. This is wilful negligence – do your homework!!!

  9. Janine McNamara says:

    Your article is powerful, especially the final sentence. As someone with several chronic illnesses, I eagerly watched Afflicted, hoping for encouragement, perhaps new ideas, and something to share with friends and family. When I finished, I was horrified by the cumulative effect of the series. Reading the Medium articles has infuriated me, as the subjects were treated unconscionably. As your last line indicates, what will be the lasting effect of this series for those of us chronically ill? We need greater awareness, acceptance, and assistance. I have lived a life constantly facing doubt, blame, shame, and ridicule. Frankly, I am tired of having to prove myself to others that yes I am sick, and no, I am not crazy or lazy. Netflix has done a tremendous disservice to all of the cast and to all of us with chronic illness.

  10. Kathy D. says:

    Very good summary of what’s wrong with Afflicted and the cruel comments at Reddit and elsewhere.

    My ME/CFS phone group discussed this and someone suggested writing a comment at Netflix’s Facebook page. I did that.

    I suggest others do that, too. We can raise a fuss with Netflix. If they are flooded with complaints, the network may respond. Pressure sometimes affects these stations.

  11. Cindy Downey says:

    Good idea to post on Netflix FB.

    Questions/suggestions for the show’s participants – probably ones they’ve thought of, but just in case – do you have a contract with this company? Did the film people contravene the contract?

    Who paid for the film? Who are the financial backers?

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