Yes, yes…the circus is bright and magical and glamorous, with all of the trappings and trimmings of the Big Top’s majesty…but there is a seamy underside to its outskirts. As you make your way toward the periphery, you find yourself toeing the margins of society and yet, also spiraling inward, more deeply aware of the sense of self. It is here that you witness what may only be summed up as ‘other’. Is it a mirror for your own secret suffering? Is it your greatest fear made manifest in human form? What the hell is that?! Why, it’s a freak show of course!
The defining factor for the term freak is that it refers to something unusual–a trait, behavior or event that is out of the ordinary. This deviation from what is considered normal or common creates a certain tension…a tendril of curiosity grows toward these slightly “off” subjects, inciting further observation even when the subject is macabre, unsettling or otherwise repulsive to the observer–so much so that they may find it difficult to tear their eyes away.
The kinds of things that traditionally categorized one as a freak were often medical anomalies, but I wonder if these physiological conditions weren’t more prolific than the general public knew. Shame likely caused people to hide or minimize such attributes. However, these anomalous characteristics have been displayed for entertainment purposes as living (or preserved) human curiosities for many centuries.
Below is a trailer for Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks which essentially tells the entire story in so many clips. Unfortunately, this film was met with much dissension in its time and was regarded as a blemish on his film-making career. I personally really enjoyed it, though it is darker than I tend to prefer.
Humans are animals–mammals to be precise, and one of the things that distinguishes mammals from other organisms is that they possess hair. Our ancestors were hair-covered creatures and some of us have retained more of that trait than others, which means practically nothing in the grand scheme of things. We have built certain cultural stigmas around the presence of hair, especially around gender. I know countless females with body and facial hair that exceeds cultural norms (myself included)–some to rival that of males; I would like to posit that facial and body hair (even relatively profuse amounts) is not inherently a masculine trait, since females commonly possess it. That just makes sense to me. I’m glad that I tend to live amongst communities that accept feminine fur as normal and wouldn’t bat an eyelash if I brandished my unshaven armpits or the whiskers on my chin. Three cheers for radical rationalism and acceptance!
Bearded ladies were always a hit at the freak show–some famous ones are celebrated at sideshow world.
phreeque is a fun website that offers the biographies for some of the most well-known sideshow performers throughout history. It’s done up in an artistic style true to the traditional hand-painted banners which advertised acts.
One of the reasons I am so interested in the history and culture of freaks is that I identify with them, given the handful of freak categories I fit into.
As a child, I was generously outfitted with a head of long, thick hair as well as dark, unruly hair on my arms and legs. This was passed down to me by my mother, who got it from her mother, and so on. It was around the time that I started being made fun of for my hairy little body that I realized my particular differences could be the source of ridicule and also have the unfortunate side effect of making me less attractive to others. Tah-dah! Enter self-awareness. I came to understand that my body hair was perceived as unsightly and masculine, animalic and even considered to be the trait of a monster…perhaps a saskwatch or a werewoman, as some mischievous kids had dubbed me. The hair was but one part of what estranged me from that ever-important topic: my gender. I didn’t feel like a “normal” feminine girl but I was definitely not a boy either. There were other elements involved.
I grew up in a small factory town in the midwest, surrounded by rows upon rows of corn, soy beans and hog farms. Almost all of the people I regularly saw were white, able-bodied, heteronormative and Christian. There was a sense of homogeneity into which I could tell that I did not blend.
As an eight year old, I realized that as far back as I could remember I’d engaged in sexualized play with female friends and that I had very strong desires to continue doing so…I frequently had lustful dreams about faceless or unfamiliar girls. I didn’t know anyone that was homosexual, so naturally I had an emotional breakdown–I had absolutely no way to comprehend what that would mean for me and my life. Television was my only window into the world at large and Madonna was the only person I could think of that was queer; for whatever reason, she wasn’t any consolation. I felt deeply ashamed and certain that my whole world would disintegrate if I admitted my desire for members of my own sex, so I let it slip from my conscious mind for about seven years. I thusly lived in the strange land of repression and denial, where mental illness anchored itself and unleashed its chaos.
In my mid-teenaged, non-conformist rebellion, I was able to let the truth surface about all of my perceived differences which threatened to cause me shame. I did so with flourish and psychotic abandon because I couldn’t hold it in anymore. I was a freak. I wore it in my garish or goth-inspired appearance, my brazen attitude and shocking behavior, in my self-inflicted scars. Though it might have served a similar social function, my freakishness wasn’t confined to a platform in a tent and I wasn’t being paid to perform. It was purgative volunteer work in the field, I suppose.
Sexuality and gender tend to be intertwined in quite the tangle. Gender ambiguity has been addressed in freak shows through the typical representation of a truly bisexual person: the Half and Half. Split precisely down the middle, these characters are the freak show’s way of exhibiting hermaphrodites (without showing genitals). This is obviously a fabrication–the performers would simply use makeup, costumery and acting to highlight their supposedly separate identities; some actually exercised their “male half” exclusively to achieve a more defined difference between the two. These performers may or may not have actually been intersexed.
According to the Intersex Society of North America, approximately one in 1,500 – 2,000 babies are born with ambiguous genitalia (more info here), though this number is likely inaccurate if you consider that symptoms can be expressed later in life. Doctors and parents often make the decision about which sex the child will be and the child doesn’t always grow up feeling like the assigned gender. Many people don’t identify with their assigned gender even without the physiological ambiguity; there are a whole selection of labels one can apply when shifting into what feels more appropriate.
“Third sex” or intermediate gendered people often don’t fit into either category of male or female. This is a particularly interesting subject because our society is so heavily influenced by and reliant upon its binary gender system. Many other cultures recognize another gender expression that is neither male nor female, or sometimes both–the hijra of South Asia, for example, or the Two-Spirit people of Native American cultures. Gender and sexuality isn’t as clear cut as some would like to make it and the freak show allows us a place to examine caricatures of this aspect of being.
People of ethnicities other than Euro-American have been displayed in pseudo-scientific “ethnographic” exhibits, both in the U.S. and abroad. The representation of people of color as “wild savages” was created through the use of props, costumes and imposed behavior; these exhibits were allegedly intended to teach about the anthropology of other cultures, though the “specimens” and information were often falsified or erroneous. Mostly, it peddled sensational ignorance and pandered to colonialist fantasies and fetishized exoticism. These demeaning, dehumanizing exhibits only served to further deepen the racial chasm, causing outrage in many audience members and, conversely, providing justification in the minds of the bigoted ones.
Whereas most freak show performers were exhibiting themselves consensually, there are cases where some were not free to choose otherwise.
Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman was a Khoisan woman sold into slavery and then exhibited in England and France as the “Hottentot Venus”, both as a scientific specimen and as a freak. Read a synopsis of her story by clicking this link: graegram.com
Ota Benga was a Batwa man who was exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, and then at the Bronx zoo in 1906. Although the zoo is not technically a freak show, Benga was held captive in the Monkey House where he was given the “wild savage” treatment by the employees of this institution, making a solitary act of him. Click the link below to see a brief version of his story: environmentalgraffiti.com
Freak shows are an excellent platform for witnessing how we as a society and as individuals perceive all things “other”. People may fear the display of differences because it threatens their own perceptions of what is normal, ideal or beautiful. Are many of these perceptions merely an adherence to somewhat arbitrary cultural norms which dictate what is acceptable? Mainstream standards tend to favor a very narrowly conceived, airbrushed “perfection” to what is real–to what is actually normal. It’s certainly more convenient to go along with the powerful majority than it is to define for oneself what is good, true and beautiful, especially at the risk of being rejected and alienated.
We all hold fears that something about ourselves is abnormal or shameful; perhaps our fascination with and rejection of such differences is related to that fear. Freak shows have exploited this insecurity–this hunger to identify abnormality–and have used it as a means by which to pay their performers’ wages. In essence, the audience tries to buy the illusion of reassurance that they are normal, under the guise of entertainment. Were it not for this system, the performers might have suffered from unemployment due to whatever characteristic they possessed that got them into the freak show. From this perspective, the performers own their unique qualities and turn the power paradigm on its head.
I personally value assemblages of oddities and curiosities (including the freak show) because I want to acknowledge and celebrate the immense and glorious variation in humans and nature in general. It is precisely this variation–this diversity–which keeps us stimulated as individuals and which makes our species and cultures resilient.
For more information, I encourage you to read Sideshow U.S.A: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination by Rachel Adams, which has been my best source for academic research on freaks. I appreciate that she brings examples from other art forms into her analysis of freak culture, such as cinema, photography and literature. She discusses much of what I have touched on here in far greater detail and superior eloquence.
I also encourage you to leave comments!