Freaks and Civilization

December 30, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Whatever happened to freaks?

I saw the musical “Sideshow” on Saturday. It’s based on the story of the Hilton sisters, Violet and Daisy, conjoined twins.  When the musical opens, they are in Texas with a traveling sideshow of freaks – the bearded lady, the dog boy, the half-man/half-woman, a midget couple, a three-legged man, and others. The storyline of the show traces the girls’ escape from the exploitative sideshow operator, who in effect owns them, and their relation with two men who teach them to sing and dance and who eventually develop their them into vaudeville stars of the 1920s.


Vaudeville is long gone, and so is the freak show.  We still have the staples of vaudeville – singers and dancers and comedians.  And you can still find, in clubs or circuses or late night TV, magicians and ventriloquists, jugglers and fire-eaters, contortionists and animal acts. But no freaks. 

I don’t mean the performers – the glass eater, the sword swallower, the human pin cushion, the geek. [Language note: Until very recently, the term geek referred to the sideshow guy who bit the heads off live chickens, and I am curious as to how geek came to mean something much less specific and much less deviant. The word freak too lost its bite starting in the 1960s with speed-freaks and acid-freaks. As unconventionality became more stylish, freak might mean nothing more than enthusiast. 

(Frequency of freak in books, as per Google nGrams.)

The term allowed an utterly ordinary person the fantasy of metamorphosis into someone offbeat and interesting.  Freakonomics – need I say more? The characters on the 2000s TV series “Freaks and Geeks” were neither, at least not according to the definitions of only a few decades earlier. They would not have qualified for the sideshow. On the other hand, many people walk around in the conventional world today so extensively tattooed that they would have easily been sideshow material a century ago.]

The performers who had developed unusual skills were examples of what we sociologists might call “achieved” deviance. The freaks I wonder about are those who one of the characters in “Sideshow” calls “nature’s mistakes.”  They seem to have disappeared from sight. My friends who grew up in New York used to go to Hubert’s Dime Museum on 42nd St., a sideshow collection of freaks and acts that ran through the mid-1960s.  The closest that the today’s Disneyfied Times Square comes is Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum is just a few doors down the street. But Hubert’s and the like have not reopened anywhere. No doubt there are places on the Internet showing all sorts of physical anomalies, but I the audience for these sites is probably smaller and more secretive than was the freak show audience.

The freak show has fallen victim to a normative shift that has taken two forms. First, freaks are less abnormal.  We have become more accepting of people who are different. They are no longer the objects of fascination and horror that they once were. Our normative circle has expanded, spreading now to include many of the “differently abled” who might previously have been excluded. As the boundary has broadened, even those who are really different are no longer so distant. Consequently, they are not so deviant.  We have defined their deviance down. 

Second, as norms have become more accepting of physical difference, they have also become less tolerant of those who haven’t gotten the message, the unenlightened rabble who would belittle, tease, laugh, or gawk. We must teach them restraint and kindness.  It’s not nice to point and stare and others’ deformity.

This sounds a bit like Norbert Elias’s Civilizing Process, which traces how Europeans came to throw the heavy cloak of manners over bodily functions, violence, dining, and speech.  Elias was writing about a transition that began with the medieval aristocracy and filtered through bourgeoisie of later centuries. By the time book was published (the mid-20th century), the civilizing process seemed like something that had reached its peak in the 19th century.  The strictures of Victorian norms were loosening. We were less uptight about bodies, and that was groovy. 

Maybe, but apparently the civilizing beat goes on. If there is a message to “Sideshow,” it is that the freak show – exploiting its cast while egging on its audience, daring them to stare – was a shameful spectacle, one that we like to think we have relegated to the bin of history. 

1 comment:

Peter Moskos said...

You miss one major reason we see fewer "freaks": 1st-world medical care. "Freaks" get "fixed." One can still see a variety of lesser "freak" going about daily life in poor parts of some other countries.

Also, the Coney Island Sideshow still features freaks. Mostly performers, true, but also some people of the "nature's mistakes" category.