This post is not thought to be an academically founded article, but rather a chain of thought for reconsidering parts of our popular culture. Having talked about the freak show and the ways it works and is structured, I discovered parallels to modern and recent TV formats. Especially casting shows like American Idol (German ‘Deutschland sucht den Superstar’), America’s Got Talent (German ‘Das Supertalent’) and America’s / Germany’s Next Top Model seem to be a modern version of the freak show to me.
To follow my train of thought, you need to be aware, that I do not use the term freak as a negative one, even though it may be used in a negative way very often. To be a freak in my understanding means to have certain attributes that strongly distinguish you from the normal and average. These casting shows are looking for exactly these people with the aim to present them in public. They promse the chance for a better life through a record deal, a modeling contract or a grand prize of 100 000€. Presenters of freak shows did something very similar. Even though they did not do public castings, they were always looking for new freaks that they could present. To convince them to join the freak show, they argued with the chance for a better life in several cases. Both freak shows and casting shows make profit of their participants while they present them. Apart from that casting shows, like freak shows, present the story behind their freak to an enormous extent. If one candidate has had a hard life, they use this and blow it up, showing film clips in order to create a public personality of the freak. They use existing attributes or facts and exaggerate them, so they appear more interesting to the spectators, in this case the people sitting in front of their TV sets.
Seeing the parallels between the freak show and different TV formats, you could start wondering, whether the freak show really does not exist anymore or if it just changed its appearance. Did it move to the media as the travelling freak shows started to vanish more and more? In the nineties and early 2000’s, let’s call it the pre-casting-show-era, people with weird bodily attributes appeared in talk shows, such as Jerry Springer, Maury Povich, etc. There was this sort of known group of freaks that almost toured from one talk show to another and talked about their story. As soon as freaks in talk shows did not seem to have such a strong impact on people anymore the number of talk shows in the style of Springer decreased. By today, in Germany there is not a single talk show aired anymore(‘Britt’, ‘Vera am Mittag’,…). The only thing that remains is compilations of the ‘worst freaks’ in shows as ‘Talk Talk Talk’.
The new thing that came was casting shows. These shows are closer to the spectators, because the people that are presented in these shows are from the same group of on the first glance not freakish people, the same society as the people they are being presented to. The makers of these shows focus on the connection between the freaks and the viewers, they make use of both the relation and the differences between them. I cannot tell which direction this development of the freak show will go next, but I am pretty sure that it will not stop. People have always been fascinated by things like these, they are right now and they will most probably always be.
I hope you recognize that what I just wrote was highly subjective and I did not mean to judge things positively or negatively. I think I may have not succeeded in that last aspect, but still I think that the idea that I had in mind became obvious. If you have any thoughts about this, feel free to tell me about it and don’t hesitate to discuss with me if you feel like it.
Since I am a great fan of South Park, I want to recommend the Episode “Freak Strike” which deals with that topic of freaks in talk shows. It was aired for the first time March 20 in 2002, shortly before the first big casting show American Idol started in June of the same year. If you are interested, see the link to the episode at the end of this post.