Modern Freak Shows…

November 29, 2011

Why do we talk about freak shows as if they were a thing from the past? Freak shows still exist today and they are just as horrendous, useful and interesting as they have been then. While people don’t go to circus side shows anymore, they do pay hefty fees for their TV channels.  Modern freak shows are ever present in the form of documentaries about people who suffer from strange genetic anomalies or disabilities.

One example that I stumbled upon is a show produced in Britain by CHANNEL 5 called Extraordinary People . Goal of the show is to reveal people with disabilities who manage feats previously thought impossible for them to achieve. They show dwarves and giants, conjoined twins and fetus in fetu, people without faces, blind people who can walk like they could see, autistic people who are mathematical geniuses and children with half a brain. While all the episodes concentrate on a specific, often medical, event in the lives of the showcased “freak”, their life’s story is told. It is always highlighted that they accomplish to live as normal a life as possible despite their difficulties. Does that ring a bell?

The more episodes I watched the more I wondered why documentaries such as these are as popular as ever. In Thomson’s Freakery she points out that the freak shows of the 19th century were a very useful tool to create the abstract sameness a voter in a democracy needed to be. By looking at the strange other the audience became one in their normalness and turned into the mass of equalized people needed to support a fledgling democracy. Is democracy today then still so feeble to be in danger of failing? The answer, sadly enough, has to be a resounding YES. As economic crisis after economic crisis hits the world the cultural divides between the poor and the rich, the labor and the middle class, the uneducated and the educated turn more solid every day.  By providing examples of the obviously different such documentaries artificially generate a unity among all the cultural groups. And as a result democracy can withstand another onslaught. Hurrah!

What I found even more interesting than supporting our political system was the level of control that the medical establishment acquires through these freak documentaries. In Extraordinary People most episodes are centered around a medical problem, may it be the question what this one person suffers from or whether the “freaks” can be “normalized” without killing them. So, similar to the issue of intersex people , the medical establishment seizes the power to decide who counts as normal and who doesn’t. What if it wouldn’t be necessary to differentiate between normal and abnormal? Would democracy even work if the deviant and freakish wouldn’t exist? And do the needs of the many really outweigh the needs of the few?

To a degree freaks will always be a curiosity. But the degree to which we treat them as human beings and not as a medical condition, that has to be cured, is up to us. After all, don’t we teach our children to accept anyone for who they are? This is the lesson society will have to learn to create a better future.