Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2005, Volume 25, No. 3
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Twenty-First Century Freak Show:
Recent Transformations in the Exhibition of Non-Normative Bodies

Elizabeth Stephens
Centre for the History of European Discourses
University of Queensland
Qld 4072 Australia
E-mail: e.stephens@uq.edu.au

Abstract

The last decade has witnessed both a re-emergence and re-invention of the traditional 19th-century freak show, with groups such as the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, Circus Amok, The Happy Side Show, Tokyo Shock Boys, the Kamikaze Freak Show and Mat Fraser's one-man show, "Sealboy: Freak," enjoying a period of enormous popularity. This paper will examine what the recent transformations of the traditional freak show reveal about the identification and representation of bodily difference in contemporary culture.

The exhibition of anatomically unusual bodies is a phenomenon that is both specific to the particular historical circumstances in which it takes place, and exemplary of more general cultural assumptions about the meaning and nature of the body. As such, the history of freak shows provides an exceptionally fruitful context in which to examine how bodily norms are established and enforced, and to consider how these have impacted upon the lived experiences of subjects identified as physically different. Focusing on the move away from the exhibition of 'born' freaks to that of 'self-made' freaks seen in 21st-century side shows, this paper will read the transformation of the freak show as representative of important wider shifts in dominant concepts of corporeality.

Keywords: modern side shows, self-made freaks, corporeality, bodily norms

Sideshows are more popular than ever, the trouble is that there are not enough freaks (The Last Sideshow, 2004, p. 91).

[A] true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born (Geek Love, 1988, p. 23).

As freak shows emerged as an important area of academic research over the last two decades, much of the writing on this topic has been characterized by its elegiac tone, lamenting the end of a cultural tradition that extends back into the middle ages. Robert Bogdan's Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, one of the first and most influential of the recent wave of studies on the public exhibition of anatomically unusual bodies, is characteristic of this trend, casting its discussion of the freak show in the past tense and concluding that "the splendor of the grand days of the freak show" have now passed into history (1988, p. 280). This sense that a golden age of freak shows, and the era of freaks themselves, is coming to an end also pervades Peter Schardt's more recent essay on the history of the freak show in The Last Sideshow, which argues that "there is no doubt now that the traditional Sideshow is disappearing," a vanishing Schardt attributes to the cultural and medical changes of the post-War period: "Since the 1950's in Europe and America 'natural' show freaks have been dying out" (2004, p. 5). This nostalgia for the passing of freak shows is one that also permeates recent fictional representations of side shows. Katherine Dunn's Geek Love, which follows the vacillating fortunes of "Binewski's Fabulon," begins as "the once flourishing carnival was fading" (2002, p. 7). Reflecting Ward Hall's sentiment in the epigraph to this paper, Binewski's Fabulon is suffering a shortage of freaks, and so Aloysius Binewski "decide[s] to breed his own freak show" (p. 8). By administering a series of toxins and poisons to his wife, the couple produces the limbless "aqua boy" Arturo, conjoined sisters, a telepath, and an albino hunchback dwarf, and, for a while, the show prospers. This renaissance proves temporary, however, and the show's inevitable decline, inscribed in the narrative's opening pages, is realized by the end of the text. More recently, Sarah Hall's novel The Electric Michelangelo focuses on the life and professional practice of a tattoo artist during the years of Coney Island's decline, when the fairground was "sobering up from its early-century glory when even God had paid his entrance fee [. . . .] Cy could sense the decline almost immediately after his arrival – the atmosphere was like coming late to a party where [. . .] the partygoers' eyes had begun to glaze" (2003, p. 184). By the end of the novel, the deterioration of the fairground has become palpable: "Coney Island looked sick to him. . . . Overnight it seemed as if the fairground had morphed from a potentially ugly thing into a hideous creature, a full-blown monster" (p. 300).

Despite these repeated predictions about the imminent demise of the old side shows, over the last decade, freak shows have been flourishing and enjoying a period of renewed popularity. Groups and individual performers such as the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, the Happy Sideshow, Mat Fraser, the Kamikaze Freakshow, Tokyo Shock Boys and Circus Amok have performed to diverse and enthusiastic audiences, demonstrating the extent to which contemporary audiences remain fascinated by the exhibition and capabilities of exceptional bodies. In Sideshow U.S.A: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination, Rachel Adams argues that representations of freak shows as in decline may be less of an objective commentary on the current status of freak shows than an inherent part of their discursive construction. Predictions of the side shows' passing

say less about the freak show's demise than its restless plasticity, a determined evolution and reinvention that is almost always coupled with nostalgia for more prosperous times. Aware that scarcity or impending extinction are certain crowd pleasers, freak shows advertise not only the rarity of individual attractions, but the more general enterprise of human exhibition itself as a threatened practice (2001, p. 211).

As Adams recognizes, emphasizing the side shows' culturally precarious position can be an integral strategy of the freak shows' own publicity, which often invokes discourses of exceptionality, rarity and endangerment. There are, however, additional reasons for this proliferation of writing about the imminent demise of the freak show just as it is enjoying a renaissance of interest and activity. Partly, the widespread assumption that the exhibition of anatomically unusual bodies is inevitably drawing to an close results from recent developments in medical treatments and technologies, which have led – in affluent western societies at least – to a radically decreased incidence and even elimination of some of the conditions that made for popular side show exhibits: descriptions of "pygmies" and "wild men" exhibited in 19th-century anatomical museums and side shows suggests a number of these may, in fact, have been sufferers of "cretinism" (which effects growth as well as mental development), a condition caused by a lack of iodine in the diet. As Armand Marie Leroi writes: "the legislated spread of iodized salt in the early twentieth century [. . .] eliminated European goiter and cretinism within a generation, so that today these diseases are little more than folk-memories" (2003, p. 198). However, attempts to account for the narratives of disappearance that surround discussions of the freak show that focus exclusively on such empirical shifts overlook the extent to which these are also an intrinsic part of the freak shows' discursive construction. Culturally, a sense of degradation is both central to and inscribed within the institution of the side show, because these are so often seen to oppress and exploit the subjects whose bodies are identified as physically different, a viewpoint that will be further interrogated below. In this way, accounts of the freak shows' decline might be more accurately understood, not as evidence of their imminent passing or disbandment, but of their recent transformation. Moreover, as this paper will demonstrate, these cycles of re-emergence and reinvention have characterized the history of the freak show, from its beginnings in 18th- and 19th-century anatomical museums, to the incorporation of these into traveling circuses and side shows, and finally to their current incarnation.

The recently renewed popularity of the freak show, amidst expectations of its imminent disappearance, is often traced to the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow – a view perpetuated not least by Jim Rose himself, a tireless self-promoter in the grand tradition of P. T. Barnum. According to the side show's publicity: "Ten years ago [. . .] traditional freak shows had disappeared [. . . .] This all changed when Jim Rose stole the buzz on the 1992 Lollapalooza tour sending shock waves around the world" (Jim Rose Circus and Twisted Tour TV Show Web site, bio page, 2004). Although other troupes, such as Circus Amok, have been performing since the late 1980s, and the Coney Island Circus Sideshow was resurrected in the mid 1980s (Adams, 2001, p. 212), it is certainly true that the popular re-emergence of the freak show gained momentum in the early 1990s, and that many subsequent groups, such as the Happy Sideshow and Tokyo Shock Boys, are stylistically indebted to Jim Rose's Circus Sideshow. These groups are thus most accurately seen as a cluster of side shows that emerged over the course of the last decade, and which share an ironic style that harks back to and often explicitly references the traditional, 19th-century freak shows. The Tokyo Shock Boys, for instance, incorporate traditional Japanese costumes and Samurai swords into their performances, playing up clichés of Japanese exoticism in a way that, according to Bogdan, is one of the side show's two main strategies for the construction of the freak body (the other being the aggrandized, or exaggerated, mode of representation) (Bogdan, 1988, p. 94-118). Nineteenth-century exhibition bills often attributed exotic origins to performers dressed up in the national costume of their putative land of origin: exhibited subjects such as the "The Lapland Giantess and her Companion, Dressed in the picturesque Costume of their Country" (Curious Exhibition Bills, unpaginated), "The Sacred Hairy Family of Burma" (Mitchell, 2002, p. 111) and "The Wild Man of the Prairies" (Curious Exhibition Bills, unpaginated) are all examples of this. Circus Amok's Jennifer Miller, similarly, is a woman with a beard who performs in the long, frilly dresses that are the traditional garb of bearded ladies, and takes her act to the Coney Island Circus Side Show, although she also "delivers a sideshow-style spiel with an overtly feminist spin" (Adams, 2001, p. 221).

In the same way, Mat Fraser's one-man play, "Sealboy: Freak," juxtaposes the story of a character loosely based on Fraser himself with that of Stanley Berent, who, like Fraser, was born with phocomelia, or foreshortened arms, and toured with American freak shows in the 1950s as "Sealo the Sealboy." (Fraser has also hosted "Born Freak," a television documentary about the history of the freak show.) In this way, while contemporary side shows self-consciously cite the aesthetics and institution of 19th-century freak shows, they also comprise an active re-imagining and critique of these. As such, 21st-century freak shows generally avoid the sentimentality towards their profession that marks much recent academic and popular writing on this history, a difference in approach attributable at least in part to the fact that contemporary performers live the uneasy experience of their cultural construction as "freaks." At the same time, the very active role performers such as Mat Fraser and Jennifer Miller play in their (self-)construction as "sealboy" or "bearded lady" problematize the assumption that the "freak" is inevitably the victim of side shows' unscrupulous proprietors: these performers are frequently self-managing and self-promoting in a way that represents a profound structural transformation of the freak show as an institution. As Michael Chemers rightly argues, recognizing the role of contemporary performers as active agents in the performative construction of their identity as freaks "has a magnificent potential, not only for illuminating the history of the freak show theatrical tradition in a way sympathetic to, although by no means uncritical of, its participants, but also for raising important questions about the naturalization of concepts of "normal" and "abnormal" (Staging Stigma, p. 5).

In this way, 21st century freak shows can be best understood as both the latest in a long history of public exhibitions of bodies identified as anatomically unusual and, simultaneously, as active agents in the recent transformation of the popular understanding of the freak show. That is to say, shows such as the Circus Amok, Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, Tokyo Shock Boys, The Happy Side Show, and the Kamikaze Freak Show represent not only a re-emergence but also a re-invention of the traditional freak shows they reference. Moreover, the recent popularity of these shows is simply the most recent instance of the historical tendency for public interest in bodily difference to intensify during those periods in which questions about the nature and meaning of the body accrue a heightened cultural importance. As even the briefest consideration of this history demonstrates, popular fascination with bodies identified as extraordinary generally coincides with periods in which dominant concepts of the corporeality, of definitions about what constitutes a normal or "abnormal" body, are undergoing sustained re-evaluation. Thus history of exhibiting exceptional bodies is not simply one currently in transformation, but one of transformation.

From the medieval tradition of displaying human monsters in the market-place to the current postmodern freak shows, the "freakish" body has always been a site of metamorphosis and transmogrification. The fascination with monstrous bodies in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as reflected in very popular and much imitated texts such as Ambroise Paré's Des Monstres et prodiges (1564) and Pierre Boaistuau's Histoires prodigieuses (1560), is an important instance of this. As scholars of this period have widely noted, the Early Modern captivation with monstrous bodies and births constituted a re-imagining of what the monster was: No longer seen as a religious omen to be deciphered, as the medieval monster had been, by the late 16th century the monster was increasingly reconceptualized as a naturally-occurring phenomenon. Norman Smith argues that images of the monstrous in the early 17th century reflects a shift between medieval and modern perspectives, represented by a move from an earlier fascination with monstrous races and legendary monsters, to a marked interest in "the monsters [the public] could see about them—anomalous births, strange events, occurrences contrary to nature" (2002, p. 267). In this way, the Early Modern fascination with the monstrous coincides with its cultural shift from the religious to the medical domain. (See also Daston and Parks, 1998.)

Following Marina Warner's insight in Fantastic Selves, Other Worlds (2002), that images of corporeal transformation tend to proliferate during periods of rapid cultural change, we can identify the contemporary transformation of the freak show as similarly representative of the wider cultural shifts in dominant concepts of corporeality taking place in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Recent critics of the freak show have argued that the body of the "freak" has no essential meaning in and of itself, but is rather a stage for playing out various pressing social and political concerns (Adams 2001, Shildrick 2002). It is within this context that the recent popularity of freak shows should be understood. The body of the modern freak show performer, and the kinds of body displayed in the space of the contemporary freak show, reveal profound changes in the shifting and unstable relationship between "normal" and "extraordinary" bodies. The figure of the freak, like that of the monster before it, is therefore more productively understood as a catalyst for transformations of prevailing bodily norms, rather than as something which unproblematically breaches those norms.

Most noticeably, a survey of the kinds of performers featured in contemporary freak shows reveals the almost total disappearance of congenitally different bodies within the space of public exhibition. Whereas 19th-century freak shows such as Barnum's American Museum and Dr Kahn's Anatomical Museum featured such exhibits as "Madame Dimanche, 87 years of age, with a horn in her forehead 12 inches in length" (Curious Exhibition Bills, unpaginated), "Jo Jo the Russian Dog-Faced Boy" (Mitchell, 2002, p. 51) and "Fanny Mills the Ohio Big Foot Girl" (Mitchell, p. 60-61), along with conjoined twins, microcephalics and "piebald" children, contemporary freak shows primarily feature performers such as sword-swallowers, geeks, contortionists, human pincushions, and those able to lift heavy objects with their nipples or penis. In other words, one of the most important shifts between the kinds of bodies displayed in the 19th- and 21st- century freak shows is that between what is usually referred to as the "born" and the "self-made" freak. As Robert Bogdan argues in Freak Show, these categories were used to distinguish exhibits and performers with physical or mental differences present at birth from those who "acquired their physical oddity for the purposes of exhibition" (1988, p. 234). Contemporary side shows tend to underplay the overwhelming predominance of "self-made" freaks amongst their performers: The Space Cowboy, the sword (and other instrument) swallower in the Happy Sideshow, is introduced before each performance as having an unusual internal anatomy that enables his act. The troupe's Web site, which provides background histories of the performers similar to those delivered by the barkers of traditional freak shows, claims that the Space Cowboy has "an internal deformation known medically as congenital division of the stomach. This basically means that the lower half of his stomach has been replicated and sits lower than a normal human stomach" (The Happy Sideshow Web site, The Space Cowboy page). Similarly, Captain Frodo, the Happy Sideshow's contortionist, is said to be "affected with a rare genetic affliction known medically as Ehler Dunlos' syndrome or more commonly known as being double jointed" (The Happy Sideshow Web site, The Captain Frodo page).

While a number of contemporary performers – such as Jennifer Miller and Mat Fraser – do have physical anomalies that in earlier times would have identified them as "born" freaks, for the most part congenitally, ethnically, or developmentally different bodies are no longer to be seen in spaces of public exhibition. Partly, as we have already seen above, this is the result of changes in medical technology, which have radically decreased the incidence of some congenital disorders, and led to the termination of pregnancies of a wide number of untreatable conditions (see Thompson, 1997, p. 78-80). However, this change is also due to the important recent reconceptualization of the "born" freak as "disabled." As disability emerges as a new category for understanding the anatomically different body, the recent history of the freak show reveals, the meaning of "freak" is redefined to explicitly exclude such bodies.

A decisive moment in the history of the contemporary freak show, identifiable as a key moment in which this transformation takes place, is the case of Otis Jordan, the "Frog Man," who performed at the Sutton Side Show at the New York State Fair. Jordan's act included using his mouth to roll, light and smoke a cigarette, continuing a centuries-old tradition of performers whose accomplishments defied physical limitations, including Madame Rosina, who was born without arms but could crochet with her feet and paint works of art with her mouth, or Thomas Inglefield, who "by industry acquired the Arts of Writing and Drawing, holding his Pencil between the Stump of his Left Arm and his Cheek and guiding it with the Muscles of his Mouth" (A Curious Collection of Prodigies, p. 5). Jordan's performances as "Frog Man" came to an end, however, after a complaint was lodged protesting the exploitative and degrading nature of the Sutton Side Show's exhibition of disabled persons as freaks. In consequence of this complaint, the show was prohibited from using the word "freaks" to describe the performers, and the side show was relocated from the prominent midway area to the back of the fair, drastically reducing the audience and profitability of the show (Bogdan, 1988; Adams, 2001).

This case has rightly been identified as a pivotal moment in the history of the freak show, because it provides a concentrated instance of recent debates about what kinds of bodies can be exhibited to the public, and under what circumstances. For Bogdan, who interviewed Jordan after his "exile" from the Sutton Side Show (1988, p. 279), this case represents the moment in which subjects who have been widely assumed to be the passive victims of the freak show culture exerted their right to exhibit their bodies for profit. Bogdan writes:

According to him, [joining the side show] was the best thing that ever happened. He likes to travel and meet new people and his new profession enabled him to buy a small house back home which he lives in when the show winters. He has no complaints except one. He thought the woman complaining about his being exploited ought to talk to him about it. He would tell her there 'wasn't anybody forcing him to do anything.' As he put it, 'I can't understand it. How can she say I'm being taken advantage of? Hell, what does she want for me – to be on welfare?' (1988, p. 280).

In his discussion of this case, however, David Gerber takes issue with what he sees as Bogdan's idealistic interpretation of Jordan's situation. Gerber questions the validity of Bogdan's argument that Jordan both consented to, and actively agitated for, his right to perform as an identified "freak." Gerber's argument is that informed consent can only be given in situations in which subjects have a range of choices available to them: "But if Jordan's choices in life have been reduced to participating in a freak show or 'being on welfare,' it really does not appear that he has had much choice at all" (1996, p. 49). Moreover, in drawing attention to the importance of the complainant's identity in Jordan's case as Barbara Baskin, a disability activist (1996, p. 48), Gerber recasts the debate about Jordan's performance as occurring within the emergent social and discursive space of disability rights – one in which the "disabled" performer and the disability advocate represent opposing points of view.

This debate is one that has continued to be a source of contention within the Disability Studies and rights movement, re-emerging in more recent responses to Mat Fraser's work. Having first worked as a professional musician, Fraser now performs in and presents theatrical and television shows that explicitly reference traditional freak shows, a career trajectory that Fraser explicitly attributes to his "coming out" as a "disabled" performer:

Before 1992 I was living as a non disabled person, in denial of (the social construct that, for me, is) disability. Unconsciously utilizing the socially accepted disabled stereotype No.4, The Over Achiever, my life had been a joyously ignorant escape from reality, by being in a rock band with no politics, by being very stoned, and more things. My slow burn to consciousness started by meeting Mary Duffy, and reading her poems, then seeing Graeae theatre co.s production of 'UBU', and finally discovering The Disabled People's Direct Action Network, D.A.N.

For the next few years I was in a whirl of demonstrations and actions, Disability Arts, notably the cabarets, and becoming a disabled artist, rather than an artist with a disability (The Mat Fraser Web site, 2005).

In a development that Gerber might neither condone nor comprehend, it is Fraser's increased involvement with disability activism that has led to his exploration of the world of traditional freak shows, through his own performance as a freak in his play "Sealboy: Freak" and his hosting of the UK television shows "Born Freak" (a documentary) and "Freak Out" (a disability lifestyle program). Fraser's work, however, has frequently evoked the same negative responses from disability rights advocates as did Jordan's: He was banned from the 1999 Independence Festival, which celebrates disability art, because of his involvement in the "See the Person" Government poster campaign (which disability campaigners condemned for ignoring the need for civil rights legislation), and then asked not to perform at the 2000 festival due to his involvement with "Freak Out."

Underlying these debates provoked by the actions of performers such as Fraser and Jordan, and the emergence of the Disability Rights Movement itself, is a perceived tension between the medicalization and theatricalization of anatomically different bodies, one which closely informs the recent reinvention of the freak show. This is a point raised in Bogdan's study, in which he ties the decline of traditional freak shows to the medicalization of disability. By the late 1930s, Bogdan writes, people with physical anomalies had been transformed in the cultural imagination from human oddities or monsters to sick people requiring diagnoses and medical intervention: "The meaning of being different had changed in American society. Scientific medicine had undermined the mystery of certain forms of human variation. . . . People who were different had diseases and were now in the province of physicians, not the general public" (1988, p. 274). Rosemarie Garland Thompson also makes this point in Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, in which she argues that the "discourse of the extraordinary body as a medical specimen finally eclipsed the traditional freak show spectacle by the mid-twentieth century" (1997, p. 75). Once again, however, this narrative of the cultural decline of the freak show is one that appears as constant throughout the history of the exhibition of corporeal difference: historians of the Early Modern monstrous body, such as Colin Clair, have similarly argued that the "spread of education and greater medical knowledge" during the Enlightenment gradually led to the waning of pubic interest in "'marvels' as the woman with three breasts, the pig-faced woman, and the ubiquitous mermaid" (1968, p. 93). The medicalization of the different body is not one that impinges upon and redefines a previous, folkloric history, however, but one that is always-already intimately bound up with it: Ambroise Paré was a physician, while the development of teratology as a medical specialty closely informed the emergence of the 18th-century anatomical museums from which the freak show itself derived.

Despite this historical interweaving of the medical and theatrical in the identification and representation of physical anomalies, there has also been a great deal of friction between the medical construction of bodily difference and its public exhibition in spaces of entertainment. Anatomical museums such as Dr Kahn's were targeted by legislators in the late 1800s for precisely this reason: They were seen to dangerously blur the line between medical institutions, on the one hand, and theatres and side shows, on the other. The banning of disabled bodies from freak shows is a continuation of this history. While such moves undoubtedly signal important cultural changes in the treatment of physically and mentally disabled subjects, whose treatment in 19th-century freak shows was often appalling (Youngquist, 2003), attempts to police the distinction between the medicalization and theatricalization of bodily difference pose certain dangers of their own.

In particular, recent scholarship on the treatment of disabled subjects within the forum of the freak show can serve to essentialize the idea of bodily difference and the culturally constructed distinction between normative and non-normative corporealities, in a way that elides the extent to which these categories have historically served to reinforce normative and negative assumptions about bodily difference. Armand Marie Leroi's Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body is a recent example of this tendency. Ostensibly, Mutants presents itself as a work of popular science designed to elucidate the complex biological processes governing embryonic formation and development. Leroi claims that his work "resist[s] the temptation" to moralize about these processes (2003, p. 336), and begins by promisingly framing his work as a problematization of the categories of "normal" and "abnormal": "We are all mutants," Leroi argues, before adding, tellingly: "But some of us are more mutant than others" (p. 19). The reclamation of the category of the "mutant" signaled here closely informs the text that follows, revealing deeply entrenched but rarely interrogated assumptions about the nature and meaning of anatomical difference. Physical anomalies are repeatedly represented as a source of danger and incoherence: "Most mutations destroy meaning," Leroi insists (p. 14). Moreover, Leroi emphatically distinguishes between "mutation" and "normal variation" (p. 336) or "polymorphism" in a way that suggests these categories can be objectively identified and fixed: "mutations being rare and harmful, polymorphism being generally neither" (p. 266). Yet Leroi's own study repeatedly reveals how difficult it is to maintain this distinction, a difficulty the text avoids by approaching the body as though it were accessible to an unmediated interpretation. Treating bodies as purely material, Mutants overlooks the extent to which they are materialized and transformed in/through discursive and cultural practices.

Scientific and medical analyses of the body are always cultural constructions of corporeality, a fact often obscured by their claims to empiricism and objective data. Margrit Shildrick suggests an alternative approach in Embodying the Monster: Encounters with Vulnerable Self. In contradistinction to Leroi's distinctions between "normal" and "abnormal" variations of the body, Shildrick argues that monsters destabilize and problematize attempts to separate the category of the normal from the monstrous, the self from the other: "Time and again the monstrous cannot be defined to the place of the other; it is not simply alien, but always arouses the contradictory responses of denial and recognition, disgust and empathy, exclusion and identification" (2002, p. 17). It is just such a dynamic that spectators and performers alike experience within the space of the freak show. Freak shows problematize the distinction between the medicalized and theatricalized body, the "born" and "self-made" freak, through the techniques of exhibition in which corporeal difference is literally staged, explicitly constructed as freakish. Moreover, resisting Leroi's attempt to define the "mutant" body in opposition to the "normal" body, freak shows demonstrate how continuous these bodies are with one another.

Just as Leroi argues that analysis of "mutant" bodies elucidates the processes of "normal" development, so do dominant cultural concepts of the body as a natural and coherent entity emerge in and through the exhibition of bodies identified as chaotic, unstable, and exceptional. In the shift from the representation of the "born" freak to that of the "self-made" freak seen in contemporary side shows, however, we witness an important transformation in dominant cultural assumptions about the meaning and nature of the body. Reflecting its continuity with – rather than opposition to – normative models of corporeality, the contemporary freak body is a self-created construct. Twenty-first century western culture is fascinated with processes of self-transformation and self-invention, be it the disciplining of the body within health discourses and institutions, the fantasies for self-creation enacted in television make-over programs and self-help texts, or the obsession with plastic surgery and changing body shapes demonstrated by the tabloid media. The contemporary freak body is in this way just like the normative model of the body found in 21st-century culture, a plastic and self-made construct, constantly transforming and re-inventing itself. The wonder and anxiety generated by the body of the self-made freak arises not from the randomness of its physical difference, as responses to the "born" freak did, but at its celebration of different capabilities and aesthetics: the face of Michael Jackson, the body that has transformed itself into that of a lizard or cat, the geek who eats bugs or bites the heads off live chickens, and Kamikaze Freakshow's human pincushion all represent the modern body's capacity for self-creation in a way that challenges cultural norms of beauty and accomplishment. It is in this respect, in its proximity to contemporary concepts of corporeality as highly conditioned and cultivated, that the modern freak continues to haunt and fascinate the audiences that crowd to witness its performances.

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Copyright (c) 2005 Elizabeth Stephens



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ISSN: 2159-8371