The Beauty and the Freak

Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s article draws parallels between the visual display of freaks and bathing beauties, claiming that they are part of the same system of ‘body criticism’ that serves to verify the social status quo and define the position of ‘normal citizen’ in opposition to either end of the spectrum.

The author points out that both freak shows and beauty pageants are forms of entertainment that came about as a result of mobility, urbanisation and wage labour among the bourgeois classes. It is interesting to note that the entrepreneur P.T. Barnum, who was responsible for the museum of freaks, also organised America’s first beauty pageant in 1854. The author also notes that the growth in popularity of the beauty pageant occurred at precisely the same time as the freak show began to disappear. Both forms of entertainment not only rely on (thinly) disguised sexual voyeurism, (bourgeois) attraction to celebrities and public appetite for novelty (Seltzer’s “excited love of seeing”). Thomson observes: “Spectacles such as beauty pageants and freak shows entail structured seeing. Unlike participatory rites such as Carnival, these visual spectacles enact what Susan Stewart calls “the pornography of distance,” by founding a triangle composed of the viewer, the object viewed, and the mediating forces that regulate the encounter. The display’s particularly intense capacity to signify facilitates a kind of cultural didacticism where an array of scripts, roles, and positions can be writ large.” As such, the public is drawn in and, under the manipulative spell of the mediator (almost always an enterprising commercialist) instructed on how to interpret the spectacle. In both cases, the subjects on show are more conspicuous than the spectators, and this deliberate obscuring of the audience denies them the possibility to look around at each other and locate the normal ‘common man’ that is in fact being defined by the performance (and which in fact they would not find). Then the displayed body becomes the focus of attention and transcends the performance itself: “This visual and spatial choreography between a disembodied spectator and an embodied spectacle enlists cultural norms and exploits embodied differences for commercial ends, creating a rhetorical opposition between supposedly extraordinary figures and putatively ordinary citizens. The beauty pageant and freak show do this by decontextualizing bodies from their lived environments and recontextualizing them within the stylized frame of the particular exhibition, rendering the viewed body a highly embellished representation of itself that reconstitutes its identity.” Under certain narratives of presentation, with costume, spotlight and showman’s pitch, the girl next door is transformed into the beauty queen, while a person with a congenital disability becomes the ‘armless wonder’.

In both cases, it is the body itself which is on show, rather than what the body does (which is true of most other displays of the human body, excepting perhaps bodybuilding displays). “Both the beauty pageant and the freak show traffic in otherness by fetishizing the bodies of people from groups traditionally associated with the body’s processes, maintenance, and limitations: women, the disabled, people of color. The presentation exaggerates, stylizes, and saturates every detail of the exhibited body with social meaning.” By establishing the other, the audience is unified in its status as normal citizenry. The only apparent distinction between the two processes of iconography (enfreakment and beautification) would seem to be their grammar – the freak is an anomaly, unique in its deviance from the norm and thus referred to in the singular; whereas the beauty pageant operates in the plural, suggesting that its attributes can be reproduced. The freak is a product of pre-modern response to the extraordinary, or what is called ‘exalted attention’, while the beauty pageant deals with ‘assembly-line beauty’, concurrent with modern capitalist attempts to standardise, reproduce and mass market products and notions.

Beauty pageants and freak shows thus ritually enact a kind of symbolic transference of embodiment within a cultural tradition which deeply, anxiously distrusts the body and its vulnerabilities. The dynamics of enfreakment and beautification aim to construct and affirm a normative, generic subject of democracy who possesses the entitlements of agency, volition, voice, mobility, rationality, sameness, and cultural literacy, but who is released from the restrictions and limitations of embodiment.”

This would seem to follow on directly from the colonial era photographs of subjugated peoples; an affirmation of physical difference and cognitive superiority, which gave licence to patronise, control and correct or ‘normalise’ the Other (through education, enlightenment, punishment or medical intervention). The only difference here is that the common man is seen as the one who is superior, who can pass judgement without himself being judged; the position of power is given to the universal citizens, who are united in the act of ritualised viewing: “The beauty’s ultra-feminine fleshliness, the cultural freak’s alien physiognomy, and the corporeal freak’s atypical form confer upon them an embodied particularity against which the citizen’s body seems to fade into a generality… Ritually banishing embodiment in this way soothes suspicions that the body’s demands and restrictions threaten unfettered self-determination, freedom, autonomy, and equality – democratic ideals upon which American individualism depends.” Of course, this is not to say that the freak show and beauty pageant were existent only in the US, but being the epitome of commercial enterprise and egalitarian democracy (at least according to its constitution), one can use the state as an example of other late capitalist democracies.

This article was most interesting for the fact that it really analysed the politics of looking, and this is something that I have been interested in since reading Sekula’s work the Body & Archive and analysing systems of power in photographic discourse. In contrast to normal studies of such power systems, this article places the position of power with the common man rather than an educated or informed elite, although it is quickly pointed out that this notion is in fact a product of capitalist commercial and entrepreneurial cashing in on bourgeois tendencies in entertainment towards sexual voyeurism (which when thinly disguised is deemed acceptable but remains tantalising), a thirst for the novel (cheap thrills, exalted attention) and an attraction to celebrities (tabloid press) rather than any attempt to control or normalise the deviants. On the contrary: Within the structure of the show the audience is given licence to feast their eyes on spectacles they would otherwise not have the privilege or the stomach or the gall to (out of a sense of societal decency), but then leave it at that. This is then compounded with the thrilling or horrific paradox of mundanity: that these subjects are in our midst (the beauty queen might be your sister, while the freak can think and speak – even sew on a button), that such misfortune or fame can happen to any of us. Thus the myth of the ‘normal citizen’ is engendered: since we are the ones looking, we must be part of the universal citizenry, and are as such affirmed and soothed in our sense of belonging, of not being marginalised, of our normalcy. The decline of such forms of entertainment can be attributed initially to the advent of television, and more recently that of the internet, with its plethora of gadgets that enable the amassing of personal collections or galleries of images which are then available for private viewing as desired.

What is deemed beautiful or attractive in a particular society at a particular point in history is culturally generated (by the dominant culture), reinforced in contemporary society (late capitalist) by a constant stream of images in the popular media, and these notions are rarely questioned or challenged by the majority of consumers, rather much energy is expended on attempts to attain or replicate the aesthetic through technologies of enhancement (diet, exercise, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, surgery). Such tendencies serve to further oppress and ostracise visibly disabled bodies as those which refuse to conform and remain undesirable, in spite of technological intervention.


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