Abby and Brittany: Conjoined Twins, TLC, and the Sideshow

TLC Promo

No discussion of the similarities and differences between TLC programming and antiquated sideshows is complete without a post about Abby and Brittany.  Abigail and Brittany Hensel were born in 1990, and they are dicephalic parapagus twins, which means they are conjoined twins.  The “interesting” part of their condition is that they each have a separate head, but their bodies are joined.  To some, without closer investigation, this almost makes it appear that they are “a two-headed girl.”

SO many questions!

When Abigail and I saw the promo for this show, we knew immediately that we would HAVE to watch it.  Even though the preview was sensationalized, as they usually are, we were intrigued and had SO MANY QUESTIONS.  The obvious: how does one control each side? how do they attend college classes? how do they drive? what parts of their bodies do they share?  And the questions you want to know, but are afraid to ask: What if one of the girls was a lesbian and the other was straight? How do intimate relationships work when there’s no privacy? How does privacy even work?   Fortunately, the show does a lot of answering of these questions through interviews with friends and the girls themselves.

TLC’s website really only provides videos and images from the show, and not much real outside information about the women.[1]  Gawker published a very informative article about the girls.[2]  One quote in particular is very relevant:

“So basically the show exists so we can oggle these girls in private? I thought TLC was supposed to be The Learning Channel. What the hell happened?
This is one of the stalest observations a person can make on the internet but, since you brought it up, TLC’s (alleged) downward spiral began with the program Jon and Kate Plus 8… From there, we moved to 19 Kids & CountingToddlers & Tiaras, and now the apex of observational learning Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. The criticism that TLC isn’t doing enough to educate its viewers is a weak one, because, if you really wanted to explore the world of science, you wouldn’t rely on the folks who brought you A Wedding Story to do it. Anyway, look at all you’ve learned about conjoined twins so far today.” (full article at: http://gawker.com/5933247/)

Anatomical Answers!

The article also asks and answers:

“What happens if one of the girls doesn’t want to have sex with a man but the other one does — is that rape? Do they have to buy separate tickets if they see a 3-D movie, because they require one seat but two sets of glasses? What if Abby had failed her driving test but Brittany had passed it? What if one of them is sleepy and the other one is wide awake? Since they have two stomachs but one bladder do they have to pee all the time? What if one had graduated high school but the other had failed all her classes? What happens if they have to throw up?

Who knows? They aren’t doing press. But now you’ve uncovered the real fun of Abby & Brittany: coming up with an endless list of questions you will never ask them in real life, because it would be rude.”[3]

Conjoined Twins: Now and Then

Chang and Eng Bunker

Another set of conjoined twins that I have studied helped to inform many of these questions and provide more.  Chang and Eng Bunker were born in 1811 in Siam (get it – Siamese twins? – but seriously, please don’t call conjoined twins this [racist]).  Rather than being conjoined to the degree that Abby and Brittany are, the Bunkers were connected only by a narrow band of flesh at chest-level.

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Robert Hunter, a British merchant, “discovered” the twins and paid their family to allow the boys to be exhibited as a curiosity during a world tour. The men toured the world to give demonstrations and lectures, and they were among P.T. Barnum’s “curiosities” that included Tom Thumb,  Native American dancers, giants, and albinos.  After a successful career of traveling, the men settled in North Carolina, bought a farm, and married sisters Adelaide and Sarah Yates.   To answer the question, YES the men did have children: 21 between them.  They died in 1874 within 3 hours of each other.[4]

Exhibit at Mutter Museum

Another interesting note is that a cast of the men’s bodies can still be seen on exhibit at the Mutter Museum in Philadephia.

How might things be different if the Bunkers lived now, or alternately, if the Hensels lived in the 19th Century?  Would the Bunkers have a television show on TLC, or would the Hensel twins take part in traveling sideshows?

One similarity between the two sets of twins is their fame (sought after or not), due to their “differences”.  It is unclear whether or not the Bunker twins were presented as and appreciated as actual people with feelings and lives, or if they were simply curiosities.  While many people might be attracted to TLC’s Abby and Brittany initially because of their condition, if one watches the show they will get an education about the girls, their lives, and their daily experiences.  At least TLC can be commended for that.

Exploiting people who are “different”?

Human “Freak Show” tent

In my research, I recently came across an article that is really informative to this discussion.  Annie Delin’s article, “Buried in the footnotes: the absence of disabled people in the collective imagery of our past” looks at disability in museums, and in side shows.[5]  Delin says, “In modern society, we no longer actively condone the showing of ‘different’ people as freaks.  …. Yet we do perpetuate the acceptability of staring and pointing whenever we allow a picture of a small person or someone with a disfiguring condition to be displayed without identity and context.”[6]

DOES modern society really shy away from exhibiting people who are “different” as freaks?  Even if no one is outright calling TLC or other network programming a freakshow or a sideshow, are we de-humanizing people through these exhibitions?

I do think that the TLC show Abby and Brittany does manage to show that the women ARE real people, with feelings, and lives, and success, rather than just displaying them for their differences.

TLC and the Sideshow

An article on dlisted.com puts out a seemingly accurate call for a new show saying, “if you’re a pair of pregnant redneck conjoined teen twins who are former child beauty queens and own a cake shop that caters only to little Amish people, call TLC, because your dream of being on The Soup every week can come true!”[7]

Too true.


[3] Ibid.

[5] Annie Delin, ““Buried in the footnotes: the absence of disabled people in the collective imagery of our past” in Museums, Society, and Inequality edited by Richard Sandell. New York: Routledge, 2002

[6] Ibid, 89.

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