A section of my dissertation discusses the meaning of freak, and what exactly the term “freak” means. In the study, I relate the sideshow and freakshows of the past (and sometimes the present!) to exhibitions in museums.
Webster’s online dictionary defines “freak” as: “one that is markedly unusual or abnormal: as a person or animal having a physical oddity and appearing in a circus sideshow.”
Wikipedia says, “In current usage, the word “freak” is commonly used to refer to a person with something strikingly unusual about their appearance or behaviour… An older usage refers to the physically deformed, or having extraordinary diseases and conditions, such as sideshowperformers. This has fallen into disuse, except as a pejorative, and (among the performers of such shows) as jargon.”
To historian Robert Bogdan, “freak” may be a frame of mind, a set of practices that person employs, or a way of thinking about and presenting people. Sideshow U.S.A. by Rachel Adams defines freakishness as “a historically variable quality, derived less from particular physical attributes than the spectacle of the extraordinary body swathed in theatrical props.”
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is a disability historian who analyzes disability and the freak show. She says, “Freaks are above all products of perception: they are the consequences of a comparative relationship in which those who control the social discourse and the means of representation recruit the seeming truth of the body to claim the center for themselves and banish others to the margins.”
By labeling a person a freak, the sideshow takes away the humanity of the performer because he or she might not have the same physical characteristics of the “normal” person, and authorizing the paying customer to approach the person as an object of curiosity and entertainment. To reconcile the exploitation of people who were different as curiosities worthy of admission price, society had only to take away the humanity of those individuals.
The shift from “born different” to “self-made” freaks in sideshows and other displays is shown in the sideshows of Coney Island today, television shows and movies.
A promotional video for the new television program called Freakshow premiered on the American Movie Channel in the fall of 2012. The show follows the Venice Beach Freakshow performers in a reality show format. The promo features several individuals with physical disabilities. The main character, owner and performer Todd Ray, states in the promo, “freak is one of the most positive words I can think of; for us freak means normal.”
In addition to the live sideshows of Coney Island and Venice Beach and the new program Freakshow on the cable network AMC, many television programs take on the circus midway sideshow. As technologies and interests grow and change, perhaps this is simply the next evolution in the presentation of “the other” for entertainment at home.
Perhaps today society is more comfortable watching, asking questions, and gawking at the different people with disabilities or different proclivities than they would be in a public forum.
How do you define “freak”? How did sideshows and freakshows of the past influence exhibitions today?