Is the Doctor a Public Historian? — CCU Public History Fall 2018

This is part of a series of re-posts of student blogs from Coastal Carolina University’s Intro to Public History course in Fall 2018. Please visit the class website, https://ccupublichistory18.wordpress.com, for more information.

By Kayla Griffin

For over 50 years, the Doctor has been gracing our television screens teaching us all about space and time travel, but what about history? You can always see the Doctor fighting aliens on another planet and even earth. But there are few episodes where he takes you back in time and gives you a proper history lesson.

When my father first told me to watch his favorite childhood show, I was skeptical because of how old it was. I’m pretty sure I watched it out of order because during the first episode I was very confused about what they were talking about and how they got into an ancient Mayan civilization. After rewatching the first ten minutes three times, I turned it off and forgot about Doctor Who for almost a year before one of my friends got me into the show again. The more episodes I watched the more historical references I saw. Whether it was dates, places, or even historical figures. Because how can you travel back in time and not talk about history. But, is the Doctor a public historian? Does he fit the criteria and make it onto the list?

One of the first episodes of Doctor Who that I watched and actually got into was when Winston Churchill was getting new weapons to fight the Nazi’s in World War II. The episode had the Doctor and one of his many companions, Amy Pond, help Winston Churchill and many military officials try to win the second World War. These new weapons were Daleks, aliens that have been trying for decades to kill the Doctor and eliminate the earth. Throughout the episode, I experienced what it was like to see what the war from the eyes of London generals.

My personal favorite episode that deals with aliens and history is when the Doctor and Amy travel to Amsterdam, Netherlands to visit Vincent Van Gogh. This episode shows Van Gogh painting Wheatfield with Crows and The Church at Auvers, we also get a glimpse of many of his other paintings as they are still drying. I saw how the townspeople treated Van Gogh and how they treated his marvelous paintings. An alien began killing the townspeople. They all immediately started pointing fingers at Van Gogh, because they actually believed he was a terrible person. The alien eating people obviously didn’t happen (but it could have) but it showed the hatred that these people had for Van Gogh.

To define a public historian: it is a person that is out on the field teaching history to people. Granted, the Doctor only has a few people with him at a time, the show’s audience is getting a first-hand tour. Yes, there are multiples movies that people can watch and get to experience but for the people that only watch sci-fi, this show definitely reaches an audience that most historical movies cannot reach. So, when the Doctor fights aliens and takes us on a journey to see history from a first-person point-of-view, not only is he saving the day, he’s being the perfect public historian.

via Is the Doctor a Public Historian? — CCU Public History Fall 2018

London Day 2/2.5: New Years Adventures

1507445_10101545216840245_366034008_oAfter a full day of exploring the city followed by an exciting day at the Tower of London and Tate Museum of Modern Art, our third full day in London was a bit more low key. We slept in a bit to recover from the fireworks the night before…

New Years Eve in London

…is the craziest thing I have ever witnessed in person.  Here is the fireworks show, which was amazing in its own right (worth noting it features ELO, 1D (of COURSE), my favorite Coldplay song, and the Queen):

Some bloke getting knicked by the horseback coppers!

Some bloke getting knicked by the horseback coppers!

For some perspective, we were right behind the Eye, below the building with the countdown, on the south bank of the Thames.  Leading up to the show, we met a couple of really nice east enders, and bonded over the ridiculous drunken people camped out behind us.  We talked about the Olympics, One Direction, and the weather – they were great!

The real cultural experience began after the fireworks, though… Our usual route from the Southbank to the flat was less than half a mile.  Due to the crowds, however, the police had barricaded off all side streets to force the mass of people to go down one street.  The tubes all closed at midnight, and it was chaos.  We saw: teenagers street fighting, a man who I think was dead on the sidewalk, a lady trying to punch everyone, kids throwing fire crackers into the crowd, people in windows giving everyone a show, a man getting arrested by a policewoman who was on a horse… the list goes on. It. Was. Amazing.  We finally gave up, found some high ground, and just watched the show.

Eventually we made it along with the masses to The Cut, where I convinced a policeman that our beds really were just on the other side of his barricade, and that we weren’t up to any mischief.  Poor, silly little Americans, he probably thought.

Anyway, we got to bed, slept in, then headed out for our last full day in the greatest city I have visited (sorry Dublin, Toronto, and New York).

New Years Day in London

1502443_10101545219210495_1532383247_oSadly, the most interesting looking gallery, at Southbank Centre, was closed.  We looked around outside, and continued on to see a bit more of the city, and revisit our new favorites.  We caught part of the rainy and windy London New Years Day Parade near Picadilly Circus (lots of American high school marching bands – it felt like home!)

We saw the famous shopping districts, had MORE Cafe Nero of course, and had lunch at St. Martin’s in the Green Cafe in the Crypt.  This was the coolest spot for a lunch, and I had a most English lunch of treacle, tea, and a small meat pie.  We went up to see the church, where the creepiest baby Jesus statue ever was found outside (picture below).  The crypts were really interesting, and I loved the statue of the Pearly King!

Charles and I explored a bit more, saw the horses and military park, and decided to get dinner at the Sherlock Holmes!  They were out of a lot of things that night, including fish n chips, but I did get some delicious chicken liver pate, and Charles had yet another delicious meat pie.  It was a great atmosphere with the mist outside, a chill in the air, and the warm pub food and delicious pint.

Dinner at the Sherlock Holmes

Dinner at the Sherlock Holmes

We continued on to the southbank in the dark, where we saw our last glimpse of Big Ben, the Eye, and the city I grew to love.

The next morning, we got up and caught the tube to Euston, and back to Holyhead to catch our ferry to Dublin.  This was probably our roughest day, which an abhorrent man from the Tube harassing us about GMOs and America (like we don’t know there are problems) and a miscommunication with the cab driver in Ireland who spoke a strange Dublinese language.  We only had one full day in Dublin left, so we went to bed prepared to make the most of it before heading back to the states!

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So long, London!

So long, London!

 

So long, London!

I miss you, still!

London: A Walk Through History and Modernity

We woke up the next morning, December 30, after a pleasant night full of chicken curry and great sleep, ready to take on the streets of London.

LondonWe started the day with Cafe Nero (thanks for the suggestion, Kelsey!) hot chocolate and espresso.  Cafe Nero quickly became a twice-daily part of our time in London.  There was one right across the street from the flat, and the public restrooms in the cafes throughout the city were an added bonus.  We also stopped by a little bookstore to buy a pocket map of the city.  Luckily, I have an impeccable sense of direction, AND I was a geography minor, so we didn’t even come close be being lost (not that we could have been, since we were just wandering!).

Having the feelings

Having the feelings

The day started out perfectly misty and damp, just how London should be.  We crossed the mighty (brown) Thames to the Embankment where we saw a beautiful World War II memorial, a great view of the Eye, and Parliament and Big Ben.  This is a great intersection of the modern and historical sides of London.  The Thames has been the center of life in London from the time of Henry VIII,  William the Conqueror, and even earlier.  The Millennium Wheel, or London Eye, is a once controversial sign of modern London.  The timelessness (ha!) of Big Ben is iconic, and the history made in and around Parliament is also impressive.  Needless to say, I was overwhelmed with all the feelings about history.

An accurate depiction of me outside Westminster Abbey. Thanks, Sherlock.

By the time we turned the corner and saw Westminster Abbey, I was having even more feelings. Let’s just take a second here to recount just a few of the things that have happened here.

  • Construction on the present church began in 1245 by Henry III (he’s also buried there)
  • Before that, William the Conqueror and his successors were coronated on the same site
  • Survives the Tudor era and all the there and back again of Catholic/Protestant rule
  • Weddings: Henry I of England to Matilda of Scotland, Queen Elizabeth II to Phillip, and Will and Kate of course!
  • People buried there: kings and queens (excluding 2 of my favs: Henry VIII and Richard II),   Geoffrey Chaucer Isaac Newton, and  Charles Darwin
Charles and the Arch

Charles and the Arch

We didn’t pay the fee to go in, but I did fangirl appropriately outside, and buy a tiny gargoyle and some tea in the giftshop.

Next, we decided to go ahead and see Buckingham Palace and see where the day took us from there.  The weather cleared up, and the sun even showed itself!  We walked through the park, saw some geese, then turned the corner to the iconic palace.  I didn’t have as many feelings here, but I did try to keep an eye out for the queen!  We walked along the royal apartments, took a picture with the changing guards, saw Charles’ favorite spot up to this point, Admiralty Arch, and then continued on to Trafalgar Square.

and we'll never be royals.. that kinda lux just ain't for us.

and we’ll never be royals.. that kinda lux just ain’t for us.

In Trafalgar, we stopped at yet another Cafe Nero, saw the lions and Napoleon, and a big blue chicken.  Since we were already out and about, we made the quickest of stop at a McDonalds (reminiscent of our first morning in Dublin) for a cheeseburger on the go – no stopping for real food on this day of site-seeing! At this point, we figured why not go on and go all out – we walked up Drury Lane (of muffin Man fame!) to the British museum (where I again had all the feels – but that’s a topic for another blog, coming next week!). – Spoiler alert – I got emotional about the Elgin Marbles.

From the British Museum, we walked on to the Barbican Centre for one of the many highlights of the trip: David Tennant, the 10th Doctor himself, starring in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of Richard II.  Seriously – what a day of emotions, and I am not an emotional person (it’s the Britishness I inherited – stiff upper lip!). I mentioned in a recent blog that he is my dream guest blogger – still waiting on that call, Davy!  The performance was great, we loved it, then we waited out by the back stage door for him to emerge in all of his hair-extension-ponytailed glory.  I was so close, that had I not been so polite, I could have touched him.  The ponytail served as a great repellent.

Instead of a tackle or full contact hug, I just did a weak little wave.  Safe, but lame.

Instead of a tackle or full contact hug, I just did a weak little wave. Safe, but lame.

Walking on air, we went over to the Jugged Hare for the best dinner of all time.  Charles had the slow roasted rump of a Hertfordshire Fallow Deer, and I had a meat pie.  I don’t think this one was cooked by Mrs. Mooney or Mrs. Lovett, but it was certainly deserving of a song of how great it was.  The deer rump was the most delicious piece of meat I have ever tasted.

We started back to the flat around midnight, and passed Saint Paul’s Cathedral along the way.  This was one of the (if not THE) most impressive sights we saw on the trip – and we saw an awful lot of stuff. We had seen it in the distance earlier in the day, and it is an iconic part of the London skyline.  Seeing it in person, bigger than life, was something else.  None of the pictures can do it justice.

London-0630

St. Paul’s at Night

We continued along the Thames, which was the only time I was slightly uncomfortable in London – along the river, at midnight, under bridges.  Maybe we should have taken a different route.  Things were a wee bit confusing as the city was preparing to set up for the fireworks on New Years Eve.  Regardless, we made it back to the flat and passed out from a day full of excitement.

To sum it up, looking back on the day’s events, this was possibly one of the very best days of my life (surpassed by the day before when I got engaged in northern Ireland and that time I graduated with a PhD).

Next time:

  • Actually go in Westminster Abbey
  • Climb to the top of St. Paul’s
  • Ride the London Eye
  • Museum of London
  • Go back to the Jugged Hare
london day 1

Day 1 in London

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Eleven Questions for Museum Bloggers

Quick break from travel to the museum world again!

Playing with an 80'sversion of a museum interactive at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, TN

Playing with an 80’sversion of a museum interactive at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, TN

Last month the Berlin Museum of Natural History launched a series of eleven questions for museum bloggers on Museum Blogger Day.  Max van Balgooy, museum consultant extraordinaire and blogger over at Engaging Places posted his answers, and I’m following his example.  As Max said on his blog, he “received the list of questions from Gretchen Jennings of Museum Commons, who received it from Linda Norris at the Uncatalogued Museum, who received it from Jamie Glavic at Museum Minute, who received it from Jenni at Museum Diary, who received it from the Museum Things blog at Natureskundemuseum.   I suppose this might be a new version of the old “chain letter,” but more fun and with no dire consequences if you fail to participate (and of course, the questions were modified along the way, just like a telephone tree).”

1. Who are you and what do you like about blogging?

I am a person interested in all aspects of history, museums, public history, travel, tourism, and so much more.  I wrote a whole blog about how I got to this place in my life, which is available here.  I have a PhD in Public History, I’m the Executive Director of a historic house in Knoxville, Tennessee, I wrote a book about education and access at historic houses and sites for people with special needs and disabilities, and I love goats.  I love blogging, especially post-graduation, because it keeps me active in the field, thinking about issues, and learning more about topics I’m interested in.  It also connects me to some pretty fantastic people out there in the museum world.

2. What search terms lead people to your blog?

Ever since Abby and Tori did guest blogs as part of a series on TLC programming as the modern sideshow, Honey Boo Boo is a major search term.  Also, ancient aliens and variations on that, thanks to a blog about the horrid abomination that is the “History” Channel.  My name is also a popular search term, which is sufficiently creepy. Here is a chart of the top search terms:

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3. How long have you been blogging, and has your blog changed in any way since you began it?  How?  

My very first blog was posted in July of 2010, soon after I graduated from the University of Memphis.  I began blogging at the suggestion of the esteemed Dr. Robert Connolly, who served as one of the greatest museum mentors I could ever ask for.  Looking back at my earliest blogs, I started with some reflections on programs I had worked on, starting the PhD Program, updates, conferences, and random musings on topics related to my interests.  Things have not changed too much, other than my recent shift towards travel and tourism on the heels of my first trip to Europe.

4. Which post on your blog is your personal favorite?

I’ve REALLY loved all of my reflections on my trip to Britain and Ireland earlier this year.  I also like the posts about Freaks and Sideshows, and of course, my wonderful bashing of Ancient Aliens.  The TLC series was a ton of fun, too.

5. If you had a whole week just to blog: which subject would you like to thoroughly research and write about?

I would travel throughout Europe and review all of the museums, of course!  Alternatively, I have a pile of drafts started on various museum topics such as effective tour guides, disaster planning, and a guest blog about art museums by my wonderful fiance.  I really would love to do more about art museums and my intense feelings about them.  All of this will be coming up in the next several months as I find the time to write.

6.  If you could ask anyone to be a guest blogger, who would that be?

Ryan Gosling!

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Or Tim Gunn!

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Or really, the REAL Dream: David Tennant! (David – CALL ME!)

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7. Share your favorite photo that you took at a museum or historic site.

At the Tower of London, near the scaffold memorial, December 31, 2013

At the Tower of London, near the scaffold memorial, December 31, 2013

8.  What was the last museum you visited and what was the experience like?

Other than my workplace or quick jaunts to places around town, the last place I REALLY visited was the Natural History Museum in New York City.  I had a lot of feelings about it, so I can’t really describe the experience right now other than in the most basic terms: disappointing, overwhelming, enraging (mostly the queue process at Will Call), and just kinda meh.  I’ll elaborate more later…

9.  If time and money were no object, what museum [or historic site – KS edit] would you most like to visit?

ALL the museums.  Namely: Museum of London, Westminster Abbey (I cried when I saw the outside), Field Museum in Chicago… back to the Smithsonian, Mount Vernon again, NYC Museum…. I need to think on this more and make a list.

10. What’s the biggest lesson you have learned from a failure? [KS Edit – From a success?]

Communication is key!  Most problems are caused by a lack of communication or a simple miscommunication.  Alternatively, good communication and partnership can lead to some of the best successes – any project I’ve worked on with a museum that has been successful was due to the partnerships and teamwork of dedicated individuals.

11.  If you could work anywhere, what museum would you like to work in?

Tough question – ANY museum in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, or England!

UK’s National Trust: Northern Ireland’s Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

The next morning, after a GREAT day traipsing all over Dublin and Kilmainham Gaol, we woke up by 5 to walk to the Old Church by Trinity College to catch our bus to Northern Ireland.  We didn’t even have time to get coffee… womp womp.

Extreme Ireland Tours

Extreme Ireland Tours

We booked this trip through Extreme Ireland after extensive investigation of itineraries to make sure we got to see all we wanted to.  Charles wanted to see the rope bridge at Carrick-a-rede and the Giant’s Causeway, I wanted to see a castle, and I wanted to learn a little more about Belfast.  Extreme Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway Tour was the perfect one! Our tour guide, Wayne was entertaining, informative, and such a nice and funny guy (Hi, Wayne!).

1529873_10101537802418805_388902846_o (1)Our tour was an interesting mix of a lot of Americans (Can you really see the Statue of Liberty from Galway? NO.), and some Brits  on holiday from London (which made for interesting commentary in Northern Ireland by our Irish guide).  Since we left so early, Wayne gave us a little time to be quiet and sleep since it was still dark out on the highway.  We first stopped at a gas station for breakfast and coffees, which was a welcome stop.  Then Wayne gave us the business about Irish History, Northern Ireland, and ALL KINDS of interesting information.  He told us all about the Trouble, Ulster Plantation, Michael Collins, the IRA and UDA, and so much more.

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Northern Ireland Coast

We went up the Antrim Coast through the glens and valleys.  The coast was gorgeous, and we saw several rainbows  even Scotland from across the sea. All of the views along the way were beautiful, there were green hills and small villages along the way. Wayne explained a lot about the English/Irish conflicts as we drove along, which helped a lot once we got to Belfast as our last stop.

nope nope nope.

nope nope nope.

Our next stop was the National Trust site, Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.  The bridge has been around, in some form or another for at least 300 years.  Salmon fishermen built the bridge to get across the gorge onto the smaller islands. It hangs 98 feet over the rocks and spans 66 feet.  Until the 1970s, the bridge had only one handrail and huge gaps between slats as seen in the picture to the left.  That picture (c. 1890s) comes from The National Library of Ireland on The Commons Flickr account, which has a multitude of amazing historic photographs from Irish history.  Beware – if you’re into that kind of thing, it can be addictive!

Sheep Island

Sheep Island

The hike along the coast to the bridge affords the opportunity to see some amazing sights – Sheep Island, Rathlin Island, the sea, cows, rainbows – it has everything!  Once we got to the bridge, we found that the steps leading down to the bridge were more harrowing than the bridge itself!  We made it across to the other side, had a look around, and started our journey back.

Rathlin Island in the background

Rathlin Island in the background

Across the sea from the bridge, you can see Rathlin Island in the distance.  The island has a really interesting history of murder and pillaging dating back over 1,000 years.  The first Viking raid in Ireland took place on Rathlin Island in 795; in typical fasion, they burned the church and other buildings before continuing south along the coast to pillage more.  In 1575, refugees from the Clan MacDonnel, mostly women and children, were massacred by mercenaries sent by the Earl of Essex.  Less than 100 years later, women were thrown off cliffs to the rocks below by the English.  Today there are only around 100 residents on the island, and the island has an inn for around 30 overnight guests.  A ferry takes visitors to the island, where they can view many types of sea birds and scuba dive to the many shipwrecks around the island.

Extreme side eye pony

Extreme side eye pony

We walked back towards the shop after crossing the bridge, where we warmed up from the chilly winds.  Soon it was time to board the buss again to head towards the Giant’s Causeway.

We stopped at Whitepark Bay along the way, then we continued on to a small restaurant where I had Irish stew and Charles enjoyed some seafood chowder.

Outside of the cafe, there were these darling ponies – Wayne called them leprechaun ponies.  They were so sweet, and gave a great side-eye as witnessed in this photo.

After lunch we continued on to the Giant’s Causeway…

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What is a “freak”?

What constitutes a freak?

What constitutes a freak?

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.”

Photo from Wikipedia "freak" entry. Their caption reads, "Julia Pastrana, a woman of unusual appearance."

Photo from Wikipedia “freak” entry. Their caption reads, “Julia Pastrana, a woman of unusual appearance.”

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.”

Coney Island Sidshow Entrance, 2008.

Coney Island Sidshow Entrance, 2008.

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.

Cast of "Freakshow" on AMC

Cast of “Freakshow” on AMC

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?

TLC as a Sideshow: Final Reflections

by Tori Warenik, Abigail Gautreau, and Katie Stringer

Tori: Over the last couple of months I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the type of TV we as a society are being shown. Specifically, it’s been interesting to think about TLC and their offerings. Before I began this investigation I had so many preconceived notions about American Gypsies and the Duggers that I just thought I would be presenting my initial biased, admittedly close-minded, view. Instead, after doing some research on both shows, it became simple to separate my personal thoughts about the people involved on the shows with the company who airs them.

I have come to find that TLC, much like other channels, panders to their viewers and is just as biased as the rest of us. During a time when TV networks pride themselves on their partisanship (ala Fox News, CSNBC, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) we shouldn’t be surprised this would be the case for TLC. And yet, given TLC’s brand is based on “The Learning Channel,” what are they actually teaching us? That it is utterly ridiculous to get married so young in the Gypsy culture (but they do it anyway) and completely acceptable to get married and have 19 kids if you’re able to sustain your family? In the end, people watch TLC for the entertainment, not an education which leaves me with one final, unanswerable, question: is this what TLC wants from their programming?

Abigail: First of all, I’d like to thank Katie and Tori for taking the time to have this slightly more formal conversation about this particular moment in popular culture. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts, and I had a lot of fun writing mine.

Sister Wives

This is probably the time when I should make some great announcement as to whether TLC is the modern sideshow, but since I’m still safely ensconced in the ivory tower, I’ll use my academic prerogative to challenge the question rather than simply answering it. If we consider the sideshow a place where people could safely view the “other,” than yes, TLC is certainly such a place. From the comfort of our own couches, we can sit back and wonder at the titillating questions raised by Abby and Brittany and Sister Wives or gawk at the lifestyle choices of the Duggers and Honey Boo Boo’s family. At the same time, TLC is hardly the only place where such programming exists. A&E, Nat Geo, and even The History Channel offer similar programs (after all, there are shows on hoarding on TLC and A&E, and Nat Geo’s Taboo often includes the same people featured on TLC’s My Strange Addiction or My Weird Obsession). If it’s a sideshow network, then it’s hardly alone.

Calling any program a sideshow has connotations of exploitation. Katie is far better suited to answering the question of whether sideshows are inherently exploitative in nature, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t think the TLC programs are. One of the themes that came up again and again as I watched these shows and read about them was the extent to which the subjects control their own narratives. It’s also clear that these people are being compensated by TLC for appearing on the program, though it’s unclear how much money is involved in the agreements. Whatever we may think of these stars of “reality” television, I, for one, hope they are using their fame to their advantage.

She is full of wisdom.

It’s also probably worth a reminder that when we talk about popular culture, and especially about the stars of “sideshow” programming, we are really talking about ourselves. So whether you love Honey Boo Boo or just love to hate her, do yourself a favor and take a minute to think about why.

Katie: I’m so happy that after months of watching all of the TLC shows unfold before our very eyes the three of us were finally able to sit down an put together a blog series on our thoughts, questions, and ideas.  Thanks so much to Tori and Abby for participating!

As I’ve said before, this is a topic that I feel I could write about for each of the shows, probably multiple times.  Last night during the Sister Wives premiere (which Abby and I g-chatted through “Kody is such a fool!”) I saw promos for a show about the wives of Sin City and another about the Amish Mafia.  While is is really more fodder for the freakshow fire, I still do wonder how educational it is?

Since Abby and Tori summed up a lot of thoughts from this series, I can’t help but go back to the History Channel (as I always seem to do), which in the not too distant past did show documentaries about castles, Vikings, The “Dark” Ages (they weren’t that dark!!!), and of course, Hitler.  With the reality TV of Swamp People,  Mountain Men, and Hairy Bikers  it seems like they are focusing on the out-liers (and MEN) of society to draw visitors to see something weird or strange rather than actual history (ya know, from the past).  Yes, History is made every day, but aren’t there other channels for that?  What is the education value here?

The flip side to that is, what happens when educational programming actually occurs?  I will admit that How the States Got Their Shapes is educational and pretty fun, which proves that this is a possibility.   I also got a text from Abby that there is a new show called I Love the 1880s;  while this is an obvious play on the I love the... series on VH1, Abby pointed out that it isn’t about the 1880s.  I haven’t watched enough to know if this is something worth watching, educational, or just silly, but I’m not sure how well relating to teenagers is working out for the network with this theme.

Watch, as four white males survey the beautiful country that they built (seemingly) without the help of immigrants, non-whites, slaves, women, or anyone else that isn’t rich and gloriously ivory.

My last example from the History Channel of “actual educational programs” is the warning vibes that I got, just from the titles really, of Mankind: The Story of All of Us and The Men Who Built America.  The former may cover all genders and races, but the title seems to appeal to the male demographics the history channel reaches, and from the short clip that I watched (which enraged me), no women were shown. On principle I pretty much refuse to watch The Men Who Built America because I think traditional history classes and the “great books” and everything else in the world has covered the stories of the rich, white men more than enough.  Is this seriously a show?

Maybe I’m just irked that the History Channel caters so much to men and leaves women and minorities out of the picture so much; maybe I’m irked that this shows a skewed history; maybe this should become another blog series…

As I digress, I do think that television in general has replaced the sideshow, the freakshow, the circus, the gladiatorial ring, and so forth. As technologies and interests grow and change, perhaps this is simply the next evolution in the presentation of “the other” for entertainment and, in some small way, education.  People are always curious about the strange and the different, so it makes sense that there would be television programs that address that.  Perhaps society is more comfortable watching, asking questions, and maybe even silently (or vocally) judging the different people/lifestyles/choices/disabilities/whatever than they would be in a public forum.  My only remaining question is, how long will this trend continue on educational television networks?

The Duggers—Creepy Cult or Average Americans?

Guest post by Tori Warenik

The Dugger Family [1]

Here’s the thing. My title is a tad misleading. The answer to the question is more complicated than choosing descriptive adjectives to illicit an immediate, heated response (from either side). When I first started this exploration, I would have chosen the first choice without question. Since going down the rabbit hole that is the Dugger family, I can’t choose either. Because, let’s face it, with 19 kids running around (and more on the horizon, if the past is any indication) their Arkansas home, a TV crew following their every move, and their faith, the Duggers cannot be classified as an “average” American family.

As I said before, I was ready to lambast the family and smear everything they hold dear because their life sounded absolutely ludicrous to me as the product of a secular, two-child, single parent home in, admittedly liberal, south Florida. I have become the picture of the “average” American, but does that make my experience any better than anyone else’s?

When I first started watching TLC’s Duggers, they were still “17 Kids and Counting” and I was young and disgusted by the sheer physics of it all (i.e. Michelle giving birth naturally to all those little ones). Six years later I can admit I was scared of the Duggers’ faith because I didn’t understand it. And that’s really the crux of it.

Jim Bob and Michelle Dugger[2]

People either love the Duggers because they represent a strong family unit, living their lives by a book written thousands of years ago, containing the words of a man written by other men most Christians interpret and live by today or hate the Duggers because they represent everything that is most coveted (by most) in the United States today: a debt-free, loving, full family.

I mean, sure, I long to live debt-free (stupid student loans) and I hope for my own loving family in the future, but I think the hang-up for most people who watch the show or know the family because of their extraordinary circumstances (the whole 19 kids thing) is their faith. Six years ago, and even two years ago, I would have wanted to “show them the light” and turn them away from this mythical God they believe in.

Admittedly, some of the tenets Michelle lives by, and promotes, make me sick to my stomach, even now. Tracie Egan Morrisey, writing for Jezebel, a general-interest woman’s website, calls the Duggers the “Cult of Progeny,” listing the eight the eight factors used to identify a destructive cult, outlined by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton. Among them, Morrisey identifies “Demand for Purity” which includes the following graphic Michelle adheres to for her hairstyle[3]:

“The Seven Basic Needs of a Husband”[4]

Interestingly, I have great friends who identify themselves as Orthodox Jews and would have little problem with this graphic. As a society, we shy away from anything we ourselves don’t understand and the Duggers appear to be just another case of our inability to understand. By all accounts, the Duggers are a wonderful family who love one another and support themselves through patriarch Jim Bob’s job, and the family’s involvement in the show.

I do take some umbrage with how the children, specifically the girls, are raised. The children are home-schooled and the older children help take care of the younger ones. The older girls show complete deference to their parents, specifically Jim Bob, when it comes to future suitors with Jill (one of the eldest) saying, “Talk to my dad. He knows what we’re looking for in a guy and future spouse”[5]. The feminist in me, raised by a fiercely independent mother, rears and roars to go save these girls, close to my own young age, who are willing to date anyone their father accepts. Taking a step back, and a deep breath, I realize this notion is not unlike other utterances by women in our society, “I can’t bring a black man home,” “I can’t marry anyone outside of my faith because it’s too important to my parents,” “I can’t come out, I’ll be kicked out.” We are all forced to make decisions about our lives with our parents and community in the back of our heads guiding our way. There are those who go against the grain whose family happily accepts them but there are more stories of children being thrown out of their families for the love they choose or the choices they make that doesn’t align with their community.

President Obama on Letterman[6]

When President Barack Obama was on David Letterman one night earlier this fall, Letterman notes how grown up President Obama’s daughters look and adds, “Does it kill you?” only to have the President quip, “It worries me, but they’re surrounded by men with guns” (“The Late Show”). While it may be seen as sweet and that a father is protecting his daughters, the subtext is that anyone who tries for his daughters will be summarily handled, by men with guns. Do we have a problem with this though? Couldn’t we say this is the patriarch of the family unit of Michelle, Sasha and Malia choosing his daughters potential suitors?

Now, though I am bothered by Michelle’s comments about women and their place and Jill’s response about suitors, the family seems to be a working unit that gets along fine without what I hold dear: independence. I cannot say I would ever willingly belong to a family like this but then, the kids don’t really have a choice. I think it is a tad harsh to call the Duggers a cult, but everyone is entitled to their opinion. What makes what I think more correct than what others think? Does authority of the author even have a place in this discussion?

Years after I started watching “17 Kids and Counting,” we now have “19 Kids and Counting” and honestly, I don’t understand the backlash anymore. If you don’t agree with the family and the decisions they’ve made all power to you, but what can you do? Michelle and Jim Bob realize that people make snap judgments about them and how they raise their family and they accept the love along with the hate. Never once has the family tried to indoctrinate the viewers of their show. The Duggers simply try their hardest to live their lives by the word of God and they seem to be doing fine. I don’t live my life by God and here I am, doing fine.

Life is all about personal choice.

In my last post I talked about American Gypsy’s and their representation by TLC. Here I wanted to talk about how the public represents the Duggers because TLC actually did something right. Because they actually respect the family, their representation is unbiased and plain. While I could spend time castigating TLC for, inadvertently, showing favoritism, instead I’ll just note how uneven the response to the Duggers is. Whether the family is highlighted on “Anderson Live,” “Today,” or “TLC,” the response from viewers is divided, further proof that we are a country strengthened by our diverse beliefs.


[2] Image 2: people.com

[3] Found on this site, http://www.southheightsbaptist.com/mp3/CliffPalmer/7BasicNeeds_Husband.pdf, the list of rules for a wife is extensive and “for the WIFE ONLY.” Men are encouraged to study “The Seven Basic Needs of a Wife.”

[4] Image 3; ibid.

[5] Morrisey, Tracey Egan. “The Duggers Aren’t Just a Family, They’re a Cult.” Jezebel. 4 Sep. 2012. Web. 5 Nov. 2012.

[6] Image 4: blog.zap2it.com

Tori Warenik is a second-year MA student in English at Middle Tennessee State University. While she’s busy ignoring the football team she enjoys reading, lamenting the loss of “Firefly,” coming up with new words for existent definitions, and watching TLC. Her research interests lay in Popular Culture, Children’s Lit, and Early American Lit. You can reach her at vlw2s@mtmail.mtsu.edu

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.

Advertisement for Show

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.

Romani Travellers: Are We Ready to Care?

Guest post by Tori Warenik

Over the past ten years or so, The Learning Channel has been making marketing moves forward. Instead of promoting shows that have substance, they’ve bought into the rise of reality TV and moved toward more sensational television programming, right?

One of the shows that is the most popular is “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,” which presents Romani families living in the U.S. This show, and truly, all of the shows airing on TLC (a re-brand from The Learning Channel), has developed an almost cult-like following of fans. Is this support unfounded? Should everyone just point and laugh at these seeming caricatures of American life? What follows is a reflection on the reality TV show that has aired on TLC in the past year, and by extension, the last decade. I will visit newspaper articles, forum responses, and TLC captions to present a fuller view of the perceptions of the show. Personally, I watch this show for entertainment. I sink into the microcosms of the Romani lives and am simultaneously disgusted, warm-hearted, and intrigued. What more could TLC want? And does this personal interpretation fit in with the perception of our new “American Sideshow”?

“Gypsy” fashion at its finest

“My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” first aired on TLC May 2012. The show follows multiple Romani girls, and boys, throughout its season and concentrates on getting the girls down the aisle in the most extravagant dress possible. One fan’s comment on Facebook says it all, “TLC, we do NOT dress this way. What you are doing is wrong. You are perpetuating old negative stereotypes, while simultaneously modifying our culture to create even MORE negative stereotypes” (“Gypsy Fashion and Beauty: Facebook Comment 1”). This Facebook comment is posted under “Gypsy Fashion and Beauty,” a photo gallery of twenty-nine photos of American Gypsy women and their related party and wedding regalia. Under one such photo, the caption reads, “The blinged-out bodice says it all. Barbie is the beauty ideal” (DCL). This photo displays a young woman wearing a pink dress that reads “Barbie” in rhinestone-encrusted script across the bodice (Image 24 of 29). The first of the gallery is a picture of one of the Gypsy girls pouring Champagne into a waiting flute, seemingly on her way to walk down the aisle. The photo also captures her bra strap hanging out of her bodice.

Cultural norms in the Gypsy community?

What does this say about the girl? What does this say about the culture of the Romani? What does this say about the viewing audience and our ever-present need to rubberneck, to see the disaster, shake our heads and thank god we weren’t involved? Something else to keep in mind is the fact that for all of these women, they think it is okay to dress in a sexually appealing way. They dress in this way to attract those of the opposite sex while also upholding the belief ‘they can’t touch me,’ which is another signal to the audience, that we can look but not touch. The girls TLC portrays represent a direct challenge to the ever-present rape culture endemic in our American/Western society because girls who dress in the manner described above, with tight-fitting bodices, low-cut tops and shorter skirts, are “asking for it.”1

Here’s the thing. I like “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” and “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”2 because I can sit and gawk at the young women and men and be astounded that there are certain offshoots of our own culture(s) that welcome this behavior. Through all of the episodes there are certain themes and scenes that carry through. For instance, in every episode, there is the meeting of the bride, her groom and the bridal party. Romani grooms, or how TLC presents their show(s), are not involved in the big day and they can choose what color they want to wear. If they are amenable, they’ll change to match their future bride. It seems that most times they do appease their bride if only because they are bemused by her investment in the big day (sound familiar?). The young brides (usually 16-19) spend their time finding a venue that will be willing to host a Romani wedding, going to one of the only dressmakers willing to make a dress for the Romani people, partying in the nights leading up to the big day (though women can’t drink heavily), fighting with friends/family/family-in-law, and actually walking down the aisle.

TLC’s image

TLC has an entire site dedicated to their American Gypsies and through the site there is a article about the “5 Urban Legends about Gypsies” including:

  1.  Gypsies Horde Their Wealth
  2. Gypsies are Lawless Thieves
  3. All Gypsies are Nomadic
  4. One Gypsy is the Same as the Next
  5. Gypsies are Originally from Egypt (Jessika Toothman).

But what about the legends we are creating as a society in watching the Romani’s? Should we also add:

  • 6. All Gypsies are Uncouth
  • 7. All Gypsies Dress Scantily Clad
  • 8. All Gypsy Women Have No Rights in Their Marriages
  • 9. Gypsy Men Bring in the Money and Do What They Want
  • 10. All Gypsy Women Want to be Cinderella/Barbie

One commentator, a Roma herself, quipped through a Facebook comment, “Urban Legend 6: TLC is telling the truth about Romani” (“5 Urban Legends About Gypsies”). Most of the press “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” receives is negative. Even the captions TLC’s own place under pictures, while trying to be positive, reeks of cynicism and money earned off of the ridiculous nature of the Romani’s they’ve chosen to highlight. What that saying, ‘no press is bad press’?

What interests me is the way in which TLC presents the Romani of the United States. The Romani are presented as fiercely loyal to their families and fun loving. The girls dress to show off their assets while still appearing demure to the men, in that they say, ‘we have fun but there’s no grinding. Romani girls don’t do that,’ and the men get lessons from a young age about their place over the women in their fringe society.

Though there have been no studies done to see the impact “My Big Fat American Greek Wedding” and other shows have on the psyche of their viewers, I would be interested to see how young boys and girls, outside of the Romani’s (this specific group of them who are shown to a viewing audience, anyway) view the interactions between men and women. Women are expected to not drink, clean the house, cook the food and abide unfailingly to their husband. As a woman and a feminist, this ‘understanding’ goes against what I believe in. But then, what do I matter? I still tune in to watch the show and, admittedly, get wrapped up in the dress or the fight between families, and not the overtones of the larger problems.

In the end, do we actually care about the Romani travellers and their culture, or are we just watching to see a train wreck? From the many forum commenters, I found that TLC isn’t even trying to represent a true view of what the Romani’s are like anyway, so even if we did care about their culture, we would be getting incorrect information.

Thanks for the education, TLC.

Tori Warenik is a second-year MA student in English at Middle Tennessee State University. While she’s busy ignoring the football team she enjoys reading, lamenting the loss of “Firefly,” coming up with new words for existent definitions, and watching TLC. Her research interests lay in Popular Culture, Children’s Lit, and Early American Lit. You can reach her at vlw2s@mtmail.mtsu.edu

_______________________________

1 Thanks go to Abigail G. for her advice.

2 Originally aired in the UK, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” ’s rights were sold to the US’s TLC for airing in 2011. As a result TLC produced their own “American” Gypsy wedding show.