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?

A Very Important Announcement

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I finished my dissertation, “Enriching the Public History Dialogue: Effective Museum Education Programs for Audiences with Special Needs”, defended it successfully, and got all those signatures!  After a final edit session and a short walk across a stage, I will officially be Dr. Katie Stringer!

Also, I just updated my CV on here to include some new work, a post-doc fellowship, my first “real” publication, projects, presentations, and more!  Check it out at: https://katiestringer.wordpress.com/cv/ ‎

More detailed updates and blogs coming soon…

Doctoral CANDIDATE Updates

Again, you may have noticed I have not been posting as much lately.  There are several excuses I could throw at you, but instead I will give you some quick updates!

– I spent most of the past month working on my dissertation proposal and online doctoral portfolio for review by my dissertation committee.  I defended them both on Friday, April 27th, and I passed!  I’m now officially a doctoral candidate and can start the long, arduous task of writing my dissertation.  Luckily, I’m really passionate and excited about my topic, so it should be an enjoyable process (other than the obvious struggles with bureaucracy, formatting, technology, etc).

– On that same note, I have been working on merging my professional blog with my doctoral portfolio, so let me know what you think of the site changes around here!

Sun Studio Visit with TAM

– I went to the Tennessee Association of Museums conference in Memphis in March as one of their scholarship winners… if you kept up with my twitter at all you know some of what went on there, but that only scratches the surface.  I have a blog in the works to review more of the conference, the sessions, the sights, and of course my own presentation on sensitivity and awareness of disabilities at museums.  Stay tuned for that in the coming weeks!

– I’ve also been finishing up teaching Explorations in Public History.  My students have been writing blogs that I post on their website, http://explorationsinpublichistory.wordpress.com/.  Check back soon, because I will be posting their final projects in the next week!  They were a wonderful class, and I look forward to seeing them as new public history professionals in the future.

– Next week I will head to New York City for a research trip!!  I will have all kinds of updates on my dissertation and ideas to talk about once I get back.  I am fortunate enough to have meetings set up with people from the Intrepid Museum, Jewish Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York Transit Museum, Museum Of Modern Art, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Coney Island USA, and people from the Museum Access Consortium.

Liberal Arts Awards Banquet

– As for other updates… I won the Bart McCash Memorial Scholarship for Graduate Students again this year!  My dissertation committee chair shared with me last week that Dr. McCash was his step-father and an influential person in his life personally and academically.  I’m honored to have been chosen as the recipient of a scholarship named for such a great person.

– I was elected to serve as the Graduate Student Association president for the 2012-2013 academic year.   I’m looking forward to serving the 3000 graduate students at Middle Tennessee State University!

SGA Awards

 

– April finished up my term as a graduate senator for the Student Government Association.  Serving as a senator was a wonderful experience, and I learned a lot.  Surprisingly, I was elected “Best All Around” senator, and the graduate students were named “Best Friends” by the Senate Superlatives.  We were treated to a lovely banquet on campus on my birthday, which I consider to be MTU’s birthday gift to me.

– So I had a crazy end of my academic semester, not to mention I bought art, had a birthday, watched a lot of trash TV, finished the Game of Thrones books, spent too much time looking at Tumblrs, got a radical haircut change,  and reorganized all of my bookshelves.

This summer should be more conducive to blogging, if I can squeeze it in among writing and researching the dissertation, traveling, working as a camp counselor at Camp Will in Franklin, Tennessee, and some quality lake time.  I have plenty to write about, so keep coming back!!

Thanks, as always, for reading.