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.

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.

Sister Wives

Guest post by Abigail Gautreau
Buzzfeed recently published a history of TLC, and the unspoken punchline was that the channel has deviated from it original mission as a home of education programming. While this is certainly true in some respects, I would argue that although the programs (and especially their commercials) have become much more sensationalized, many of the programs are still educational inasmuch as they offer a window into how people who do not fit into the standard media paradigms live. People who have seen commercials for programs like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Sister Wives, but have not actually watched the shows, are often surprised by the programs themselves. Although TLC uses sensationalized clips to advertise their programming, the narratives presented on the programs appear to be heavily guided by the subjects themselves. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Sister Wives, which follows the lives of Kody Brown, his four wives, and their 17 children.

Meri, Jannelle, Kody, Christine, and Robyn Brown

Sister Wives is notable for its candid discussions about the challenges of a polygamist lifestyle, which go beyond its illegality* (and which required the family to leave Utah and move to Las Vegas in Season 2). Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn all discuss the personal challenges their lifestyle creates for them, and often do so with an eye to the questions that monogamists might have. Jealousy is probably the most commonly mentioned theme, and they all frequently make bashful comments about their more intimate relationships, constantly reiterating that they have four separate marriages. These conversations make the program more interesting and set it apart from shows that focus on the collapse of relationships; these five adults talk at length about the challenges they face in nurturing their relationships with each other. The overall picture they present is of an ordinary family working to cope with a unique situation, which is somewhat refreshing. At the same time, it’s also clear that one of the goals of the program is to legitimize this lifestyle choice to a broader national audience. This is not unusual in TLC’s programming lineup: 19 Kids and Counting and Jon & Kate Plus 8 follow similar guidelines. The superficiality of the narrative, however, became evident in the third season finale.

Interview after Season Finale

Breaking with its normal formatting, the final episode of Season Three featured Kody and his wives being interviewed by Natalie Morales. The show included several remarkably candid moments that broke with the image the five had crafted over three seasons. Kody openly revealed that he was initially repulsed by third wife Christine’s body (a moment made more dramatic by the fact that the three older wives had been struggling with their health and fitness in the third season). Meri talked about feeling devalued because of her fertility challenges (she only has one child). The tension between the wives was explored in much greater depth than usual, due in part to the recent publication of the Browns’ book, Becoming Sister Wives. While this episode was remarkable in many ways, its true significance lies in the fact that it revealed how performed the previous three seasons were, and the extent to which TLC allowed the subjects to control how they were represented to the audience and pursue their own agenda.

(Most of) The Brown Family

While this contributes to the intimate and non-voyeuristic feel of TLC’s reality programming, it raises important questions about TLC’s role as a platform for groups with political or social agendas. The Brown family’s goal is clearly to legitimize their lifestyle, particularly given that much of the publicity related to polygamy comes from the activities of the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), an organization usually labeled a cult that was/is headed by Warren Jeffs. The Browns are careful to separate themselves both from the Mormon Church (which no longer recognizes polygamy) and the FLDS, a delineation made clear by the fact that the Brown wives cut their hair and wear modern clothing. This middle ground, however, is clearly a hard place to find purchase, given the Browns’ struggles with their own relationships. Their choice to position themselves as representatives of a lifestyle makes their own foibles and passing comments fodder for critics as well as their considerable fan base. Interestingly, the Browns rarely discuss their religious beliefs in depth (they are members of the Apostolic United Brethren church, which encourages transparency along with plural marriage), choosing to allow their example to make their case for them. Despite the criticism the Browns have received, they have clearly done a great deal to normalize perceptions of polygamy (or plural marriage, as it is generally called). The program has also appeared at a somewhat interesting moment for the Mormon Church, which has gone to great lengths to distance itself from polygamy while the first Mormon presidential nominee takes the national stage.

Although the Browns have gone to great lengths to set the tone of the discussion about their lifestyle, they do not do so in a vacuum. Sister Wives appears alongside fictional programs like Big Love and news stories like the successful prosecution of Warren Jeffs. While these events may derail the discussion the Browns want to have about their lifestyle, they no doubt also help them attract a much wider audience. Whether they come to gawk or admire, these viewers are unwittingly participating in an advertising campaign for the decriminalization of plural marriage.
*Kody is only legally married to his first wife, Meri (the rest are “spiritual unions”), but the fact that they all shared a single residence divided into three apartments meant that they violated common law marriage statutes.

 

Abigail Gautreau is a Public History PhD student at Middle Tennessee State University. Her research focuses on how marginalized people use history and heritage to stake out political identity. Her website is http://thepastpresently.wordpress.com.

TLC Programming as the Modern Sideshow: A Series with Special Guests!

Does TLC = Sideshow?

In the coming weeks this blog will be host to a new series about popular culture, in particular the programming on TLC, and how it portrays “abnormal” people, families, and cultural groups.

As I’ve pointed out before, the History Channel seems to cater more to aliens, UFOs, truckers, and loggers than to actual historical programming.  Similarly, The Learning Channel has moved away from historical, scientific, or cultural documentaries to reality programming that focuses on people that are “different”.

Abby and Tori

My guests for these posts are Abigail Gautreau and Tori Warenik.  Abby is a PhD student in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University, and Tori is working on her Master of Arts degree in English, also at MTSU.

A BuzzFeed post has recently been popular on social media tracking the “Historyof TLC”.  The change from educational programming to more popular topics began in the 1990s with shows like Trading Spaces and A Wedding Story and A Baby Story.  This has only shifted further from typical educational programming in the recent years.

Abby and Brittany Hensel

A great article about the shift from educational programs to reality television was written by Robert P. Laurence in 2005 titled, “Channels built on arts, education and high culture now go low with cheesy programming.” This article tackles reasons why this shift has occurred, and it includes the quote, “High culture has never had much of a place on American television,” by Tim Brooks, Lifetime’s vice president for research and co-author (with Earle Marsh) of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.”  Luckily, the article also points out that PBS will likely never go the reality TV route that other educational channels have gone.

Some of my fellow graduate students and I have long gathered in the evenings to watch such programs as Sister Wives, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, Abby and Brittany, and Toddlers and Tiaras.  While watching these, as academics are prone to do, we started discussing the social aspects of these shows and the fact that they seem to be highlighting the strange to gain more viewers, much like the carnivals and sideshows of the past.

Big Fat Gypsy Wedding

Over the next several weeks, we will post our thoughts on Kody Brown and his four lovely wives and several children on Sister Wives, the insanely large Duggar Family on 19 Kids and Countingthe cultural group that is often segregated and discriminated against on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, the interesting depiction of a “different” socio-economic family on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Abby and Brittany Hensel’s intriguing life as conjoined twins (so many questions!), and the lives of NICU Pediatrician Jen Arnold and her husband Bill Klein on The Little Couple  At some point in the future we also hope to tackle My Strange Obsession and Stanley Thornton, Jr. who lives his life as an Adult Baby on various shows across networks.

Coney Island, USA

Coney Island, USA Museum and Sideshow Building

After a week of culture and exploring New York, and a wonderful morning at the Transit Museum, I headed over to Brooklyn and all the way to the end-of-the-line: Coney Island.  I arrived early to get a Nathan’s hot dog and to wander around the board walk area.  Then I walked over to the Coney Island Museum where I was to meet Dr. Jeffery Birnbaum to discuss the display and performance of people with disabilities in sideshows.  This blog is a segue into a new series of blogs on exploitation, sideshow history, disability history, and more.

Dr. Birnbaum is on the Board of Coney Island USA and also a physician who has been studying sideshow performers with physical disabilities.  Additionally, he is a Pediatrician with HEAT (Health and Education Alternatives for Teens) of which he is the founder, director, and physician.  His specialty is treatment of HIV+ youth, and he provides medical care for HIV+ and at-risk children, including LGBT youth.  More information about this fascinating work is available at HEAT’s website, http://www.heatprogram.org.  Dr. Birnbaum has also studied Sideshow Performers, Congenital Malformations, Disabilities and the Medical Community.  This is what we met to talk about on a Thursday in May at the Coney Island Museum.

Coney Island Beach, 1938

Coney Island of today is very different from that of the late 1800s and pre-War era of the twentieth century.  Luna Park and Dreamland are no longer visited daily by the masses, and the beach was empty while I was there, which is a stark contrast to the images of Coney Island from the past.  However, there are still some organizations and small businesses that continue to share the history of this fascinating place and preserve that history for future generations.

One of the biggest attractions in the past at Coney Island, and in circuses and traveling exhibits throughout the world, was the sideshow.  Many times, children with seemingly strange differences were taken from their families to travel the world to be gawked at by tourist paying a nickel to see the strange and unknown.

Today, Coney Island still operates one of the only sideshows in the country.  Their website proclaims, “SIDESHOWS BY THE SEASHORE is the last permanently housed place in the USA where you can experience the thrill of a traditional ten-in-one circus sideshow. They’re here, they’re real and they’re alive! Freaks, wonders and human curiosities! “  More information is available at: http://www.coneyisland.com/sideshow.shtml.  Dr. Birnbaum, as mentioned above, has studies sideshow, disability, and medicine, so he was a great source to speak with regarding my research.

When we arrived, they had just wrapped up their annual “Congress of Curious Peoples” (I am currently taking donations so that I can attend next year!), and Dr. Birnbaum told me about the 2012 Inductees into the Sideshow Hall of Fame and his nomination of Seal-o the Sealboy in the Born Different category.  This is the kind of information I was looking for in my research as opposed to the self-inflicted “freaks” that dominate shows today!

Dr. Birnbaum and I discussed many aspects of sideshows and people with disabilities, and he told me about several people he knows who do participate in sideshows or other types of shows to raise awareness about disability issues.  One example is Matt Fraser, a “seal boy” or person with phocomalia, who is a disability rights activist who uses his disability in his act.  He uses the disability to make the audience uncomfortable for laughing and having fun, since almost all people are conditioned not to.

He explained to me that in the past, the disability community often viewed people who performed to be taking place in something equal to pornography.  Today, however, many in this population see it as a rock’n’roll career.

Zip

I’m interested in the “born different” people from the past, but most especially those with cognitive developmental delays, medically called those with mental retardation.  This will be spoken about much more in my research to come.  I have come across several examples of this such as Zip and Pip, and Schlitzy, who were referred to as “pinheads”, and Zip the “What is it?” who may or may not have had microcephaly.

My next blog will feature a Q&A with one of the Coney island Performers, Black Scorpion.  The website describes him as, “a human oddity known for his bizarre & surreal stage performances, from future Austin, Texas. He is unlike any other performer, for he was not born of our time like you or I. When you see him perform you will understand how nature’s beauty takes shape in many different forms. Witness his attempts to change preconceived negatives into a positives throughout space & time.”  You can read more about him at: http://www.coneyisland.com/per.blackscorpion.shtml

two-headed deer souvenir

The museum has a bar and a great giftshop (also available online at: http://shop.coneyisland.com/) with Coney Island beer as a specialty and incredible one-off art such as my pink and green two-headed deer.

I encourage you to become a member of Coney Island USA to help build this area of New York back to a semblance of what it used to be.  The Unofficial Mayor of Coney Island, Dick Zigun, and the wonderful folks at Coney Island, USA (the non-profit arts organization) are doing great things at this historic site, and they can do much more with your donation.  For obvious reasons, I would love to be able to be a “Sideshow Professa,” and who wouldn’t?

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