American Culture

Geeks, freaks and cable TV

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. 

We humans are what we are, even if some parts of our nature aren’t always what we wish they were—our attitudes toward race, sex, and sexual orientation, our propensity for violence, our gawping at car wrecks, and our desire to stare at, and in some cases mock, those who are different.

A hundred years ago human oddities were collected in traveling freak shows. Monkey-boys, half-man/half-woman, fat ladies, dwarves, the tattooed and pierced, fire-eaters, sword swallowers, and people who bit the heads off live animals. Some became famous, like the dwarf Tom Thumb, who was billed as an adult when still a child and started drinking and smoking cigars at seven to support the illusion, or John Merrick, the Elephant Man, a beautiful man trapped in a horribly deformed body, and Grady Stiles, a horribly nasty man trapped in a horribly nasty body.

Today, live freak shows have for the most part faded away because of public disgust at the idea of mocking the less fortunate. But that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the urge. We’ve just decided to enjoy it in the privacy of our own homes, through dozens of shows on cable TV that provide exactly the same spectacle, and for the most part in exactly the same ways, as the freak shows of old. And judging by the number of shows and their ratings, there are more than a few “decent people” who never would have been caught dead in an old time freak show who are just as fascinated with the odd and the abnormal as those who crowded their way into the tent at the county fair.

Freak shows started in the sixteenth century in England, took off in the Victorian era, and peaked in the early part of the twentieth century until a book detailing the exploitation of John Merrick helped change attitudes toward the display of physical deformities for commercial purposes. Public opinion turned against them and in some places laws were passed limiting or forbidding them.

The classic freak shows had three basic types of performers. First, of course, were those born with physical deformities—conjoined twins, giants, dwarves and those with excess hair, misshapen or missing limbs, obesity or excessive thinness, androgyny, etc. There was also a second type of performer, those that were willing to do things than most of us won’t and hurt themselves, or risk injury for our entertainment. This class included the tattooed, surgically modified, and pierced, many of whom actually hung weights from their piercings; fire breathers, sword swallowers, and people who ate glass and nails as well as those who walked on fire, glass, and sabers; and of course, geeks, those who bit the heads off live chickens, rats or snakes. Finally, there were displays of exotic people from different lands, usually white men painted black who pretended to be African ape-men.

Modern cable TV follows the same basic formula. TLC is to modern freakdom what PT Barnum was to the genre in the mid-1800s. TLC started out as a federal government project to use NASA satellites to provide education to Appalachia, thus its former and now highly ironic name: The Learning Channel. It was sold to Discovery in the 1990’s and programming slowly evolved from educational to personal stories and eventually to shows that more or less ape the classic freak show.

There are shows about physical oddities. For example, obesity: Big Sexy, My Big Fat Fabulous Life, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. And dwarfism: Little Couple; Little People, Big World; Our Little Family, Seven Little Johnstons, etc. There’s I Am the Elephant Man. And of course, there are shows about geeks and those willing to hurt themselves as well, including She Does Not Feel Pain and Freaky Eaters. They’ve also showcased the “exotic” with religious freak show programming, e.g., Breaking Amish and Sister Wives.

But it would be unfair to label TLC as simple imitators. They’ve also expanded the genre in new ways. They’ve developed programming that showcases not just physical deformities but mental ones as well, like My Strange Addiction, My Crazy Obsession, and Hoarding: Buried Alive. Even more impressively, they’ve created a new niche around poor parenting: Toddlers and Tiaras, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Jon & Kate Plus 8 and 19 Kids and Counting. Not surprisingly, having tip-toed along the edge of child abuse for years with their programming, at least two of their shows have been pulled off the air recently because they crossed the line and became associated with legally-defined child abuse.

Discovery Channel, A&E, History, truTV and many other channels also participate in the freak show business, less obviously but no less disturbingly. Their shows include those that allow us to gape at the poor and uneducated (Swamp People, Alaskan Bush People, Duck Dynasty) and those who prey on the poor and unfortunate (Lizard Lick Towing, Dog the Bounty Hunter, and Hard Core Pawn). For a while, MTV had Jackass, which featured people hurting themselves for our entertainment.

Even the mainstream networks have gotten into the game, although as always, they’re a little more squeamish than their cable cousins. So their programming comes with high-end production values, a staged competition and treacly messages about motivation. Still, Biggest Loser at least in part taps into that same deep subconscious desire of people to stare at people they view as less fortunate than themselves.

Of course, you can’t keep a bad aspect of humanity down, and it was only a matter of time before real freak shows came back. And so they have, in the form of Jim Rose Circus, which has appeared at Lollapalooza. A Chicago DJ recently staged a freak show complete with a lobster girl.

It’s a little sad, but what can you say?

How about: Step right up, folks.

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Note: The title of this essay is taken from Freaks, Geeks, and Circus Girls, an excellent book on sideshow art by Randy Johnson.