While the times of 19th and 20th century freak shows parading human abnormalities are no more, one activist claimed Monday that the past prejudices and intrusive fascinations still exist today, out of the spotlight and in the audience of society.
As opposed to history’s displays of children with physical abnormalities, Siamese twins, midgets and the classic bearded woman, Eli Clare, a disabled, transgendered gay man, said society is responsible for placing stigmas on these people. He said that those who do not fit into the present social mold — strippers, transgendered, gay and lesbian individuals among others — have been labeled as modern-day freaks.
“All of these people were not born as freaks, they were constructed to be freaks,” Clare told about 50 people in the Lory Student Center of both past and present freaks.
Freak shows originated in 1840 but began to die out around 1940 because of the increasing popularity of movies with sound. Before then freak shows had been a mainstream part of entertainment and served to fabricate the ideas of normality and otherness.
Clare explained what he refers to as the “history of everyday gawking,” an act, which contributes to what he believes is a manifestation of the modern day freak show.
“I can’t tell you where the history of gawking starts,” Clare said. “But it has a long, long history.”
Clare used medical exhibits as an example for modern day gawking because they involve parading disabled and transgendered children with bodily irregularities naked in front of a panel of doctors for evaluation.
Stripping, he said, is another example.
Clare applauded big burlesque dancers because they choose to “thumb their noses” at society’s idea of normal and dance even if they do not fit the ideal.
Audience members responded to Clare’s presentation with accolades.
“I was impressed with the way he wove together disability, race, economic status and gender,” said Kali Palin, a senior human development and family studies major. “He really brought to light the existence of modern day freak shows.”
Other students were intrigued by the overarching social impacts of the shows.
“Clare helped to give some insight into the lives of freaks with his presentation,” said Jessi Quizar who drove up from Denver to see Clare’s presentation.
“I was really interested in how freak shows ended up pitting different oppressed groups against each other, like different colored people against disabled people.”
Overall, Clare was focused on eliminating these discriminations and promoting an increased acceptance of today’s “freak” demographic.
“I’m advocating a wide range of bodily difference,” Clare said at the end of his presentation. “Not some vision of normality.”
Staff writer Ashley Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.