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Too Much of a Good Thing – Freak Show

September 30th, 2009

There used to be over 100 freak shows touring with fairs and circuses across America.  For P.T. Barnum, it was big business.  describes the history of the freak show exhibition and features an unusual poem in which it the so eloquently described  by Wordsworth:

“All moveables of wonder, from all parts,

Are here–Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,

The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,

The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,

Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,

The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,

The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft

Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,

All out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,

All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts

Of man, his dulness, madness, and their feats

All jumbled up together, to compose

A Parliament of Monsters. Tents and Booths

Meanwhile, as if the whole were one vast mill,

Are vomiting, receiving on all sides,

Men, Women, three-years’ Children, Babes in arms.”

The freak show or side show used to be one of the main attractions at county fairs and circuses across America.   People would flock to all manner of human and animal oddities.  These freaks of nature perhaps underscored awareness for the  “normal” observers to be more mindful and thankful for their good health and normal physical form.   With the advent of political correctness and realization of human exploitation, freak shows had all but disappeared from our culture by the 1970’s.

Or have they?   The clamor to see and often times, even pay to see personalities who have had excessive cosmetic surgery and/or body modification.  I believe this represents a persistent desire to see such oddities.   Pop culture and mass media obsesses with who has had what and what the result looks like.  Photos of celebrities snapped right after cosmetic surgery fetch handsome rewards for the press.  When I would see the late Michael Jackson, I would try to examine his face just trying to figure out what else he had done.   It is culturally acceptable for us to look at physical oddities when people have done it on their own accord.  Think back to Britney Spears shaving her head in a Los Angeles salon.  Is this really news?

The popularity of reality television is also part of this trend.   We seem to have an attraction to see physical distortion and  bizarre human interactions, we watch and we wait for the emotional train wreck.

We have traded the freaks of nature for the freaks created and celebrated by the media.  There has been a distinct move toward commodification of celebrity. However, today nobody is standing outside the tent selling tickets in exchange for a peek!

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