- Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show
To preface a study of the American freak show, as Michael Chemers does, with an anecdote about one’s own experience with the controversial cultural form has become de rigueur in freak show [End Page 503] scholarship. From childhood tales of attending sideshows clutching the hand of a beloved grandparent to reports of extensive field research conducted in the tented environs of a traveling freak show, scholars seem compelled to clarify their personal relationships to the titillating and repellent world of the American freak show. However, while the majority of such anecdotes read like disclaimers, their authors briefly acknowledging the conflicting emotions that accompany the study of freakery (pity, anxiety, wonder, disgust, amusement) before attempting a history sans subjectivity, Chemers’s commitment to scholarly transparency is authentic and unwavering. Cognizant of the distancing techniques and nostalgic tropes frequently employed by scholars who “attempt to ‘reclaim’ the discourse of freakery for an activist agenda,” Chemers aims to highlight and circumvent the ethical pitfalls inherent in studying and writing on the performativity of stigmatized bodies (132). A small book with big goals, Staging Stigma frames a laser-sharp analysis of four crucial moments in the history of freak shows with bold theoretical ruminations emerging from Chemers’s work in disability studies. The result is an immensely readable study that also serves as a practical guide for future scholarly endeavors in theatre and disability studies.
In Staging Stigma’s introduction, “The Ugly Word,” Chemers traces the etymology of the problematic (and remarkably fluid) term freak. While acknowledging that “freak” and the profit-driven enterprise of freakery elicit strong responses from marginalized groups (not just the disabled community) as well as those in academia, Chemers wishes to “engage freakery as a historian,” analyzing freak performances as he would any theatrical form (8). As such, Chemers views freaks not as passive victims of a wholly exploitative freak show machine, but as “active agents” within the industry; through this perspectival shift, he argues, we can “examine the freak in performance in a new way, acknowledging the impact freakery has had upon American culture (for good and ill) while neither resorting to inappropriately moralized condemnation nor wallowing in prurient titillation” (9).
In the first chapter of the text, “Staging Stigma,” Chemers outlines his methodological framework, influenced in large part by sociologist Erving Goffman. Employing theatre metaphors to characterize the “social process” of constructing identity through human interaction, Goffman attests that individuals participate in daily performances using a persona often taken by others as a true identity; as Chemers explains, “backstage, in this model, is a secret portion of the individual’s experience where information that would discredit or embarrass the performed identity is concealed” (12). The exposure of any or all of the obscured identity could lead to “serious, even irreparable damage to the individual’s sense of self” (13). For those possessing a stigmatized form, Goffman identifies numerous performance tactics that assist in social survival: self-denigration through “performing inferiority,” varied acts of resistance, and “face-saving behaviors” like humor and denial (14–15). Within Goffman’s behavioral system, Chemers argues, stigma itself is undeniably performed. Goffman’s theories, along with those of Joseph Roach (specifically his concept of surrogation), Judith Butler, Mikhail Bakhtin, and fellow freakery scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, provide the glass for Chemers’s conceptual lens.
Chemers then turns to examining four significant events in the American freak show: the highly publicized 1863 marriage of Charles Stratton, the dwarf actor better known as General Tom Thumb, to Lavinia Warren; the publication of Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871) and the resulting “rhetoric of science” applied to stigmatized bodies and freak performances (70); the “Revolt of the Freaks” in 1899, during which Barnum and Bailey performers demanded the retirement of the derogatory moniker freak (supplanting it with prodigy, connoting eminence and not inferiority); and the dismissal of performer Otis Jordan (The Frog Boy) from...