Is it possible that we are all “freaks” living in a state of self-deluded normalcy? Do we harbor hidden sources of anxiety, prejudice, revulsion, desire, passion, jealousy, and appetite? Do we externalize these emotions by projecting them onto others who fail to fit arbitrary and changing boundaries of normativity? Is this process only complete when we can confirm, by consulting representations of “freaks” in popular culture, that “we” are definitely not “them”? Are “freaks,” then, not just representations of the repressed elements of the “normate” conveniently “contained” in order to remove any obvious threat to these vulnerable normative standards? These are some of the larger questions driving Transgressive Bodies by Niall Richardson, who tells readers that transgressive bodies are created, contained, and (s)exploited through their representation in popular culture.
Richardson argues that representations of transgressive bodies are really reconstructions of politics and ideas, actively created to highlight the deviant and marginal in order to police the boundaries of normative ideals. Richardson finds that, in contemporary society, representation is in many ways the new reality, so that deviant bodies need to be conjured up in the immaterial spaces of popular culture to serve as a counterpoint to mainstream idealized bodies. Television, films, magazines, and the Internet embody the contemporary stage for the “freak show” through which people can investigate “freaks” from a safe distance. Since this engagement occurs via the spectacle of visual representation, the mechanics of which are neither concealed nor flaunted in typical postmodernist fashion, consumers can rest assured they are not encountering manifestations of their deepest fears, but merely characters in the “freak show.”
The process of calling attention to transgressive bodies has, paradoxically, led to the creation of value and interest in them—in particular, sexual interest. While “freaks” are desexualized in the mainstream, subcultural representations are often hyper-sexualized. Richardson discusses the sexual fetishism of bodies that are hyper-muscular, fat or stuffed, “transsexed,” and disabled as a means to explore their inverse (and sometimes subversive) relationship with normative desires and ideals of attractiveness. In so doing, he rediscovers the [End Page 114] desirable body as an inherently fragile concept structured more by individual preferences than hegemonic ideals. Richardson concludes that transgressive bodies are highly enmeshed within fluid cultural regimes of representation; there really is no escape at the fringes. New norms exist within communities of “freaks” such that even people here are also subjected to discourses that regulate and categorize their distance from changing body ideals. In the bodybuilding subculture, for example, Richardson explores the construction and enforcement of hyper-muscular ideals in magazines, promotional videos, and pageants, documenting a trend of increasingly extreme physiques. This process of mainstreaming could presumably lead to new subcultures and sub-subcultures ad infinitum—a thought exercise that forces the reader to grapple with the absurdity of the category normal.
Richardson examines the social (re)construction of “freaks” from the vantage point of “representation studies,” an ambitious interdisciplinary methodology that examines the politics surrounding representation in popular culture.1 He finds this approach affords a wide-lens perspective on popular culture, which is instructive in reflecting on the dynamics of representations as freestanding artifacts or culturally mediated interpretations of their intended subjects. In so doing, the author hopes to move beyond debates about which disciplinary framework or approach best encapsulates studies of representation. This flexible interdisciplinary approach permits Richardson to move convincingly between diverse discourses in film and media studies, cultural studies, sports, gender and sexuality, disability studies, queer and crip theory, feminism, and postmodernism.
Richardson consults a wide range of secondary source literature in order to relate relevant theoretical approaches, current debates, and ideologies. The book is divided into four distinct sections that might stand alone as separate studies of bodybuilding, obesity, transsexuality, and disability if not for a short introduction in each section that positions the subject in relation to the broader topic of transgressive bodies. The first chapter in each section builds on the précis through a detailed analysis of film and other...