In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • From Freaks to Goddesses
  • Charles D. Martin
Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

In the last two decades, much critical attention has been focused upon the cultural importance of the sideshow freak, emphasizing the effect of the exhibit on the audience. In his book Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self, Leslie Fiedler, reaching back initially to his own childhood experiences, uses a Freudian lens to demonstrate that the exaggerated corporeal difference of the sideshow attraction embodied childhood nightmares and anxieties over scale, the limits of the body, individuality, even the primal scene of the child’s creation. In exhibition, the freak helps constitute the “normality” of the audience. The advent of modern medical science, in Fiedler’s eyes, has “desacralized human monsters forever,” and has replaced the audience’s awe with a quotidian curiosity that diminishes the once-exalted status of the freak as a wonder and a miracle (19). Robert Bogdan also confesses a childhood experience with the freak show in the prefatory statement of his study Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, as he was hurried away from the tent by his parents, leaving him with shame and a sense that he somehow had transgressed into a domain cordoned off by taboo. Bogdan advances the study of sideshow exhibitions by perceiving the construction of the freak in the hierarchical relationship between the attraction and the audience. “A ‘freak,’” according to Bogdan, “is a way of thinking, of presenting, a set of practices, an institution—not a characteristic of an individual” (10). Bogdan turns away from the use of the term “freak,” offering instead the seemingly more humanizing one of the “disabled” for those attractions with real, not manufactured, physical anomalies. Susan Stewart, in her book On Longing, extends the idea of social construction by succinctly declaring the lusus naturae, or freak of nature, instead a “freak of culture” (109). The exhibit of this social construction domesticates and naturalizes those bodies determined to be congenitally or ethnically different in a spectacle of colonialization. “On display,” Stewart writes, “the freak represents the naming of the frontier and the assurance that the wilderness, the outside, is now territory” (110). In the freak is evidence of the colonial impulse to know and to dominate the unknown, the exotic. Common to all three of these critical works is the emphasis placed upon the relationship between the exhibit—the spectacle of the anomalous body—and the audience, which places the burden of meaning upon the exhibit.

In her book Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature, Rosemarie Garland Thomson envisions her mission as one of denaturalizing the disabled figure, and consequently that of the freak, by resacralizing it and giving it agency. Late in her introductory chapter, in a section which she calls a manifesto, she expresses her desire to rescue the disabled figure and to establish it as a political category alongside class, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender, among others. For Thomson, extending the arguments of Bogdan and Stewart, the figure of the disabled is as much a social construction as the freak. She also incorporates into those constructions the figure of the “normate,” a term she coins to define “the social figure through which people can represent themselves as definitive human beings,” a subject position which requires its antithesis—the figures, among others, of the disabled and the freak—in order to constitute itself (8). The exhibition of the “extraordinary body,” the term she prefers for the figure of the disabled and the freak, relies, as with most exhibitions, on the visibility of the body. At this point, a reader might expect a gloss on the Enlightenment shift to the institutional reliance on the visible that fueled the delineations of the natural world into rigid, authoritarian, easily discernable categories. But, unlike some of her predecessors—Bakhtin and Fiedler, for instance—she finds little difference in effect between the display of the extraordinary body as an anti-authoritarian exhibition of a world turned topsy turvy (a prelapsarian vision of folk culture before the Age of Reason); the Barnum presentation of the sideshow freak...

Additional Information

Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.