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"GOOBLE-GABBLE, ONE OF US": GROTESQUE RHETORIC AND THE VICTORIAN FREAK SHOW CHRISTINE FERGUSON University ofBritish Columbia The chant "Gooble-gabble, one of us," later worked into a punk anthem by the Ramones, was first introduced to the world in the wedding banquet scene of Todd Browning's 1933 cult classic, Freaks. Here, the film's titular cast of circus freaks use the refrain to welcome the "normal" trapeze artist Cleopatra into their brethren on the eve of her wedding to the midget Hans. Cleopatra, who has only consented to the match in order to access,her tiny husband's large fortune, is less than thrilled by this invitation to become one with the attending company of human oddities. In a gesture of stunning insensitivity to the new inlaws , she screams "Freaks! Freaks!", throws champagne in the faces of her guests, and exits with her groom under her arm. As a teenager growing up in the suburbs of Southwestern Ontario, this was my favorite film, and the banquet scene my favorite part. When my friends and I watched it, we were, of course, all for the freaks and all against the scheming Cleopatra whom we knew, after repeat viewing, would get her just rewards for slighting the film's malformed anti-hero. There seemed to be something profoundly new, insurgent and, yes, as confirmed by the Ramones' song, punk, in the intimation that freakishness and normality might join together as one. At the time, I was too naive to realize that Browning's treatment of his freak subjects, even if casting them in a more humane light than prior filmic representations, still stratified them in a sensationalism which was neither new nor particularly revolutionary. I enjoyed the film and wedding chant because they were bizarre, not because they struck me as suggesting the possible collapse of the barriers between freak and non-freak, however we may wish to define these terms. I was reminded of this reaction when, in a first-year graduate seminar, I first spoke about exoticized representations of the freak body Victorian Review 23.2 (Winter 1997) CHRISTINE FERGUSON245 in nineteenth-century culture. Most of us agreed that the Victorians' treatment of those individuals born with either too many or not enough limbs, which often involved shutting them up in private institutions (for the rich) or getting them up in a foreign costume and touring them round the countryside, was decidedly unsavory. One of my peers took exception to my use of the term "freak," which was felt to stigmatize further bodily difference. She was, of course, correct; the application of this or any other derogatory label to those individuals born with a physically unorthodox body is cruel, pointless, and stupid. But what bothered me was the ease with which we were able smugly to dismiss the gawking attitudes of the Victorians, who recognized only difference in the freak body, and assume a moral high ground via our own contemporary attitudes to bodily abnormality. We live in a society which has, since the turn of the last century, increasingly attempted to view the freak as "one of us," whoever or whatever "us" may be. As I hope this brief discussion of the shifting nature of Victorian freak representation will demonstrate, however, the relatively recent move to domesticate or normalize extreme physical difference has consistently failed to be less voyeuristic, less gratuitous, than prior attitudes towards abnormality. "Deformito-mania" was the term coined by Punch in 1843 to describe contemporary fascination with so-termed human curiosities (Howell & Ford 17). At the mid-century, visitors flocked regularly to the Egyptian Hall in London for P.T. Barnum's latest display of genuine and fake oddities during his frequent tours of Europe. The name of this popular venue confirms the connection in the early Victorian imagination between physical and geographic Otherness. If a side-show performer looked different, it was assumed that he or she (sometimes both at once) must be from an undefined and strictly non-British region of elsewhere. Thus, many of the era's greatest freaks, while born and raised in a Western milieu, were consistently exhibited as the product of a foreign clime where the Empire had...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 244-250
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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