Freaks of Femininity: Webster's Gallery of Female Grotesques in Portraits
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Freaks of Femininity:
Webster's Gallery of Female Grotesques in Portraits

Amurderous mother who kills her own sons, a sensual sorceress who transforms men into beasts, a child-woman billed as "The Happiest Girl in the World," a high-class prostitute "that feed[s] men's lusts and prey[s] on them," and an old maid "faded" into a "lifeless husk": this opening sequence of speakers in Augusta Webster's second volume of dramatic poetry, titled Portraits (1870, with "Faded" added in 1893), might call to mind the sensationalized and hyperbolic rhetoric of nineteenth-century freak exhibitions.1 Like the Victorian freak show, these first five portraits in Webster's gallery, "Medea in Athens," "Circe," "The Happiest Girl in the World," "A Castaway," and "Faded," all exhibit human oddities—specifically female oddities and, even more specifically, female grotesques. Defined by Mary Russo as women who make a spectacle of themselves by transgressing the social norms of femininity, the female grotesque is characterized by a specifically feminine excess: female bodies that display their sexuality or simply fail to hide it; bodies that bear the mark of their female sex. As Russo writes, "the possessors of large, aging, and dimpled thighs displayed at the public beach, of overly rouged cheeks, of a voice shrill in laughter, or of a sliding bra strap—a loose dingy bra strap, . . . too young or too old, too early or too late, . . . anyone, any woman, could make a spectacle out of herself if she was not careful."2

In the same way, Medea, Circe, and Eulalie (the prostitute-speaker of "A Castaway") all clearly embody versions of the female grotesque in their display of sexual desire and their transgression of maternal, marital, and sexual norms. But so too does the speaker of "Faded," whose aging and unmarried body violates the same gender norms. Rather than transgressing these norms through excess, however, she does so through lack: by failing to fulfill "woman's destiny and sole hope," the roles of wife and mother (l. 102). Even the so-called Happiest Girl in the World, who seems the very embodiment of the feminine ideal as a young and beautiful bride-to-be, is no less grotesque. Through the poem's very title, Webster "enfreaks" this speaker, placing her among other human [End Page 85] oddities common to the Victorian freak show. Like "The Tallest Man in the World," "The Ugliest Woman in the World," or the largest, skinniest, fattest, hairiest, and so on, "The Happiest Girl in the World" promises to present an extraordinary human exhibit, a superlative specimen, for the audience's view.

If, as Robert Bogdan argues, the term "freak" should refer not to "people who have certain physical conditions" but to "a frame of mind, a set of practices, a way of thinking about and presenting people," this essay will examine the different ways that Webster "enfreaks" her female subjects in Portraits, presenting them not only as female grotesques but also as female freaks: subjects set apart as objects on display, to be viewed and examined.3 The difference between the two, the grotesque and the freak, Russo argues, is precisely in their differing relationships to spectacle, between spectator and performer, audience and spectacle. In contrast to Bakhtinian carnival, where audience and performers were equal participants in the spectacle and the grotesque body "was not distanced or objectified in relation to an audience," the nineteenth-century freak was "doubly marked as object and other within the world of spectacle"; unlike the grotesque body, freaks were, "by definition," beings set apart as "beings to be viewed" (Russo, pp. 78, 80, 79). Thus, while the very title of Portraits frames all its speakers, male and female, as subjects on display, it is significantly only Webster's female speakers that she "enfreaks," marking them doubly as object and other by displaying their bodies, exhibiting their deformities, and foregrounding their specularity.

This essay draws on the discourse of contemporary freak studies not only because Webster's strategies remarkably resemble those of Victorian freak exhibitions, as I will show, but also, and as a result, because freak studies provides the only critical language for explaining these representational strategies...