- Reclaiming "Freak" Discourses of Queer Desirability in Circus Amok
At the turn of the twentieth century, the "freak show" played a prime role in perpetuating "freak discourse": the way in which Other bodies "function as magnets to which culture secures its anxieties, questions, and needs at any given moment," (Garland-Thomson, Freakery 2). These oppressive conventions saturated modern society and remain a driving force in dominant conceptions of disability that exist today. Through subverting and reclaiming these traditional sideshow conventions, feminist performance artist Jennifer Miller upheaves corporeal norms in her show Circus Amok. Miller, a cisgender lesbian with a full beard, not only queers gender and sexuality through her performance of "the bearded lady" but also destabilizes the ableist notion of an idealized, normative body. Looking at these performance conventions through disability justice and crip theory (McRuer) perspectives, it is clear that Miller's transgressive reappropriation of the "bearded lady" persona destabilizes the "neutral body" while reversing the power dynamic of starer/stared-at tacit in the historical freak show. Through "being freaky" (Lorenz 23) Miller and the queer performers of Circus Amok work towards an un-"enfreakment" (Hevey 53) of non-normative bodies, using the sideshow as a platform to "defreakify" (Smith) and turn awe in on normalcy itself.
Circus Amok reimagines the twentieth-century freak show, taking on the familiar format of the circus to produce a spectacle that brings the audience into uncomfortable territory. Miller plays the role of the "blower," mimicking sideshow oral conventions to promote spectator awe (Bogdan 104). Rather than introducing Freaks, however, she introduces political and social issues, and performers re-enact and critique everything from the prison-industrial complex to homelessness and local government. Through acrobatics, dance, clowning, comedy, stilting, contortion, magic, and a hodgepodge of avant-garde carnivalesque theatrics, Amok juxtaposes "danger with laughter," (Sussman 266) redefining the boundaries of "normal" to bring attention to the queerness always just below the surface of the everyday. [End Page 375]
Miller embodies a "bearded lady" persona, one of the staple "human curiosities" of traditional freak shows. Blending aggrandized and exoticized modes of presentation (Bogdan 104), "her beard is never simply an object of display; it functions as an occasion for thoughtful looking, a medium through which to show the fluidity and playfulness of having any gender" (Sussman 264). In doing so, she queers gender through subversion of the hyper-feminine bearded lady. She reclaims her beard as a refutation of undesirability attached to her visible difference, impersonating the bearded lady while presenting her body and self as desirable, not because of or in spite of her beard; but as an entire person with an autonomous queer sexuality. She invokes drag convention, which "on the one hand refers to people, gender, abilities, and appearance while at the same time makes it clear that this is not a matter of a 'person,' but rather of visualizing the possibilities of 'becoming other than what one is'" (Lorenz 23). The essentialized subject—the "Other" which can only ever exist in terms of desire/disgust polarity (Kafer, "Desire and Disgust") —dissipates, making space for new identifications and conceptualizations of bodies "being-different" (Lorenz 21).
Lorenz proposes that a "freak theory" of queer art is essential to creating social change. He argues that we must unearth oppressive frameworks of the past to recognize these same systems of deviance/normality that work insidiously in contemporary institutions and discourses, reconstructing the illusory (normative) narrative of "progress." He suggests that "freakiness" acknowledges this past and works actively to move beyond it:
The term "freak" … historically refers not only to bodies, but also to denormalizing social practices … "Freak" does not mark any position in the aside, but instead marks a movement of distantiation, of keeping distance from ideals of being-white, being-heterosexual, being-normal, being-efficient. Freak theory is ... an approach to difference that refuses to abandon differentiation.(Lorenz 21)
The history of disability and construction of "Freak" are closely tied to free market capitalism; the circus a microcosm in which economic and social systems of capital worked to value bodies as "desirable" and "undesirable." While P. T. Barnum and other circus institutions exploited "Freaks" for profit, the economic...