Entertainment or exploitation?
Physical difference on display
The 19th century was the golden age of the so-called ‘freak show’, where people with unusual physical forms – such as conjoined twins, giants and dwarves, or people who had hypertrichosis (excess face and body hair) and ichthyosis (elephant-like skin) – were displayed in the name of entertainment.
Most popular in the USA, and run by entrepreneurs such as P T Barnum, freak shows survived into the early decades of the 20th century, despite a growing outcry that they insulted the dignity of the people on display.
Later, though, some people have seen their abnormalities as a route to economic survival, developing their own acts or joining circuses. Examples include Otis Jordan (Frog Boy), Grady Stiles (Lobster Boy) and Frank Lentini, the three-legged man. Others have used their unusual appearance in an artistic context or to challenge viewers.
While most of us find the idea of freak shows distasteful, the popularity of documentaries such as ‘The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off’ or television shows such as ‘Embarrassing Bodies’ is testimony to our continued fascination with ‘otherness’. While such shows, at their best, emphasise the common humanity of people born ‘different’, at worst they are exploitative, just as in the 19th century.