Entertainment or exploitation?

Physical difference on display

Conjoined twins Chang and Eng

Chang and Eng, the original ‘Siamese twins’. They were exhibited during the early 1800s, later going into business on their own. They married sisters and eventually had 22 children between them. They died on the same day in 1874.

CC BY

Wellcome Library

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.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘How We Look’ in June 2008 and reviewed and updated in November 2014.

Topics:
Physiology, Genetics and genomics, History
Issue:
How We Look
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development