|Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren - 1863|
Anyone writing of Barnum today has to take a defensive stance on the exploitation of the deformed or disabled, although Barnum himself feels no need to do so. This is not because Barnum was a vile man, but rather that it was not thought of as manipulation. I bring this up only to point out that we live in a culture that would find freak shows morally wrong, but this attitude, for good or bad, is cultural. We accept that this ogling of the strange is wrong, yet the underlying desire that led to the popularity of freakshows still exists. Whether this desire is merely morbid curiosity, a ritualistic attempt to keep the grotesque or unfortunate at a distance, or something altogether different, is beyond me. But I remembered something when I was thinking about the Barnum autobiography. About two years ago, I was walking down the Venice Beach, and passed the Venice Beach Freakshow, one of the few extant freakshows in the nation. The barker, an unusually tall, thin, and pale man, clad in all black with lanky white hair, was calling out his spiel: "Come See the Venice Freak Show, We have a show on AMC, Same station as Breaking Bad." Obviously, I paraphrase, but the salient details of his spiel, that they had a show on AMC and that this was the same station as Breaking Bad, are completely accurate. Another detail: Everyone kept walking past.
But Freakshow isn't the only freak show on reality tv, just the only one that admits to it. The old standbys are there. We have dwarfs (Little People, Big World) and the fat man (The Biggest Loser) as well as any other number of human oddities from people who eat toilet paper (My Strange Addiction) to people who live in squalor (Hoarders) to unique communities (Breaking Amish) to women who have unusually many children (Jon & Kate Plus Eight; 19 Kids and Counting). But why does a society that finds freakshows morally indefensible not have a problem indulging in what is essentially the same form of entertainment? Here's a hint: Many of the shows on the above list are on TLC.
TLC, for those of you that don't know, stands for The Learning Channel. Their viewers don't watch My Strange Addiction to ogle the freaks, no, of course not, they're there to learn about these conditions, they watch Breaking Amish to try to understand. People who would never go to the Venice Beach Freak Show, or any freak show, are still willing to watch a reality program about a freak show. It's a way to indulge in whatever curiosity satisfying/catharsis inducing element provided by freakshows, without the attendant guilt.