Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Reality Television and the Modern Human Oddities

One of the bestselling books of the nineteenth century, and one I heartily recommend, is Struggles and Triumphs, or Forty Years' Recollections of P.T. Barnum written by Himself.  As the aptly grandiose title indicates, this is the autobiography of P.T. Barnum, or rather one of them.  He wrote three main versions, the first in 1855, the second in 1869 with an update in 1872, and the third in 1882.  If you're wondering why you should read the second edition (available free in facsimile from, it's because Barnum expurgated hundreds of pages from the final edition.  Barnum, in true picaresque fashion, goes from a rascally youth to a man of the world, collecting the strangest specimens on the planet for the American Museum in New York, appearing before the crowned heads of state, and himself becoming an icon in the process.  But of these strange specimens, which include everything from elephants and angelfish to tribal relics to the infamous Feejee Mermaid, none are as memorable, or controversial, as his human oddities, oddities like Charles Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, who by the time he was ten years old had performed for Queen Victoria and other European nobility.  Also notable are Joice Heth, who he claimed was 161 years old and George Washington's 'mammy,' and Chang and Eng Bunker, better known as the Siamese Twins. Not to mention the time he tricked a group of Native American chiefs (none of whom spoke English) to appear on stage every night while they were in New York on a diplomatic mission by claiming that the crowds had assembled to pay them respect.       

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.  

No comments:

Post a Comment