What a Freakshow: A Strange Facet of Disability History

One of the few ways in which disabled people have always been able to earn a living is via the freakshow, a European tradition that exploded in the 1500s[1. Yes, freakshows are that old, and circus traditions in not just the West but the rest of the world are even older.]. Whether it was a person with dwarfism acting as a jester or clown for an individual monarch, or a person with a unique physical impairment displaying her body for the eyes of a curious and gawking public, freaking—exploiting the perceived peculiarities of your own body for an audience—was a means of support for some disabled people who might otherwise have died or struggled to survive.

Which is not to say that freaking was particularly fun, or easy. It required arduous travel from place to place, along with sitting or standing for hours on display for people to stare at you; and while you might have the insular family of circus culture to protect you, being objectified for hours would have taken a toll. Many disabled people lacked access to medical care, including treatments that could have made them more comfortable, and in many cases freaks were not people independently seeking work, but rather the property of the circus owner. They were objects owned by the circus and used to generate profits, treated like the animals in the collection rather than human beings, bought, sold, and traded as need be.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, circus owners actually visited institutions to look over the ‘pickings,’ so to speak, offering to take disabled people off the hands of the administrators. In exchange for a fee, they could drive away with their new property to exhibit. This has been cast by some as an empowering act, allowing disabled people to get out of institutions and to support themselves, especially as attitudes towards freaking shifted in the 1950s and 1960s and people started managing their own acts more aggressively. In fact, modern-day people continue to work as sideshow attractions, and some, like the Black Scorpion, advocate for a shift in attitudes on freak shows, or consider them a chance to educate the public about rare impairments and disability acceptance.

My own feelings on freak shows are rather complex. They occupy an important role in disability history and one that many people are not aware of, and I see parallels with situations where disabled people are exploited in other industries for their bodies. For example, earlier this year a big scandal broke when it was revealed that wealthy women were deliberately seeking out disabled people to accompany their families to Disney World so they could skip ahead on the lines[2. Though there’s some evidence to suggest this ‘phenomenon’ wasn’t as widely-spread as implied in the press.]. Some people were horrified by this, while others seemed to shrug and say ‘well, hey, it’s a way to make a living.’

Much like freaking was once a way to make a living, except that it occurred in an environment of false choices. It wasn’t like now, when people can choose from a number of (still very limited) options to support themselves. It was ‘freak or die,’ ‘rot in an institution or allow yourself to be exhibited for people to cringe/laugh at.’ For people choosing sideshow work now (some of whom come from a long tradition in the circus), it’s one of several choices of occupation, and takes place in a larger context, making it more of a conscious choice than something forced upon them because it’s the only viable option.

For those disabled people who work as tour guides, every job apparently now has to come with the question of whether they’re being hired because they’re good at their jobs and help people have a great time, or whether they’re just being used for their bodies. It’s a gross thing to have to ponder and something people shouldn’t have to ask themselves in the course of working for an industry that is not reliant in any way on disability status or appearance; it’s one thing for a stripper to consider the ramifications of what she looks like when interviewing for a job[3. Though looks alone are not all when it comes to dancing; technique, charisma, and personality are critically important. You might be surprised by who gets hired and who doesn’t.], and another for a tour guide to be forced to ask if someone only wants her because she has a pretty set of boobs wheelchair.

We still live in a world where freak shows exist, although they have changed radically in nature from their roots of utter objectification of disabled people. And we still live in a world where disabled people are used for their bodies by people who want to take advantage of them in some way; whether it’s a spoiled socialite who doesn’t like waiting in line with everyone else, or a financially abusive ‘carer’ who seizes someone’s disability payments, or a devotee who seeks out disabled people to get off on.

Within the context of the larger history of freaking and exploitation, I always start to get nervous around situations where conversations of the exploitation of disabled people come up without an acknowledgement of the complex history, and the tangled present. These are not things that are in the past, there firmly to remain, but things that continue to this day: People will still pay to see a man with claws for hands, a woman with sirenomelia, and they pay to see them because they want to gawk at the freaks, no matter how you dress it up.