“All the best freaks are here,
They say all the best freaks are here,
Please stop staring at me . . .”
~~Marillion “Freaks” (from B-Sides Themselves, 1988)
My son spent another day at the County Fair yesterday, this time under the never-ending-patience of his grandparents. He woke up this morning and couldn’t wait to tell me all about the animals he saw, the rides he went on, and one other thing . . .
. . . a tent with the “Smallest Woman in the World” inside.
Wait, hold on . . . what?
“Yeah,” he said, “I went inside and I expected it to be a robot or something but it was an actual girl . . . a real person!”
Having a daughter of our own with a disability, my wife and I were understandably taken aback for a moment. “How did that make you feel?” we asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, kind of thoughtfully, “A little weird, I guess.”?”
“And why was that?”
“Well,” he answered after some careful consideration, “I guess I didn’t expect her to be a real person. I mean, she was just kinda sittin’ there listening to her Ipod and reading something. I didn’t know what to do. So I just said, ‘hi’.”
“And what did she do?”
Shrug. . . “Just said ‘hi’ and went back to reading. I think she was bored. It was just kinda weird.”
And I thought yeah, that’s a word for it. I thought carnival sideshows (or “freak” shows as they were more commonly known) went out of style decades ago. It really did seem weird that an old-tyme sideshow would be at a twenty-first century County Fair.
“There were other ones too,” my son piped up.
“Yeah,” he continued, his enthusiasm gaining momentum, “there was a ‘snake-skinned angel lady. And I think there were others too, I just didn’t see ’em all.”
“Did you go see the snake-skinned lady?” we asked.
“No. It was seventy-five cents to see ’em,” he said, “seventy-five cents, each!”
Wow, I thought, your whole life on display for seventy-five cents. Each. But who was I to judge; even though I feel a little closer to the situation having a daughter who is regularly stared at—discreetly by the adults but more openly by children her own age—but gawk they do.
Still, maybe it was by their own choice that these people found themselves in this travelling sideshow. Maybe it’s all they can do with their “talents” given that society is by-and-large going to stare at them anyway: Might as well get paid for it. Maybe they’ve been coerced into this lifestyle and there are forces at work much larger than any of us, on the surface, are supposed to be aware of. But an out-and-out “freak” show? In today’s modern, civilized society? As my son says, it’s just “weird”.
Oh, but modern-day freak shows we do have! They’ve just been digitized and moved into our living rooms as network entertainment. A quick run-through of the “medical” shows advertised on TLC this week will give you an idea: “The World’s Fattest Man”, “The Woman With Giant Legs”, “My Shocking Story” (This week featuring an eight-limbed baby, whee!).
What are they if not our own privatized sideshows; instead of inside tent walls, now discreetly hidden behind locked front doors and drawn shades?
We, as a society, can now maintain the outward appearance of civilization because all of our quirks, oddities and vices have been quietly moved indoors; behind closed curtains and away from the judgmental eyes of our neighbors and other self-righteous watchdogs. We warmly greet friends in the grocery aisles unaware of their discomfiture that they’ve just gotten done watching “The Girl With No Face”. We sit beside the usher in church unaware that even as he’s singing praises his mind is filled with the humiliating pornographic images he’s currently downloading to his computer and can’t wait to get home to. Quirks. Vices. Habits. Addictions. I’ve got mine. You’ve got yours. They’ve got theirs.
We’re forgetting how to interact as a society. Yet we’re also forgetting that our seemingly enigmatic online or network interactions still have real world impact. Sure, the carnival sideshows may be a disappearing symbol of the past, but the modern world is still rife with examples of our tendency as a fallen species to be drawn to the lurid, the odd, the perverse, and the different. From the beautiful women on the porn site, to the eight-limbed baby on TV, to my own daughter . . . we still stare. Sure we’re embarrassed; ashamed even. Yet we stare on.
And when it comes right down to it, who are the perverse? Who are the odd; the abnormal; the “freaks”? And if we can honestly answer that, why do we think its okay?