The Walking Dead: A Commentary on our Monstrous Society

By: Shannon Walter

Good zombie movies show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in society and our society’s station in the world. They show us gore and violence and all of that cool stuff too but there’s always an undercurrent of social commentary and thoughtfulness.”

– Robert Kirkman

When watching a television show based on a zombie apocalypse, it makes sense to assume that the main antagonists are, in fact, the zombies themselves. After six seasons of The Walking Dead, it is now clear that this is not always true. Yes, the show is overflowing with decaying, flesh-hungry corpses, referred to as “walkers.” But are these “walkers” really the true monsters in this storyline? No. Over the course of the series, what our beloved TWD cast realizes is that their fellow surviving human beings are the ones they should really be fearful of. The writers and producers are forcing their viewers to take a step back and consider the possibility that our society, with its desensitization to murder and death, and its fear and distrust of societal change, is not far off from that of this post-apocalyptic television show.

Whether it be The Governor, Gareth and his band of cannibals, or Negan with his ever-impending doom, human monstrosities have taken over the “new world order” in which our characters are fighting to survive. TV Tropes, a pop culture wiki that focuses on motifs used throughout various mediums, discusses a trope they label “Beware the Living.” Within this trope, “zombies, on an individual level, aren’t really that threatening. . .  the protagonists will often come to realize that zombies are the least of their problems. The real threat will come from roaming gangs of bandits. . .  or even normal, everyday people who were Driven to Madness by the horror going on around them” (“Beware the Living”). The Walking Dead utilizes this trope exactly as it is defined by TV Tropes. But what is this “Beware the Living” trope saying about our society today? What does it say that these characters are more fearful of their fellow human beings than of half-dead, rotting monsters that roam the Earth in search of human flesh? I would like to revert back to Robert Kirkman’s statement that The Walking Dead serves as a type of commentary on the happenings in our society. The idea that, according to TV tropes, people inherently go “crazy” when faced with a new type of society or a new idea of what it means to “live” calls into question a human being’s ability to endure major changes in their lives. Thinking specifically of our own society in comparison to that of The Walking Dead, we can recognize that both societies become increasingly more violent with time. According to The New York Times, as of May 2016, there was already a 9% increase in homicide nationwide over the previous year. On The Walking Dead, this increase in violence is illustrated through a particular one-eyed dictator.

The Governor, who appears as the villain in season three and four of the series, illustrates this commentary through his very drastic alternations between a typical, American man and a murderous, power-tripping monster. The Governor was a normal person before this “zombie apocalypse”— he is a husband, a father, an overall “typical” human being —and then his world is turned upside down. In addressing the new standards of society, he says, “In this life now, you kill or you die. Or you die and you kill” (“Welcome to the Tombs”). The Governor takes this sentiment to a new level through torture and cold-blooded murder. Throughout his reign of terror, we experience characters being held captive in rooms with “walkers,” mass killing sprees, beheadings, and much more. While in this new society it is true that you must kill in order to survive, The Governor is transformed by his new, chaotic surroundings into a murderous monster. This “kill or be killed” mentality is one that is adopted by many “monsters” that have appeared in The Walking Dead.

We can see this “kill-or-be-killed” mentality in our society today, although we do not have the excuse of a world full of flesh-eating zombies, whose only true goal is to eat human beings. It is often argued that because this mentality is portrayed in the media so often our children are becoming desensitized to violence. These outlets incite mass amounts of fear and rage in the members of our society, thus provoking people to fight back against perceived attacks on our community. There are violent murders on the news every single day. In their study on violence and the media, Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson come to the conclusion that “[p]eople exposed to media violence become ‘comfortably numb’ to the pain and suffering of others” (277). I believe that Kirkman and his writers are pointing at this violent phenomena through their social commentary on The Walking Dead. Monsters such as The Governor are being used to show that even “typical” human beings have the capability to turn into blood hungry monsters when exposed to constant killing and death. Our societal dynamic, as a whole, is changing, along with the members of our society. We need to address this rise in violence in our society, criticized by The Walking Dead, in order to make a positive and lasting change to the long, bloodthirsty road we are heading down.

Works Cited

Anderson, Craig A. and Brad J. Bushman. “Comfortably Numb: Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others.” Psychological Science, vol. 20, no. 3, 2009, pp. 277-277.

“Beware the Living.” TvTropes. Accessed on 10 October 2016.

Kirkman, Robert and Tony Moore. Introduction. The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone By by Kirkman, Image Comics, Inc., 2008. pp. 4-7.

“U.S. Homicide Rates Rise Early in 2016”. The New York Times, 13 May 2016,, Accessed on 8 Nov. 2016.

“Welcome to the Tombs.” The Walking Dead, season 3, episode 16, AMC, 31 Mar. 2010. Netflix,

Monstrous Nihilism: An Analysis of Bill Cipher and His Effects on the Characters of Gravity Falls

by Natali Cavanagh

Gravity Falls is a Disney Channel children’s television show that follows Dipper and Mabel Pines, twelve-year-old twins visiting their great uncle (or “Grunkle”) Stan for the summer in the small town of Gravity Falls, Oregon. Stan is a con artist who has transformed his home into a kitschy tourist trap, the Mystery Shack, which promises to reveal the “mysteries” of Gravity Falls. In actuality, all the exhibits are fake, their sole purpose being to make Stan money. Still, Dipper discovers a journal buried in the forest that catalogs all of the real anomalies and monsters of Gravity Falls, and, over the course of the show, he and Mabel use the journal to fight the creatures they encounter. Of all the monsters described in Dipper’s journal, the most dangerous  by far is Bill Cipher, an all-knowing, smart-mouthed, one-eyed, triangle-shaped demon bent on the destruction of the human dimension. Interestingly, though, Bill’s nefarious intentions go beyond superficial evil, and, upon closer investigation, he appears to be a physical manifestation of Dipper’s desire for what Nihilists would call “absolute” knowledge. He thus serves as a warning for the dangers Dipper’s desire presents.

Nihilism is a philosophy developed primarily in the West that focuses on the meaninglessness of existence, or, according to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “the belief that all values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated” (Pratt). In  Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism, scholar John Marmysz notes that Nihilists believe that “[h]umans are alienated from such perfections as absolute Being, Truth, Goodness, Justice, Beauty, etc. . . . There is nothing that humans can do to change this circumstance” (91). It is in our nature to desire perfection, and we hold the idea that striving toward said perfection will create a better world. But, to the Nihilists, these ideals of the absolute are beyond the realm of the possible because it is impossible to obtain a single, objective definition of ultimate goodness, knowledge, etc. Because we are human and are limited by reality, our interpretations of the world will always be flawed, and therefore we can never truly reach “absolutes,” or perfect definitions and ideals (Marmysz 69).

Throughout the last two seasons of the show (in which Bill is the main antagonist), Bill represents the impossibility– and danger– of the idea of the absolute. He serves to guard the boundary between the human and the conceptual but also acts as a sign that the hopelessness typically associated with Nihilism can be defeated. Many people tend to associate Nihilism with bleakness, operating under the idea that if we can’t ever reach perfection, then what is the point of doing anything? In many ways, Bill embodies this hopelessness; Bill comes from the Nightmare Realm, a mysterious world of absurdity where the rules of reality are nonexistent and irrelevant. This sense of meaninglessness is projected in Bill’s perspective and outlook on life. His carelessness and disregard for anything, in his world or the human world, are what make him especially monstrous; he does not care if humans suffer because any emotion, logic, or understanding of reality that we have is extraneous. Uncle Ford, Grunkle Stan’s genius twin brother, tells Dipper, “To Bill it’s just a game. But to us it would mean the end of our world” (“The Last Mabelcorn”).

What Bill Cipher ultimately represents and preys on, though, is Dipper’s desire to know and understand everything (that is, to acquire absolute knowledge). From the beginning of the series, Dipper is established as a character who values logic, discovery, and research. He wants to uncover all the mysteries of Gravity Falls and will go to any length to find them, holding his journal of mysteries and the knowledge it contains as sacred. The problem is that absolute intelligence is impossible to attain in the physical human world, and it is dangerous to believe that we can attain it; Marmysz states, “We can never truly understand the world in all of its details and intricacies . . . Worse than this, such attempts do damage . . . words corrode and distort reality, moving our understanding farther and farther away from the world of concrete existence” (66).

Dipper will never be able to know all of the secrets of Gravity Falls because of his various human limitations: his age, his lack of experience, his physical weakness. Believing that he can transcend these limitations is dangerous because it gives him naive expectations about how he can change his world but such illusions cannot save him in the real, concrete world. For example, in “Sock Opera,” Dipper desperately needs a password to open a computer that is important in his investigation of the mysterious author of the journals. Eventually, because he has entered so many attempted passwords, the computer begins to erase all of its information; in that moment, Dipper knows there is nothing he can do. And, hypothetically, there should be no humanly possible way for Dipper to acquire the password until Bill offers him the code (“Sock Opera”). By giving into the dream of absolute knowledge, Dipper risks losing his sense of reality and his place in the human world.  From this perspective, then, Bill stands as a monster at the gate between the human world, the realm of possible knowledge, and the absolute, the realm of infinite knowledge.

In  “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Jeffrey Jerome Cohen notes, “From its position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes” (12). Bill appears to the characters in moments of intellectual weakness, tempting them with forbidden knowledge that cannot be attained through the human world; using “Sock Opera” as an example again, Bill uses Dipper’s desperation to his advantage by tricking Dipper into giving Bill his body in exchange for the password to Dipper’s computer  (“Sock Opera”). Dipper endangers the human world by giving Bill a physical form and an opportunity to open a portal from the human realm to the Nightmare realm. While Bill’s offers superficially seem well intentioned and beneficial, his master plan to destroy the world is always his fundamental goal. By crossing from the human to the impossible and accepting Bill’s offers of absolute knowledge, the characters risk the destruction of their universe.

In Dipper’s pursuit of knowledge, he finds many ways to save his family, friends, and the citizens of Gravity Falls. He prevents countless deaths and goes on adventures beyond his wildest dreams. But Bill is a reminder to him and the rest of the characters that there is only so much that he can save through brute intelligence. Humans are not supposed to know, or even have the ability to know, all the mysteries of the universe; if we give into the dream of the absolute, we risk losing our sense of reality. Clinging on to that illusion of absolute knowledge is what will be the death of us. By the end of the series, Dipper and his family do destroy Bill, but in order to do so, they first have to relinquish those dreams of ultimate knowledge and remain rooted in reality.


Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.

Hirsch, Alex, performer. Gravity Falls. Disney Channel and Disney😄, 2012-2016.

Marmysz, John. Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism. State University of New York Press, 2003.

Pratt, Alan. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Accessed 6 Oct. 2016.

Ritter, Jason, performer. Gravity Falls. Disney Channel and Disney😄, 2012-2016.

“Sock Opera.” Gravity Falls, season 2, episode 4, Disney😄, 8 Sept. 2014. Google Play,

“The Last Mabelcorn.” Gravity Falls, season 2, episode 15, Disney😄, 7 Sept. 2015. Google Play,


How Monsters Shape Identity: An Analysis of Mutts in The Hunger Games

By Cassandra Grosh

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is a coming-of-age novel with a twist: horrific, murderous monsters. These monsters are man-made mutations, called “muttations” or “mutts,” that serve as another means by which the characters die or kill each other. The mutts cause pain and suffering to the characters, but they also serve as a way for the characters to inflict the same pain and suffering on others. When the mutts are used for personal gain, the characters must face the murders they have just committed and accept responsibility in another person’s death. This new responsibility forces the characters to question their identities. While the mutts of The Hunger Games are monstrous beings designed to inflict pain and torture, the characters, through contrast with the mutts, learn to accept their responsibility within the Hunger Games and define their own identities in accordance with this new sense of responsibility.

The Hunger Games follows Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old girl living within the fictional country of Panem. She volunteers to enter the Hunger Games, an annual event where one male and one female between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each of Panem’s twelve districts must be randomly chosen and placed in an arena where they will fight to the death. Katniss volunteers to enter the games not out of a death wish or desire to prove herself but in order to save her younger sister from being sacrificed to the games. Her sacrifice shows her priority, her sister, but it also jeopardizes everything else she knows and believes. No longer can she be a rebellious girl from District 12 who looks down on the cruel and selfish behavior of the Capital; she now must be a strong warrior to avoid unnecessary attention from the Capital and return home to further protect her sister. In order to do that, she must participate in a barbaric ritual and overcome murderous mutts.

Tracker jackers are the most prominent mutated creatures within The Hunger Games. Tracker jackers were created to kill so that the moral conscience of man could remain clean. These creatures are killer wasp hybrids that inject poisonous venom into the victim. The poison causes delusions and, as is often the case, death. Tracker jacker stings act as a physical shock to a person’s system that can physically and mentally cripple the victim. The injection site “raises a lump the size of a plum,” and the venom drives “people to madness” (Collins 185).

These killing monsters were originally utilized by the Capital to enforce compliance and passivity. Capital-employed law enforcement officers, or Peacekeepers, as they are ironically called, never have to literally spill blood through the use of tracker jackers. In District 12, Katniss’s home, tracker jackers live along the outside of the district’s border (Collins 186). This location forces the residents to stay inside the border or risk death. Keeping tracker jackers at the border also facilitates control of the citizens. Peacekeepers do not have to keep track of individuals because very few have a death wish, and, if these people do die while escaping, the death is not the fault of the Peacekeeper.

Tracker jackers are the first murderous creatures Katniss encounters within the games. Cleverly, she uses them to her advantage, but she does not foresee the guilt and identity crisis that follows association with these monsters. When cornered in a tree, Katniss cuts a tracker jacker nest from a limb in an attempt to kill and distract her enemies, so she could escape. In this attempt, Katniss herself is stung three times and enters a delusional state (Collins 190). Within this state, she sees a young, dying girl, Glimmer, with “limbs three times their normal size,” a “putrid green liquid” around the girl’s wounds, and flesh that disintegrates to the touch (Collins 192). These visions act as a moral punishment to Katniss. It is directly her fault Glimmer has died, and the visions are punishing Katniss by showing the dying girl undergoing unimaginable suffering. Katniss is clearly overwhelmed by becoming a murderer within the arena of the Hunger Games, and her weakened psychological state manifests her guilt. This guilt makes a clear statement about Katniss’s identity: she is not a monstrous murderer but simply someone seeking to stay alive.

The final, and potentially the most gruesome, mutt encountered in the novel is not given a name. Referred to solely as “mutts,” these creatures “resemble huge wolves” and balance “easily on . . . hind legs” (Collins 331). For clarification purposes, this species of mutt will be referred to as wolf-like mutts. Upon closer examination, these wolf-like mutts have “razor-sharp” four-inch claws that are used in an attempt to rip the remaining three tributes limb-from-limb (Collins 332). However, the menacing nature of these wolf-like mutts is not the most horrifying part. Katniss’s shock over the physical characteristics of the wolf-like mutts provides readers with a chilling physical description, and a twist no one saw coming:

I realize what else unsettled me about the mutts. The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human. And that revelation has barely registered when I notice the collar with the number 1 inlaid with jewels and the whole horrible thing hits me. The blonde hair, the green eyes, the number . . . it’s Glimmer. (Collins 333)

These wolf-like mutts are not just murderous creatures created to kill those remaining but horrific monsters that resemble the now-dead tributes. The wolf-like mutts act as a physical representation of how the remaining tributes have themselves become murderous monsters throughout the course of the game.

Much like the delusions brought on by the tracker jackers, the wolf-like mutts act as a physical manifestation of guilt. The difference is that these wolf-like mutts are created by the Capital to remind the remaining tributes of their murderous deeds, while the tracker jackers simply allow for Katniss’s psyche to wreak havoc. These wolf-like mutts also act as a visual challenge. Katniss must keep her eyes on them to avoid their deadly grasps, but she also wishes to avoid gazing at a physical manifestation of those now deceased; the wolf-like mutts act “at once [as] the to-be-looked-at and not-to-be-looked-at” (Thomson 57). For a whole night, Katniss opts not to look at the wolf-like mutts as they shred the still-living body of a rival tribute. She claims, “the real nightmare is listening to Cato, moaning, begging, and finally just whimpering as the mutts work away at him” (Collins 339). Those in charge of the Hunger Games are trying to force Katniss’s hand: will she kill the mutilated tribute or attempt to deny the killer that the games have made her?

It is as the sun rises on a new day that Katniss comes to terms with her identity within the Hunger Games: she is a killer. Katniss’s final kill within the games is a mercy kill as she ends the suffering of her once rival, the boy the wolf-like mutts have spent all night torturing (Collins 341). The wolf-like mutts might have been created to act as a physical reminder of everything Katniss does not wish to be, but, as the game draws to a close, these monsters act as a physical reminder of what Katniss still is: human. Despite the Capital’s attempts to destroy any shred of humanity within the tributes, Katniss is able to maintain her humanity and spare another human unnecessary suffering.

Monsters are typically considered creatures that thrive on fear and power and exist to torture and inflict pain. A similarity between the actions of monsters can be found in those who rule in the Capital of Panem. In order to manipulate and maintain their power, rulers within the Capital create mutts to punish and inflict pain upon the enemies of the Capital. These mutts find their homes in the Hunger Games as murderous creatures, but the mutts also cause an identity crisis for those left in their wake. When defining oneself in contrast to a monster, be that monster a mutt or the rulers of the Capital, the benevolence associated with humanity becomes a powerful part of one’s identity.



Works Cited

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press, 2008.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, edited by Snyder, L. Sharon, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland Thomson, Modern Language Association, 2002, pp. 56-75.

We’re Back!

The Digital Literature Review is back, and we are eager to receive your submissions for our upcoming issue on Monsters! Last year, we researched freak shows and other forms of human exhibits in our society and culture as a whole.

This year, in preparation, we’ve been reading a wide variety of articles and narratives about both monster’s themselves and what it means to be a monster. Some of our texts have included Dracula by Bram Stoker, Monster Verse by Tony Barnstone and Michelle Mitchell-Foust, and articles on monster theory by authors like Kelly Hurley, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, and Sigmund Freud.

We are redesigning our Facebook , Twitter, and blog to fit this year’s theme. Feel free to explore all of these pages to see all of our new posts focusing on monsters and their societal and culture significance.

If you’re an undergraduate interested in our research, look over our call for papers and submit your related work to our journal. If you’d rather not write an essay, you can submit a shorter post for possible publication here on our blog. Email us at with any submissions or questions.

We’re very excited to delve deeper into this topic, and we hope you enjoy the content we post as we work to expand the conversation surrounding monsters.

Being a Member of the DLR

Greetings readers!  We at the DLR have appreciated your commitment and interest in our journal and blog throughout the year.  As the academic year winds down and the team prepares for the journal’s next chapter, we thought we would bring all of you into the daily life of a DLR team member.

In this blog post, you will dive deep into the inner workings of the DLR, discover what the class entails, and hear from the team members themselves about their thoughts on creating an academic literary journal.  As you progress through the blog, some of the team members will reveal their personal triumphs and tribulations they faced while working as a team to generate the third issue of Ball State’s own Digital Literature Review.

The Digital Literature Review is a topic-based journal created here at Ball State University by undergraduate students.  During the first semester, students conduct research on the year’s topic and create blog posts, cultural history projects, and potential submissions to the journal.  After returning from semester break, the three teams (Design, Editorial, and Publicity) begin the process of putting together the year’s current issue, all under the guidance and assistance of a professor.  Also, this portion of the class consists of the opportunity to attend a conference at Butler University and hold the DLR’s annual spring gala.


Is there something specific that drew you to the DLR?

“Not a lot of twenty-somethings can say they’ve worked on an academic journal, published an academic journal, and potentially published their own writing.  I hope to work in collegiate academics for the rest of my life, so an early start, especially an opportunity like this that I may never come across again, was not something I could pass up.”  –Cassie Grosh


What was it like to work collaboratively as editors to an undergraduate journal?

“I believe that collaborating with the other members of the team made me a stronger writer.  We bounced ideas around and learned a lot from each other.”   –Nikole Darnell


Did you find it difficult to balance the journal, other classes, and your extracurricular activities?

“I had a part-time job and several other classes that demanded quite a bit of group work, reading, and presentations, but I didn’t find myself overly stressed during the semester.  Coming to the DLR class every Monday and Wednesday was actually fun and interesting because of the work we were doing and the people that I worked with.  This class rarely ever seemed like an actual class, but more of an ideal opportunity to practice what I’d learned so far with a great group of people.”  –Brittany Ulman


Our Design Team Members:

Jessica Carducci – Fall Team Leader – Senior

Isabel Vazquez – Senior

Shannon Walter – Spring Team Leader – Senior


Design Team’s responsibilities:

  • Generate advertising material for the DLR and Gala event
  • Produce advertising material for recruiting new members every school year
  • Format the finished journal for publication
  • Work with InDesign, Photoshop, and other Adobe Creative Suite applications
  • Take and manage photos for journal purposes
  • Craft design image for journal cover


What made you decide to be a part of the Design Team?

“I decided to be a part of the Design Team because at the beginning of the fall semester, I began learning a lot about graphic design and thought that this would be an awesome opportunity to expand my capabilities!  I have always been a pretty creative person and thought that my abilities would be best utilized on this team!”  –Shannon Walter


Our Editorial Team Members:

Nikole Darnell – Junior

Olivia Germann – Junior

Cassandra Grosh – Sophomore

Kathryn Hampshire – Lead Editor – Junior

Allison Haste – Senior

Sarah Keck – Senior

Bryce Longenberger – Senior

Amory Orchard – Senior

Lauren Seitz – Senior


Editorial Team’s tasks and responsibilities:

  • Evaluate journal submissions
  • Send author acceptance/rejection
  • Copyedit accepted journal submissions
  • Review and copy edit the final DLR publication
  • Edit blog posts


How does it feel to be a part of the DLR Editorial Team?

“Being a part of the DLR is a wonderful experience where you get to collaborate with passionate and curious students.  Learning and moving forward together as both a group and a journal draws people together in a way that make this academic experience different than anything a student has taken part in before.”  –Olivia Germann


Our Publicity Team Members:

Gabriel Barr – Fall Team Leader – Junior

Jessica Carducci – Spring Team Leader – Senior

Lauren Cross – Junior

Ellie Fawcett – Junior

Brittany Ulman – Junior


Publicity Team’s tasks and responsibilities:

  • Supervise appropriate distribution of advertising materials
  • Post and advertise for DLR events
  • Maintain Twitter, Facebook, and blog
  • Organize the annual Gala
  • Promote the next year’s journal and class


What skills did you develop during your time on the Publicity Team?

“The Publicity Team does a lot of different jobs for the DLR, such as scheduling class visits, the Gala, and social media posts, so the biggest part of my work revolved around organization and managing all these various things.  I got really good at putting together checklists, schedules, and plans for what we needed to do and when it needed to happen.  Still working on following them myself though.”  –Jessica Carducci


Now that you have more specific details concerning Ball State’s own Digital Literature Review, hopefully you are considering being a part of the journey in the future—whether that be submitting your own work to the journal or joining the DLR team.

Lastly, always remember to regularly check the DLR’s blog, Facebook, Twitter, and website for any updates about the journal and the amazing research our team members have been conducting.

Sex Sells: Sex Trafficking and Its Relation to Freak Shows

By Lauren Cross

Human trafficking has become a prevalent aspect of our society, and an awareness of its impact can be seen everywhere, from college organizations to Facebook timelines and even to Hollywood movies (which raise awareness–sometimes inadvertently–by casting top actors in the roles of heroes rescuing victims from this horrendous business). While human trafficking is a large concern for the worldwide population, sex trafficking is particularly worrying for many women and children. The victims of sex trafficking are malnourished, drugged, and, at times, abused for the purpose of earning money for traffickers at the expense of the victim’s physical and emotional health.

So how does this relate to freak shows?

In the 1840s, P.T. Barnum, one of the most well known figures in show business, took over the American Museum in New York (Bogdan 23). Barnum was able to convince those who possessed physical disabilities to act as curiosities in order to gain not only fame but also fortune. By submitting their bodies to public scrutiny, he made a profit at the expense of his employees. Many of his acts were literally slaves sold to the freak show. Both freakshow owners like Barnum and sex traffickers own and exploit the bodies of others.

The widely-known human curiosity, Saartjie Baartman (also known as Hottentot Venus), shows the link between freak shows and modern human trafficking, especially sex trafficking. According to a New York Times article by Caroline Elkins in 2007, when Baartman was a young woman, a man persuaded her to join him in London. While she did voluntarily leave her country, as someone who was not aware of her rights, how much consent did she really give to her involvement in this human exhibit? Here, she began her journey as a physical marvel–her shapely figure became subject to public scrutiny. People stared at her and poked her as though she was not a woman with bodily rights. These issues of consent, rights over one’s own body, and economic exploitation link her to today’s sex trafficking.
1Each year, a report discussing the worldwide concern of human trafficking is published by the Department of State. Within this report, readers can find information regarding the different instances of human trafficking, and, more specifically, sex trafficking. The report shows readers the different levels of sex trafficking called “tiers.” By placing each country throughout the world in its respective tier, viewers can observe how countries relate to one another. In the image to the left, one can get a glimpse at one page from the aforementioned report, and we can see how different countries rank. Tier 1 indicates these countries comply with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards, and Tier 3 indicates countries that do not currently or ever intend to follow these standards.


While the Tier 3 category does seem rather small, when observing a map, opinions may change. We can see the map to the right and observe the great impact this tier has on the rest of the world. Because the great majority of Tier 3 consists of only one country, Russia, a popular tourist site, it instills fear in tourists and travelers.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2015, the largest form of human trafficking does, in fact, involve sexual exploitation: 79% of it. Even though the victims are predominantly women and children, there is a large number of women who traffic women, which, in this case, means both men and women are now earning from this traipse around legalities.

Even though most individuals see sex trafficking as an abysmal human rights violation, those involved in the transportation and migration of sex workers may see it as a smart financial move–similar to the way those involved in freak shows thought of their own actions over one hundred years ago. Many are familiar with the way P.T. Barnum often “bought” individuals in order to present them in his circuses. According to his Biography profile, he would buy individuals who could perform acts in order to draw in enough viewers to make a profit off his purchase in a little over one week. Human trafficking organizers buy individuals–primarily for the sexual benefit of customers–and then sell them to other hosts.

According to Soroptomist, a global volunteer organization dedicated to improving the lives of women and children by leading them toward social and economic empowerment, most instances of sex trafficking occur in areas with low education and employment opportunities, as well as areas with great economic instability. By partaking in this awful trade, these individuals are advancing themselves financially.

In one horrific story, a girl named Jill was a homeless teenager desperate for any food, money, or work. Once, when a man approached her in a mall, he offered her a chance to work for him, and he said he could provide her with food, shelter, and clothing. She ended up being suspended from the ceiling in his cellar without any clothes on. For three years, she endured his cruel business–one in which his “clients” would pay him to fulfill their sexual desires with her.

Throughout the years in the freak show business, many human exhibits similar to Saartjie Baartman’s case endured taunts, emotional distress, and isolated treatment forced upon them by their owners. It seems as though these owners have now reincarnated into business owners who choose to make their victims perform in more physical ways.

If you or anyone you know have any questions concerning sex trafficking, please do not hesitate to call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center: 1 (888) 373-7888.


Works Cited

Bogdan, Robert. “The Social Construction of Freaks.” Freakery. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York City: New York University Press, 1996. 23-37. Print.

Elkins, Caroline. “A Life Exposed.” The New York Times, 14 January 2007. Web. 14 December 2015.

“Jill’s Story.” Human Trafficking. Human Trafficking, n.d. Web. 16 November 2015.

“P.T. Barnum Biography.” A&E Television Networks. n.d. Web. 16 December 2015.

“Sex Trafficking FAQ.” Soroptomist. Soroptomist, n.d. Web. 16 November 2015.

“Trafficking in Persons Report.” Department of State. U.S. Department of State Publication: July 2015. Web.

“UNODC report on human trafficking exposes modern form of slavery.” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. UNODC, n.d. Web. 16 November 2015.

Am I Good Enough for Your Heaven?: Freakishness in Janelle Monáe’s “Q.U.E.E.N.”

By Gabriel Barr

Our society is one that prides itself on its differences but still chooses to judge others on the ones that stick out the most in relation to restrictive norms. There are stigmatizing labels for everything from sexuality to gender to whether or not one enjoys certain foods. One way that people battle the stigmas created through these terms is reclamation. Many groups (racial, sexual, gender, etc.) take back and claim the slurs that have been used against them. It’s difficult to learn about any topic related to social justice without learning about how a group has reclaimed any number of words as a form of pride. From racial slurs to homophobic names, the reclamation of derogatory labels is a great force in civil rights arguments today. In our society, the internet and similar forms of communication have made it easier to find others who share similarities with them. People are thus more easily able to organize marches and festivals around their differences from mainstream society.

One term to be reclaimed is the word “freak.” The recording artist Janelle Monáe uses her song ”Q.U.E.E.N.” to turn the word “freak” around on those who impose it on others. Monáe uses “Q.U.E.E.N.” as a declaration of independence from a society that tells her, and so many people like her, that the way they are is unacceptable.

Monáe’s “freaks” aren’t what one would normally think of when they hear the word. The connotations of the word “freak” relate back to the freak shows of the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. It conjures images of one-armed men, bearded women, and people whose gender is not identifiable with the binary system of male and female. Instead of relying on these tropes, Monáe uses both queerness and blackness as examples of modern “freakishness.” The “”freaks” here are people whose identities have been stigmatized and marginalized throughout history. The lyrics to “Q.U.E.E.N.” declare those differences as things to be proud of and to be loud about. “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a song that claims difference and individuality as prideful assets.  Monáe and fellow recording artist Erykah Badu illustrate the ways in which their blackness has been “freakified” within the larger culture by acting out parts of their largely black culture. In modern discourse, fun had by black people is often seen negatively because of racist stereotypes. The hook of “Q.U.E.E.N.” highlights these feelings, asking:

“Am I a freak for dancing around?

Am I a freak for getting down?

I’m cutting up, don’t cut me down.

Yeah I wanna be, wanna be Queen.”

Here, Monáe and Badu illustrate their confusion as to whether or not their behavior is “weird” enough for them to be called “freaks.” They use slang to build familiarity with the audience and then cause the question to be turned on the listener as to what “freakishness” entails.  “Cutting up” is a black slang term that means “having fun,”  and it’s used here to ask whether or not their joy and celebration is out of the ordinary (“Cutting+up.”)

The first verse of the song sees Monáe facing judgement from others, saying

“I can’t believe all of the things they say about me

Walk in the room they throwing shade left to right

they be like, ‘Ooh, she serving face’

And I just tell ‘em cut me up and get down.”

Here, Monáe and Badu introduce queerness as a sort of modern “freakishness,” using terms from both queer and black communities. ‘Throwing shade” is a term particularly coined by black queer persons that means “to insult in a coy manner” (“throwing+shade”).  “Serving face” is another term that means that the makeup or appearance that one has is perfect (“serving+face”).  Later on, Monáe asks “Am I a freak because I love watching Mary? Hey, sister, am I good enough for your heaven?” Here we see Monáe introduce queerness into the argument, asking point-blank whether or not queerness necessitates alienation and discrimination.  Throughout the song, Monáe doesn’t freakify queerness or blackness herself, but instead dares the listener to do it for her. By doing this, Monáe makes the listener analyze just what would make these things “freaky.” Throughout her work, Monáe has used the idea of “androids.” In a 2011 interview, Monáe stated that she sees “androids” as the “new other,” a symbol for blackness, queerness, or any other differences that society sees as worthy of discrimination (“RnB sensation Janelle Monae…”).

Monáe uses terms that are used very prominent in black queer communities to highlight the ways in which society ostracizes and excludes black, queer, and queer black persons. She proposes that what is being freakified is the act of being true to one’s self. She asks, “am I a freak?” repeatedly, forcing the listeners to answer (even if just to themselves) yes or no. If yes, the listener must analyze why Monáe is a “freak.” If no, the listener has accepted self-expression, individuality, and community as completely valid in any form. Monáe uses “Q.U.E.E.N.” as an anthem of self-love and independence in a world where people would rather have compliance than individuality. She brings queerness and blackness to the forefront in tandem, dancing, singing, and celebrating pride in herself even when the world tells her to fail.


Works Cited

“Cutting+up.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016

Monáe, Janelle, and Erykah Badu. Q.U.E.E.N. Nate “Rocket” Lightning, 2013. MP3.766.

“Serving+face.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

“RnB Sensation Janelle Monáe Is Here Because We Need Her.” Evening Standard. N.p., 04 July 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

“Throwing+shade.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.