Literally Aliens: Freakification on the History Channel

By Jessica Carducci

Ancient_aliens

This show is also the source of a popular meme.

Premiering just over five years ago, the American television documentary series Ancient Aliens has played an important role in popularizing  theories on extraterrestrial life. Produced by Prometheus Entertainment, the show focuses on the belief that aliens have visited – and might still be visiting – human cultures on Earth and suggests that these aliens have  influenced society, science, and religion. Unfortunately, this attempt to connect aliens with humans can have derogatory implications, and the episode “The Reptilians,” which aired July 25th, 2014,  works to dehumanize those who are physically different by interpreting congenital physical difference  as evidence of alien ancestry.

First, it must be made clear that I do not intend to criticize the beliefs of the show’s presenters,  viewers, or any others who subscribe to the  theories it presents. With its widespread popularity, Ancient Aliens has been criticized for presenting circumstantial evidence, pseudoscience, and pseudohistory as if these findings were indelible fact. It is also often derided in popular culture, such as in South Park or on the internet as a meme (KnowYourMeme). However, what this post intends to examine is the unintended consequences of this particular supposition offered up by the show, not the validity of the theories themselves.

In this particular episode, the argument is made that humans have reptilian alien ancestry and that part of this foreign DNA is still present in the human genome. As evidence for this argument, the show presents the idea that physical differences stemming from genetic mutations demonstrate reptilian origin. Unfortunately, the consequence of this claim is that it directly equates  physical variations between people with the non-human. Historically, freak shows have done this same work, by dubbing Julia Pastrana a “Bear Woman” or calling William Henry Johnson merely “What is it?” Given the history of otherness and exclusion that defines the freak show, what are the implications of connecting freaks with aliens?

On a scale from human to non-human, Jeffrey Weinstock situates both freaks and aliens somewhere in the middle (328). While freaks will always retain some connection to humanity, though, aliens have more freedom regarding their placement along this continuum. They can range from practically human themselves – such as the character of Spock from Star Trek – to completely and monstrously unfamiliar – like the Xenomorph of the Alien franchise. In this episode of Ancient Aliens then, the show is attempting to connect the human to the distant, reptilian extraterrestrial by using human diversity as a stepping stone.

The examples cited by the show demonstrate this connection between the freak and the alien. The first case mentioned is that of a young boy born with a vestigial tail in India. In his community, he has been put on display because of his difference, though not in the traditional freakshow manner; the show contends that he is viewed and worshipped as a god reborn. However, this is still a type of display that serves to separate him from the rest of his community based upon one unusual feature – the superhuman is just as removed from humanity as the freak.

The speakers on the show itself do some of the work of freakification as well. They are quick to separate the “normal” from the “freaky.” One speaker, David Wilcock, says about the boy, “He otherwise seemed normal, but he had a weird, serpent-like tail at the base of his spine.” With this, the young boy is being directly contrasted against the “norm.” The show proposes that this is indicative of leftover alien influence in the boy’s gene sequence that has somehow shone through the human – or normal – parts of his DNA. As such, difference is being equated to alien origins.

Another type of physical difference that the show mentions as evidence is ectrodactyly. As defined by the National Organization for Rare Diseases, this is a congenital disorder where the hands and/or feet are cleft, often missing central digits or with the fingers fused to form a claw-like shape (van Bokhoven). Figures with this disorder have featured prominently in the freak show circuit. Jimmy Darling – a character on  American Horror Story: Freak Show – is known as the Lobster Boy, a reference to Grady Stiles Jr., the real Lobster Boy. Stiles, along with the rest of the Lobster Family, was a popular attraction in freak shows of the twentieth century. Again, the show conflates alien ancestry with actual examples of human exhibition and freakification.

What the show is saying with this proposed theory is that while we all have alien ancestry, those who have some manner of congenital physical difference  are more alien than those who are normates. Unfortunately, this directly serves to exoticize and dehumanize these particular individuals. While I don’t believe that the show intended to belittle these people, it nonetheless partakes in a continuation of freakshow culture by displaying, freakifying, othering, and dehumanizing individuals based upon physical difference. I can only hope that, in the future, the producers of Ancient Aliens will show a greater awareness of the implications of their theorizing.

 

Works Cited

KnowYourMeme. “Know Your Meme: Ancient Aliens.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 10 April 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2015.

“The Reptilians.” Ancient Aliens. H2. 25 Jul. 2014. Television.

van Bokhoven, Hans. “Ectrodactyly Ectodermal Dysplasia Cleft Lip/Palate.” NORD. National Organization for Rare Diseases, 2012. Web. 8 Dec. 2015.

Weinstock, Jeffrey A. “Freaks in Space: “Extraterrestrialism” and “Deep-Space Multiculturalism”.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York: New York University Press, 1996. 327-337. Print.

Lolita Fashion: An Analysis of Freakery in Fashion

By Isabel Vazquez

Fashion speaks volumes about the kind of society we live in today. From Vogue runway shows to local beauty pageants, the fashion world has achieved an astonishing degree of financial and cultural success for an industry that was nearly nonexistent two hundred years ago. From magazines to television commercials, we are constantly bombarded with an idealized style of beauty that relies on the right clothes. Although, on the positive side, fashion can showcase a person’s individuality, it is also true that it plays a role in categorizing people; for example, different brands represent different classes of wealth and social status. If you do not conform to particular fashion norms, you are viewed negatively. The Lolita fashion is definitely viewed in a stigmatizing way.

Fashion is more than just human expression. It is a construct in itself, a creation by humans for humans that often parallels wealth. Though “expensive” clothes do not have inherent value, the fashion world associates a particular identity with certain brands and materials, which in turn creates a perception of social identity. For example, if a man is wearing an expensive, tailored suit, then this man will be perceived as higher in social status than a man who can afford only casual clothes. Similarly, while Lolita fashion expresses a certain identity, it also comes with value judgments for the wearer.

The Lolita style is essentially a mix of Victorian and Edwardian fashion, birthed in Tokyo around the 1970s, and, ever since, it has been steadily expanding as a style around the world. These Lolitas (as the wearers of this fashion are often called) focus on constructing a sweetened, delicate image. The goal of Lolita fashion is to showcase a sweet and doll-like look that can range from Victorian to Gothic to Old School. With an endless array of lace, ribbons and ruffles, the excessive style purposefully creates an almost overwhelming effect to onlookers (Orsini).

However, the Lolita fashion and lifestyle has not always been featured positively in the media. For example, TLC’s My Strange Addiction featured two girls who wear the style. The show freakified the girls by displaying them negatively (and therefore exploiting them) on television. The episode stigmatized and “othered”  Emily, one of the two young women featured, focusing on the fact that she was unable to acquire a job because of her appearance. The entire episode quite literally showed a normal, young woman performing everyday tasks, but painted her as freakish due to her Lolita style. The portrayal of Emily functioned like the showcasing of freaks at the sideshow. Audiences paid to view a “freak” in order to define themselves in relation to the otherness on display. At the freak show, audiences not only received entertainment but also a justification of their own superiority over the freak. Audiences of shows like My Strange Addiction experience the exact same effect. As Victoria Suzanne pointed out in her analysis of this particular episode: “The fact that it seemed very scripted makes it even more damning in my eyes—it twisted alternative fashion to fit its own agenda of ‘weirdness’ and it used actual lolitas and fashion enthusiasts to be complicit in our own stereotyping” (Thomson, Suzanne).

In current fashion standards, a certain arrangement of clothing and accessories can create a purposeful “cute look” for the individual, but it is not as exaggerated as the “living doll” effect that Lolitas construct. Therefore, models and wearers of Lolita fashion are more than used to the stares they receive as they go about their typical day. As one article says: “Ashphord Jacoway is used to getting stares when she walks down the streets of her hometown of Los Angeles” (Orsini).  Rosemarie Garland Thomson, in The Politics of Staring, describes staring as an objectifying and disciplinary gaze directed towards nonconformists (57). Passersby who perform this stare towards Lolitas do so not just out of curiosity, but with the intent, conscious or not, of controlling the outsider.

This same gaze is often sexual when directed toward Lolitas. Lolitas are criticized for resembling sexualized young girls. This makes them the object of a sexualized gaze that attempts to subdue the other, turning her into an object of pleasure for the gazer. Much like the freaks that had false perceptions thrust upon them on stage, the Lolita fashion is not necessarily an implicitly sexual fashion; rather, in the case of Lolitas, the constructed resemblance of grown women to young girls (who are often sexualized in society) creates this false impression. Inherently, girl clothing on a mature woman does not equate to erotica. Rather, this is a perception created by society because the Lolita is expressing herself in a way that society does not approve. In this society, there exists a stigma dictating that young women and girls should dress more sexually, while mature women should dress more conservatively. And if those boundaries are crossed, the Lolita is sexualized as punishment.

The main difference between freaks and Lolitas is consent. While freaks a century and a half ago were often coerced and exploited on stage for profit, the Lolita chooses how to express herself and yet is treated as a “freak.” As Thomson describes in Extraordinary Bodies, “The freak show is a spectacle, a cultural performance, that gives primacy to visual apprehension in creating symbolic codes and institutionalizes the relationship between the spectacle and the spectator” (60). Though there is no exploitation of this fashion on stage, the way it is presented by the media creates apprehension and instills societal ideas of what is normal and what is not. And regardless of its misrepresentation in the media (and by observers), my ending point for readers to take away is the following: the Lolita is simply a beautiful and fascinating alternative fashion that deserves its own place in the fashion world. Freakifying an entire fashion in order to control the “other” can do an incredible amount of harm.

 

Works Cited

Orsini, Lauren. “Why These Adults Who Dress Like Dolls Are Ready To Ruffle Reality

TV.” Forbes. Forbes, 20 Oct. 2015. 3 Nov. 2015.

Suzanne, Victoria. “My Strange Addiction: Living Doll.” Parifaitdoll. n.p., 3 Jan. 2014.

Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in

American Literature and Culture. New York: Columbia UP, 1997.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in

Popular Photography.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Eds. Brenda

Jo Brueggeman, Sharon Snyder, and Rosemarie Garland Thomson. New York:

MLA, 2002. 56-75.

Jennifer Miller: Disrupting the Normative

“The circus aesthetic is born in a queer world from queer artists and disrupts the normative at every turn. The lady with the beard is the ringleader and not in the sideshow… a bridge into this magical world.”

 Jennifer Miller (Hou, “Queer Spectacle…”)

I was initially introduced to Jennifer Miller through reading “Live From New York,” the epilogue of Sideshow USA by Rachel Adams. Miller is a performer, a playwright, a professor, and an activist, just to name a few of her accomplishments – but, if that were not enough to impress you, she has also chosen to defy gender norms and embrace the fact that she has a beard. While many women,  myself included, choose to remove almost all of their body hair, Miller has not. This defiance is what primarily peaked my interest in her. In discussing Miller and her popular performance group Circus Amok, Adams states, “Miller’s goal is to empower women to refuse time-consuming, expensive, and painful beauty regimens, or at least to recognize them as choices rather than necessities” (221). This is just one of the many arguments made by Miller that really drew me into researching her circus-activist mindset.

Jennifer Miller has accomplished many things in her fifty-four years of life, such as winning two awards for her work with Circus Amok and touring two solo shows (Morphadyke and Free Toasters Everyday) as well as starring in multiple documentaries regarding politics and “otherness.” Among these many achievements, Circus Amok is the Jennifer Miller production that stood out to me the most. This street production began in 1989 and is based in New York City. With regards to the performer’s’ intentions, Circus Amok’s website makes this compelling statement “Circus Amok invites the audience to envision a more empowered life of community interaction while enjoying a queer celebratory spectacle” (Circus Amok). Their performances are an anomaly within both the circus and freak show community. Instead of being exploited for their differences as many were in original freak shows, the performers of Circus Amok utilize diversity as a way to draw people together and uses the “freak show” as a platform to discuss and examine social and political issues relevant to society today, particularly those relating to sex and gender.

In “Queer Spectacle: Jennifer Miller and Circus Amok,”  Christine Hou makes the argument that “making art is not the same as political action, (although it is not uncommon for them to overlap), nor should it replace it. Instead, political – and in this Circus’s case – public art can be seen as the equivalent of planting a seed, a means of prompting curiosity and asking questions.” Through performance and entertainment, Jennifer Miller is not telling people what to think, but inviting them to question societal norms. After reading further about Miller and her various activist performances, I wish there were more people like her back when the freak show was a main form of entertainment in society.

I would argue that Miller is bringing to the table something that people desperately need: the ability to think for oneself and to question what one is being told. In my opinion, people, myself included, don’t ask enough questions about the things happening around them. For example, after becoming more familiar with the history of freak shows and human zoos, I see that, for centuries, supposedly “exotic” people were displaced from their home countries and locked in zoos to be on display at World Fairs, while human beings who were without limbs,  fatter or shorter than average, disabled, or otherwise non-normative were exhibited as entertainment. No one stopped to question it.

Jennifer Miller is redefining  the sideshow platform. She is turning the tables on the audience and making people question why they want to be entertained by a woman with a beard. Miller and her fellow performers create skits that aim to make people think. For instance, one specific skit is described as follows:

“In an act called “The Rope of Death,”  a male clown mounts a tightrope, where he sheds a layer of clothing one piece at a time, balancing precariously all the while. Underneath his baggy Chaplinesque suit he is wearing a full-skirted women’s gown, to which he adds a pair of high-heeled shoes. The balancing act may be read as a metaphor for the laborious and unstable construction of gender; the “rope of death” is anchored by cast members at either end, the struggle suggesting the extreme difficulty of keeping the entire system in the air.” (Adams 223).

This is just one of the many metaphors that are woven throughout the show, metaphors that make the audience think in a very subtle and non-abrasive manner. Miller and her colleagues use Circus Amok to question a plethora of issues including blurring the lines of sexuality, gender, and identity as well as issues like racial profiling and the distribution of wealth. These are the type of questions that  really make people think about the world around them instead of being yet another passive citizen.

I think that I find this subject so interesting because I am always ecstatic to discover someone who is questioning  social and political issues. Jennifer Miller and her group of performers are using their performance skills to get people to listen to them. This stands in stark contrast to how a sideshow used to be when a showman would exploit so-called “freaks” in order to make money. With all of the ugliness and hate in the world, Jennifer Miller and Circus Amok give me a breath of fresh air that I believe people desperately need.

 

Works Cited

Adams, Rachel. “Live From New York.” Sideshow USA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.

Circus Amok. Circus Amok, 2015. Web. 16 November 2015.
Hou, Christine Shan Shan. “Queer Spectacle: Jennifer Miller and Circus Amok.” Hyperallergic. 2 September 2012. Web. 10 November 2015.