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.

Be Kind to Yourself, It’s Not a Competition

By Brittany Ulman

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up and prepare yourselves for the amazing performance you are about to witness!  Eileen Rosensteel herself has graced us with her presence to provide us intriguing insight into the worlds of five historic fat ladies!  The ladies that you are about to observe go above and beyond the everyday expectations of the freak show.  They utilize their time on stage to teach all of you about social issues, including modern day society’s outlook on body image and what is considered the “perfect” individual.  So, do not hesitate!  Gather around the stage and behold a never before seen fat lady act!

Eileen picture

Eileen Rosensteel at her performance at BSU this past April.

On the evening of Monday, April 4th, Eileen Rosensteel joined the Digital Literature Review in their investigation of freak shows throughout history and the impact they have had on both past and present societies.  Rosensteel, who lives in Madison, Wisconsin, has taken it upon herself to study fat ladies from history and give them the voice that had been taken away from them at a young age.  As a fat activist, Rosensteel has an interest in the history of body image.  After enduring years of walking down the sidewalk to the sound of passers-by blurting out, “Oh my God, she’s so fat!”, she glimpsed the spark of an idea.  Jokingly, she said that she should start selling tickets for people to look at her, but, with this joke, she realized that she wanted to know more about other fat ladies from history.  So she set out to research these other women and write a poem about her experiences along with theirs.

However, she quickly learned that there were so many stories that were either not being told or being told incorrectly by individuals who had nothing in common with these women.  This lack of accurate research inspired Rosensteel to discover the truth so that she could “honor their stories and to make their lives become real to other people.”  She also wants to inspire her audiences to examine their personal feelings towards what is considered “normal” and what has influenced their opinions.  By helping her audiences rethink their current perceptions of what we all “should” look like, she encourages us all to become comfortable with ourselves because, in the end, it is not a competition.  According to Rosensteel, everyone needs to learn to “be gentle with yourself and realize that it is not a switch: there is no magic switch that you do this long enough and you finally love yourself.”

As Rosensteel went about researching the stories of her five fat lady performers, she contacted some of their family members to obtain more personal information about these women.  While doing so, she received mixed reactions from the families, some of whom even denied that their family members were in freak shows in the first place.  Others’ stories nearly contradicted what Rosensteel had found while conducting her research.  These discrepancies were just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the obstacles that she encountered while striving to find the truth.  Due to the lack of accuracy in this field and the fact that these women often changed their names, there were times where Rosensteel could not find any truth at all.  However, she did not let that lack of authentic information discourage her in her quest to share these women’s stories.  Somehow, she managed to compile enough facts to create five different personas of fat ladies from our history, fat ladies who featured in her performance at Ball State University.

In her performance at Ball State, Rosensteel and her audience trekked through history as she took on the roles of five historic fat ladies followed by an exclusive glimpse into her own life as a bodacious beauty.  In these performances, Rosensteel included the numerous conflicting emotions that these women experienced during their time in the freak show.  The effects of being deemed a “freak” weighed heavily on their minds and self-confidence.  In the case of Gertrude Barnes, her life as a circus fat lady only diminished her already deteriorating self-esteem.  Barnes constantly asked why God was punishing her with a body that was contrived from a “twisted nightmare” and contained nothing but “mutilated” flesh.  Barnes’ depression had sunk so deep, she did not even want her young son to ever see her again, so as to prevent him from watching her fat lady performance.  The main thing that Gertrude Barnes wanted was to finally fly away to some glory that would provide her with the release she had so desperately been praying for.

The child performer Jolly Lottie remembered the times where little boys were afraid to pinch her fat too hard, and the older men’s hands would move around a little too much on her body.  But unlike Barnes, Jolly tried to focus on the pets that she could have while at the circus along with the hopes of one day having a family of her own away from the freak show.  Remembering the good things in life was a little more difficult for Baby Bessie.  Her life as a circus fat lady started off great, filled with the love of a man who always made her feel comfortable in her own skin.  Unfortunately, Bessie’s love and fellow performer, Jimmy, died in the war effort during Pearl Harbor.  Despite her pain though, Bessie still calls the circus her home because it is filled with a family that takes care of one another.

Even though these emotions and occurrences were part of everyday life for those deemed “freaks,” there were those like Delilah Dixon of the Georgia Dixons that chose to look at the freak show as a business endeavor.  Alongside her husband, Delilah realized that she “ain’t got time to be ashamed of being in a side show because there’s good money to be made.”  Being raised in the circus environment with her mother as a former fat lady, Delilah understood that she needed to do what she had to do to survive.  She did not want to be like those men on Wall Street taking their lives because they had too little money and too much pride.  Lady Velma Emonse was also proud to be a fat lady performer because it allowed her a way to advocate for increased human rights.  Because she wanted to travel the world and spread the word about women’s rights, Emonse saw her stance as a circus performer as the ideal platform for expressing her true love—campaigning for human rights.

Once Rosensteel had shared these stories, she took a seat center-stage and opened up a discussion with the audience.  The conversation comprised of questions about where Rosensteel had gotten the idea for her performance and how she personally deals with a topic that is often disheartening and depressing.  In response to these inquiries, Rosensteel mentioned that the entire process involved coming to grips with her own self-hatred and channeling it into something productive.  Fortunately, Rosensteel is comfortable with her body and wants to encourage that confidence in her audience.  According to her, “it’s really about owning your own space, and owning your own body.  Taking pride in who you are.”  Taking that into consideration, Rosensteel wanted to convey that many historic fat ladies prided themselves on who they were despite not fitting into society’s mold.  She also went onto mention that there should never be a mold in the first place  No matter the size, Rosensteel believes that everyone should be comfortable with themselves and not allow others to discourage them—just like the women she personifies in her act.

Other than the fat lady performance, Rosensteel also has created a movie in which she confronts images of her own body.  Even though she is comfortable with her appearance, she realized that she had never actually looked at her body.  So she had a photographer take nude photos of her which she then made into poster size images she placed around her house.  She then went onto show the film at an academic conference and several film festivals around the country.  Despite the experience being rather traumatic, Rosensteel wants this movie to be in conversation with the book that she is currently working on and hopes to finish soon.  In the end, she wants society to reevaluate their opinions of body image and what is considered “attractive.”  However, Rosensteel acknowledges that in order for this transformation to happen, constant communication is needed.  Therefore, she also encouraged her audience to interact with her and keep her updated on what they are doing.  She is currently working on recreating her website, but she is easily accessible via her Facebook account.  This communication is key to increasing awareness of society’s perceptions concerning body image and the “freak” and giving those that are considered “different” the advocacy that they deserve.

Bodies in Bondage: Slavery and Entertainment in the Civil War Era

By Brittany Ulman

It is well-known that, under slavery, African Americans faced harsh living conditions.  But, as slaves, they also endured the mental abuse associated with society viewing them as other to a white norm.  Because of dehumanizing racist views, they were even sometimes classified as “freaks” and put on display, like Saartjie Baartman was in Britain.  In fact, P.T. Barnum’s first human exhibit was a slave named Joice Heth.  Through slave narratives like that of Frederick Douglass, modern America is shown the connections between the treatment of slaves and the treatment of freaks in the Civil War era; both groups were never viewed as normal or even fully human.

Slaves suffered appalling conditions; they were dehumanized as the “inferior” race and thus viewed as not deserving of the unalienable rights established in the Declaration of Independence.  Instead, they were considered property and had no say  as to what happened to them or their families. Similarly, freaks often were involuntarily placed in circuses and side shows to act as entertainment for others who were considered “normal.”  For those within the “supreme” race, slaves and freaks alike were simply “bodies, without the humanity social structures confer upon more ordinary people” (Thomson 57).  As long as these “unordinary heathens” could be used in some “useful” way, their masters rarely considered the people underneath the “abnormal” surface.  Because slaves and freaks were viewed as inhuman, the “superior” race did not believe that they experienced emotions like other humans would, but were either unaware or did not care what was happening to them.  In freak shows, “ exoticized disabled people and people of color functioned as physical opposites of the idealized American” (Thomson 65).

Because of the interesting anomalies that their bodies represented, slaves and freaks were often used as entertainment for their owners which resulted in their masters’ monetary profit. Douglass mentions in his narrative that slave-owners enjoyed spending Sundays watching their slaves box or wrestle, both for their own enjoyment and so the slaves did not participate in more “civilized” activities (Douglass 372). During these matches, slave-owners watched their slaves beat each other as if they were voluntarily participating in the sport. It was the common misperception that because of slaves’ differences in appearance, they were not fully human, but may be the missing link between humans and animals; this arose from the idea that African Americans were barbaric animals and not civilized human beings. Because society was so interested in discovering this connection between man and beast, they were willing to view African Americans as a combination of man and animal–a combination that favored animalistic characteristics. Some even classified African Americans as monsters due to their uncivilized similarities to animals.  This connection to monsters refers back to the original meaning of the word which shares a root word with “demonstrate”–a term that can be translated as “to show” (Thomson 56).    So because of this, like many others who were not considered “normal,” millions of African Americans in the Civil War era were subjected to the harsh realities of what it meant to be diverse.

Outside of the required strenuous physical labor, slaves also faced the possibility of being slashed by a whip, chased by bloodhounds, or branded like cattle—sometimes just for their owners’ pleasure (Jacobs 244). Masters used this treatment as a way to prove their “normalcy” and superiority over their slaves by showing that they possessed the power and the slaves did not. Spectators at freak shows also often either ogled at the performers or would need to physically touch them in some way, whether that be by poking them with a stick or pinching their skin, to further prove these “freaks” deviation from the accepted norm.

Sometimes, Africans and African Americans were forced to be both slaves and freaks, put on display for others’ entertainment, much like Saartjie Baartman in Britain.  In 1810, a young African woman’s father and husband were slaughtered by a European army, and she was kidnapped and dragged to Britain to act as entertainment for the masses (Elkins).  Simply because of the size of her posterior and skin color, Baartman was displayed in front of hundreds of passers-by and could be poked with a stick (Frith).  Even after her death in 1815, Baartman could not be left in peace as her body was subjected to Georges Léopold Chrétien Cuvier’s sexualized dissection, which was later put on display at the Museum of Man in Paris (Elkins, Frith).  Not until years later was Baartman allowed to finally rest in peace, as she was given an appropriate burial like she originally deserved.  Even in her death, Baartman could not achieve peace like others, but a death filled with entertainment for humans much like animal dissections are used as some sort of entertainment.

Instances such as these gave those in Civil War America the justification they so desperately sought for their heinous actions towards “different” individuals. For white Americans, Baartman’s mistreatment represented slavery’s potential. Since freaks and slaves alike were not considered whole human beings, their owners viewed enslavement as permission to use their “property” as they saw fit

Americans even went onto having their own Saartjie Baartman in 1935 with P.T. Barnum’s purchase of Joice Heth (Thomson 59). Heth, a blind and crippled African American elderly woman, was put on display in Philadelphia as a representation of what America should strive not to be physically. Heth was also used as an example for “proper” women to reference in order to “sharpen the distinction between the ideal Englishwoman and her physical and cultural opposite” (Thomson 56).  While this display of Heth and her “freakish” body warned American society about what is “abnormal,” it also stripped Heth of any ounce of humanity that she held. Because she was put on display as a “freak” of nature, Heth became solely what her body represented and not the person that she truly was. Much of slavery can be connected to masters’ infatuation with the “abnormal” characteristics of the slave’s body.  In an explanation of what the freak show presents to its consumers, Thomson states that society’s obsession with physicality “descended from a tradition of reading the extraordinary body that can be traced back to the earliest human representation” (56).  Therefore, slaves and freaks were used as entertainment for their masters based on the way in which their bodies deviated from the “norm.”  Furthermore, as with the death of Baartman, Heth was also publicly dissected by David L. Rogers following her death in 1836 (Thomson 60). Even in death, Heth was nothing more than an interesting “abnormality” to the white American public. Her life was not of enough importance to give her an appropriate burial, let alone life, because of the entertainment that her body provided.

As history progressed, African Americans witnessed exactly what it meant to be different. For Booker T. Washington, staying at a hotel for a night after their coach breaking down was an arduous task, one which resulted in sleeping under an elevated sidewalk in the midst of winter (566). Instances like this occurred despite millions of slaves and freaks involuntarily sacrificing blood, sweat, happiness, and a livelihood to their masters.  And despite surrendering all of those things, many African Americans and people with disabilities still faced discrimination.  Throughout the decades, “abnormal” people constantly asked, “Your country? How came it yours?” (DuBois 758). Slaves as young as six were forced to see themselves as not deserving of the same life and opportunities as the white children they played with. Girls as young as ten were subjected to being put on display due to their “larger than life” entertainment value.  A difference in appearance segregated a world and generated generations of resentment. This animosity has dwindled over the years, but it unfortunately has never completely faded. Its presence is forever felt in actions, words, and movements—the concept of “freakishness” will continue to exist within those who fail to see difference does not signify inequality.


Works Cited:

Douglass, Frederick.  “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.”  The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Vol. 1. 3rd ed.  New

York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  326-393. Print.

DuBois, W.E.B.  “The Souls of Black Folk.”  The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  687-760.


Elkins, Caroline.  “A Life Exposed.”  New York Times.  New York Times, 14 Jan. 2007.  Web.

12 Feb. 2016.

Frith, Susan.  “Searching for Sara Baartman.”  John Hopkins Magazine.  John Hopkins

University, June 2009.  Web.  12 Feb. 2016.

Jacobs, Harriet.  “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”  The Norton Anthology of African

American Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.

221-261.  Print.

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

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

Washington, Booker T.  “Up From Slavery.”  The Norton Anthology of African American

Literature.  Vol. 1.  3rd ed.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014.  548-572.


American Horror Story Freak Show: A Current Adaptation of Tod Browning’s “Freaks”

By Olivia Germann

The freak shows of America may not exist in their original forms today, but their memories live on in film. The quintessential film Freaks is not only considered to be a groundbreaking film, but also one that redefined the genre of horror. Using real performers from the freak show, the movie caused a sensation among viewers and invited both criticism and praise from the masses.

Released in 1932, the film was quickly banned in multiple countries, and many movie theaters refused to show it, describing the nature of the film as disgusting and unfit for viewing (Wilson). While initial responses were mixed, when it was re-released to a new audience, it took its place of honor in the horror hall of fame. Freaks defined a genre of film and inspired many works to follow. One particular television show, American Horror Story, has taken much of its inspiration from Freaks and not only makes frequent references to the film but incorporates many of the same elements that made Freaks so groundbreaking; this makes American Horror Story season four, Freakshow, a modern adaptation of Browning’s movie.

Just as Freaks showcased people who actually performed in the freak show, American Horror Story chose to use actors with rare conditions that would have enabled them to perform as “freaks” in the days of the classic freak show. The show showcases the smallest woman on earth, a woman with no legs, and a man with phocomelia (who performs as a flipper boy), as well as another little person. The film Freaks was able to use people who were actual performers in the freakshow. Creator of American Horror Story Ryan Murphy greatly admired how Freaks stayed authentic in a time where disabilities were often hidden and covered up, he attempted to do the same for American Horror Story. The show was treated as a “period piece,” formed and shaped by intense research done by Mark Worthington in order to create the authentic atmosphere that Freaks had (Stack).

American Horror Story also had to live up to what David Church, acclaimed film critic, saw as the progressive nature of Freaks. According to Church, Freaks was progressive in that it used the “normal” characters as stand-ins for normate audience members in order to show the similarity between the audience and the “freaks.” He points out, “Nondisabled people often engage in mundane conversation with the freaks in these scenes, but the speaker is typically off-screen, leaving the lone freak framed front and center in a stationary shot.” (7) This tactic is also used in American Horror Story as the audience gets to see the innermost workings of the freak show with scenes of celebration and sickness, as well as typical chores such as cooking and cleaning. Such scenes allow the audience to get to know and love the members of the freak show.

In this way, American Horror Story becomes more than a story about “psycho clowns, bearded ladies and lobster hands” (Venable) but one with heart. Too long have people with physical differences been treated as though they are second-class citizens or less than human. The horror genre offers an avenue in which people are willing to watch characters different from the norm and then the show maneuvers the audience into sympathizing with them. For example, American Horror Story introduces multiple love stories between both “freaks” and normates, forcing the audience to view love in a different way. We swoon for the love of Jimmy Darling the Lobster Boy and the con artist Esmerelda. It is impossible to not feel emotional as you watch members of the show that you loved and cherished brutally murdered and killed. To demonstrate that this imitation of Freaks is a purposeful move done by the show, the movie Freaks itself plays in the background as the horrifying plot carries out; slaughtering characters left and right leaving you heartbroken over the mass of bodies left in the show’s wake. When Freaks originally hit the theatres, it was considered monstrous for its depictions of murder and violence that were far tamer than the first fifteen minutes of the carnage in American Horror Story, showing just how far the show went live up to the legacy Freaks began.

But while Church may see Freaks as a progressive piece, it has been highly criticized for reaffirming harmful stereotypes. Especially in the ending, which shows the once beautiful Cleopatra turned into the very thing she detested, a “freak.” The television show also has a complication of interests: while in many ways the film pushes back against stereotypes and tries to make strides toward recognition of human rights, there are still moments where the freaks are presented two dimensionally or used as a gag instead of an actual character. For example, Desiree, a woman with three breasts, is initially portrayed as a strong and independent woman. But, by the end of the show, she declares that all she wants is surgery to make her body “normal” and a nice husband with the typical American life. Picket fence included. It is in these instances that both Freaks and American Horror Story may seem to support these stereotypes. But, in reality, they are trying to capture not only a cultural phenomenon but also a time period and a specific group of people. These “complications” of the progressive nature serve as reminders of how people with disabilities are often treated and the limited options they have had over time. For Desiree, marriage may seem the least progressive (and even anti-feminist) route. But in the time period the show is set, it’s a reasonable way for her to escape the freak show and live the type of life she’s been denied.

The entire show is chock full of blood, gore, torture, and pure fear that Freaks could never have attempted in its day and age. So for those who have a strong stomach, and a love for horror, both pieces are a must see. While Freaks still holds up in the scare factor to today’s shows and movies, modern fans will love how American Horror Story takes the old and makes it new and even more frightening than before. American Horror Story Freak Show is available for streaming now on both Netflix and Hulu and Freaks is available on Amazon Video.


Works Cited

Church, David. “Freakery, Cult Films, and the Problem of Ambivalence.” Journal of Film and Video 63.1 (2011): 03-17. Web.

Freaks. Dir. Tod Browning. 1932. DVD.

Murphy, Ryan. American Horror Story. Television.

Stack, Tim. “Ryan Murphy on ‘AHS: Freak Show‘: ‘This Season, Once You Die, You’re Dead'” Entertainment Weekly. 15 Sept. 2014. Web.

Venable, Nick. “American Horror Story Freak Show Review: The Most Grotesquely Fun And Bizarre Season Yet.” Cinema Blend. 2015. Web.

Wilson, Karina. “Freaks 1932.” Horror Film History. 2005. Web.

Literally Aliens: Freakification on the History Channel

By Jessica Carducci


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.