Academic Writing

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Freak Shows

Sideshow Freaks.  It has been a staple of American entertainment practically since mass entertainment began.  Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus established ogling at the misfortunes of others as an acceptable form of entertainment.  Bearded women, midgets, pinheads, giants, and limbless individuals were all part of their “Sideshow Freaks and Human Curiosities” area of the overall show.  Not only did it make the gawkers feel better about themselves and whatever predicament they might be in, but to a certain extent it also normalized the different anomalies that would have otherwise completely marginalized those particular individuals.

Today, we don’t have the freak show like the Ringling Bros brought to us; instead they go on television so we can gawk at them from afar.  Take the most recent iteration: Tan Mom.  Here’s a horrible story of a woman accused of taking her young child into a tanning bed.  First reported as a hard hitting news story (please, is that really news?) and now has spawned into a side show attraction.  With appearances on The Today Show (which has a knack of snagging the freaks first as ratings shills) and now being stalked by paparazzi, this woman has amassed a certain amount of celebritydom that is completely unwarranted.  She has no skills and no talents and the only reason people are paying attention to her is her freakish nature.

Reality TV is another realm in which the Sideshow Freaks have been able to reemerge.  Think Jersey Shore and their beyond the realm of normalcy behavior.  Think Toddlers and Tiaras, a show which even the short clips I watch online make me cringe to think people actually allow their children to behave like that.  The parents, in fact, are just as freakish as the kids they are creating.  Think, even, The Biggest Loser, as people we can be glad we aren’t as much as we’re inspired by their transformations.  People who are on the outskirts of society, for whatever reason, have found a place where they can be accepted in a certain way, and that’s on the television screen to an even bigger audience of gawkers.

The idea of 15 minutes of fame is nothing new, but in our current media landscape this fame is being brought to those unworthy of national (and often international) recognition.  Television and the internet have created a platform for the Sideshow Freaks, who had traditionally been relegated to the circus grounds, to come to the national consciousness and rise to fame despite any actual qualifications.  Not only that, they confuse people’s sense of what is deserving of such heightened levels of attention, potentially admiring it and which would cause them to behave in turn and perpetuating this cycle.

The Ringling Bros. proved that it's definitely a part of human nature to be awed by those marginalized by society and learn to appreciate our own predicaments through their misfortunes.  Sounds harsh, but it’s clearly the truth.  But let’s also try to keep things in perspective and not make their misfortunes into celebritydom and, in certain situations, celebrate their contemptible behaviors.

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