The Human Marvels - 'Circus Freaks and Human Oddities'

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This week's article was inspired by, of all things, an Idiot Abroad.

An Idiot Abroad, Season 3
I don't really watch the programme, but some evening channel surfing took me to Series 3 where Karl and Warwick Davies team up to explore the route of Marco Polo to China.
As a newcomer to the show it was rather awkward to watch: Karl seemed miserable when Warwick was happy and vice-versa. There were some great adventures and high moments, but on the whole it was cringe-worthy to watch Karl's genuine discomfort and anger at his being picked on (though at this point he rather expects it). It was outright painful to watch Warwick's genuine distress at Karl's occasional irritation at being 'slowed down' by the dwarf actor 'like he was dragging a Henry vaccum behind me, and having to stop and empty it now and again', to the point where the usually good humoured man was driven to tears. 

On their adventures the men also came across the Indian attraction - 'The Spider Girls' - a pair of conjoined twins named Ganga and Jumana Mondal (formally Ayara and Jayara Ratun). Joined at the pelvis, with fours arms and three legs, the ladies work travelling in the 'Dreamland Circus' in India. Their act involves sitting on display within the circus tent, where paying customers can enter and interact with them. In this case, Warwick was also lifted up onto their makeshift stage, much to his discomfort.

There is something incredibly old fashioned and unsettling to most modern Westerners about this display of disability in this 'Freak Show' format.  
Alex Brooker and Adam Hills

In modern times, we like to think ourselves as more 'civilised': to put a disabled or disfigured person on a stage to gawp at would be a hideous way of objectifying them, we often think. In many ways, in Britain, we're moving in a positive direction. The feminist movement has recently made steps to being more trans-inclusive than ever and carries on in criticising the body-shaming culture of western society. In doing so we are encouraged to view people based on their inner worth and identity. This too can be put towards disabled and disfigured people: the paraolympics is more popular than ever, and - following on from their popularity in covering the games and more - the presence of disabled celebrities is growing. This can be in the positive form, such as with Adam Hills (who was born without a foot) and Alex Brooker (Who was born without a foot and has hand disability).  Simon Western - a disfigured Falklands war veteran - was recently chosen as the subject of 'the people's portrait'. These people are held on their own merits and are celebrated or, as in the case of the infamous Oscar Pistorius trial, condemned.

However, despite this, there is still rampant,cruel ableism. There is always thoughtlessness and
Simon Weston Portrait
gawping, and even intentional childish cruelty. While we get a taste of this in Idiot Abroad, Gervais has already stomped over this territory many times before. In his 2009 tour Science he gleefully mocked Susan Boyle: 'When she first came on the telly, I went, "is that a mong?"' "She would not be where she is today if it wasn't for the fact that she looked like such a f***ing mong."' In the tour he refused to apologise for the word, insisting that the use of the word as Downs-Syndrome shorthand was outdated and he had reclaimed it outside of its original meaning. All the same, at a later date, he did apologise when a campaigner and mother of two autistic children broke down in tears as she explained about how the word was still used in it's original cruel fashion. Genuinely shocked, he admitted being 'naive' and backed down.

Nevertheless, in his radio show back in 2003 the same unthinking (and this time crueller) ableism was at work as he, Stephen Merchant and Karl mocked the facially disfigured Victoria Wright, mocking her large head and likening her to 'Bo'Selecta'. Victoria wrote about her experience on her blog and demanded and apology from the show's creators, but despite receiving the apology, she was mocked again, as Gervais asked Karl 'Where would the woman who complained about you come in the [Freak of the Year] chart?'.
The aim here isn't to offer up Ricky Gervais as a convenient scapegoat, but it does show how easily - even absent-mindedly- the general public can turn on people just because they are different. 'Disfigured', 'Disabled' and 'Different' people still occupy a very complex place in society,

How, then, could people live as 'Freak Show' performers?
Otis Jordan

As I discuss in my (rather dry) essay on the Freak-Show performer Frieda Pushnick's obituary, while doubtless some performers were exploited; many performers viewed their occupation as a legitimate form of showmanship and, often, a well paid one too. Frieda believed that there was nothing wrong with appearing as an attraction in Ripley's Believe it or Not. When asked if it was alright for disabled and disfigured people to be put on display she replied "If you're paid for it, yeah". This echoed the response of Otis Jordan, who in his career was billed as both 'the Frog Man' and 'The Cigarette Factory' for his performance. In 1984, in response to public complaints about what they percieved as exploitation, he insisted that there "wasn't anybody forcing him to do anything" and represented himself as a businessman, adding "Hell, what does she want for me - to be on welfare?". 

With all this in mind, I wanted to reccommend a website that has fascinated me for years now: The Human Marvels

 The Human Marvels tackles this complex relationship of 'Circus Freaks and Human Oddities' and keeps an archive about the lives of countless people of difference. This wonderful resource shows the stories of these people through history, highlighting their struggles, triumphs, showmanship, humanity and pride.
The subject will never be an easy one, but there is much to be learnt from the stories of these people's lives and the Human Marvels is a wonderful way to start.


The Human

Victoria Wright and the Ricky Gervais Show
Idiot Abroad Season 3 - Warwick and Karl's Emotional Moment
The Spider Girls Wikipedia 
Adam Hills 
Alex Brooker
Idiot abroad season 3 review
Susan Boyle 'Mong' comments
Gervais' 'Mong' apology 
Victoria Wright
My essay on Frieda Pushnick's obituary
The People's Portrait
Otis Jordan

Bogdan, Robert, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (1990: University of Chicago Press)
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