Tag Archives: Freak Show

“Midget-Wrestling” Events Canceled in the UK

16 Sep

Learn respect (Image by Duncan C used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Thanks to an online public outcry organized by members and supporters of the Restricted Growth Association, a handful of “midget wrestling” events have been canceled in the United Kingdom. The objectification of people with dwarfism in freak shows spans from the Early Modern Era’s court jesters well into the present day at dwarf-tossing events, “mini” cover bands, dwarf theme parks, and on reality TV shows. This is the first time in recent memory a certain freak show has not simply been condemned by human rights activists but in fact terminated. 

As Erin Pritchard writes in The Independent: “We do not put people who use wheelchairs, people who are deaf or blind, or people with learning difficulties on a stage and laugh at them.”

Then again, let’s not give the reality TV producers any ideas.

 

 

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What Should You Do When a U.K. Night Club Offers Guests a “Free Midget” for Its Easter Special?

3 Apr

las_meninas_01

(“Las Meninas” by Diego Velásquez via)

 

There are undoubtedly those who find the idea of a night club offering its VIP-members a “free midget” for the evening hilarious. (It’s just so novel, ain’t it?) And there are certainly those who find the idea offensive. (“That was offensive,” comedienne Joanna Hausmann points out, is the third most-uttered phrase in America.)

And then there are those of us who know that the idea is not original. Far from it. It is at least 2,000 years old. Records show people with dwarfism were purchased as slaves in Ancient Rome and China up through the Renaissance. In bondage for their entertainment value, they were made to dance like monkeys and sometimes kept in cages.

From the Early Modern Era on into the 18th century—and, in some parts of the world, the late 20th century—they remained ubiquitous as lifelong servants and entertainers to aristocrats and dictators. Whether such servitude constituted slavery is difficult to ascertain. There is no evidence to suggest dwarfs were relegated by law to slave status at birth like other minorities were, perhaps because dwarf entertainers and servants were a frivolity for monarchs rather than a source of cheap labor for major industries. Records predating the 20th century reveal a handful of people with dwarfism lived independent lives. But, like the freak shows of the circus, servitude was often dwarfs’ best hope for sustenance in a world where families often abandoned them as children.

Dwarf advocacy organizations have condemned the Manchester night club’s offer as “discriminatory.” But rather than entangle ourselves in another battle between the that’s-so-offensive crowd and the hey-lighten-up crowd, I would prefer to ask both sides if they are aware of the history of servitude and enslavement. And if, as I suspect, most are not aware of it, it is necessary to consider why.

 

 

Curiosity Kills the Rat

19 Oct

From the Archives

 

“All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.”

— Michael Franti

Fourteen years ago, I made a trip to Hot Topic—that quintessential 90s chain store for all things goth—in search of some fishnet stockings for a friend.  It was my first visit to the store since I was back in a wheelchair for my third and final limb-lengthening procedure and the narrow aisles prevented me from venturing beyond the entrance.  My first time in a wheelchair, from ages 11 to 12, had been a completely humbling experience as I was forced to see how very inaccessible the world is for the non-ambulatory.  This time around I was battling the hot-cheeked self-consciousness that adolescence attaches to any signs of dependency. 

As I tried to look casual while flipping through black gloves, black stockings, and black dog collars, a guy approached me sporting crimson hair, eyebrow rings, an employee badge and a smile.  “This is store is easily adjustable,” he grinned, and with that he began shoving aside the display cases and clothes racks—which were, like me, on wheels—clearing a path for me right through to the back and taking little notice of the other shoppers, some of  whom took one to the shoulder.  It was one of those crushes that disappear as quickly as they develop but leave a lasting memory: my knight in shining jewelry.

Thanks to experiences like this, I have a special place in my heart for the acceptance of physical differences that can often be found in the subcultures of punks, hippies, and goths.  From the imagining of monsters to the examination of anything taboo, counter-culture is often unfazed by physical qualities that fall outside of mainstream beauty standards.  The first kid in my high school who chose not to stare at the external fixators on my arms but instead held the door for me had green and purple hair.  About a month after my trip to Hot Topic, I showed a death-metal-loving friend my right fixator (shown above) for the first time, with the six titanium pins protruding from open wounds in my thigh.  He grinned, “That is the ultimate piercing, man!”  He hardly could have come up with a more pleasing reaction.  That my wounds were cool instead of “icky” or “pitiful” was a refreshing attitude found almost exclusively outside mainstream culture.  This attitude more readily understands my belief that my scars are merit badges I earned, not deformities to erase. 

However, this tendency toward decency over discomfort is just one side of the alternative coin.  Every subculture has its strengths and its weaknesses, and for all the freaky heroes I’ve encountered, I’ve also met plenty whose celebration of difference devolves into a sick fascination with the grotesque.  “Weird for the sake of weird” is progressive when it asserts that weird is inescapable, that it is in fact as much a part of the natural order as any of our conventions, and when it serves as therapy for the marginalized.  But it is problematic when it involves self-proclaimed artists using others’ reality as their own personal toys.     

In a previous post, I referred to a friend of friend including me in an Internet discussion about limb-lengthening.  His comments were in reaction to a photo of a leg wearing an Ilizarov fixator that had been posted on a Tumblr page focused on the “wonders of the world.”  There are countless sites like it, where photos of conjoined twins, heterochromatic eyes, intersexual bodies, and medical procedures are posted alongside images of animals, vampires, robots, cosplay, self-harm, manga and bad poetry.  I get it.  The world is “crazy” and it’s all art.  But if that’s not a freak show, what is? 

Disabled people are no longer put behind glass or in the circus—at least not in the U.S., Canada or Western Europe—but many people still believe they reserve the right to stare, both in public and on the Internet.  Whether under the guise of promoting diversity or admiring triumph in the face of adversity, they suppress any realization they may have that no one likes being stared atUnless it’s on our terms.  

I see endless art in my medical experiences and it can be so therapeutic.  During my first limb-lengthening procedure I also had braces on my teeth, leading my dad to observe, “She’s now 95% metal.”  Kinda cool.  During my third procedure, I had Botox injected into my hips twice to paralyze my muscles lest they resist the lengthening.  At the time, when I along with most people had no idea what it was, it was described to me as “basically the most deadly poison known to man.”  Whoa, hardcore.  When I happened upon photos of my anterior tibialis tendon graft surgery, I was enthralled: “I’m so red inside!”  And when a fellow patient recently alerted me to the fact that a high-end jeweler designed a bracelet strongly resembling the Ilizarov frame, I laughed my head off.  Almost all of us like looking at our bodies, and perhaps this is especially so for those of us who have had real scares over our health.  It’s a matter of facing our fears and owning it.  But no one likes the idea of others owning it.  This subtle but severe preference, this desire for dignity determines the difference between human rights and property rights. 

Two years ago, NPR featured a piece by Ben Mattlin, who is non-ambulatory and who said he used to be uncomfortable with the idea of Halloween and its objectification of the grotesque.  From my very first costume as a mouse to my most recent stint as the Wicked Witch of the West, my love of Halloween has not so much as once flickered, but his point is worth discussing.  Costume play, Halloween and any celebration of “weird” that is primarily attention-seeking inherently assumes there is a “natural” basis to be disrupted.  (And all too often Halloween devolves into offensive imitations of all sorts of minority identities.) 

I have my own collection of artsy photos stolen off the Internet that I use as screensavers and montages for parties, but they do not include photos of bodies taken outside the context of consensual artistic expression.  Re-appropriating a photo in a medical journal for a site about all things bizarre is protected under freedom of speech, but it can feel like disregard for consent.  And in any case, such xenocentrism will always be just as superficial as the status quo it seeks to disrupt.

When conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel agreed to be interviewed once—and only once—for a documentary about their lives (which I highly recommend), they explained that they don’t mind answering strangers’ questions at all.  (Ben Mattlin has said the same, as do I.)  What they hate more than anything is being photographed or filmed without permission.  While attending a baseball game outside their hometown, a sports film crew quickly directed their attention to the girls.  Even though they were already being filmed by their own documentary team, the stranger camera’s invasive, presumptuous stare ruined the day for them. 

Sensitivity toward others’ experience with medicine and death should never kill the discussion.  These discussions are imperative and art is the most glorious way we relate to one another.  But just as there’s more to good manners than simply saying “Please,” there’s more to genuine learning and artistic expression than poking at anything we can get our hands on.  Nuance, deference and respect are prerequisites for anyone with artistic or scientific integrity not only because they are the building-blocks of common decency, but because history has shown that curiosity will more likely harm the rat than the cat.

 

 

Originally posted May 19, 2012

Happy Halloween

24 Oct

As of tomorrow, I have to go on medical leave and take a break from blogging for hopefully just a short while.  So, in the spirit of season, I’ll leave you with a re-run of my old post, “Curiosity Kills the Rat.”  Happy Halloween and be back soon!

CURIOSITY KILLS THE RAT

“All the freaky people make the beauty of the world.”

— Michael Franti

Fourteen years ago, I made a trip to Hot Topic—that quintessential 90s chain store for all things goth—in search of some fishnet stockings for a friend.  It was my first visit to the store since I was back in a wheelchair for my third and final limb-lengthening procedure and the narrow aisles prevented me from venturing beyond the entrance.  My first time in a wheelchair, from ages 11 to 12, had been a completely humbling experience as I was forced to see how very inaccessible the world is for the non-ambulatory.  This time around I was battling the hot-cheeked self-consciousness that adolescence attaches to any signs of dependency. 

As I tried to look casual while flipping through black gloves, black stockings, and black dog collars, a guy approached me sporting crimson hair, eyebrow rings, an employee badge and a smile.  “This is store is easily adjustable,” he grinned, and with that he began shoving aside the display cases and clothes racks—which were, like me, on wheels—clearing a path for me right through to the back and taking little notice of the other shoppers, some of  whom took one to the shoulder.  It was one of those crushes that disappear as quickly as they develop but leave a lasting memory: my knight in shining jewelry.

Thanks to experiences like this, I have a special place in my heart for the acceptance of physical differences that can often be found in the subcultures of punks, hippies, and goths.  From the imagining of monsters to the examination of anything taboo, counter-culture is often unfazed by physical qualities that fall outside of mainstream beauty standards.  The first kid in my high school who chose not to stare at the external fixators on my arms but instead held the door for me had green and purple hair.  About a month after my trip to Hot Topic, I showed a death-metal-loving friend my right fixator (shown above) for the first time, with the six titanium pins protruding from open wounds in my thigh.  He grinned, “That is the ultimate piercing, man!”  He hardly could have come up with a more pleasing reaction.  That my wounds were cool instead of “icky” or “pitiful” was a refreshing attitude found almost exclusively outside mainstream culture.  This attitude more readily understands my belief that my scars are merit badges I earned, not deformities to erase. 

However, this tendency toward decency over discomfort is just one side of the alternative coin.  Every subculture has its strengths and its weaknesses, and for all the freaky heroes I’ve encountered, I’ve also met plenty whose celebration of difference devolves into a sick fascination with the grotesque.  “Weird for the sake of weird” is progressive when it asserts that weird is inescapable, that it is in fact as much a part of the natural order as any of our conventions, and when it serves as therapy for the marginalized.  But it is problematic when it involves self-proclaimed artists using others’ reality as their own personal toys.     

In a previous post, I referred to a friend of friend including me in an Internet discussion about limb-lengthening.  His comments were in reaction to a photo of a leg wearing an Ilizarov fixator that had been posted on a Tumblr page focused on the wonders of the world.  There are countless sites like it, where photos of conjoined twins, heterochromatic eyes, intersexual bodies, and medical procedures are posted alongside images of animals, vampires, robots, cosplay, self-harm, manga and bad poetry.  I get it.  The world is “crazy” and it’s all art.  But if that’s not a freak show, what is? 

Disabled people are no longer put behind glass or in the circus—at least not in the U.S., Canada or Western Europe—but many people still believe they reserve the right to stare, both in public and on the Internet.  Whether under the guise of promoting diversity or admiring triumph in the face of adversity, they suppress any realization they may have that no one likes being stared atUnless it’s on our terms.  

I see endless art in my medical experiences and it can be so therapeutic.  During my first limb-lengthening procedure I also had braces on my teeth, leading my dad to observe, “She’s now 95% metal.”  Kinda cool.  During my third procedure, I had Botox injected into my hips twice to paralyze my muscles lest they resist the lengthening.  At the time, when I along with most people had no idea what it was, it was described to me as “basically the most deadly poison known to man.”  Whoa, hardcore.  When I happened upon photos of my anterior tibialis tendon graft surgery, I was enthralled: “I’m so red inside!”  And when a fellow patient recently alerted me to the fact that a high-end jeweler designed a bracelet strongly resembling the Ilizarov frame, I laughed my head off.  Almost all of us like looking at our bodies, and perhaps this is especially so for those of us who have had real scares over our health.  It’s a matter of facing our fears and owning it.  But no one likes the idea of others owning it.  This subtle but severe preference, this desire for dignity determines the difference between human rights and property rights. 

Two years ago, NPR featured a piece by Ben Mattlin, who is non-ambulatory and who said he used to be uncomfortable with the idea of Halloween and its objectification of the grotesque.  From my very first costume as a mouse to my most recent stint as the Wicked Witch of the West, my love of Halloween has not so much as once flickered, but his point is worth discussing.  Costume play, Halloween and any celebration of “weird” that is primarily attention-seeking inherently assumes there is a “natural” basis to be disrupted.  (And all too often Halloween devolves into offensive imitations of all sorts of minority identities.) 

I have my own collection of artsy photos stolen off the Internet that I use as screensavers and montages for parties, but they do not include photos of bodies taken outside the context of consensual artistic expression.  Re-appropriating a photo in a medical journal for a site about all things bizarre is protected under freedom of speech, but it can feel like disregard for consent.  And in any case, such xenocentrism will always be just as superficial as the status quo it seeks to disrupt.

When conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel agreed to be interviewed once—and only once—for a documentary about their lives (which I highly recommend), they explained that they don’t mind answering strangers’ questions at all.  (Ben Mattlin has said the same, as do I.)  What they hate more than anything is being photographed or filmed without permission.  While attending a baseball game outside their hometown, a sports film crew quickly directed their attention to the girls.  Even though they were already being filmed by their own documentary team, the stranger camera’s invasive, presumptuous stare ruined the day for them. 

Sensitivity toward others’ experience with medicine and death should never kill the discussion.  These discussions are imperative and art is the most glorious way we relate to one another.  But just as there’s more to good manners than simply saying “Please,” there’s more to genuine learning and artistic expression than poking at anything we can get our hands on.  Nuance, deference and respect are prerequisites for anyone with artistic or scientific integrity not only because they are the building-blocks of common decency, but because history has shown that curiosity will more likely harm the rat than the cat.

 

 

The Simpsons, Dwarfism & Getting It Almost Right For Once

12 Nov

Livro ou TV?(Image by Lubs Mary. used under Creative Commons license via)

 

Somewhere, among the many things cluttered in the back of my head, has long been the wonder as to whether The Simpsons would ever address dwarfism as a topic. Last night, I found out they did two years ago in the episode “Eeny Teeny Maya Moe” and I was shocked to see them decide against the freak show trope that our generation adores so dearly.  Not only did they transcend the snickering, but they pounced upon it and deftly demonstrated how blurred are the lines between comfort and discomfort.

Of course it feels silly to be grateful upon seeing one’s difference portrayed respectfully and productively.  But forgetting all the crappy media that take cheaps shots at dwarfs (James Bond, The Man Show, Celebrity Apprentice, Austin Powers), I’ve become quite used to good art reveling in the yuk-yuk fascination (Scrubs, This Is Spinal Tap, QI, Bob Dylan).  Not to mention the fantasy genre’s long-held tradition (from The Wizard of Oz to The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) of utilizing dwarfism to denote either a separate race or mysticism (“It must be a fucking dream, there’s a fucking dwarf in it!“), which is not explicitly offensive, but also not particularly helpful in deconstructing prejudice and misconceptions.  Across the genres, Hollywood usually contributes more to the list of names we get called (Oompa Loompas, Hobbits, Mini-Me, etc.) than to diversity awareness.

The Simpsons episode isn’t perfect – how does one deal with minority issues perfectly? – but I was quite pleased.  The one moment that left a bitter taste in my mouth is the final line: “Who would have thought a woman so short could make me feel so big?”  Little People of America and many of their supporters perpetuate this same, pathetic slogan of empowerment: physically short, but mentally/spiritually/emotionally huge.  Short, but.  Little, but.  You’re well-meaning, but.

Little is not less.  Little is not inferior.  Little is not cute.  Little is not submissive.  Little is not weak.  Little is not a Napoleon Complex.  Little is little.  Big is not greater.  Big is not better.  Big is not powerful.  Big is not dominant.  Big is not strong.  Big is not a Gentle Giant.  Big is big.  To consider size as indicative of personality traits is as ludicrous as equating anything from freckles to elbow shape with personality traits.  (Any attempt to compliment Oprah Winfrey or Alice Walker by saying, “She may have been dark-skinned, but she brought light to the lives of many” would be considered wholly idiotic and righftully so.)  Having two x chromosomes does not impede my intelligence or independence or strength, and neither does having an autosomal dominant mutation in my fibroblast growth factor receptor gene 3.

If you want to praise an individual’s ability to overcome social obstacles, do not place blame for the obstacles on their genetics.  Society’s incessant xenophobia and vanity are constantly let off the hook because a genetic difference is still seen as that which upsets normalcy, rather than that which is handicapped by our delusions of normalcy.  It is all too often supported by the reasoning that if a majority is scared of a difference, then it must be a natural fear, and natural is practically synonymous with good.  It will take quite a few more episodes like that on The Simpsons before the discourse changes and someone says, “Who would have a thought a woman so shat on by our culture’s omnipresent lookism could have the patience to deal with my own individual prejudices?”

 

 

It’s Not One or the Other with Evelyn Evelyn

6 Nov

Evelyn EvelynSo Jason Webley and Amanda Palmer have formed a band called Evelyn Evelyn for which the two dress up as conjoined twin sisters.  I wasn’t going to comment on the scandal that has erupted over the launch of their new album because it seemed too many people were screaming at the top of their lungs and the ones who weren’t had stuck their fingers in their ears.  But I’m both a big Jason Webley fan and an advocate for more visibility on the issues of ableism in political discourse.  And this is an excellent example of a common occurrence in the counter-culture that rarely gets talked about.  Here are a few of my points, some of which have already been made by others, some of which haven’t.

One can love Jason and/or Amanda as artists and also believe that they’ve done something wrong.  One can be in awe of Mick Jagger’s talent, and still gristle at his womanizing and the lyrics he sings advocating it.  The adolescent idol-worship of these two singers that’s been revealed in the defense arguments is quite disturbing.

Even though I fiercely believe in intersectionality (i.e., if you’re gonna support the rights of one minority, you’ve got to support them all), being insensitive toward one group of people does not make you insensitive to all.  Amanda Palmer is a fierce feminist and LGBT advocate, and both she and Jason like to sing about, as he put it, the experiences of those on the margin.  This project does not nullify their previous good works and transform  them both into misanthropic bigots.

As intersectionality often proves, a liberal identity does not make progressives like Jason and Amanda incapable of prejudice or sheer jack-ass behavior.  I met student after student at Bard who would glare at anything remotely racist or sexist or homophobic, but who insisted that dwarf-tossing is fucking hilarious and cringed at individuals with facial deformities.

I admit that I didn’t consider the offensive implications the first time I heard of the project.  When I read the bio on Evelyn Evelyn’s MySpace page, I did start to feel the thing reverberate with circus-freak retro-chic.  More than anything, I didn’t see why the twins had to be conjoined.  They have the same name and sing back and forth to each other; there isn’t anything about their record requiring them to be conjoined except to add a little freak-show flavor, realized by the sight-gag of the two singers performing onstage on a single accordion.  If Evelyn Evelyn were merely identical twins, no one would have given it a moment’s pause and only the freak-show flavor would be lost.  I happen to think “Have You Seen My Sister Evelyn?” is a great ragtime song.  I also enjoyed Jason’s solo rendition of “Elephant Elephant” using the audience for call-backs far more than his version with Amanda as his twin. 

Bearing all this in mind, it is my opinion that both Jason and Amanda have handled this quite badly. 

Jason’s apology on his blog is much less defensive than Amanda’s, his shock at the reaction seems genuine, but he nevertheless manages to keep stumbling.  “I had some fear that the few conjoined twins living in the world might find the project offensive.”  Ouch.  Respect and human rights do not directly correlate to a minority’s numbers.  Someone pointed out that conjoined twins are so few because their infant mortality rate is so high.  Ouch.    

As for Amanda, I don’t know why she tweets or posts so frequently only to be shocked about the fire she draws from her hastily typed statements regarding her often controversial projects.  Let’s not kid ourselves – she obviously likes being an iconoclast, which is fine and in fact admirable, but she so far lacks the poise to handle the inevitable backlash each time she comes roaring onto the scene with another boisterous project.  And, Amanda, you don’t need to let us know you’re PMSing.  If you’d used the word “midget” on me and included that in your apology/excuse, it would not help to redeem you. 

I originally wasn’t going to attend the Berlin show because it’s rather expensive, but now I’m considering proposing a boycott over this issue.  Not because I hate these two for it (I don’t), but because the friends who were reluctant to go over the price would likely tell me to loosen up if ableist politics were my sole reason.  And that could be a good opportunity to confront the prejudices lurking under the liberal badges we love to wear.

 

UPDATE: Any credibility Amanda’s apology had was swiftly obliterated by her performance on this Australian talk show.  She may very well be a feminist and a radical and an activist, but first and foremost, Amanda Palmer is a narcissist.  Possibly the least radical thing you can be in show business.

 

 

Note: This post originally appeared on February 21, 2010 at klompen.livejournal.com