What An Odd Girl: Women Of SideshowOctober 11, 2011 No Comments
The sideshow became a popular family attraction in the 19th century, largely due to a savvy business man named P.T. Barnum, also known as the “father of the freak show,” and maintained popularity throughout the early 20th century. By exhibiting performers with deformities and biological rarities, the sideshow acted as shock entertainment for the morbidly curious during a time when diseases and abnormalities were misunderstood by medical science. The sideshow also included self-inflicted oddities — like the Tattooed Woman, unusual acts — like fire eating and sword swallowing, and later incorporated girl shows, where female performers would “dance the kootch” for an audience of paying customers.
Women played an active role in the production of the sideshow, a strange entertainment niche that offered female oddities a sense of community, and transformed them from “freaks” into independent, wage-earning stage actresses. During a time marked by the ebbs and flows of women’s suffrage, as well as the economic depression of the 1930s, women in sideshow escaped social disparages by using their oddities to their advantage. Siamese twins, the Hilton sisters, who were highlighted in a vintage HBO special titled,”Some Called Them Freaks,” were sold into slavery when they were two weeks old and came to earn $5000 a week working as performers before they reached the age of 21. Other women, such as La Bella Angora, chose to become a “freak” by covering her body in tattoos to profit from displaying the canvas of her skin. Many female stars of the traveling sideshow challenged the boundaries of their personal circumstances by utilizing this stage for financial opportunity.
Shifting perspectives of the mid 20th century gradually snuffed the flame of the traveling sideshow, both due to the rising popularity of television, as well as the increasing understanding of disease and genetic mutation. In an act of political correctness, some states eventually passed laws that restricted sideshows, deeming them exploitative of people’s physical oddities. The reputation of sideshow performers gradually changed from awe-inspiring “freaks,” to people who deserved social sympathy. Many performers were robbed of their community and stardom, and were forced to retreat into the background of society.
Underneath the sideshow tents and the grotesquely exaggerated banner art of mystical creatures and monster-like, human anomalies existed an exotic subculture of challenged conventionality. Although the motivation of women in sideshow was to earn their bread and butter, their acts symbolized a defiant, middle-finger response to the values, beliefs, and fears of the time. These anti-beauty queens exploited the limitations of cultural conventionality in the same way these narrow mentalities exploited them for entertainment. While they blasted contemporary society with a shocking, unapologetic display of strangeness, and consequently rebelled against certain gender stereotypes and traditional notions of beauty, their acts can now be perceived as mocking reflections of the cultural environment in which they lived.
While the negative elements of the sideshow have been immortalized as part of it’s identity, the exploitative nature of this faded institution can still be seen in modern forms of entertainment culture, from the freak show qualities of reality TV, to our preoccupation with surgical enhancement and body modification. The double standard between the side show and modern entertainment suggests that it is not really exploitation that makes us uncomfortable about the traditional freak show, but more so the boxes we put people in. We continue to pity those who fail to reflect our cultural ideals and feel morally obliged to obliterate our differences, particularly our physical differences, however, we continue to celebrate the exploitation of those who adhere to our cultural ideals in regards to beauty and lifestyle.
These oddball, gypsy rebels chose to live, to survive against the odds, and not from the gutter of society but from the spotlight of center stage. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned from the women who celebrated their strangeness instead of surrendering as objects of pity, and maybe that lesson is learning to own our oddities. Maybe there is power in celebrating our inner and outer freak.
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