Genetics in Literature, Film, and Of Course, TV
A few weeks ago, We TV aired a new episode of the Secret Lives of Women that was entitled “Sideshow Gals”. In addition to already knowing that the series was quite entertaining (I had previously seen the “Fetishes and Fantasies” episode), I thought an episode specifically about the ways in which our society views the exhibition of genetic deformities might be relevant to the class. Although the information presented was both enlightening and pertinent to our discussion of genetics, by the show’s end, I honestly was not sure whether to feel inspired or insulted.
Through personal interviews and video clips from various performances, the episode explored the unique lives of the freak show troupe 999 Eyes, Jennifer Miller The Bearded Lady, and Katzen The Tiger Lady. *999 Eyes is actually the last group of performing artists that uses the term “freak”, which is not surprising since freak shows are currently outlawed in a number of states.**Michigan’s statute, for example, states the following: “Exhibition of deformed human beings, etc.—Any physician or other person, who shall expose or keep on exhibition any deformed human being or human monstrosity, except as used for scientific purposes before members of the medical profession or medical classes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.” In light of these regulations, it is interesting that industries such as modeling, which embrace the opposite extreme and exhibit the product of genetic perfection, are quite acceptable. In fact, one of the female members of 999 Eyes stated that she felt her participation in these freak shows caused her to be physically exploited to the same extent as any other person in the performing arts. Essentially, everyone working in the performing arts profession profits from serving as visual entertainment for a curious audience. The following question then arises: is there truly that much of a difference between displaying genetic errors and genetic excellence and if not, why is one allowed but not the other?
Clearly, a major reason for outlawing the exhibition of genetic errors is to avoid unfortunate circumstances like the 69er’s Club in Middlesex. For the members of 999 Eyes, however, the opportunity to travel around the country with people sharing similar life challenges has enabled them to develop both a sense of community and personal strength. For them, displaying their deformities to a crowd of strangers on stage essentially serves as a profitable way to practice being comfortable displaying their deformities in everyday life. While I found this aspect to be inspirational, I still found myself agreeing with Michigan’s statute. It appears that the negative preconceptions associated with the idea of a freak show ultimately override complete freedom of expression in some states. Specifically, the association with the eugenic movement adds to the negative connotation of the freak show. Additionally, events described by the terms ‘freak show’ or ‘sideshow’ imply that human oddities will be exhibited in a disturbing or distasteful manner that emphasize the deformity rather than the talent or unique ability. For example, in the “Sideshow Gals” episode, when advertising for their upcoming performance, 999 Eyes members prefaced every conversation with a potential customer with something similar to the following: there is no vulgarity or nudity in our show, so it is child-friendly. The modern focus on purely strict, clinical curiosity coupled with all of the historical baggage the term ‘freak show’ carries makes the presence of statutes similar to Michigan’s are understandable. Although I am finding difficulty pinpointing the reason that female member of 999 Eyes would not be any more exploited than models or other similar performers, there is still something unsettling about willfully displaying physical proof of genetic errors.
And for those who are interested, this episode airs again during the following times on We TV:
Tuesday, April 15, 11:00 PM ET
Wednesday, April 16, 2:00 AM ET