Extraordinary Bodies or Bodies Made Extraordinary? How Freaks Were Made Through Normalcy in 19th Century America

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2020

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Freak shows in 19th century America

3. The Concept of Normalcy

4. Turning Humans into Freaks
4.1 Social Construction of Normalcy
4.2 The Concept of Othering
4.3 The Theory of Staring

5. Conclusion

6. Works cited

1. Introduction

‘Monstrosity’, ‘Freak’, ‘Cripple’ were terms that used to describe humans whose bodies deviated from the norm. These people were solely reduced to the way their bodies looked and how they possibly malfunctioned. In nineteenth century America, people with unusual bodies were exhibited in so-called freak shows, in order to make profit for the owners and to amuse the audiences.

The body forms the center of attention in freak shows and is deeply connected to and intertwined with the concept of normalcy that is common in society. This analysis will focus on how humans with extraordinary bodies were turned into freaks through processes that stem from a concept of normalcy. Firstly, the social construction of normalcy will be examined in combination with the societal expectation of bodies to be whole and how these expectations influenced the lives of people with unusual bodies. Moreover, the focus will be laid on the concept of Othering in order to further explain the formation of freak shows. In addition to that, Garland-Thomson’s theory of Staring will be applied to the way that ordinary humans with extraordinary bodies were turned into freaks. The different theories are connected through the variable of normalcy. Normalcy influences the different ways that people were turned into freaks.

The analysis is mainly based on the works of Rosemary Garland-Thomson, who wrote about extraordinary bodies and the theory of Staring, Robert Bogdan and Brigham A. Fordham, who closely studied freak shows, and Lennard J. Davis and his concept on normalcy.

Even though the term ‘freak’ has a negative connotation nowadays and is not acceptable to use anymore, it used to be a set expression, which is the reason for using it in this analysis without quotation marks.

2. Freak shows in 19th century America

The freak show was brought to America by P. T. Barnum, who was the first to notice and utilize the American’s hunger for extravagance, knowledge and the exotic. Even though freak shows only gained popularity around 1840 in America, the interest in extraordinary bodies can be traced back to early human representation. Looking at Stone Age cave drawings of human bodies in unusual shapes, it becomes clear that humans have been fascinated by mysterious and marvelous bodies for quite some time. (cf. Garland- Thomson, 1997, p. 56) The body was the center of the freak shows and the source of profit for the freak show owners. The freak show performers and their extraordinary bodily differences were promoted by the so-called show masters, by manufacturing exotic life stories about them and offering audiences to dive into these rare scientific spectacles for a small price. The shows were presented as being educational and uplifting (cf. Fordham, 2007, p. 208) and were an acceptable and amusing part of American life. (cf. Bogdan, 1988, p. 2)

Mostly presented as freaks in the exhibitions were people with physical, mental or behavioral differences. They were categorized into three types of freaks: ‘born freaks’, ‘made freaks’ and ‘novelty acts’. The born freaks were people, who were born with a physical anomaly, such as Siamese twins or very tall people. People who did a certain thing to their body to make it unique, such as having many tattoos or piercings, were called made freaks. The third type of freak, the novelty acts, were performers who had an unusual talent, for example sword swallowers. In addition to these types of performers was a fourth type of performer that took part in the freak show: the so-called ‘gaffed freak’ or ‘phony’. These were people that pretended to have a bodily difference by deceiving the audience. An example would be a person without arms, who would hide their arms under a tight shirt. The freak held in the highest esteem and most admired by the audience was the born freak. (cf. Fordham, 2007, p. 211)

Another type of freak that was presented by freak show owners were people from the non-western world. It was common for showmen to explore the non-western world in order to bring back humans of unfamiliar cultures. Bringing back tribal people who were out of their usual environment kindled the belief that foreign people are human oddities.

Non-western people were therefore exhibited in freak shows because of their cultural difference to the audience. They were presented on the same stage as people who were considered freaks because of their physical or mental differences. (cf. Bogdan, 1988, p. 6f) Garland-Thomson therefore stated that the most popular kind of people to be exhibited were ‘normal’ non-Westerners and ‘abnormal’ Westerners, meaning that the most successful freaks combined both bodily and cultural differences. (cf., 1997, p.63)

Joice Heth, the first woman that P.T. Barnum displayed, combined both differences. She was an African American woman whose culture and appearance differed from most Americans. “She was totally blind [...]. She had no teeth, but she possessed a head of thick, bushy gray hair. The fingers of her left hand were drawn down so nearly to close it and remained fixed and immovable.” (P.T. Barnum in Lueger 2015) In order to excite the audience, Barnum not only advanced her age to 161 years, but told a tale about Heth having breastfed President George Washington. (cf. ibid.)

According to Bogdan, freak shows were more about theater and representation than about reality, since the backgrounds, conditions and personal attributes of the performers were often wrongly presented, as happened with Joice Heth. The show master would use two different methods of presenting the freaks. One way to present the freaks would be the ‘exotic mode’, meaning they would be displayed as being from ‘far away lands’ to appeal to the audiences’ fascination with foreign cultures and “the bestial ancestry of man.” (Fordham, 2007, p. 216). Another way to present them was the ‘aggrandized mode’. This method of presentation included the emphasis of bodily differences to show how the freak deviated from the audience. An example for this method would be calling a small person ‘Captain’ or ‘General’, to emphasize their inferiority. (cf. ibid., p.217)

There was a narrative that people with extraordinary bodies were ‘saved’ by freak show owners. This belief stems from the assumption that freak show performers would not find any other job due to their physical appearance. Freak shows were therefore considered to be rescuing people with bodily differences, giving them an identity, a reason to live and ensuring they are employed. Consequently, freak show performers were expected to be proud of being known as freaks and lucky to have escaped poverty. (cf. ibid., p.219)

According to David Gerber there are conditions for choice and consent. He states that there must be multiple options and choices, the individual must be in a social environment that allows them to play different social roles, the individual must have the physical and mental capacity to make a choice and that the individual must have enough time to evaluate the options. Considering these four conditions of choice and consent, it becomes clear that “due to the discrimination and architectural barriers, many of the performers had no other means to earn a living.” (ibid., p.220) and, therefore, did not actively chose the freak show life. As stated by Fordham, audiences nevertheless wanted to believe that freak show performers happily chose their life, to make it easier for them to support and watch freak show exhibitions. (cf. ibid., p.219)

There are a few reasons why freak show exhibitions gained the amount of popularity they did in the 19th century. Freak shows were appealing and accessible to many people since they did not cost much to attend and oftentimes offered discounts for the working class to attract as many people as possible. (cf. Durbach, 2010, p. 6) As per Garland-Thomson in 1997, freak shows “provided a safe, ritualized opportunity for banal democrats to voyeuristically identify with non-conformity” (p.68). Some used freak shows to explore the limits of human variation and felt sympathy rather than differentiation towards the performers. But not only people who simply enjoyed the abnormal and the endless possibilities of the human body felt drawn to the exhibitions, also people who needed to confirm their own superiority came and watched. In addition to that, people who had been disabled by war or accidents felt a force of attraction. They were able to identify with the freaks’ extraordinariness. (cf. Garland-Thomson, 1997, p. 68f)

Freaks were considered both celebrities and spectacles, because the on-lookers both identified with and were repulsed by them at the same time. This ambiguity was caused by the tension between verifying and questioning the order of things:

“The freak’s body mocked the boundaries and similarities that a well-ordered democratic society required to avoid anarchy and create national unity. By exoticizing and trivializing bodies that were physically nonconformist, the freak show [...] contained the potential threat that difference among the polity might erupt as anarchy.” (ibid., p.66)

The popularity of freak shows in America died down around 1940 due to several reasons. The freak shows and their performers increasingly lost social status, because the fascination with the extraordinary body soon turned into pity and disgust. While they were considered a popular form of entertainment during the nineteenth century, the physical anomalies of the freak show performers were viewed from a more medical point of view and therefore considered more of a medical disorder than an attraction. (cf. Fordham, 2007, p. 212) This led to keeping people with unusual bodies more private, as they were thought of as inappropriate for the public eye. Starting then, only doctors, counselors and rehabilitation specialists interacted with people with extraordinary bodies. (cf. Garland-Thomson, 1997, p. 79)

3. The Concept of Normalcy

Our society is filled with norms. We are ranked in schools, tested to see if we fit into the normal curve of learning and intelligence and, amongst others, our clothing, looks and bodies are influenced by our societal norms. But even though norms are omnipresent, they have not always been part of our world history and therefore are not human nature. The word ‘normal’ was first used in the English language around 1840, the word ‘norm’ around 1855 and the word ‘normalcy’ was introduced between 1849-1857. (cf. Davis, 2006, p. 3) This concept of normalcy arose in a particular historical moment that was influenced by industrialization and change, and its implications are still profoundly influencing the heart of our culture and contemporary life. (cf. ibid., p. 15) The concept of normalcy that is relevant in this analysis is the ‘normal body’.

The concept that preceded normalcy was the concept of the ideal. This concept can be traced back to the seventeenth century, where the ideal body was demonstrated through bodies of goddesses, such as Venus or Aphrodite. Since the ideal body was linked to gods, it was not attainable for humans. In comparison to a ‘normal’ body, the concept of ideality entails the fact that every human is below the ideal and is therefore equal. Hence, there is no societal pressure for people to conform to the ideal. (cf. Davis, 2006, p. 4)


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Extraordinary Bodies or Bodies Made Extraordinary? How Freaks Were Made Through Normalcy in 19th Century America
University of Cologne
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Freakshow, Freak shows, Behinderung, Disability, Othering, Staring, Normalcy, Theory of Normalcy, Social Construction of Normalcy, Normalität
Quote paper
Carolin Rohe (Author), 2020, Extraordinary Bodies or Bodies Made Extraordinary? How Freaks Were Made Through Normalcy in 19th Century America, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1019814


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