Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Analyzing The Fun Out of Freak Shows

The current issue of the The Utne Reader contains an article (picked up from Polite Magazine) which examines today's freak shows within the context of the genre's history. The questions grappled with in 'Letting Their Freak Flags Fly: The Sideshow Isn't Dead, It's Just More Ironic' are clearly outlined by author Sacha Evans:

In an age of political correctness and artful irony, modern freak shows still cannot escape certain niggling questions: Are the shows empowering or demeaning? Do they provide social misfits with a refuge and a decent wage, or do they perpetuate dangerous bigotries about the "other"?

Though Evans primary sources are the Texas based 999 Eyes Carnival of the Damned and sociologist Robert Bogdan, no discussion of contemporary freak shows would be complete without a trip to Coney Island. Evan's finds Sideshows by the Seashore under whelming:

Despite the performers' spectacular lack of regard for their own bodies, there is a subtle sense among the crowd that they've seen it all before. […] As Donny [Vomit] presents [Madame Electra] to the audience, she wipes her brow, pretending to recover from the greatest shock of her life. Filing out into the hazy Coney Island afternoon, the audience pretends to do the same.

Evan's article is well researched and well written. However, no amount of history, theory, and style can substitute for the one ingredient that makes a Coney sideshow- and Coney Island in general- so fantastic: a sense of wonder. While critiques of the problematic history and attraction of freak shows are more than called for, taking the fun out of them with 'hipper than thou, 'seen it all before' snarkyness certainly is not. While side shows are few and far between these days, wet blanket articles with the word 'ironic' in their subtitles are, unfortunately, all too common

Letting Their Freak Flags Fly: The Sideshow Isn't Dead, It's Just More Ironic [Utne Reader]

- post by Ben Nadler

No comments: