Twenty-first century freak show: recent transformations in the exhibition of non-normative bodies

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Stephens, E 2005, 'Twenty-first century freak show: recent transformations in the exhibition of non-normative bodies', Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 3.

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The last decade has witnessed both a re-emergence and re-invention of the traditional 19th-century freak show, with groups such as the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow, Circus Amok, The Happy Side Show, Tokyo Shock Boys, the Kamikaze Freak Show and Mat Fraser's one-man show, "Sealboy: Freak," enjoying a period of enormous popularity. This paper will examine what the recent transformations of the traditional freak show reveal about the identification and representation of bodily difference in contemporary culture.

The exhibition of anatomically unusual bodies is a phenomenon that is both specific to the particular historical circumstances in which it takes place, and exemplary of more general cultural assumptions about the meaning and nature of the body. As such, the history of freak shows provides an exceptionally fruitful context in which to examine how bodily norms are established and enforced, and to consider how these have impacted upon the lived experiences of subjects identified as physically different. Focusing on the move away from the exhibition of 'born' freaks to that of 'self-made' freaks seen in 21st-century side shows, this paper will read the transformation of the freak show as representative of important wider shifts in dominant concepts of corporeality.

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