Less talk, more freaks


By Josh Schneyer
Arizona Summer Wildcat
July 30, 1997
There was a documentary broadcast not long ago on the cable station you reach just before the TV defaults back to channel 2. It told of a golden age, like the one enjoyed by bootleggers, vaudeville performers, or railroad thieves. But this documentary sou ght to revive a peculiar past, the heyday of human oddities and "freak-viewing."

Not so far back, Americans flocked to circus sideshows and roadside attractions. They paid to gasp and gag at real people, the obese, dwarfed, overgrown, sexually duplicitous, or otherwise anomalous specimens of humanity. They couldn't resist a good promo tional pitch, no matter how dehumanizing: "Tonight only! Shocking freaks of nature! Come one come all and get a load of the fat lady . Tiny Tim . The Wolf Boys!"

Today, Americans think they are above deriving thrill from the victims of genetic misfortune. Human "exceptions" are given euphemistic diagnoses. Maybe the fat lady is just chromosomally challenged; Tiny Tim is gravitationally advantaged, and the Wolf Boy s are follicularly endowed. Apparently, we have risen from the quagmire of insensitivity that once led us to crack our piggy bank for a look at the elephant-man.

Nowadays, normalcy is the foremost American value. But what is normal has changed. Political correctness has broadened the parameters of normalcy to include everyone. One simplistic (and paradoxical) conception of diversity involves pretending we're all t he same, or at least normal. If we can harvest enough empathy (a very 90's word!) for each other, we will achieve psychic unity. Stampeding cattle, for example, empathize profusely.

Empathy pervades our public decorum. We place ourselves in others' shoes, and never make a spectacle out of anyone. In public circumstances, we act as if nothing's shocking. We could bump into a Cyclops at Safeway and obey the ominous echo of our mothers' voices, "Don't stare!"

I remember, as a small child, causing my mom a terrible embarrassment at the store. All I did was offer a candid appraisal of a woman standing next to us.

"You're fat," I told her.

The comment lacked empathy. Of course, it only confirmed what was true. This lady was sideshow material - Rubenesque and then some.

Predictably enough, the documentary showed that Coney Island is no longer a sideshow haven. In fact, sideshows are nearly extinct in America. They are considered cruel and unusual punishment of the odd. Can we assume that during the golden age we saw enou gh human oddity to tide us over? Maybe freaks of nature were just a fad, like Sea Monkeys. Or, maybe we really do feel more empathy than before.

Nonsense. Just like other things to become incorrect in the public forum (cigarette smoking, racist jokes, etc.), sideshow viewing lives on within the home. Today's TV talk shows are the new medium for freak viewing. Montel, Ricki, Jenny, Sally-Jesse, Mau ry, even Oprah: these are the names of today's ringleaders. They cater to a TV audience that, in the privacy of the home, secretly abandons empathy and takes up another model of American behavior: hypocrisy, ego-boosting, and even closet sadism. Secretly, there's nothing Americans like better than seeing people worse off than ourselves.

The promotional pitches have hardly changed. Last week I happened upon a talk show featuring obese toddlers; "Babies who eat 4,000 calorie breakfasts." Later on, I was regaled with the odd couple special, midgets who fall for giants. Talk shows treat us t o the oddest folks out there, Siamese twins and assorted genetic "exceptions."

They don't limit themselves to genetic oddities either. Their studios are virtual freak theme parks, and they know what sells: Morality run amok (the pregnant stripper episode), taboo family ties (the incest episode), beauty turned beast (the burn victims episode), swank turned sour (plastic surgery gone wrong episode).

We should not let Oprah's cue-card responsive tear ducts fool us. Americans do not watch talk shows for their daily dose of empathy. Instead, they watch to feel good about themselves at the expense of others. Americans depend on the odd and downtrodden fo r an ego boost, a pat on the back. "I may be pudgy, and short, but at least I'm no freak," they rejoice.

There is something supremely unhealthy about the talk show. It allows us to publicly deny that we derive pleasure from freak-viewing. In times past, we waited in public lines to see the fat lady. We looked her straight in the eye, and she looked back at u s. We felt a twinge of shame and sorrow for having made her a spectacle. Yes, we felt horror, but we also felt camaraderie toward these odd souls.

In the age of the talk show we are sophisticated voyeurs. There is nothing dignified about freak-watching via satellite. It only spares us the uncomfortable feeling we got when the side-show oddities stared back at us.

Sure, it's good to encourage mutual respect among Americans. But it doesn't mean everyone has to be normal. God forbid we ever should be. You know what else . we like freak-viewing. Let's admit it and stop playing holier-than-thou in public as we race hom e to our dank TV rooms to fancy the Nebraskan without a neck, or the Kansan who survived a combine accident.

Maybe it's time to revive the sideshow. I've got a friend with three nipples, and I know a girl with six toes on one foot. Oh, and my mom is only five feet tall. That's pretty gravitationally advantaged. Maybe we should set out for Coney Island and see wh at other specimens we can pick up on the way.

Josh Schneyer is a non-degree seeking graduate student

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