Roll up, roll up. Here’s the new Freak Show, right here, right now, right in your country. It’s not sixteenth century England, nor nineteenth century America. You don’t even need to go to an amusement park, a circus, a vaudeville hall or museum. It’s coming to you right from your Twitter feed, in your art gallery, from your Facebook newsfeed.
We’re calling this brave new trend ‘ExploitAbility’ to bring it in line with the hundreds of other disability organisations with Ability in their headline (note the capital A) – why not? It’s as good as any other name to describe the plethora of tragedy and pity porn that’s currently being rolled out as an alternative to inspiration porn. It’s to raise Awareness, you see. About whatever particular issue is the flavour of the day – diagnoses, violence, poverty and homelessness. And like those Freaks in other long-gone shows, our stories are appropriated for public consumption. You just can’t get enough.
The late nineteeth century Freak Shows were incredibly popular. People queued to watch exhibits of people with physical, mental and behavioural rarities, exploited for profit. Some disabled and non disabled ‘Freaks’ were able to choose to participate for a wage, but it was often a choice between exploitation and poverty – nothing has changed there, either. And for many people, especially those with conditions like microcephaly, consent was never given.
That brings us to ExploitAbility, the new world Freak Show. Because we’re living in 2016, we’re oh so much more civilised. So here are the rules to be an Official Member of the ExploitAbility Freak Show –
You must not be paid. Good enough that you're going to be profiled in some widely promoted ExploitAbility production (although there’s some discussion about payment in pageants and television shows about short statured people). It's 'art' or it's 'awareness raising' or it's for the common good. And if you are in possession of one giant testicle, if you’re morbidly obese, if you have a rare medical condition that makes you look exceptionally different, you’re IN - for the glory, you understand, not for the minimum wage, no matter how many dollars they propose to make from your story. Television shows and exhibitions and magazines and click bait articles that start with YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE…all kinds of media, all kinds of disabilities. At ExploitAbility, they’re an equal opportunity non-employer.
You must tell your story. Your tragic story is what it’s all about. It’s how we won the National Disability Insurance Scheme, bleeding our private lives all over social media and over the newspapers. Two showers a week, sleeping in our wheelchairs, no dignity, here’s a picture of my child having a meltdown. Some of us made the decision to make that trade-off – compromising our privacy and dignity in return for disability care and support for the whole nation. But don’t be fooled, we're not always in charge of how we're depicted or how our stories are told. Our stories are our most valuable commodity – valuable not to us but to the hardworking ExploitAbility staff, who are paid on a commission comprised of pain and tears. It’s the most toxic of combinations – the culture and prevalence of disabled people telling their story to the world and an ever hungry, growing need for More Freaks. The Shunned, the Deformed, the Weeping Women and the Tortured Souls, all neatly packaged into eight hundred words or thirty lineal metres or fifty one minutes and sixty seconds.
You mustn’t be the actual NARRATOR of your own story. Just as PT Barnum promoted his Freaks through an oral spiel or printed advertisement, a non-Freak (or non-disabled person) must be the person narrating the story of your tragedy. It adds to the authenticity of watching someone who is ‘other’ when their story is narrated by someone eminently respectable, someone with a profile, someone who is relatively untouched by the type of experience or disability that you own. You’re object, not agent and any part you play in relaying your own story is carefully edited and selected for suitability for a hungry audience. And once you sign your rights away – you’d want to carefully look at the ExploitAbility contract - you give away your control over where and how you are viewed. Forever.
All those long gone Freaks. I wonder what their lives were like after the shows had shut and their lives as they knew it had changed forever. And more than that, I wonder what that public exploitation did to them. What the end effect was on people who spent their lives being pointed at and laughed at and gaped over and pitied. I wonder if it would have been different from being pointed and laughed at or pitied on the street.
ExploitAbility. You’re supporting them, you know. Every time you buy a ticket to something commercial that ‘raises awareness’ or ‘tells a story’ that is told by a person who is not a member of that minority group. Every time you watch the TLC network on Foxtel, every time you click on that story with the shocking headline. You’re not just contributing to their revenue but actively supporting and promoting the exploitation of current day Freaks and contributing to their othering. Frank Lentini, the three legged man, was quoted saying, ‘My limb does not bother me as much as the curious, critical gaze.’
What you pay to view Freaks allows you to fulfil the type of curiosity that caused any Peeping Tom to first look through a window. You’re feeding your own ableism or personal bigotry by giving yourself permission to compare yourself with our perceived inadequacies. You're transforming us into fodder for public consumption and objectification by non disabled people. And it’s not just we disabled people who are considered to be freaks. Roll up, roll up, see the Fat Lady, the Poor White Trash, the Sexually Aberrant, the Raped Ladies, the Strangely Exotic and Quaint. My 600 Pound Life. The Man with a Half Body. Roll up.
When it comes to voyeurism, difference is a great leveler. We're all the same in the eyes of the non-Freak viewer.
The Freak Shows died out. They died out when medical science started helping people understand that medical conditions and differences were commonplace and explainable. And eventually, as public opinion evolved, the display of human novelties became distasteful.
What a shame it’s re-emerged in modern day Australia.
This post is dedicated to any member of a minority group who found their image used by an agency or organisation, years later, despite only granting permission for a one off use many years before.
It's dedicated to all those freaks - The Lizard Man, the Elephant Man, Penguin Boy, the Bearded Lady, the Dog-Faced Boy. All of them, living and dead.
Image description - a black and white photograph of an old style freak show. A crowd of spectators face a large display stage and stall. An advertising banner reads 'Human Freaks Alive' and 'Main Sideshow, Human Freaks'.And most of all, it is dedicated to members of the disability community past and present, who deserve to have both the right to privacy and dignity and control over their life and story.