Queer 1950s pp 183-195 | Cite as

Geeks and Gaffs: The Queer Legacy of the 1950s American Freak Show

  • Elizabeth Stephens
Part of the Genders and Sexualities in History book series (GSX)


The 1950s were the decade in which the traditional freak show, which had enjoyed such popularity during the heyday of nineteenth-century amusement parks and funfairs, finally came to an end. By the 1950s, the reputation of the freak show was as it remains today: widely held to be an unpleasant anachronism, degrading people with unusual anatomies for putting them on display before a curious staring public. In the middle of the century, however, this perception of the freak show was still a very new one, representative of a recent and steep decline in its cultural standing after the Second World War. Thus, the 1950s are the final chapter in a much longer history of the modern freak show, which is usually dated to the first part of the nineteenth century. More particularly, the freak show itself — as distinguished from earlier traditions of publicly exhibiting people with unusual anatomies — is often identified as beginning with P.T. Barnum’s first exhibition in 1832: that of an African-American woman, Joice Heth, whom he promoted as the 161-year-old former nursemaid of George Washington.1


Freak Performance Side Show Cultural Standing Public Exhibition Unusual Anatomy 
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  1. 1.
    The public exhibition of anatomically unusual bodies has, of course, a much longer history than that of the freak show. Histories of the freak show that contextualise its emergence within longer histories can be found in Robert Bogdan’s Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988);Google Scholar
  2. Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s edited collection Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: University of New York Press, 1996)Google Scholar
  3. Margrit Shildrick’s Embodying the Monster: Encounters With the Vulnerable Self (London; Thousand Oaks, California: Sage, 2002);Google Scholar
  4. and Marlene Tromp’s Victorian Freaks: The Social Context of Freakery in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008).Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    Mark Chemers, Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 1–9.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    The cultural prestige enjoyed by freak shows during this period is reflected in popular representations of their performers: acts such as General Tom Thumb (a dwarf), Millie-Christine (African conjoined twins) and Julia Pastrana (a hirsute woman billed as ‘the missing link’) were the objects of frequent and favourable press coverage, touring internationally before audiences comprised of medical professionals, and members of government and the aristocracy as well as the general public. James Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 140.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    Judith Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place, 10. Robert’s McRuer Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006) has taken account of the intersection between critical disability studies and queer theory, and critical disability theorists such as Margrit Shildrick and Rosemarie Garland Thomson have written extensively and insightlully on the freak show (in Embodying the Monster and Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: University of Columbia Press, 1997), respectively. However, Marie-Hélène Bourcier’s Sexpolitiques: Queer Zones 2 (Paris: La fabrique, 2005) is one of the few texts to take account of the history of freak performance and its legacy within contemporary queer cultures.Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    Halberstam’s own work has examined non-normative forms of embodiment such as monsters and post-human subjects, in Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1995) and the collected co-edited with Ira Livingston, Posthuman Bodies (Bloomington, Illinois: University of Indiana Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Rosi Braidotti. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 5. This idea of movement is also central to definitions of queer: as many queer theorists, such as Eve Kosolsky Sedgwick, have noted, the etymology of the word ‘queer’ derives from ‘the Indo-European root twerkw, which also yields the German queer (traverse) [and] Latin torquere (to twist)’. Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, Tendencies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), xii. Queer is thus associated with passage or traversing, with movement rather than identity, or, in David Halperin’s often-cited formulation, with positionality rather than positivity.Google Scholar
  10. David Halperin, Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 62.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    Rachel Adams, Sideshow USA: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 118.Google Scholar
  12. 11.
    Joe Nickell, Secrets of the Sideshow (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2005), 346.Google Scholar
  13. See also Fred Siegel, ‘Theatre of Guts: An Exploration of the Sideshow Aesthetic’, in The Drama Review 35.4 (1991), 107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 13.
    Gideon Bosker and Carl Hammer, Freak Show: Sideshow Banner Art (San Francisco, California: Chronicle Books, 1996), 9.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Susan Stryker. Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2001).Google Scholar
  16. 24.
    James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing With Fraud in the Age of Barnum. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 16.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Heike Bauer and Matt Cook 2012

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  • Elizabeth Stephens

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