Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Show Must Go On

It struck me today, as I packed my bags in preparation for tomorrow's flight home, that a distinct theme has emerged in my visit to America. If I was to define it generally, I would say it was the human being as an exhibit. If I had to define it specifically... I would refer to a few key moments in my trip.

I visited Coney Island for the express purpose of viewing the notorious Coney Island freak show, the 'Sideshows by the Seashore'. Having written a chapter on the notion of the 'freak' as it relates to the grotesque, I was excited to visit the spiritual home of American freak culture. The show takes place within an old building decorated by traditional sideshow banners. These depict current performers in the show, while also setting the scene for the freak show as an historical event.

When I arrived, one of the 'freaks' was outside the show, enticing people inside. It was Insectavora, the fire eater. A petite white woman with long brown dreadlocks, she wore a skimpy belly dancing outfit that exposed the tattoos that covered her body. She posed and shimmied in front of the banners, an exotic attraction greeting her public. I asked if I could take a photograph of her. She responded that I could, but only if I was also in the picture. "I feel weird when it's just me" she explained, a little apologetic, "then they end up on the Internet and... but then people can say 'I met Insectavora' and its not just me standing there, like, just me." Only later, when I mulled over this comment, did it strike me as really interesting.

Here is a woman who makes her living as an oddity, a spectacle, yet who is actively working to redefine the terms in which her image is recorded and circulated. Requiring the photographer to include themselves in the photograph changes the dynamic of the spectacular body as an object of exhibition. The photographer is made part of the spectacle, and can no longer hold the position of 'the one who looks' - they must also be 'the one who is looked at.' The object of the gaze is no longer pure display, but a relational figure who exists as part of a social event ("I met Insectavora").

Insectavora performs a clever trick, for she places greater weight and importance on the image by including her audience. One might happily upload a picture of a circus 'freak' to be consumed by many anonymous others, but one must think again when one's own likeness is held within the image. The refrain 'Look at the freak!' is subverted by a questioning of whether you want to be looked at yourself. In this way the subject of the image turns the tables on her audience, placing them in the position of potential spectacle.


I came across Bodies: The Exhibition on my way through the NY Seaport. Bodies is "a phenomenal exhibition about the amazing and complex machine we call the human body." It involves a series of real human bodies that have been dissected in order to reveal the inner workings of their various parts (skeleton, organs, nervous system, blood vessels, etc).

"This Exhibition--which features actual human specimens--allows people of all ages access to sights and knowledge normally reserved only for medical professionals. Take the opportunity to peer inside yourself, to better understand how your elaborate and fascinating body works, and how you can become a more informed participant in your own health care."

I at first thought this was a Bodyworlds exhibit. A disclaimer on the wall explained otherwise (well after the ticket booth, mind you). Inside were human bodies, "specimens," that had been preserved and hardened with silicone. Many minute body parts were displayed by themselves (eg, the epiglottis), while other larger sections showed the inner workings of larger elements (eg, the arm, the reproductive system). The parts of the body were divided up, in order to show their separate function and relationship to each other. For example, the skeleton and the muscular system were shown separately, then together. This is quite a confronting exhibit, showing detailed inside and outside views of male and female genitalia (diseased and healthy) as well as a whole room of preserved foetuses in various stages of development.

I had the fortune of arriving at the exhibit a few minutes before a large group of high school students on an excursion. Thus I had the constant benefit of their perspectives on the situation. Aside from the predictable anthem of "Grossss!" I overheard several "it must be because they're Chinese" comments. At first, I thought they were making racist jokes. But then I overheard one of the guides confirming that the entire exhibit consisted of Chinese people. I found this disturbing. More disturbing than a room full of dissected humans, was the thought of a room full of dissected humans of a single racial group. Why not include a multitude of different bodies?

The Bodies website has this disclaimer:

"This exhibit displays human remains of Chinese citizens or residents which were originally received by the Chinese Bureau of Police. The Chinese Bureau of Police may receive bodies from Chinese prisons. Premier cannot independently verify that the human remains you are viewing are not those of persons who were incarcerated in Chinese prisons.

This exhibit displays full body cadavers as well as human body parts, organs, fetuses and embryos that come from cadavers of Chinese citizens or residents. With respect to the human parts, organs, fetuses and embryos you are viewing, Premier relies solely on the representations of its Chinese partners and cannot independently verify that they do not belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons."

The exhibition is framed as an educational event, a chance to view the effects of unhealthy living on the body. But what does it mean that I, a white Australian woman, should come to America and view the spectacular inner workings of Chinese bodies? What kind of strange racial interplay exists within this 'educational' event? The exhibition is called 'Bodies' - not 'Chinese Bodies.' These "specimens" were intended to stand as representative of the entire human race, to operate as "an opportunity to peer inside yourself." And yet, as the conversations of the high school students made clear, race played a definite part in the audience's "peering." It seems that no matter how deep within the physiology of humanity the exhibition went, people were still eager to read racial characteristics in the biological.

The exposed nature of the bodies, the way certain parts of them were literally opened out to be looked at, in some ways made me want to cover them up again. Not because I'm a prude, but because I imagine how those individuals, especially the women, would have covered and protected those parts during their lives. Unlike Insectavora, the people in this spectacle have no agency, and perhaps that is what made it most unsettling.


There are a lot of reality shows on TV here. The other night I watched something called "I Hate My Face" as part of MTV's 'True Life' series.

"What if the very sight of your own face made you disgusted every time you looked at it? That's the case for many people who suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a mental illness that causes individuals to obsess endlessly over perceived defects in their physical features. In this episode of True Life, you'll meet Pamela and Mandie, two young women desperate to overcome their perceptions of their own appearance."

Pamela and Mandie are two good-looking women in their mid-twenties who see themselves as grotesque. They are so consumed with their own grossness that they can barely function. Each hates their face to the extent that they can't stand to be looked at. Pamela wears a big dot between here eyes to distract anyone who looks at her, while Mandie has her breasts enlarged to take attention away from her face (forehead tittaes clearly not appropriate in this situation).

As reality freak shows go, this one is peculiar in that the individuals on display do not appear physically different from anyone else. While The Biggest Loser could arguably be seen as an extension of the sideshow's Fat Lady, and a variety of 'medical' shows now allow us to indulge our obsession with unusual bodies, these women are freakish only by virtue of their own perception. That is, they were until they went on 'the show.' Then the accumulated framing practices of the television program came to bear upon them and they became genuine spectacles in the public eye. One wonders how they came to terms with the fact that their image was now being disseminated nation wide, and why they agreed to do the program in the first place?

It was a pretty good show. "I hate my face... I hate myself." Meanwhile, the viewer is scoffing at their foolishness because "there is nothing wrong with them... except in the head!" This is a kind of psychological spectacle. One usually followed by Dr Phil-like treatment and recuperation. Only, in this show there was no healing. No recovery. Pamela gets plastic surgery on her nose, but it doesn't help. Mandie wanders off sadly, after a breast enlargement: "I still hate myself." I was left wondering... what was the purpose of the whole exercise? The viewers looking at the subjects looking at themselves looking back in the mirror. A strange vortex.

Then I went to The Phantom of the Opera. Speaking of "I hate my face"...

I find it fascinating how the theme of 'putting on a show' threads throughout representations of the outsider or 'freak' in American culture. There is more to be said, but I lack the resources (my precious books, oh how I miss you) to do it all justice at the moment.

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