Communication and Construction of Monstrous Embodiment
June 15-16, 2012

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Encountering Unexpected Bodies

For a discussion on extraordinary bodies, freak shows, monsters and staring, check out Rosemarie Garland Thomson's concise and informative article 'Staring at the Other' which traces unusual embodiments from ancient times to present day. The article highlights the shifting terminology attached to these unexpected bodies (monsters, freaks, prodigies, disabled) dependent on socio-historical context as well as the nature of people's interest in them (manifested usually in the phenomenon of 'staring'), ranging from adoration, hostility, reverence and repulsion. Reflecting on freak shows and the changing meanings surrounding the anomalous form, Thomson writes:

Freaks were spectacular public displays of novelty that entertained viewers who gladly paid to stare. Droll and fascinating freak figures were created from the unusually embodied by way of exaggeration, irony, and theatrical staging. What we now consider the medical dermatological condition of vitiligo, for example, was parlayed into the act of Spotted Boys. Giants and Midgets appeared juxtaposed together to highlight their differences. Fat Ladies titillated with cute diminutive stage names such as Dolly Dimples. The ordinary microcephalic black man became the exotic Missing Link dressed up in an ape suit. Spears and loincloths transformed albino twins into Wild Men of Borneo. Amputees became Armless Wonders by cutting out paper dolls, penning calligraphy, and drinking tea with their toes. The freak show validated curiosity and authorized public staring at bodies that departed from the ordinary by embellishing differences to make money.

The article ends with an examination of contemporary discourses surrounding monstrous embodiment, contextualized with the advent of technology, progress of medicine and the 'potent medium of television spectacle' which aimed to place these bodies back into the spotlight.
Is the wondrous freak gone altogether in our society? How can a historical approach to extraordinary embodiment inform our modern sensibilities? Thomson tellingly concludes that the unexpected bodies have been 'edited out of the human community like textual errors in the path of automatic spell checkers.'
If you are interested in this scholar and her landmark works in the field of disability studies, visit her official page featuring many helpful links and videos!

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