Sadly, those of our species who are found to be outside the borders
of normality in appearance and action have been often stared at,
studied, exploited, exhibited, and most often, feared. In the middle
ages, they were seen as "prodigies", signs of God's displeasure and/or
dominion over the earth, and were thus exploited by religious zealots.
Later, they were scientific curiosities, probed, prodded, and dissected
for further study. During the period of 1840-1920 they dominated the
stage and were seen as entertainers. Today, there are kept out from
Society behind the walls of specialized institutions. Human beings who
suffer from obvious congenital deformities represent a form of
monstrosity that is uncomfortable for us to confront on many levels
(social, political, psychological, and even critical). This visceral
discomfort is indicative of the taboos associated with mutations.
A changing status
A culture determines a freak's status by way of its interpretation of
the origin (cause) of the flaw. If a culture attributes deviancy to
supernatural intervention, deviancy may become sacred and the abnormal
traits a mark of holiness.
The caul is very representative of this attitude. A piece from the
amnion (inner membrane inclosing the foetus before birth) sometimes
remained on the head of the new born. It was either superstitiously
regarded as of good omen, and supposed to be a preservative against
drowning or a portent of punishment for a transgression (Cain's 'mark'
received from God), in the middle ages it was the sign of vampirism or
demons, in Ireland, it was linked to faeries.
Whether it is viewed as sacred, profane, or both, the mutation is
nevertheless taboo. Today, our culture with knowledge of molecular
genetics may attribute deviancy to an environmental (e.g., lack of
proper prenatal nutrition, exposure to radioactive elements) or
hereditary cause (the replication of mutated genes).
To be deviant, at least in a literal sense, means that one does not
fit into a social norm, whatever that social norm may be. The label of
deviance tends to be applied in the real or imagined presence of a
threat. The apparent transgression of the natural order embodies by the
freaks constitutes a threat to static categories of our society:
beliefs, values and culture. In Labeling Women Deviant: Gender, Stigma
and Social Control, Edwin Shur notes that "deviance is a designation, a
way of characterizing behaviour." He argues that "deviance" as a
category does not exist in isolation, but is rather given meaning within
a particular context. In other words, deviance, like gender, is socially
constructed. The usual freaks display monstrous traits and are then
considered as a threat to the values of youth, beauty and sanity that
are the pillars of our consumer society. In another category, female
bodybuilders by displaying strong and muscled bodies are a threat to
boundaries of gender.
Suad Joseph writes: "All boundaries and categories are sites of
struggle... Boundary making is about difference making for the purpose
of empowering or disempowering." Historically, many subordinated groups
of people have been labeled as "deviant" by the dominant groups or
institutions. Generally "deviance" is not defined within an egalitarian
relationship; instead, the process of naming deviance exists as part of
a hierarchy of power relations. By parking such individuals in deviance
categories, the general opinion put them apart from the rest of humanity
and try to give them enough rationality to allay the fear they provoke.
Within the hierarchy of power relations defining the normal and the
deviant, "[i]t is the perception of a threat... that triggers the
efforts at systematic devaluation." Stigmatizing something or someone as
deviant is an attempt to limit the power of the offending party.
In addition, "deviance" requires a definition of "normality" to make
any sense at all, as well as a demarcation of boundaries between the
two. Joseph notes: "Most societies normalize and naturalize these
imagined boundaries,". What is deviant does not exist in a kind of
ahistorical, asocial, static way but is rather inseparable from the
cultural and social context in which it operates. Deviance and normality
are not absolute and autonomous categories but antagonists in a
Similarity and Difference.
"In the past, individuals born with bodily differences, such as
Siamese twins, dwarfs and midgets, or the human torso, would premise
their sideshow exhibits on displays of their normality, which
demonstrated their ability to accomplish everyday tasks with ease, to
think intelligently, and to engage in respectable relationships with
others [...] For example, the human torso Prince Randian was celebrated
for his ability to roll a cigarette and light it with his mouth, and the
marriage of the Siamese twins Chang and Eng to two normal sisters was
widely publicized as proof of their remarkable condition. In contrast,
those performers who were not born true freaks, such as the snake
charmer, the savage, the strongman, or the tattooed person, emphasized
their difference from the average person. If some biographies
embellished the freak's identity by inventing exotic, faraway origins,
others displayed an anxiety about genealogy, insisting on the normality
of the freak's parents and offspring" (Rachel Adams, in Thomson ,
Greedy media have taken advantage of the old relationship between
strangeness and fear. Most freaks have been presented as characters
either shrouded in mystery, or dangerous due to lack of control. While
some people with emotional and mental disabilities do present a threat,
it is a very small group that is not representative of all people with
disabilities. Ignorance prevents many people from discerning one
disability from another. This lack of awareness generates stigmatism and
the resulting fear generates avoidance of people with disabilities in
the name of safety. Until now, most people with disabilities are
confined in hospitals and institutions, supposedly in society's best
interest. In modern society, a couple of freaky icons dominate: the
crippled person in a wheelchair or the lunatic in a room with padded
walls, ready to kill his neighbour. One incites pity, the other fear.
In litterature, two examples of the fear archetype are Lenny Small
from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, and Quasimodo from Victor Hugo's
The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The process of stigmatization
A stigma develops when pejorative and condemning assessments of a
group or trait affect ideas about every representative individual of
this group or trait.
In Stigma, Erving Goffman mentions three stigma types: tribal
(heritage, class, religion), moral (addiction, criminal history, mental
disability), and "the physical abominations" (chronic illness, physical
disability, cosmetic disfigurement).
Most often, Society quickly separate the deviants and isolate them
apart from the group. This grouping, and related isolation of
individuals promotes stigma perpetuation. An example is the isolation of
epileptics by the Catholic Church for fear of the epilepsy-causing
demons. Later they were separated from other patients in mental
hospitals; this was done to prevent the spread of epilepsy, thought to
be a contagious disease. A more recent stigma concerns people with AIDS.
Fear of contracting the virus causing AIDS through simple contact with a
patient prevents some people from voluntarily having contact with people
with AIDS. A stigma has been created, and fear of death is stronger than
medical information regarding transmission.
The transgression of sexual taboos
Some argue that the sideshow freaks were little more than prostitutes
or predecessors to the exotic dancer, calling them the pornography of
the disabled. It is true that sideshow freaks and prostitutes use their
bodies and the fascination of others with said bodies for monetary gain.
The freaks would often parade or dance across a stage, much like an
exotic dancer. The difference is that whereas the go-go dancer attacks
the moral biblical law of chastity, the freak's performance threaten the
very heart of our lives.
For occidental culture, freaks are often associated with the sexual
act that produced them and the underlying taboo of incest. Until
recently, freaks have been considered as the result of incest and
profane alliances between incompatible sexual partners.