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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

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Definition of the freak

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.

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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.

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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 perpetual struggle.

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 [1996], pp. 278-


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.