We may gaze at what we desire, but we stare at what astonishes us.

Garland-Thomson 2009: 13

The body may be different, strange, even unusual, but it is the mechanism of representation that renders this body a “freak.”

Hevey 1992

Today is July 14th. My exam is August 13th. I have less than one month left to prepare. If I had a month for other things in life that would seem long, but holy moly I am not ready!

Remembering Amiri Baraka | Special Collections Blog

A few posts ago I wrote about Amiri Baraka’s 1963 book Blues People and got caught up in his description of Benny Goodman (a white bandleader) hiring Black musicians like Lionel Hampton as a “spectacle” to draw a crowd. I’m still not convinced by Baraka’s perspective; I align more with Stanley Crouch’s interpretation of the situation.

Regardless, the idea of people being showcased because of physical difference (in this case, skin color) is common in disability studies. I’ve only read 1/4 of the sources on my Music and Disability Studies exam list so far and out of those twenty sources, nine directly mention “enfreakment,” “freakery,” “spectacle,” staring, and/or freak shows. In disability studies the differences explored extend far beyond skin color, but I see an overlap between what authors on this list and my Black Atlantic list are concerned with.

Freaks, Freak Shows

Freak show - Wikipedia
A freak show in Rutland, VT, 1941
(photo source)

“Freak” is a social construction, not a person but “the enactment of a tradition, the performance of a stylized presentation” (Bogdan 1988). Normalcy is likewise a social construction, one which is fluid and non-absolute (Davis 1995: 23). The rise and fall of freak shows (aka sideshows) parallels the 19th/early 20th century timeline for when disability was used as an argument for/against equality, as described in my last entry (re:disability’s role in the women’s suffrage movement, African American freedom and civil rights, and immigration in the the 19th/early 20th centuries). People with disabilities were perceived as inferior, unable to handle the rights and freedoms afforded to “normate” individuals. Thus, disability could be used to garner pity or contempt depending whether someone was arguing for or against equality for women, African Americans, immigrants, etc. One side argued that those groups were worthy of more rights than disabled people, the other argued that, like disabled people, women/immigrants/African Americans could not handle the same responsibilities as “normate” white men.

Along the same timeline, in the 1840s P.T. Barnum took over the American Museum in New York City and began displaying “human curiosities,” strongly contributing to the growing popularity of “freak shows” in the US. Freak shows remained popular until 1940, when they began to be viewed as distasteful (though they continued to exist with some regularity until the 1950s/60s). At that time, the concept of eugenics was gaining traction and people with disabilities were beginning to be seen as “sick.”

Before that period, people with disabilities were seen as somewhat inhuman, exotic, odd, or even superhuman, able to do things that “normal” people couldn’t because of their differences and simultaneously unable to do what normates could do, hence not being considered worthy of equal rights. They were not presented as handicapped, but different in a divisive way. As the concept of sickness gained traction, disability began to garner pity; people with disabilities were still not equal, but now it was distasteful to highlight their differences. As Robert Bogdan notes, “presentations are artifacts of changing social institutions, organizational formations, and world views” (Bogdan 1988: 35).

“General Tom Thumb” was one of the “attractions” at Barnum’s museum. He is an example of intentional misrepresentation; 11-y/o English-born Tom Thumb was actually 5-y/o, Connecticut-born Charles Sherwood Stratton when Barnum began exhibiting him. Later in life when he married, he and his wife were presented with a baby that was not theirs in the hopes that a third “Thumb” would attract a larger audience (Bogdan 1988: 25).


In this blog series we’ve reviewed many events happening in the same period (19th/early 20th century): Freak shows were popular, disability was not yet seen as a sickness but rather as a dividing difference, and white bandleaders such as Benny Goodman were hiring Black musicians for their groups. Other events I won’t cover in depth can also can be added to the timeline. In 1893 for instance, Fanwood, New York School for the Deaf (previously known as New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb until 1856 and now called the New York School for the Deaf) established a military curriculum, adding what is likely the world’s first deaf marching band to the school in the early 1900s.

The Fanwood Band
(photo taken by Carolyn Stallard at the New York School for the Deaf, 2017)

The marching band, consisting entirely of deaf students, drew large crowds not only for competitions but also for practices and drills. One report states: “Every Sunday afternoon in good weather dress parade is held on the lawn in front of the Institution, and the fence is always lined with interested spectators who have heard of the fame of these ‘silent cadets’” (Dobyns 1908:19). Was it the cadets’ musical prowess that drew crowds, or the spectacle of deaf people playing instruments? It is interesting to note that the military school and its marching ensemble existed from 1893-1952, disbanding just as attitudes toward freak shows and disabilities were changing in the United States.

So what does this mean? Does it make sense to link Baraka’s idea of spectacle in regards to race with the concept of spectacle in regards to disability? Both refer to marginalized groups perceived by/through an identity-defining characteristic that does not match societal norms. I’m linking these ideas to help myself prepare for this exam but I do feel as if there is overlap in a broader context.

Many Terms

A number of terms related to the concept of individuals defined by difference have been coined within disability studies. Here are some that relate to performing arts that can possibly be reinterpreted with race in mind instead of disability. These terms could also be applied to gender. For instance, female bands in the late 19th/early 20th centuries were often viewed as entertainment rather than as groups of competent musicians. I have not included all terms related to this concept, just the ones I’ve been reading about in my studies so far:

  • Freak: A social construction, not a person but “the enactment of a tradition, the performance of a stylized presentation” (Bogdan 1988).
    • Social attitudes toward anatomical difference inform the creation of the “freak.”
  • Enfreakment: The societal creation of the freak; the marginalization and “othering” of a non-normative body.
    • “Enfreakment emerges from cultural rituals that stylize, silence, differentiate, and distance the persons whose bodies [are deemed different through repeated public spectacle]” (Garland-Thomson 1996: 10).
    • Enfreakment is a “process of stylizing and, most importantly, marketing the non-normative body” (Hevey).
  • Engulfment: Process where a person is reduced to their disability; “stripped of normalizing contexts and engulfed by a single stigmatizing trait” (Garland-Thomson 1997: 11).
  • Staring: The dominant mode of looking at disability in American culture; “the normative stare constructs the disabled” (Garland-Thomson 2005).
    • Four elemental qualities of staring: It is a physiological response; it is monitored by social rules, with culture determining its meaning and practice; it is a natural human response that establishes a social relationship between starer and staree; it is a conduit to knowledge, an urgent response to make the unknown known.
  • Disability as masquerade: Embracing disability rather than hiding it to “pass.” This embrace marks someone as a target but also exposes and resists prejudices of society (Siebers 2008).

Enfreaking Popular Culture

Freak shows still exist today but are nowhere near as common as they were in the 19th/early 20th centuries. Today they are not seen so much as distasteful as “fringe,” outside the realm of popular culture. However, some artists work to bring the freak show concept into normate spaces. Perhaps most notable is Lady Gaga, who reappropriates the freak show and uses terms such as “freak” and “monster” to refer to her fan base. She says she wants her fans to have a “freak in me to hang out with” so “they don’t feel alone” (Ellis 2015). She focuses on transgression, identity politics, and otherness, which Ellis says position her as a key figure in popular social change discourse.

Hot Shots: Lady GaGa Performs At Elton John's White Tie ...
Lady Gaga’s performances in wheelchairs are a point of debate in disability forums, according to scholar Katie Ellis (2015).
(photo source)

Her focus on otherness makes me think of Kevin Gaines’ description of artistic othering, a response to social othering. In his examples, Black artists create spaces for music outside of the realm of “normal” popular culture, producing sounds free of influence from white, dominant culture. Could a form of artistic othering be applied to disability and music? I don’t think we can say that Lady Gaga herself practices artistic othering, since she is not disabled, but when someone with a disability creates music in a unique way through their disability that enhances and celebrates their difference, is that artistic othering? Similarly, Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way” has become an anthem for the disability rights agenda. Does that make it an example of artistic othering?


There is a lot more to process about all these ideas. What do you think? Through the frame of 19th/early 20th century perspectives and societal norms, can terms like artistic othering, enfreakment, staring, etc. be used for multiple marginalized groups, or are they unique to the group they were originally intended for? Am I performing a form of appropriation by suggesting that they might be applicable in different contexts? Something to think about…

Works Cited

Bogdan, Robert. 1988. “The Social Construction of Freaks.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Ed. Rosemary Garland Thomson. New York University Press. 23-37.

Davis, L. 1995. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. London and New York: Verso.

Dobyns, A. Webster. 1908. American Annals of the Deaf, Volumes 52-53.

Ellis, Katie. 2015. “Enfreaking Popular Music: Making Us Think by Making Us Feel.” In Disability and Popular Culture: Focusing Passion, Creating Community, and Expressing Defiance, 101–118. Surrey, UK: Ashgate.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 2005. “Dares to Stare: Disabled Women Performance Artists and the Dynamics of Staring.” In Bodies in Commotion: Disability and Performance, edited by Carrie Sandahl and Philip Auslander, 30–41. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

—–. 1997. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

—–, ed. 1996. Freakery: Cultural spectacles of the extraordinary body. NYU Press.

Hevey, David. 1992. The creatures time forgot: Photography and disability imagery. Taylor & Francis.

Lipenga, KJ. 2019. “The New Normal: Enfreakment in Saga.”
The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, 9(1): 2, pp. 1–17.

Siebers, Tobin. 2008. Disability Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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