This Immersive Circus Celebrates Misfits and Oddities: “Le cirque de la liberté” by Akshita Gandhi

During the 19th century in England and the United States, freak or sideshows were a popular form of entertainment. These sometimes traveling and always for-profit exhibitions presented people who were strange and bizarre, curiosities; sideshow performers were specially-abled, had mental or behavioral rarities, came from the colonies and were of other or of mixed race, had missing limbs, or, were ‘exotics’ animal-people, such as “The Snake Man”, and generally termed as freaks.

The freak show culture counteracted normalized conceptions of gender, race, sexual aberrance, ethnicity, and disability and substantially shifted the way American culture viewed unconventional bodies. The shows provided people who otherwise would have been excluded from the workforce with financial independence and a somewhat respectable career. However, there are two sides to this coin, showmen often exploited sideshow performers by overworking them or limiting their access to medical care for fear of uncovering their ‘mysterious’ ailments as medical conditions. Beginning in the 1890s, spurred by a rise in disability rights and as people began to travel thus becoming more aware of the world the shows were termed exploitative, the practice dwindled, erasing the public practice of elevating of other bodies.

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