Staring through Time

Staring through Time


From Freak Show to Inspirational Porn

From antiquity to present day, disability is pervasive. The attitudes towards disabled people are ambiguous, encompassing pity, scorn, and even spite. People with disabilities are considered to be the source of both horror and allure. The earliest record of people with disabilities is that they were exhibited as “prodigies, monsters, omens from the gods, and indexes of the natural or divine world.”1. In the nineteenth century, people whose disabled bodies that others regarded as freaks were displayed for entertainment and profit. In contemporary times, the disabled are objectified through biased depictions in mass media as figures of inspiration. Looking from Victorian era to the twenty first century, disabled people are perceived in the way that demonizes them, establishing a power imbalance between able-bodied people and those with disabilities.

The demarcation between abled-body and disability is clear, but the distinction between normality and abnormality needs to be redefined. In other points in history, people pursued perfection rather than normality—during the Renaissance, artists sought to portray the beauty of a perfect, idealized body shape. The word “normality,” in sense of “being in accordance with rule or standard,” emerged in 1833.2 Later in nineteenth century, with the birth of statistics, normality is taken to represent the average value, or the standardized distribution of samples whose shape is a bell curve. The cultural and mathematic notions of normality do not connote any kind of value judgment, good or bad. It is widely held that disability and abnormality are interconnected, while they actually are not equivalent terms: “Disability” simply speaks to the mental and physical effects of disease, illness, and impairment, but “abnormality” translates to a subliminal prejudice towards people who look different. The term abnormality isolates disabled individuals from mainstream society and conceptualizes disability as a barrier that prevents people from leading their life decently. In the framework that juxtaposes “normality” with “abnormality,” disability is depicted as the symbol that represents tragedy, torture, and misfortune.

Staring at disabled people is an act of ableism that people enact without realizing that they are being ableist. Sometimes staring comes from curiosity—people simply stare when they see something they do not usually see. Although disability is not abnormality, sometimes there truly is visible difference between people with and without disabilities. People, however, usually recognize the differences between the disabled and the non-disabled but are quick to dismiss the similarities. This bias sets the stage for the segregation of disabled people. Staring also causes discomfort for those who are being observed, as it creates a tension that embarrasses and estranges the observed; for the observers, although social decorum strictly governs and regulates staring, it is still done furtively  and compelling to do so. Correspondingly, disabled bodies are categorized into two groups: those who are “to-be-looked-at” and those who are “not-to-be-looked-at,” and this “further [dramatizes] the staring encounter by making viewers furtive and the viewed defensive.”3. The visual exchange bought by staring is drenched with complex significance, and embracing the difference through visual communication helps people with disabilities to become visible in society.

Rather than being erased from history, the Victorian history of disabled people is the history of being on display. People with disabilities—“the so-called giants, dwarves, fat people, the very thin, conjoined twins and even people from exotic climes”—were profitable performers.4 Victorian freak shows struggled to foreground the bodily eccentricities, to portray disabled bodies as passive victims who could evoke “a discourse of eroticism and savagery,” and to “[wrest]” them from the stare of one audience to another.5 The popularity of freak shows peaked in Victorian Era. “Because they were often touring shows visiting large cities and small villages alike,” and also with the low entry fee, “they attracted thousands of people each year.”6 The show, which appealed to people from different classes, at different ages, sharing different backgrounds, positioned disabled people as objects for non-disabled audiences’ amusement and entertainment.

Not only did Victorian freak shows authorize the public to stare at disabled bodies, they also embellished the physical difference between the people on display and the viewers. The titillating exaggeration in advertisements of freak show overplayed the difference to arouse people’s desire to stare at disabilities. The freak show showcased disabled bodies as “unique,” “novelty,” and “extraordinary” objects, separating people from their own bodies and turning them into objects that arouses viewers’ curiosity, enjoyment, or disgust. In particular, “Giants and Midgets” were intentionally juxtaposed to highlight the difference, “Fat Ladies” were used for flirting by their “cute diminutive stage names such as Dolly Dimples,” “albino twins” were dressed up with spears and loincloths to intimidate “Wild Men of Borneo.”7 For Victorians, disabled people were novelty examples of human life, and freak shows were spectacular displays that amused the audiences at the expense of the disabled. Viewers’ interestwith those shows largely came from shock and curiosity.

In addition to pure amusement, freak shows in the Victorian Era were also associated with the ideology of science. The heyday of freak shows, was in Victorian society, which coincided with an age of considerable scientific and medical progress. In the setting of industrialization, “the body under industrialization began to seem more like an extension of the machine,” and the concept of “ability” became linked with “a measurement of bodily value.”8 Accordingly, there was a binary between “normal, functional bodies and disabled ‘broken’ people” as human bodies were perceived as production machine rather than natural human beings.9 People were classified into those who were highly productive and those who could not work. Due to the lack of medical advancement, Victorian people also held misunderstanding of certain diseases and disabilities. For example, as Garland-Thompson points out, “what we now consider the medical dermatological condition of vitiligo was parlayed into the act of Spotted Boys.”10 Victorian acts and shows embodying insulting exaggeration and irony were created to fascinate the audiences. In attempt not to spoil the fascination and to maintain the reputation of the show, showmen rarely allowed people with medical or scientific backgrounds to visit the show—they feared that “a diagnosis of the freak’s ailment or a classification of their deformity would ruin the appeal of the show.”11 The Victorian public were simply curious about the peculiar, unexplained oddities; if there is medical definition for the so-called freaks on the show, the audiences would feel less mysterious and eventually lost their interests.

Similar to Victorian freak shows, the depiction of disability as inspirational in contemporary mass media also intensifies the tensions between the groups of the able-bodied and the disabled. This “inspirational porn” entails the portrayal of people who have certain disabilities as inspiring to non-disabled people, showing a disabled person or people accomplishing tasks which able-bodied people considered them incapable of doing. This doesn’t celebrate people with disabilities but objectifies them. Praising somebody with disability as inspirational is merely for the good of non-disabled people: Although someone’s disabilities are part of who they are, they are much more than just their physical or mental conditions. They are different individuals who can critically think and decently lead their life as much as those who have no disabilities. The depiction as the source of inspiration, nevertheless, turns disabled bodies from natural human beings to “motivational secondary characters” in the life of the those their portrayal inspires.12 The idea that the existence of disabled people is for the sake of being inspirational implies that merely existing as someone disabled is meaningless, since whatever they do will be judged as a reflection of their disability.

Similar to freak shows which portrayed disabilities as oddities, the inspirational depictions also create certain standards to classify disabled people. The ones who go above and beyond what “normal” humans can do are regarded as “superhuman,” while those who struggle with their disability, who sink into sadness and sit on the sofa are considered “scroungers.”13  Being perceived inspirational is a label that assumes disability means incapability. Granted, it is positive that people can inspire and motivate others by sharing their life experience—such as their virtuous traits and personal achievements— but disability is never the central topic of any inspirational stories. When people with disabilities are brave it’s not because they are disabled; they are brave because they are brave, and they are willing to conquer the difficulties in their life. When able-bodied people promote the depiction of disabled people as inspirational figures, their stereotypes of being incapable and pathetic become more entrenched. The disabled community should fight for their voice to be heard, their rights to be supported, and their accommodations to be assisted; there is nothing that people without disabilities can take for granted, and non-disabled people cannot deprive disabled people’s right to live as a real individual.

he popularity of freak shows dwindled, but it has managed to live on the form of contemporary inspirational porn. As early as in1860s, British social historian and journalist, Henry Mayhew, vehemently opposed the existence of freak show by dismissing it as “nothing more than moral corruption and human degradation.” He claimed that “instead of being a means for illustrating a moral precept, it turned into a platform to teach the cruelest debauchery.”14 The rise of disability rights emerged in early twentieth century helped to end freak show, but, as another form of exploitation, inspirational porn still objectifies people with disabilities and disseminates the ideas of normality and abnormality. It is true that the exposure of disabled people in freak shows and inspirational porn somehow make disabled people more visible to the public, but it is for the benefit of non-disabled people. Putting disabled people under the spotlight could be considered society’s blundering compensation in an attempt to ease their guilt. Evidently, this is not meant to make able-bodied people to treat disabled people equally and decently; on the contrary, it evokes more marginalization and discrimination against them indeed.

From Victorian freak shows to modern-day inspirational porn, disabled people are still stared at in a way that excludes, discriminates, and marginalizes them. They are still not being treated equally, even as, now, they have been seen, heard, and understood by the rest of world to a degree that previous generations could only dream about. In an era where social progression is encumbered by inequality and unrest, gaining accepting awareness of people with all conditions is especially important. Although said discrimination is rooted in the social community mindset, we still have a shot at creating a bias-free future if we fully educate ourselves and our coming generations about the perils of bigotry.

  1. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Culture,” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, 2002.
  2. Normality,” Online Etymology Dictionary.
  3. Garland-Thomson, “The Politics of Staring.”
  4. Victorian Freak Shows,” The British Library, 2006.
  5. Helen Davies, Neo-Victorian Freakery: The Cultural Afterlife of the Victorian Freak Show, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 25.
  6. Esme Cleall, “Missing Links: The Victorian Freak Show,” History Today, February 2, 2019.
  7. “The Politics of Staring,” Garland-Thomson.
  8. Maria Rovito, “The Victorian Freak Show and the Spectacle of the Elephant Man.” MUsings: The Graduate Journal, Millersville University.
  9. Rovito, “The Victorian Freak Show and the Spectacle of the Elephant Man.”
  10. Garland-Thomson, “The Politics of Staring.”
  11. Strange and Bizarre: The History of Freak Shows,” Things Said And Done, March 12, 2011.
  12. Jessica Kellgren-Fozard, “Why Not All Disabled People Want to Be Seen as ‘an Inspiration,’Cosmopolitan, Cosmopolitan, June 13 2018.
  13. Kellgren-Fozard, “Why Not All Disabled People Want to Be Seen as ‘an Inspiration.’
  14. Strange and Bizarre.”
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