(I thought it might be slightly interesting to post this up here. Keep in mind that there were a few marks/corrections my professor made on this final draft of my paper; I have not made the suggested corrections, though I do acknowledge that there may be a few awkward phrases/sentences and maybe one or two instances of disorganization. Anyhow, the story behind this essay: I am enrolled in a class entitled LSFY 102: From Freak Shows to Talk Shows. We were asked to elaborate on how the term 'freaks' can help us to both question and understand the human condition, both now and in history. Err, the actual prompt was more profound than that, but that is the gist of it. I got a 296/300 on this paper, making it the best grade I have ever received on an essay over five pages long. I have received some of my best grades on college essays recently...)
The beginning of class was an interesting and odd sort of revelation; I recalled staring blankly at the odd request in front of me. Had it ever occurred to a majority of the students in the classroom what heavy weight the term “freak” truly bore? Even I never before considered how frivolously the term was thrown about in casual conversation, nor could I remember the last time I used it at all. For the first instance in a number of years, I found myself truly stuck: speechless. I scrawled ideas down that were not necessarily my true beliefs (such as the mention of pedophilia, despite it honestly being a thing I abhor), for I could not quite fathom what my actual beliefs were. Classmates fumbled with their answers and provided their own insights into what the burdened word “freak” defined as to them, and I merely sat there, befuddled, flabbergasted, and pondering. This enigmatic concept became an astounding discovery: What, in actuality, did the term “freak” signify? Some suggested it to merely mean an anomaly, whilst others related “freak” to a more colloquial form of ‘creepy.’ A single voice concluded it to be, of some sorts, merely what the human mind views as abnormal, different, or absurd—the unknown.
It became an unanticipated surprise that the term “freak,” despite its implications and its conversational usage, does not necessarily exist in a completely negative light, and is especially vital in immersing one’s self with the true nature of human instinct, wonder, and awe. In “The Social Construction of Freaks” Robert Rogdan goes on to explain that the both famous and infamous freak show was most prominent between 1840 and 1940. The term “freak” became synonymous with “human curiosities”—that is, deformed human beings that became the inevitable stars of the widespread freak show in America, treated with awe, fear, disgust, boundless curiosity, wonder, reluctance, envy, and pity. To understand the rich cultural history and the nature behind “freak” is to see it as an important, though vulgar, aspect of America’s past. Rogdan states: ““Freak” is a way of thinking about and presenting people—a frame of mind and a set of practices.” Those who are an exception of the norm become a display in the public to curious eyes and wandering minds; is it not instinct to briefly gawk at or at least notice, without fail, an extremely tall human, or one with missing limbs?
It seems that the issue is that exploration of the human condition is touchy, for the mindset of America (and that of most of the world) now mostly abhors prejudice based on race, gender, sexuality, and physical handicaps. The freak show is a mostly dead practice now considered shameful, and sensitivity is directed towards those exhibiting medical deformities that American society as a whole no longer views superstitiously and with unspoken terror as a wrath from God or another high form of being. However, the denial is widespread: those which are different remain treated as such, however unconsciously this urge driven by the human mind may be. That which is the norm for one may unintentionally faze another that has not properly adjusted himself or herself to it. Does this mean that views and practices considered depraved, vile, or pure evil are merely misunderstood, whether the acts in themselves are deliberate or no? This aforementioned revelation immerses the world in a puzzling mélange of subjectivity and an entirely new view on the concept of tolerance. “Freak” is the unknown—that which the human mind cannot comprehend or fathom. Though the term itself is treated with more care in sensitive circumstances, the mindset remains, however subtle it may be, and however the whole collective society attempts to bury away past transgressions and discriminations related to such.
However, perhaps the most important concept to realize here is that human instinct cannot change. Though physical deformities and mental illnesses eventually became subject to medical observation, the fact remains that doctors aim to fix what is considered wrong with their patients (the deformities or conditions that are so feared or maltreated by human society). If a baby naturally emerges with an extra limb or appendage, is it not uncalled for to alter the newborn’s natural shape? Adults of the previous generations continuously frown upon the idea of adolescents altering their natural form by way of tattoos, piercings, hair dyes, and plastic surgery (another interesting food for thought—even those considered physically normal by society’s standards still exhibit unhappiness in their figures, or at least the desire to change themselves in order to shine: to be unique and different). If this is so, why should it be unusual for a midget to be proud of his or her size, or for a man to take pride in his extra fingers? Unless actually considered an inevitable or grave threat to the person’s health, life, or safety, this unmistakable urge to fix what is deigned freakish seems both superfluous and absurd, yet is unfortunately a mark that the human conscious will always bear.
Furthermore, it should be vigorously noted that “freak” is not limited to merely physical and mental abnormalities: this term has been used both in confusion and in a derogatory sense towards those of different cultures, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations and genders. This carries back to the “unknown,” or what a human outside of the foreign culture simply does not understand or cannot fathom. Consider the typical Western religion, for example—typically, when a person dies, their individual spirit or soul either rises peacefully to Heaven or is banished to an afterlife of eternal Hell and purgatory, depending on the person’s deeds and actions performed in this physical life. In this sense, Western religion generally believes that a human retains his or her respective personality and identity. Imagine now a typical Eastern religion—the spirit becomes one with a deity, losing all of its comprehending consciousness in the nirvana for all eternity. As opposed to the properties of sand, where each individual grain still retains its shape and color even hidden away in its millions of companions in the desert, a drop of rain that meets with the lake loses all form of distinction, ultimately fusing itself with the larger body of water, never to be found again. When two such differing ideals clash with one another, it is here that the opposite perspectives begin to view each other as odd, insane, or, even, “freaky.” To lose one’s sense of self for infinity is certainly not something one of, say, American culture could immediately grasp or accept (and vice-versa, of course), where the majority of the populace is fervently adjusted to believing that one retains one’s spiritual being in the afterlife, and can still, in that aspect, express themselves. An unfamiliar foreigner is not (and should not) be expected to immediately embrace customs so unfamiliar to him or her. The Igorots, too, were a prime example of this, as American spectators as well as the sideshow hosts were so eager to exaggerate, exploit, and misunderstand their culture as savage and barbaric; at the time, America was undergoing significant development as a nation and one of the top countries of the world, and the American’s primary desire, therefore, was to appear sophisticated and believe such. On one hand, this is both a fascinating and even positive observation in human adaptation tendencies in new situations.
Unfortunately, on the other hand, such a stubborn characteristic of human nature has its widely-known drawbacks. The aforementioned Igorots, being of Filipino descent, quickly began to spread an inaccurate and racist image of the Philippines as a whole, which began to spark outrage in light of the gratuitous discrimination Filipinos faced as a result. Ethnocentrism—the tendency to view one’s own culture as superior—also arises if the foreigner in question refuses to accept abnormal views presented to him or her, or, in the case of the Igorots viewing dog meat as a delicacy and the Americans often keeping the animals as beloved companions, the subject believes his or her culture as more sophisticated and less vulgar. This refusal to accept the different beliefs and characteristics of others is a persistent issue that may forever plague human society, relentlessly present in the historical screaming at the sight of the Elephant Man, or of mistreatment of midgets driven by the inaccurate conclusion that because a dwarf is small, they are weak, and therefore easy to manipulate, control, and toy with. This is where the most negative connotations of both the term “freak” as well as the general mindset lie as a whole, effectively bringing an entire misconception of the word, especially to a classroom unused to even catching the term spoken aloud in the swirling vernacular of informal conversation.
To conclude, the human mind is undoubtedly a fickle treasure. In a society composed of vast arrays of human values and preferences, an entire worldwide, peaceful understanding and acceptance of each other is described as an outrageous, idealistic notion at best. The true beauty of the world lies beyond what a human’s eyes can behold when they eventually decide to venture on their own: to experiment with an unusual culture after ostracizing it before, perhaps, or befriending another despite their glaring deformities or mental condition. “Freak” is a heavy term that the newer generations toss about freely with minimal cares or thoughts as to just the burdened past this word has faced for many years. Quite frankly, such fine detail can be so shamefully easy to overlook or dismiss (an error that I can admit to committing). Even in written word, this term cannot accurately be described or explained with all of its weight behind it; the subjectivity surrounding it as well as the ideal human condition worsens the problem. Yet, exposed and in the light, the pro becomes clear again: the sheer intrigue in the study of human adaptation to unfamiliar habitats is astounding, as well as beneficial to those who read, write, and observe on this subject, for truly it is the blunt reality of a prejudiced and conflicted world that makes it whole.