Spectacle of Deformity: Freak Shows and Modern British Culture

By Nadja Durbach | Go to book overview

CONCLUSION
The Decline of the Freak Show

THE FREAK SHOW NO LONGER exists in Britain as a cultural institution. There is no equivalent to the Sideshows by the Seashore at Coney Island, which has kept the tradition alive in the United States. In fact, by the late twentieth century the British public had deemed the exhibition of human anomalies inappropriate, indecent, and indefensible. When referred to at all in late twentieth- and early twenty-first century discourse, the freak show has been widely condemned as a product of “the worst traditions of Victorian ghoulishness,” an institution that inhabited “the backwaters of civilisation in the nineteenth century.”1 The freak show’s seemingly inevitable demise has become part of a new national narrative of moral progress, multiculturalism, and civil rights. Britons in the new millennium have begun explicitly to construct their identities by distancing themselves from what is now seen as the more reprehensible “excesses and ignorances of [their] Victorian ancestors.”2 But the disappearance of freakery from British culture was a gradual process caused not only by the rise of “political correctness” but also by a variety of other factors. These included changes in attitudes toward deformity triggered by the First World War; the introduction of legislation that restricted the employment of foreign laborers; the emergence of the beauty industry; advances in medicine; and the rise of the disability rights movement, all of which significantly affected the British public’s willingness to ogle Others.

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