Book

Spectacle of Deformity

Nadja Durbach

Published by University of California Press

Published in print October 2009 | ISBN: 9780520257689
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520944893 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1525/california/9780520257689.001.0001
Spectacle of Deformity

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In 1847, during the great age of the freak show, the British periodical Punch bemoaned the public's “prevailing taste for deformity.” This detailed work argues that far from being purely exploitative, displays of anomalous bodies served a deeper social purpose as they generated popular and scientific debates over the meanings attached to bodily difference. The book examines freaks both well-known and obscure including the Elephant Man; “Lalloo, the Double-Bodied Hindoo Boy,” a set of conjoined twins advertised as half male, half female; Krao, a seven-year-old hairy Laotian girl who was marketed as Darwin's “missing link”; the “Last of the Mysterious Aztecs” and African “Cannibal Kings,” who were often merely Irishmen in blackface. Upending our tendency to read late twentieth-century conceptions of disability onto the bodies of freak show performers, the book shows that these spectacles helped to articulate the cultural meanings invested in otherness—and thus clarified what it meant to be British—at a key moment in the making of modern and imperial ideologies and identities.

Keywords: freak shows; Punch; deformity; Elephant Man; Lalloo; conjoined twins; Krao; Cannibal Kings; disability; otherness

Book.  288 pages.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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