The heyday of the circus sideshow act exists in the 21st century as a distant memory, usually preserved by grainy sepia photos and folklore that rarely impresses today’s historical skeptics. Yet, the sentiments that drove average citizens to these sideshow acts a century ago are persistent in the psyches of modern Americans…except, instead of being coralled inside circus tents, people are now coralled in front of television sets as they ogle the bizarre on reality TV.
These TV shows, of course, provide a far more humane edge to deformities, birth defects and strange talents than did their predecessor freak show format. Many specials highlight the need for medical research within the rare diseases and disability spectrum, and prompt outreach and donations to those in need. But whether seen as purely exploitive or educational content, cable docuseries and specials not only capitalize on Americans’ love of the odd, they also document the same anomalies that commoners gawked at in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Never has there been a time when the strange was so accessible to an audience craving abnormal fare, whether with series like TLC’s familial series “Little People, Big World,” Nat Geo’s docuseries “Taboo,” or campy yakkers like “Maury.” Here, I collect some of the parallels:
Vintage sideshow act: The Tattooed Man or Lady. Circus attendees enjoyed seeing an extreme feat of
body art. Performers, often former servicemen or tattoo artists sporting their own work, would strip down, exposing fully body suits of inked traditional tattoo designs.
Modern reality TV: “Miami Ink,” “LA Ink,” and “Ink Masters” are just a few examples of the tattoo-themed reality shows that have saturated the cable TV market. Unscripted skeins offer perspective into tat culture and, of course, allow viewers to peep some seriously intense body art.
Vintage sideshow act: The Fattest Woman on Earth. “Mrs. Pete Robinson” performed at circus sideshows and reportedly topped out at over 600 lbs.
Modern reality TV: Robinson’s weight pales in comparison to the subjects of today’s docu specials including TLC’s recent crime mystery “Half-Ton Killer?”, featuring Mayra Rosales who topped out at 1,000 lbs. Extreme weight specials have become a staple for cablers like TLC over the last several years, sometimes spotlighting the dating lives of the morbidly obese.
Vintage sideshow act: The Big-Footed Woman. Spectators gathered to see women like Fanny Mills, whose legs were swollen to gargantuan proportions. Mills may have had Millroy disease, though people with a similar disease, elephantitis, were also frequently put on display at sideshow acts.
Modern reality TV: “The Woman With Giant Legs” on TLC chronicled the struggles of Mandy Sellars and shocked viewers who screencapped scenes from the program and uploaded them online.
Vintage sideshow act: The Fiji Mermaid. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey Circus attached the skeleton of a monkey with the lower half of a large fish and voila! Mythical sea creature that folks paid money to lay their eyes on.
Modern reality TV: Discovery Channel aired “Mermaid: The Body Found,” a special whose broadcast looked suspiciously like a documentary with grainy “cellphone” footage and interviews with purported scientists. The spectacle turned out to be a 2-hour scifi spesh, though, unbeknownst to many viewers who took to the internet with questions about the mermaid after buying into “The Body Found.”
Vintage sideshow act: Hottentot Venus or other native acts. Europeans and Americans alike maintained a fascination with exotic natives from foreign lands who were imprisoned and put on display at freak shows.
Modern reality TV: Nat Geo has frequently aired specials and series like the “Tribal Odyssey” series that center on tribes and their rituals in undeveloped lands. While this nonfiction TV fare is widely considered to be educational, the appetite for footage of obscure and unreachable lands and the people that inhabit them has remained strong over several decades.
Vintage sideshow act: Conjoined twins. Siamese twins were a staple at most freak shows, featuring both children and adults attached at one body part or another.
Modern reality TV: TLC has chronicled the lives of conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel from their childhood to their experience as twenty-somethings searching for jobs in 2012 series “Abby & Brittany.” The twins have appeared on “Oprah,” UK-based specials and on additional specials that aired on both Discovery and TLC.
Modern reality TV: “True Life: I’m An Albino” documented the lives of three young people as they pursue college and careers while living with albinism. Sections of the episode included cast members auditioning for films, learning how to drive and dealing with onlookers who dubbed them “Casper” and other derogatory names.
Vintage sideshow act: The Human Blockhead and other ostensibly masochistic acts. Performers would hammer objects into their nose, lie on a bed of nails, eat fire, pierce themselves, swallow swords or staple items to their bodies while spectators watched.
Modern reality TV: MTV’s “Jackass” franchise has proven that viewers — particularly within the young male demo — will tune in to watch others purposefully injure themselves. The reality show originally aired on MTV from 2000-2002 and has since spawned spinoffs including “Wildboyz,” “Viva La Bam” and several feature films.