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Societal Rift

Leigh Alexander's picture

Eli Clare, in his novel, Exile and Pride, disputes the societal “norms” which he feels unjustly lead people to perceive themselves as abnormal or lesser than those around them.  These social constructs, Clare believes, create a falsified perception of not only what is normal, but unjustly align “normal” with “good” and “abnormal” with the word “freak.” Clare, in asserting that “freak” is a word that tears a rift between sects of society, and casts the differences in people in a negative light, challenges our preconceptions of what we deem “normal” and the consequences such word choice can have on those around us.

            Clare, a physically handicapped transman, writes that there are many word he can use to claim his identity but says, “Freak I don’t understand,” (Clare 84).  The word “freak” has always had an inherently negative connotation; when we hear the word freak we call to mind those who have become outcasts of the societal mold, those humans who are different in some way, but not in a way that makes them generally accepted. Even defines “freak” as “a person or animal on exhibition as an example of a strange deviation from nature; monster,” (“Freak”).  The fact that this definition states that a freak could be either “a person or animal” suggests how dehumanizing the plight of “freakdom” is.  Whether one is a person or an animal, if deemed a freak, humanity is replaced only with monstrosity.

Moreover, despite the fact that this example harkens back to the early days of circus performances and freak shows, Eli Clare assures us that those horrors are far from out of date.  Clare writes, “The end of the freak show didn’t mean the end of our [handicapped peoples’] display or the end of voyeurism.  We simply traded one kind of freakdom for another,” (Clare 103).  In Clare’s specific use of the pronouns “we” and “our” he signifies to the reader that he associates himself with this group and its struggles.  Moreover, Clare’s repetition of the word “freak” in this quote further accents the fact that, despite the lapse in time from the circus era, the difficulties of “freaks” have not dissipated.  Additionally, Clare writes that the mistreatment of those disabled or impaired in the media, on the street and in medical practices perpetuates the horrors of freakdom.  Rather than being treated like people, Clare asserts that those handicapped, or even those who are just “different,” are subjected to the wills of the showman’s “racism, ableism, capitalism, and imperialism,” (Clare 111). 

Who attended these “freak shows?” Whether they are circus performances or group medical examinations of “public stripping” who would be there (Clare 103)? The working class who had enough money to purchase circus tickets, so, probably the white and middle class. What about doctors? Those who have enough money to afford medical school, are again, in majority, white middle, and upper class.  This strong division of the observers, the wealthy white people, versus the “performers” or those deemed “freaks” continues, and in allowing this to continue, we are “affirming the less than human status of people of color and rationalizing much of their social and political policy,” (Clare 99). Clare writes, “…the freak show both fed upon and gave fuel to imperialism, domestic racist politics, and the cultural beliefs about ‘wild savages’ and white supremacy,” (Clare 99).  In physically separating people into those observing others and those being observed, a drastic power differential is established. Those inside the ring, or standing stripped in the middle of the room, are exposed to be gawked at for the pleasure of those on the outside, the emotional harm of one sect being used as personal enjoyment for the other.

More than just racially, though, freak shows created an “exaggerated divide between the ‘normal’ and Other,” (Clare 87).  Here Clare’s text interestingly suggests his varied views on the words “normal” and “Other.”  By putting “normal” in quotes, Clare almost suggests a doubt as to whether such a thing actually exists, as though he is using the word facetiously. “Other” however, Clare capitalizes, as though it was a proper noun.  In doing so, Clare assets firmly that the Other unlike ‘normal’ is an existing group, not a flawed concept, and his capitalization also suggests that it is a group he includes himself in.

Additionally, Clare, when speaking about gender later in his memoir writes, “We tell them: your definitions of woman and man suck.  We tell them: your binary stinks,” (Clare 149).  Here again, Clare accents the separation that he believes has been created by other people’s definitions of societal norms and juxtaposes them with what he sees as realities. Clare’s use of “you” in contrast to his use of “We” distinguishes two separate entities exploring the same situation of gender identity, and his use of the second person in the object of his declarative sentences places blame on the group he’s found himself distanced from.  His use of the anaphoric “We” accents the firmness of his declarations and gives his voice, summed with the voices of others like him, power and unity that is further strengthened by its consistently capital letters.  This is yet another example of the still existing freakdom that Clare writes of, based on societal constraints enumerated by another group than his own, stemming from the times where the freak show was contained to three rings.

The use of this term, “freak” implying deviation from previously constructed social norms outcasts and dehumanizes those who didn’t write the definition.  In not giving voice to all people on this planet, the lives of people are overshadowed by the warped perspectives of others.  In effect, the person who yells the loudest is the one whose thoughts are remembered, and those who are chained by the constraints of someone else’s definition of “normality,” for not fitting the mold, can’t even get a word in. “When the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening…even then there will still be one more sound: that of [man’s] puny inexhaustible voice, still talking,” (Faulkner). Maybe we should make sure he has something worthwhile to say.



Works Cited

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: disability, queerness, and liberation. Cambridge, MA: SouthEnd Press, 1999. Print.

Faulkner, William. "Banquet Speech*." William Faulkner. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2014. <>.

"Freak.", n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2014. <>.