Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Parallels between Freak Shows and Ripley's Believe It or Not (and othering of cultures)

kyhong's picture

After the reading, I thought of how ideas of "othering" people through the lens of disability have persisted. My mind immediately jumped to Ripley's Believe It or Not! The name itself signals to the customers that what they are about to see is so strange that they question whether or not it's actually true. It's eerily similar to marketing used for freak shows. At freakshows, people "...came to have their ideas of normal and abnormal, superior and inferior, their sense of self, confirmed and strengthened" (Clare 86). Ripley's and P.T. Barnum's attractions are designed to get their audiences to gawk at people's bodies that do not fit societal standards of "normality." One troubling parallel between the two is that they commonly depict non-Western cultures as disabled and primitive, relegating people to the "other." One example Clare cites is when Ludwig Bergonnier, a circus agent, bought two Congolese men and thirteen Congolese women, displaying them with derogatory labels and forcing them to be nearly naked (Clare 88). Although not explicitly stated, I wonder if the women's lip piercings were a point of contention for Westerners and were used to justify that Congolese culture was inferior compared to Western cultures, further cementing the divide between the "perceived normal" (Europeans) and "the other" (people of color). I remember going to one exhibit at Niagara Falls, and they had a display about Padaung women, specifically their brass neck rings. Far from cultural appreciation, the presentation was meant to evoke disturbed fascination and solidify perceptions that their culture was somehow backward, an idea backed with the display's harmful language like "giraffe neck."

Unfortunately, freak shows have only taken on "modernized" forms, such as Ripley's Believe it or Not. While people are gawking at uncanny valley mannequins instead of real people, they still promote the idea that there is a divide between the audience and the exhibited, the normal and the other.