The Freak Show

Or: Are Black Women Really Apes?

December 9, 2007

Through the 19th century, carnivals put on the freak show. We only recently have evidence as to what real disease Joseph Merrick, or "The Elephant Man," had. It was Proteus syndrome, named for the shape-shifting god Proteus. As for Saartjie Baartman, "The Venus Hottentot", she had a condition known as steatopygia, and a sinus pudoris. The steatopygia enlarged her buttocks. As for the sinus pudoris, or enlongated labia, that wasn't really a disease. It was merely an unusual genetic trait.

But what name do we give the disease of the spectators who paid to gaze at each of them? What name do we give those who paid extra to reach out and touch Saartjie Baartman's enlarged buttocks? When Saartjie Baartman dies in Paris, Georges Cuvier compared her anatomy to that of an ape. Although he might have regarded as an intelligent woman who spoke Dutch fluently, he concluded she had an apish character due to her thick lips.

Cuvier was not an extraodinary case. William Smellie argued that nature "has formed the human species into castes and ranks." Smellie argued African men and women were closer to apes then white men. Why? Because of what appeared to be the unusual shape of her sexual organs. If you are having difficulty making the link between sexual organs and being an ape, perhaps other great scientists can help clarify. Adrien Sharpy, for instance, believed that "the prostitute is an atavistic form of humanity whose primitive nature can be observed in the form of her genitalia." In Sharpy's cosmogony, black women and prostitutes were seen as very similar, a centeral bridge between the natural world and the civilized world. Black women and prostitues together were seen as being more like monkeys and chimpanzees than white bourgeois women. Scientists tried to cement this cosmogonic distinction and structure with experiments and surveys, so that breast size and pelvis shape were both characterized based on race and ethnicity.

But of course everyone knows better now. Just look at the arguments surrounding "The Venus Hottentot" and her return to South Africa. The BBC's article "'Hottentot Venus' Goes Home" includes the remark, "The French were concerned that to return Baartman's remains might lead to claims from other countries for return of artefacts held in French museums." Yes, even today, the remains of Saartjie Baartman remains an "artefact." What do you think the BBC would say if a white Christian male's remains were examined by scientists post death, preserved and held on display for a century, and and then eventually asked to be buried by his descendants? Would he too be an artefact? Isn't Lenin's head floating around in a glass case somewhere?

Let's return to Joseph Merrick, in particular Lynch's adaptation of his story. Joseph (John in Lynch's version, reproducing an error going all the way back to Sir Frederick Treves) first goes to Dr. Treves as part of a deal Treves has with Merrick's canival showman. During this first encounter, the scientific encounter directly mirrors the carnival encounter. In both, Merrick is objectified and regarded as inhuman. To be objectified does not imply that Merrick likes or dislikes the experience of being displayed; his desires are simply regarded as irrelevant. The community is impressed by his deformity. Yet, as the hospital leader points out, they cannot do anything for Joseph Merrick beyond the most superficial level. He is incurable, and thus the scientific community's interest cannot be regarded as medicinal. Treves displays Merrick explicitly because of his phenomenal value as a biological Other. Once he has been seen and displayed, his value dissappears. Just as in the carnival, he is exploited and his rights as an individual are ignored. The first encounter between Treves and Merrick is not medicine, and is not even science.

However, the second encounter begins to take on a different shape. When Treves and Merrick begin speech therapy, and when Merrick surprises both Treves and the hospital manager with his intelligence, Treves begins to engage with Merrick on a more personal level. Some might argue that this stage too is exploitation. The character of Mothershead remarks that the people who visit him still only come because they "only want to impress their friends!" However, Merrick is capable of talking to the people who come and visit him on his second return to the hospital. To confine Merrick to indefinite confinement would no doubt be a greater error than to grant him sociality even if people still have difficulty accepting his appearance.

The film does differ from reality in many ways, but some conclusions remain the same in either case. The scientific community eventually wanted to help Merrick. This flies in the face of what happened to Baartman. She was dissected; he was cared for. What was the essential difference between them?

What insight Georges Cuvier believed he received from devoting 9 out of 16 pages of his dissection to the topic of her genetilia, one can only speculate at. His claim that, "there is nothing more celebrated in all of natural history" than her genetilia undoubtedly says more about Cuvier, and 19th century science, than Baartman herself.

Which was the freak—the sick man on the stage or the audience watching? Which was subhuman—the black woman or the men paying to poke her ass?

You decide.

Afterword

If you found this essay thought provoking, add it to your favorites list. This is the first essay in a larger series on topics you may want to read.