Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Comment from the Field

Reclaiming “Freak” Discourses of Queer Desirability in Circus Amok

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2018), 12, (3), 375–378.

Abstract

Comment from the Field Reclaiming “Freak” Discourses of Queer Desirability in Circus Amok Jade Bryan Independent Scholar Reclaiming “Freak” At the turn of the twentieth century, the “freak show” played a prime role in perpetuating “freak discourse”: the way in which Other bodies “function as magnets to which culture secures its anxieties, questions, and needs at any given moment,” (Garland-Thomson, Freakery 2). These oppressive conventions saturated modern society and remain a driving force in dominant conceptions of disability that exist today. Through subverting and reclaiming these traditional sideshow conventions, feminist performance artist Jennifer Miller upheaves corporeal norms in her show Circus Amok. Miller, a cisgender lesbian with a full beard, not only queers gender and sexuality through her performance of “the bearded lady” but also destabilizes the ableist notion of an idealized, normative body. Looking at these performance conventions through disability justice and crip theory (McRuer) perspectives, it is clear that Miller’s transgressive reappropriation of the “bearded lady” persona destabilizes the “neutral body” while reversing the power dynamic of starer/stared-at tacit in the historical freak show. Through “being freaky” (Lorenz 23) Miller and the queer performers of Circus Amok work towards an un-“enfreakment” (Hevey 53) of non-normative bodies, using the sideshow as a platform to “defreakify” (Smith) and turn awe in on normalcy itself. Circus Amok reimagines the twentieth-century freak show, taking on the familiar format of the circus to produce a spectacle that brings the audience into uncomfortable territory. Miller plays the role of the “blower,” mimicking sideshow oral conventions to promote spectator awe (Bogdan 104). Rather than introducing Freaks, however, she introduces political and social issues, and performers re-enact and critique everything from the prison-industrial complex to homelessness and local government. Through acrobatics, dance, clowning, comedy, stilting, contortion, magic, and a hodgepodge of avant-garde carnivalesque theatrics, Amok juxtaposes “danger with laughter,” (Sussman 266) redefining the boundaries of “normal” to bring attention to the queerness always just below the surface of the everyday. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 12.3 (2018) ISSN 1757-6458 (print) 1757-6466 (online) © Liverpool University Press https://doi.org/10.3828/jlcds.2018.29

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Bryan, Jade