Friday, 3 July 2015

Circassian Beauty and monstrous commodification

Is all commodification and trade in people a process of making monstrous? For Linda Frost, the immigrant woman who escapes working class drudgery might "join the market of commodified bodies in the American freak show." (R.G. Thomson, 1996: 260)

The Circassian beauty, procured as one might buy a slave by P.T. Barnum, was a common exhibit among the “oddities and amusements” of the legendary showman.

In effect, Robert Bogdan has argued that the 1864 exhibition “launched the prototype of a self-made freak”; the "Circassian Beauty" was a “creation that wove the history of science together with tales of erotic intrigue from Asia Minor, current events, and a good portion of showman hype.” (1988: 237-9)

Furthermore, Linda Frost has concluded that The Circassian Beauty “depicts a harem slave who is reenslaved into Victorian American domesticity, only again to be enslaved as a sexualized immigrant commodity of public entertainment, a force that likes women and cultural others beautifully caged.” (in R.G. Thomson, 1996: 260)

The images need to be understood within their function as performances of assumed identities and cultural projections, and within their wider frames of presentation, as entertainment, edification and ideological instruction. The images in their own right sometimes suggest both the seduction of enigma and the cryptic, alongside the power wielded by the observer's enactment of reading and sense of a truth revealed in the present moment of the spectacle that exceeds its time and space.

According to James W. Cook, Barnum's use of the "nondescript" rather than "Negro" ... "provided white mid-century New Yorkers with an arena in which to talk openly about black people, often in brutally dehumanizing ways --- to glide seamlessly between straightforward physical description and gross cultural caricature..." In this light, Barnum's 1860 offering was "a staged hybridity in many ways more cruel and dehumanizing even than the minstrel show's brand of racial caricature." (in R.G. Thomson, 1996: 149)

Further Reading

Adams, Rachel. Sideshow USA: Freaks and the American cultural imagination. University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Adams, Bluford. E pluribus Barnum: The great showman and the making of US popular culture. U of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Cassuto, Leonard. The inhuman race: The racial grotesque in American literature and culture. Columbia University Press, 1997

Chemers, Michael M. Staging stigma: a critical examination of the American freak show. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Cook, James W. "Of Men, Missing links, and Nondescripts: The Strange Career of P. T. barnum's 'What is It' Exhibition." in Thomson (1996) 139-157
Engle, Gary D., ed. This grotesque essence: plays from the American minstrel stage. Louisiana State University Press, 1978.
Frost, Linda. "The Circassian Beauty and the Circassian Slave: Gender, Imperialism, and American Popular Entertainment." in Thomson (1996) 248-262.

Harris, Trudier. Exorcising blackness: Historical and literary lynching and burning rituals. Indiana University Press, 1984.

Mahar, William John. Behind the burnt cork mask: Early blackface minstrelsy and antebellum American popular culture. University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Martin, Charles D. The White African American Body: A Cultural and Literary Exploration. Rutgers University Press, 2002.

McDowell, Deborah E., and Arnold Rampersad. Slavery and the literary imagination. Vol. 13. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Reiss, Benjamin. "PT Barnum, Joice Heth and antebellum spectacles of race." American Quarterly 51, no. 1 (1999): 78-107.

Reiss, Benjamin. The Showman and the Slave. Harvard University Press, 2001.

Thomson, Rosemarie Garland. Freakery: Cultural spectacles of the extraordinary body. NYU Press, 1996

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