Dangerous Bodies: Freak Shows, Expression, and Exploitation
35 Pages Posted: 10 May 2010
Date Written: July 1, 2007
The freak shows of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which traveled the nation exhibiting “human oddities” for profit, are regaining popularity as an underground form of entertainment. While some non-legal scholars have investigated the meaning of freak shows in American culture, little attention has been paid to the laws that regulate freak shows or the legal rights of freak show participants.
This Article seeks to introduce legal discourse into the discussion of freak shows and, in the process, to comment on legal approaches to preventing discrimination against persons who are physically different. Drawing upon the theories and analysis of non-legal scholars and laws concerning employment of persons with disabilities, this Article examines statutes, ordinances, and case law that address freak shows.
This Article argues that current laws and cases that address regulation and prohibition of freak shows are rendered ineffective because they fail to see beyond the fiction and drama of the freak show and instead adopt stigmatizing assumptions about persons with unusual bodies. The Article concludes that a better approach is to recognize that freak shows are a kind of theater subject to First Amendment protection. Courts should enforce anti-discrimination laws with the understanding that social assumptions, not physical conditions, are the root of discrimination against persons with unusual bodies.
Keywords: disability, culture, legal history, First Amendment, entertainment, ADA, discrimination, employment
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