Human menageries: Freak show legacies in contemporary American literature and popular culture
Iovannone, Jeffry James
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Human Menageries: Freak Show Legacies in Contemporary American Literature and Popular Culture Human Menageries examines representations of freaks in late-twentieth century and early-twenty-first century American literature and popular culture. Freak shows reached the height of their popularity between 1840 and 1940, and the performative conventions they established for the display of extraordinary bodies continue within contemporary American culture as a means of defining bodily normalcy and deviance through spectacular visual representation. While some contemporary relocations make use of freak representations to reinforce bodily norms, others appropriate freak identity and conventions in a subversive fashion. Human Menageries enacts a close and historically contextual reading of the work of contemporary writers, visual artists, and performers such as Margaret Cho, Loren Cameron, Octavia E. Butler, Jewelle Gomez, Charlaine Harris, Aimee Bender, and Lady Gaga who revise and appropriate conventions from the historic freak show for purposes of social subversion and critique. This project immerses itself in current discussions within freak studies (a subfield of disability studies initiated by scholars such as Robert Bogdan, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and Rachel Adams) that question to what extent bodily spectacles function as forms of exploitation or liberation. Human Menageries mediates this divide by theorizing the multifaceted effects of contemporary relocations of the American freak show and arguing that cultural producers use the freak show's performative conventions to challenge norms of embodiment, draw intersectional connections between multiple non-normative identity positions, and provide interdisciplinary strategies for reading human bodies that gesture toward the creation of a reality in which embodied difference is not regarded as remarkable, but as a standard human attribute.