Paying the price of freak show TV

Paying the price of freak show TV

With the BBC announcing the closure of BBC3 as a TV channel, Mike Oliver reflects on the cost to disabled people of the sort of shows it and other broadcasters choose to show in which disabled people feature.

While watching a televised debate about the recent controversial Channel 4 programme Benefits Street, I saw one participant complaining that its residents were being paraded like freaks. It reminded me of a similar debate that occurred more than 20 years ago when an American professor published a book on the history of the freak show.

The book didn’t just describe the everyday experiences of those who chose to exhibit their impairments for entertainment and profit, but it also challenged the idea that these shows were exploitative and should be banned. It argued that these so-called freaks made a very good living from what they freely chose to do unlike many of their counterparts who lived lives of poverty, isolation and segregation.

This created an intense debate amongst disabled people about the morality of using impairments for entertainment and profit. But it was not moral indignation that put an end to the freak show, it was the medicalisation of impairment. As new scientific medicine developed, treatment and cure became the new imperative signalling the transition from freak to medical problem for many disabled people.

It wasn’t just the Benefits Street programme that set me thinking about freak shows. For some years now I have felt that many of the current programmes about disability issues are impairment-specific and merely 21st century equivalents of the 19th century freak shows: The Undateables, Embarrassing Bodies, Turtle Boy, Extreme Love and the Bodyshock series featuring The Man with the 10-Stone Testicles are just a few examples of this genre.

When the programme-makers are asked about this, they usually justify what they are doing by claiming that their programmes are not voyeuristic forms of entertainment and are designed to inform and educate the public. And just like the performers in the freak show, they say, why should these people be denied their temporary celebrity status or 15 minutes of fame?

Individuals are, and should be, free to choose how they wish to present their impairments to a wider world and if they are prepared to exploit them for fame or profit, good luck to them. But there are wider issues at stake here too.

The balance has gone too far and almost all the programmes about disability these days are impairment-specific in focus and voyeuristic in nature. I know that when I taught disability studies in the 80s and 90s, there was never a shortage of television programmes focusing on the barriers we faced which balanced out the impairment-specific ones that were also around. I would struggle to find suitable teaching material these days.

But finding suitable materials for teaching is not all that is at stake here. If we as disabled people don’t challenge these dominant presentations of us as freaks, then we should not be surprised if that’s how everyone else comes to see us. An earlier generation of activists knew this when we successfully confronted those who wished to portray us as tragic victims in need of charity.

We should remember that a popular form of entertainment for the general public in the 19th century was a visit to the local lunatic asylum to poke fun at the inmates. Some unfortunate disabled people on our current sink estates suffer similar harassment and how many of us now feel safe on our own streets after the pubs and clubs close?

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