This past weekend I went to the zoo for its yearly Halloween event. The animals outside were not available for viewing, only some of the indoor exhibits. I went into one – The Swamp – and looked around for a bit. There was a section of the habitat that was dark, no lights on at all. I pressed my face up to the glass to see what was in there and it was a crocodile, facing me. I was so startled, but then realized its eyes were closed and sleeping. Others around me pressed up to the glass. More gathered. It suddenly felt strange to be standing in a crowd pressed up against glass to stare at a sleeping animal. I wondered if it was going to wake up and notice us, notice me; I became embarrassed.
This experience made me think about the cable channel TLC and its programming. It highlights anomalous and “special” bodies, including, but this is not a full list, “The Mermaid Girl,” “Tree Man,” “The Little Couple,” and “Little People, Big World” along with shows highlighting mental illness like “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” It is important to question the function of shows like this. Are they operating with a similar ethos to zoos? Exhibit them and hope that people will learn and begin to accept these creatures/people?
The shows featured on TLC do not stray far from the history of world exhibitions and freak shows. Timothy Mitchell in his article “The World as Exhibition” talks about the 19th century phenomenon of the world exhibition and its problematics. He quotes a member of the Congress of Orientalists as saying that the Congress wanted to display “natives of Oriental countries as illustrations of a paper” (Mitchell 1989, 218). This attitude, Mitchell argues, is due to the Western desire to make the world a picture: “The effect of such spectacles was to set the world up as a picture. They arranged it before an audience as an object on display – to be viewed, investigated, and experienced” (Mitchell 1989, 220). Tony Bennett also argues in The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (1995) that the world exhibitions sought to render “the whole world metonymically present” (84).
However, these discussions of the world exhibitions exist in critiques of colonialism, being that those peoples put on display were generally those from countries travelled to an conquered. However, we can also see this kind of spectacle as played out in the parallel history of the freakshow, the circus tent that became excluded from world exhibitions. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson‘s edited volume Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (1996) presents and discusses this history to the reader.
I wonder: how do these shows on TLC relate to the world exhibition and the freak show? By making anomalous bodies a picture for us to watch on the screen, what does this do to our understanding of such bodies? TLC once meant “The Learning Channel,” so what are we learning in watching these shows? Many of the people who appear on the shows claim that they are glad to tell their story and let people know about them; that they are not freaks. However, does the spectacle of TLC allow these people and their bodies to be presented as anything other than pure spectacle for our entertainment pleasures? Can these shows properly educate? Or, do they solidify boundaries of difference, furthering enhancing ideas of the normative body?