P.T. Barnum has been in the news again because of The Greatest Showman, a movie which has been getting some pretty harsh criticism not so much because of the movie as a movie but because of the man celebrated in it. Barnum hired ‘freaks', many of whom were forced into the work as children, and profited greatly from them, which was not uncommon at the time. He was probably a better man than many at the time; I did not read that he forced anyone into this. However, he eagerly bought out contracts and hired children as young as 5 to join his show. Even if he is better by comparison, that's a far cry from declaring him good.
However, there was a clear benefit to many of those who put themselves on display. “Many of his performers were paid handsome sums, some earning as much as today’s sports stars.” For example,
General Tom Thumb” benefited handsomely. For around fifteen years, he was paid upwards of $150 per week ($4,100 today) for his performances, and, upon retiring, lived in New York’s “most fashionable neighborhood,” owned a yacht, and dressed like a dandy. A man Barnum named Zip, who was born with a head deformity, eventually make 1000 dollars a week in 1860’s money, lived in a very nice home Barnum bought for him, and retired in his 80’s a millionaire. Some Siamese twins who toured with Barnum joined as adults after running out of the 1.3 million dollars (in today’s money) they invested well. When they died, they left a fortune to their wives. The Tattooed Man made the equivalent of $37,000 dollars a week and hired armed guards to protect him. The Dog-Faced Boy made out the best: “Throughout the 1880s, Fedor was among the highest paid performers in the business, netting $500 per week ($13,000 today). By the time of his retirement, his saving totalled nearly $300,000 ($7.6 million).”
In spite of this benefit to many of the freaks, the argument is that Barnum treated them unfairly to gain an unfair advantage or benefit for himself. He exploited them, right? No amount of money or fame could compensate for the dehumanization and commodification of other human beings so that Barnum could benefit.
We live in a world that condemns Barnum’s exploitation. But we also live in a world the has made consent a holy grail. So what do we do when these two things clash? Can the consenting – especially if they benefit well from a transaction – still be exploited? Most of the freaks agreed to it. In fact, most of them ended up pretty well off financially, far better off than they likely would have if Barnum had not hired them.
So, if they consented to work for Barnum, how is this wrong? An agreement was reached, a form of social contract; Barnum profited from them, but they did from him as well. Even if you make the argument he exploited them because he had an unfair advantage or treated them unfairly, it was “their body their choice,” right? As long as they were not coerced, we should be celebrating how these freaks took what society used against them and turned it to their own advantage. In today’s term, I think we would call that empowerment. Unless, of course, there is something about the very nature of what happened that is in some sense wrong.
It is possible they were willing participants in their own exploitation and objectification. They might have all gotten what they wanted, and what happened still could have been wrong. That is the only way we can be outraged. If that’s the case, we should probably be equally bothered by shows today like Freakshow, Body Shock or Extraordinary People. Sure, they present human interest stories, but it is really that different? As one reviewer noted, “Call me prejudiced, but I suspect your typical twenty-something watched this show with their jaw on the floor rather than a tear in their eye.” How is this that much different from what Barnum did? Does autonomous agency make it right? Better? Rooted In Rights notes:
“Showmen like P.T. Barnum took advantage of human nature’s natural disposition to gawk at what it finds unusual, piquing the curiosity of people for decades. In exploiting this disposition, showmen had a societal impact, exacerbating the notion that disability was something to be gawked at and shamed by the masses. Instead of appreciating differences, freak shows mock, disrespect, and exploit these differences for financial gain... Freak shows took advantage of this otherness for decades in America, highlighting and ostracizing those who were different from perceived norms.
They aren't the only ones to notice this. Katie String writes in "The Legacy of Dime Museums and the Freakshow: How the Past Impacts the Present":
“By labeling a person a freak, the sideshow removed the humanity of the performer because he or she might not have the same physical characteristics of the “normal” person, and authorized the paying customer to approach the person as an object of curiosity and entertainment. To reconcile the exploitation of people who were different as curiosities worthy of admission price, society had only to take away their humanity.”
I quote at length now from the UCLA Entertainment Law Review’s article entitled “Dangerous Bodies: Freak Shows, Expression, and Exploitation,” by Brigham A. Fordham:
Believing that freak show performers have happily chosen the life of the freak show makes it easier for the audience to feel there is nothing wrong with supporting freak shows. If we believe that those with unusual bodies have the same rights and mental capacities as others, the argument goes, we cannot fault freak show performers for striking a bargain between dignity and financial reward…
Even if we could accept the premise of this argument, however, the issue of consent is far more complex than simply identifying whether a person made a conscious decision. As David Gerber has pointed out, there are certain preconditions to effective choice and consent. First, there must be options: "One makes a free choice not only when one is uncoerced, but also when one has a significant range of meaningful choices.” Second, there must be a social environment that gives one opportunities to play a number of different roles. Third, one must have occasions for choice and the physical and mental capacity to make those choices. Fourth, one must have information about the alternatives to a choice. And finally, one must have sufficient security to be able to take the time to evaluate options.
Gerber looks to the lives of freak show performers of the last two centuries, many who have spoken positively about their careers, to see the extent to which the freak show was an actual "choice." He reveals that due to discrimination and architectural barriers, many of the performers had no other means to earn a living. Dwarfs, for example, Barnum & Bailey's first successful human exhibits, could typically find no other work despite being mentally and physically capable. Often, freak show performers were developmentally disabled, such as the microcephalic persons billed as "pinheads," or they were recruited into the business while they were still children. Charles Sherwood Stratton, who became world famous as "Tom Thumb" was recruited into his life's career when he was just five years old.
More recent discussions with freak show performers suggest that persons with physical anomalies decide to join freak shows in order to join a community that accepts them as they are. After being treated as strange and grotesque by the majority, persons with unusual bodies join freak shows in order to find a community in which their differencesare accepted and appreciated. J. Dee Hill explains, "Freak implies both a larger community in which the individual is shunned, or at least treated with vague suspicions, for his or her peculiarities, and a smaller community in which those peculiarities are embraced. It is about relationships, not just physical anomalies." While freak show forms often encourage majoritarian views of unusual bodies, the traditional freak show culture is critical of its audience….
Even if we could easily conclude that freak show performers have happily chosen their occupation, this would not answer whether freak shows are acceptable as a form of entertainment. This is true for two reasons: First, even if some persons with unusual bodies voluntarily consent to being treated as "freaks," their consent might not justify the stigmatizing effects of their compromise on others who also have unusual bodies and seek to be respected in more mainstream institutions. Persons who have no interest in being treated as exhibitions are assumed freaks by somatic association. A person born with achondroplasia, for example, may be blocked from mainstream jobs if dwarfs are associated with the social status and grotesque exhibitionism of the freak show. The free choice of one to be seen as a "freak" can impose that unwanted identity upon others, especially when popular culture assumes the perspective of the freak show observer. (emphasis mine; more on this later).
Second, one must consider whether the forms and values of the freak show are harmful to society and should be discouraged regardless of the will of the participants. Just as the social consequences of pornography cannot be decided based solely on the willingness of its subjects, so too the freak show must be measured by its effects generally and specifically. The traditional freak show disturbs and offends not simply because it may be exploitative. Also disconcerting is the attitudes toward difference that are embraced and encouraged by the traditional freak show. ”
* * * * *
This question of what is exploitation and what is not impacts other areas as well. Let’s take a moment to look at another lengthy but important excerpt on exploitation from the Stanford Encyclopedia Online:
To exploit someone is to take unfair advantage of them. It is to use another person’s vulnerability for one’s own benefit...
Exploitation can be transactional or structural. In the former case, the unfairness is a property of a discrete transaction between two or more individuals. A sweatshop that pays low wages, for example... might be said to exploit others in this sense. But exploitation can also be structural—a property of institutions or systems in which the “rules of the game” unfairly benefit one group of people to the detriment of another…
Exploitation can also be harmful or mutually beneficial. Harmful exploitation involves an interaction that leaves the victim worse off than she was, and than she was entitled to be. The sort of exploitation involved in coercive sex trafficking, for instance, is harmful in this sense. But as we will see below, not all exploitation is harmful. Exploitation can also be mutually beneficial, where both parties walk away better off than they were... What makes such mutually beneficial interactions nevertheless exploitative is that they are, in some way, unfair…
Exploitation thus involves A unfairly benefitting from an interaction with B. But what exactly does it mean to benefit unfairly? One natural response to this question is to conceive of unfairness as benefitting A at B’s expense. Perhaps exploitation advances the interests of A while harming B. Exploitation, thus understood, is a kind of parasitism. Or, as Allen Buchanan defines it, exploitation is “the harmful, merely instrumental utilization of him or his capacities, for one’s own advantage or for the sake of one’s own ends”…
In this way, exploitation is importantly different from coercion... In a paradigmatic case of coercion—a mugger who demands “your money or your life”—the victim is better off handing over the money than losing her life. But she would be better off still if the mugger had never showed up to make her proposal at all... Coercion characteristically involves threats... Exploitation, in contrast, often involves offers by which the exploiter proposes to make her victim better off if she does as the exploiter proposes...
Relative to a baseline of no transaction at all, exploitation often makes its victim better off. But relative to a baseline of a fair transaction, exploitation leaves its victim worse off. In this sense, an exploiter’s gain does… come at the victim’s expense … For even when both parties gain from the transaction, the victim of exploitation gains less than she should because some of the “cooperative surplus” to which she is by fairness entitled has been captured by the exploiter.
Exploitation therefore does not necessarily harm its victim in the sense of making her worse off than she would have been, had the exploiter never interacted with her at all. Rather, it makes its victim worse off than she should have been, had she been treated fairly... Whether we choose to say that exploitation involves A making B better off, but not as much better off as A should have made B; or whether we say that it involves making B worse off than B should have been, the final verdict is the same.
There is much more to this article, of course, and it’s worth your time to read it in full. It concludes with three practical examples that address questions of exploitation, equality and fairness: Universal Basic Income, Sweatshop Labor, and Commercial Surrogacy. I think those are great example, but I think it’s time to update the entry and discusses issue involving sex: prostitution, the hook-up culture; the questions raised by the #metoo and #timesup movement as we wrestle with questions of consent and power.
Sex workers fought hard to be a part of the Women’s March this year, and that's understandable. But surely there is a difference between acknowledging their place in the march as women vs. raising serious questions about their occupation. Is prostitution not inescapably exploitation? Even if the workers make great money, or they are their own agents, isn't there something about commodifying human bodies for pleasure that is exploitative no matter what? in other words, is it possible that prostitution is always a transaction in which there is an unfair treatment of someone to benefit from their work and gain an unfair advantage? (Watch the Intelligence Squared debate, "It's Wrong To Pay For Sex.")
What about the fact that female nudity is so ubiquitious in entertainment? The latest Blade Runner is a great example; the amount of gratuitous nudity is remarkable – and rarely mentioned in reviews. Even Game of Thrones fans have been uncomfortable with some of what's happening in the show that spawned the term "sexposition." I know this is defended with the language of empowerment and free expression, but at what point can we say that Hollywood is exploiting women no matter what else is going on? Why aren’t more people at least asking the question?
May I be frank? Men don’t see female nudity as empowerment - or if they do, it's more like, "Hey, hey, hey, more power to you, babe! Take it off!" Men see this and process it like they do pornography. When men line the street to support the rights of women to march topless, they aren’t celebrating empowerment. They are gratifying their desire to see naked women. They aren’t thinking that women are strong; they are thinking they might want to masturbate later. I’m not sure who is being exploited more here, but someone certainly is. Maybe everybody.
What about the hook-up culture? I’ve been reading all the first-person accounts that have been emerging in the past several months (particularly from women like Margot in Cat Person and Aziz Ansari’s accuser, but you could throw in “Tinder And The Dawn Of The Dating Apocalypse,” as well as multiple books detailing the scene). What’s happening isn’t healthy. It’s obvious. The sexual game as it is being played may be consensual (until it’s not), but it’s the game up to that point that makes the non-consensual lines so easy to cross. There is no inherent honor or dignity ascribed to individuals in the scenarios I have read; there is no valuation of human beings as full human beings, rather than vessels of sexual pleasure from which one must protect heart and soul to avoid real investment, real love, and the emotional strain that follows. Even if the intent is good and the experience is freely chosen, aren't we seeing there is a reality attached that cannot be avoided?
I want to go back to a comment in the UCLA article: “The free choice of one to be seen as a "freak" can impose that unwanted identity upon others, especially when popular culture assumes the perspective of the freak show observer.”
If this is true in this case, is it not true in all cases? It’s why the abortion clinic bomber imposes an unwanted identity on all other pro-life individuals; it’s why Muslim terrorists impose an unwanted identity on all Muslims; it’s why one family that homeschools their children while terribly abusing them imposes an unwanted identity on all homeschoolers; it’s why a misreported or false news story from CNN imposes an unwanted identity on all MSM. Fair or unfair, pop culture assumes the perspective of the freak show observer.
Which is why we have to talk more about how men and women – through their uncoerced and consensual choices involving the hook-up culture, or through the way in which they choose to present themselves in entertainment – have to consider what unwanted identity they are imposing upon others. Sex is a (hopefully) private act, but it has very public consequences.
For every man I know who assumes women in general must be like the hook-up they met on Tinder or the starlet they saw on their latest Netflix binge, or who have reduced women to the vagina hat now so popular at marches, I’ve met women who find is just as easy to assume that men in general are boorish pricks who lead with their genitals and leave when their dating app chimes. This is not how all men and women actually are, thank God. But that’s an image that our culture relentlessly promotes in the name of freedom and autonomy and power, and it’s an identity we begin to assume to be true - even when those crafting the unwanted identity and image onto others reject it themselves.
Honestly, who is better off because of this? I don’t mean momentarily pleased. I mean genuinely, truly better off? When I finally read the infamous Cat Person essay, it broke my heart. How many people walk away from that kind of relationship a better human being: less lonely, less restless for the next conquest, less self-conscious, less driven for affirmation by orgasm, less haunted by memories of what might have been or could have been, more appreciative of the full nature of the human beings around them, more grounded, more rested, more mature, more self-controlled, more full of the ability to genuinely love, care for, and value the good of the other? And what kind of “imposed identity” will now distort the view both Margot and Robert have of future men and women in their lives? Where will it end? Who will stop it?
* * * * *
We’ve got to be more honest about this. We have become a culture of users and exploiters, even when we are carefully consensual ones (though, as Margot’s story makes clear, consent is a pretty complex idea).
But if we continue to retreat from this, I predict the Barnum’s legacy will haunt us in a different way than we expected, and the #metoo moments and the Margots and Roberts of the world will multiply, not fade, and that would be a tragic and heartbreaking thing indeed.