Abstract: History is littered with tales of the absurd, odd, and unusual. From Gorgons and mermaids to bearded ladies and elephant men, people have, for centuries, been fascinated by those who deviate from physical and mental social norms. Such fascinations seemed to peak during the 19th century when showmen, like PT Barnum, bought and exhibited those deemed too different and macabre for “normal” society. However, as science and medicine progressed, and the protection of human rights became more important, freak shows and travelling sideshows dwindled (Nicholas & Chambers, 2016). Society’s fascination with the unusual though, did not. Despite increased political correctness and calls to end “fat shaming,” bullying and the like, reality television appears to encourage “a dehumanising process that actually lessens our regard for other people” (Sardar, 2000). While some writers have considered how reality television exploits stereotypes and links social norms to hegemonic whiteness (Cooke-Jackson & Hansen, 2008; Rennels, 2015), few have commented on the similarities between such programming and the stylings of the 19th century freak show. Utilising Thomson’s (1996) concept of freak discourse, and Bogdan’s (1996) assessment of freak narrative, this article examines how reality television programming as a genre, despite its varied plots, uses a narrative formula that can be likened to 19th century freak shows to enhance its storylines and “produce a human spectacle” (Thomson, 1996, p. 7).
Keywords: freak discourse; popular culture; reality television; television studies