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Unformatted text preview: Cultural Fixions of the Freak Body: Coney Island and the Postmodern Sideshow Elizabeth Stephens When Jennifer Miller, now director and MC of New York’s queer performance group Circus Amok, was interviewed about her time performing as the ‘bearded lady’ Zenobia at Coney Island’s Sideshows by the Seashore, she explained that her decision to accept this role was motivated by a desire to engage directly with the cultural figure through which her own physical difference is often understood: I was growing my beard long before I worked in the sideshow, so I always had this image of the bearded lady as kind of this little icon sitting on my shoulder, you know, battling with me and how I was seen in the world. So when the opportunity came, when I was invited, enticed, to come work in the sideshow, I wanted to give it a try. I wanted to meet this person, this image, this history that I had been in dialogue with, sort of face to face. (Rust, 2004) As Miller here recognizes, figures like that of the bearded lady, which emerged as popular attractions in the sideshows and dime museums of the nineteenth century, continue to circulate in contemporary cultures, operating as an interpretive framework through which her own body is understood. 1 That is, the significance of the bearded lady figure is not restricted to the space of the sideshow itself but functions more broadly as the dominant cultural fiction through which the bodies of women with beards are understood. Because such figures impact so strongly on the lives of those who look physically different, Miller’s decision to mobilize the very image through which public perceptions of her body are mediated also affords her the opportunity to confront and interrogate that image: while as Zenobia Miller allowed ISSN 1030-4312 (print)/ISSN 1469-3666 (online)/06/040485-14 q 2006 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/10304310600988286 Elizabeth Stephens is a research fellow at the Centre for the History of European Discourses at the University of Queensland, Australia. She is currently completing a manuscript on the concept of queer writing in the novels of Jean Genet, and researching a history of the public exhibitions of non-normative bodies in sideshows and anatomical museums. Correspondence to: Elizabeth Stephens, Research Fellow, Centre for the History of European Discourses, University of Queensland, QLD, 4072, Australia. E-mail: [email protected] Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies Vol. 20, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 485–498 herself to be represented as both a bearded lady and a ‘freak’, she also incorporated into her act feminist critiques of the history of shaving and the construction of the bearded lady figure itself....
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- Spring '08
- The Land, Coney Island, Sideshow