We’re living in the golden age of the freak show

A few weeks ago, a user on X commented that she felt the latest pushes for diversity in fashion — e.g., Victoria’s Secret’s decision to feature profoundly disabled women on the runway — were the modern equivalent of the freak show. The observation felt salient. In the case of Victoria’s Secret, the retailer was introducing an adaptive line specifically for people who may not fit into standard sizes or shapes.

While the casting felt appropriate for that show in particular, the user was right that many of these diversity pushes really do feel like “freak shows”: opportunities to gawk at people with profound differences, this time under the veil of representation or, in the language of so many DEI departments, celebrating all body types.

Although the traditional idea of the freak show is now almost universally synonymous with crude taste, billboards and runways aren’t the only places where the impulse to gawk, stare, and point has been sublimated. Although our culture prides itself on its “empathy” and “sensitivity,” using certain people for our entertainment has never been more commonplace. We’re just better at hiding it now.

If anything, we’re living in the golden age of the freak show. Not only is everything entertainment, but everything is or has the potential to become the most exploitative form of entertainment. If you thought the heyday of reality TV was bad — when every weird quirk from people’s “strange addictions” to being overweight to simply being from New Jersey was turned into a spectacle — I’d suggest paying closer attention to the environment we’re living in.

Anna Delvey’s refound socialite status isn’t because of feminism or some innate ability to social-climb or manipulate those around her. She’s a freak. It’s a self-conscious decision to inject chaos purposely.

People say everyone is an “influencer” now; I’ve made the argument myself. But the reality is a lot darker than that. “Influencers” are at least aspirational. They’re selling something. Everybody wants to be an influencer. Some people are influencers. Lucky people are in the audience. Everyone else is a sideshow attraction or one in waiting.

There are some obvious manifestations: viral TikToks of people crying in their cars; mommy vloggers with their transgender children; oversharing Boomer essayists writing about how they left their husbands of 35 years because they “fell in love at first sight” with a stranger on a cruise.

Those are some clear-cut examples of things that are never in the service of “understanding” but are virtual car crashes for everyone to crane their necks at. There are less obvious examples, too. True crime stories where the victims’ lives get deconstructed and no stone is left unturned; people living in war zones, where awareness quickly evolves into unnecessary tragedy porn.

The personal essay boom may be dead, as Jia Tolentino wrote, but where Tolentino got it wrong is that the motivation only evolved. We didn’t move past it. It spread like a zombie virus.

The scammer craze, too, is another underrated expression of our thirst for freakdom. Are we really “seduced” by brazen scammers? Or do they represent chaos that has long been suppressed from the public sphere through other forms of shaming? We’ll cancel people at the drop of a hat, but we have a never-ending well of forgiveness for legitimate criminals like Anna Delvey. Isn’t it weird that she seemed to miraculously evade cancellation despite heinous social transgressions like stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars, lying about entire biographies, and even serving prison time? The woman is hosting Fashion Week parties and showing her apartment off in “Vogue”-sponsored TikToks.

Delvey’s refound socialite status isn’t because of feminism or some innate ability to social-climb or manipulate those around her. She’s a freak. It’s a self-conscious decision to inject chaos purposely. People keep her around because she’s an entertainment piece, arguably more offensive than holding her accountable for her numerous crimes. She is a conversation starter. There is no doubt in my mind that Elizabeth Holmes, of Theranos infamy, will also have her chance at a “redemption tour.”

Who is safe from being gawked at? Right now, no one. There’s some Zoomer pushback against our cultural panopticon, but the spectacle isn’t over yet. Maybe it’s just human nature, or maybe we don’t know what saturation looks like.

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