The Transgressive “Average” Body and the Normalized “Freak”

While reading Ashley Mears’, “The Tastemakers”, I couldn’t help but think of my own experiences with modeling, and for that reason I will begin by contextualizing myself within this discussion. #shamelessselfpromotion10712861_10152415704811376_3195112016829633513_n

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For the sake of this analysis I’m going to assume that modeling involves any activity in which someone’s body is put on a pedestal for an audience to view, including acting, performance art, etc. In “The Tastemakers” Mears relates her observations that “[t]he commercial booker wants something formulaic, classic, and safe […] The editorial booker, on the other hand, wants an edge—something special and new that cannot be put into words […]” (134). Reflecting on my experiences as a drag queen, gogo-dancer, shot girl, and art model, I’ve come to realize that most of my “modeling” opportunities were granted me because I am alternative but not unrelatable. As a short, stocky queer I am far from fulfilling the beauty ideals set forth by the white gay community, that is, tall, muscular, straight-acting (i.e. masculine), etc. These facts, while detracting from my beauty capital, make me more relatable to the masses I entertain, as most people do not in fact meet all those beauty ideals either. Thus, the fact that I – as a more realistic depiction of the average body – have the privilege of being on stages and given platforms is “edgy” and transgressive by default.

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This inherent contradiction got me thinking more about the certain situations where what’s desired for a commercial model and what’s desired for an editorial model actually overlap in space. To do that I’d like to reference the new season of American Horror Story: Freak Show, one of my favorite shows. Unlike most of commercial television, in this season of American Horror Story the producers have hired actors with genuine differences or disabilities to play the “freaks”, rather than using makeup on able-bodied actors to create an illusion. Similar to the way in which cisgender actors should not be playing trans* characters, actors with disabilities deserve the visibility and respect of representing themselves rather than being caricatured. But I digress. The links I have attached depict some of the actors from AHS: Freak Show walking the red carpet. The sort of real-life exoticism sought by editorial bookers is embodied here by these actors, as their physical differences are confirmed off-camera. At the same time, these actors fill a commercial desire of relatability by dressing up and attending a red-carpet event, well-known by most people. They simultaneously embody the classic and the “abnormal”. Notice that they are subject to an onslaught of paparazzi photographers. Consider how their status as “freaks” relates to their status as newly famous actors in regards to how they interact with the paparazzi.

Rose Siggins

Jyoti Amge

Naomi Grossman

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One thought on “The Transgressive “Average” Body and the Normalized “Freak”

  1. I’ve been thinking about the “normalized” body a lot recently because (I’m hopping on the shameless self-promotion train) I’m directing a show about the ways we navigate the world in our individual bodies and the relationships we have with those bodies, starring a young woman with cerebral palsy. We started the piece with a firm understanding that we didn’t want to make the show an agit-prop piece about disability and what we’ve come to understand is that the way her body lives in that world is similar to the ways in which many of us struggle when trying to navigate spaces in our own bodies. With cases such as this play and AHS: Freak Show what I’ve come to believe is that there is a more of a correlation and identification between audience and performer when the person being viewed is considered “abnormal” rather than feeling alienated by the image of a commercial, girl next door, model. Media has alienated so many people now because the standards of beauty are so unrealistic and unattainable that we are more likely to identify with paradoxical, non-normative images of beauty, such as your brilliant drag persona, because we feel just as estranged from mainstream concepts of beauty.

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