Are “Freak Shows” Unethical? Because They Are Back.

Abigail and Brittany Hensel: Who’s exploiting who?

Circus and carnival sideshows were banned by law and ordinance over half a century ago. Silly me: I remember hearing about that as a child and assuming that it represented human progress, that civilized Americans had decided that it was degrading to both the “human oddities” displaying themselves to gawking onlookers and the gawking onlookers themselves, and that we were better than that. The ethical attitude toward people with deformities, strange maladies and unusual physical characteristics was compassion, acceptance, kindness, and treatment as equals, not voyeuristic ogling. It made sense at the time.

Of course, as a child I had yet to experience the full oppression of political correctness. The sideshows were banned because the people who had no interest in them felt that they could dictate conduct to the people who did, and that it was also somehow virtuous to forbid the human exhibits from making a living—for their own good, of course. It is certainly time to repeal those bans, which were of dubious constitutionality anyway, since the freak shows that were deemed unhealthy and degrading on the carnival circuit are now openly thriving on television, making more money and being seen by more Americans than P.T. Barnum could have imagined in his wildest dreams. The original question remains, however: Are they ethical?

I never focused on the return of the sideshow human oddities before, though all the clues were there. Various celebrities with severe drug, alcohol and personality disorders have been accepting money to exhibit their maladies for TV audiences who could then feel superior to them; these are the equivalent of the lowest form of freak attraction, the sideshow geek, who was typically an alcoholic or drug addict who would debase himself (eating live chickens or lizards) for money. These shows are, I believe,  unethical to watch or support. Then there are the “documentary” TV programs that are thinly disguised freak shows, following the travails of 600 pound teenagers, men with faces obliterated by growths that would make John Merrick (“The Elephant Man”) feel like George Clooney, and women with tumors bigger than they are. Other cable fare makes stars of hoarders, compulsive tattoo addicts, women who have given themselves breasts the size of beach balls, and dwarves. Somehow the exact equivalence between these programs and the banned sideshows didn’t dawn on me—I know I’m slow—until I read yesterday that Abigail and Brittany Hensel have signed to do a reality show too.

The news made me sad. I first learned about Abigail and Brittany Hensel many years ago in a Life magazine feature about the remarkable  conjoined twins, who to all observers appear to be a two-headed girl. That article talked about how accepting and protective their community was of Abigail and Brittany’s privacy and dignity, and how, except for the fact that they shared a single body, the twins were happy and well-adjusted. Later, when they were teens, there was a documentary about the girls on one of the network news magazines. Again, they seemed smart, lively and and normal by any standard, not just for a “two-headed girl.” They spoke enthusiastically about wanting to have careers and families, and sounded like any other teenager. I found the story both hopeful, inspiring and depressing, especially when Abigail said that she wanted to be a commercial airline pilot and Brittany said that she wanted to be a lawyer. How, exactly, were they going to pull that off?

Now the twins are young women—or a young two-headed woman?—and have apparently made the decision to become professional human oddities. They will be starring this month in a new reality show about their daily life and special problems. We can rationalize the show as an inspiring weekly demonstration of the strength and determination the twins must muster to overcome their disability and to try to lead normal lives, but let’s be honest: this is a modern freak show, no more, no less. As engaging and courageous as Abigail and Brittany are, the primary appeal of the show to the vast majority of viewers will be the fascination of watching a real, live, two-headed girl go through life. If there is any difference between paying cable fees and watching ads for the privilege of marveling at the Hensel twins and paying a quarter at the carnival to stare at the monkey boy, I can’t find it. If the carnival freak shows were unethical, so is the Abigail and Brittany Show. If we have no ethical objections to the Hensel twins displaying themselves to make a buck, then we should let other human oddities do the same in the circus.

This issue brings us back to the dwarf-bowling/dwarf-tossing controversy, which I addressed a while ago. The issue flared up again yesterday, when The Little People of America came out against the sport (or whatever it is) in which dwarves allow themselves to be used as bowling balls, saying,

 “We believe that such practices are a direct insult to the equality of people with dwarfism, grounded in a respect for basic human dignity.”

A greater insult, however, is to hold that little people have less right to exploit their unique qualities for money than Danny Bonaduce, Lou Ferrigno, Al Sharpton or legendary stripper Chesty Morgan.

The Hensel twins have spent their entire lives being stared at, and are inured to it. Yes, I wish I could have read that they had graduated from law school and started a law firm, or married two wonderful, normal guys who love them and are able to deal with the fact that it is biologically impossible to have sexual relations with only one twin at a time, since they have just one set of genitals between them. It was not going to happen, though, and as the reality of their options dawned on the girls in adulthood, they came to a rational decision: cash in. People are going to gawk at them anyway, they might as well get rich from it if they can.

I can argue the other side. The Hensels are using their oddness to entice us to indulge our worst human instincts. They degrade society by giving us an irresistible reason to degrade ourselves. Their show is like porn, or sadistic films. The Hensels’ audience, meanwhile, is creating a financial incentive for these nice girls to humiliate and diminish themselves. Such shows are ethics corrupters like the dance marathons. The twins should aspire to something better than being a freak show attraction, and we are making that impossible by making the financial temptations too great.

Those arguments have both emotional and intellectual appeal for me, but ultimately I reject them. Abigail and Brittany have a right to decide what to do with their lives, and how to cope with their unique limitations. If they choose to profit from our indulging the perverse human fascination with all that is strange, that is their choice, just as it is our choice to indulge. The argument that society is coarsened by this mutual arrangement, the argument that led to the banning of the freak shows, has been disproved by the fact that society hasn’t improved at all in this respect since the human oddity exhibits were banned. All we accomplished was to take legitimate life options away from citizens who face difficult challenges like the Hensels, and to tell other Americans what they were allowed to pay money to see.

Banning freak shows was unethical, not the shows themselves. I don’t think it speaks particularly well of our culture that we still enjoy staring at the weird, the ugly, the unusual or the disgusting, but we do, and we should be honest about it. Freak shows are symptoms of a deep human weakness, but they aren’t the cause. If Abigail and Brittany can make a living out of it, well, at least that’s something.


Facts: The Blaze


Graphic: Hollywood Celebs Gossip

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at




23 thoughts on “Are “Freak Shows” Unethical? Because They Are Back.

  1. Unethical because it upsets YOU? I think there’s a little matter of free choice here. If the F-Word people were mentally deficient and being exploited, I, too, would object. However, if they are of sound mind, I would say it’s none of my business. Would I go to see their “show”? No, I would not. Do such shows degrade the human person? Without a doubt. In my not-so-humble opinion,any shows are degrading

    Lady Gaga, for example.

    • Who said THAT? I have always said that paying drunks to dance is unethical; using money to induce someone to harm themselves for another’s amusement is despicable. And it is. Corrupting others is wrong, whether they are of sound mind or not.

    • That should be “many shows are degrading”, of course. My arthritically deformed fingers are “freaky” and often hit the wrong keys. They do not embarrass me, though sometimes very little kids will ask what’s wrong with my hands. They’re really funny-looking — when my daughter was small she called them “witch hands”. Perhaps we’re all “deformed” in one way or another— some spiritually, which is a lot worse.

  2. “The argument that society is coarsened by this mutual arrangement, the argument that led to the banning of the freak shows, has been disproved by the fact that society hasn’t improved at all in this respect since the human oddity exhibits were banned. All we accomplished was to take legitimate life options away from citizens who face difficult challenges like the Hensels, and to tell other Americans what they were allowed to pay money to see…Banning freak shows was unethical, not the shows themselves.”

    I agree with what you say there.

    “I don’t think it speaks particularly well of our culture that we still enjoy staring at the weird, the ugly, the unusual or the disgusting, but we do, and we should be honest about it. Freak shows are symptoms of a deep human weakness, but they aren’t the cause.”

    I don’t feel as agreeable with you on what you say there. I think that American culture, warts and all, is actually (or maybe, was, and would be improved if it once again was) one of the human race’s most liberal (of course, I don’t mean “liberal” in the strictly political sense). Consider the rejection Abigail and Brittany would likely have to survive and endure, had they come into the world in any other culture. At worst, it could get fatal, at a very early age – even, in the fetal phase. How many Americans do you know who in their right mind, regardless of their views on the “choice vs. life issue,” are going to get into the faces of these two-souls-in-one-body and say, “You should have been aborted?”

    I don’t think the word “enjoy” as you use it is accurate. Offhand, I can’t think of a better word. I guess I am just a believer in some pervasive, tender-hearted spirit that still reigns in and guides the minds of the vast majority of Americans, in a way that enables them to behold (stare at) “the unusual” in all its potential for additional valuation (weird, ugly, disgusting) with more complex (or maybe, more simple), but charitable, processing. The staring is just one manifestation of ethical (or ethics neutral) and even noble qualities – like…curiosity, like…empathy, pity. I don’t know. I’m kind of rambling, I’m sorry. I may be too misanthropic to even venture into discussion here. I just don’t think sadism, cruelty, hatred, fear/terror-of-the-unusual-or-unfamiliar, lack of empathy…I just don’t think those are the leading motivators of most Americans who are “entertained” (or at least, captivated to some degree) by the opportunity to behold “oddity.”

    • I could not resist saying something else, because I noticed: Sydney, the wannabe high school yearbook exhibitionist, is back amongst the site visuals. And, one of the other images, of a more scantily clad (than Sydney), female-looking person displaying grotesque, off-putting buxomness (to my sight) has been taken down. Good, on both.

      • Jack, WHY?! You took Sydney out again, and put back Ms. Nearly Naked Monster Boobs, PLUS the little boy patting the lady-butt. BOO! That’s three monster steps BACKWARD in quality of your site visuals!

          • OK, two out of three (Jenny and Arthur – I’m looking for him…oh, OK, I think I spot him in the black and white) are good enough, thanks. But don’t lose Sydney altogether, and please consider re-instating her (especially in place of the butt-groper/-slapper boy – I wouldn’t mind being that boy, but I would mind being that woman in that particular imagery). Blonde and yellow can go together captivatingly – I think Sydney nails it.

    • I prefer news over reality TV but I do think most will come away with the understanding that they are just two women but for some it was always be about the titillation of one vagina/two females

    • ‘I guess I am just a believer in some pervasive, tender-hearted spirit that still reigns in and guides the minds of the vast majority of Americans,’

      Having been born in America, the last time I spent a full year in the US was 1997 but until 2008, I very regularly traveled throughout the continental US. Also, the best person to ever grace my life, my paternal grandmother, was born and bred American. Over half of my paternal family lives, laughs and loves in America, where they were all born. I guess what I am saying is that while not American anymore, I am very familiar with America and Americans and that statement sounds delusional to me.

      I can’t even say how many adjectives I could come up with before ‘tender-hearted’ would even pop into my head. And I think what is happening in politics, schools and news media speaks to what “‘guides the minds’ of the vast majority of Americans.”

      Its a lovely sentiment though. Wish I could get behind it with you.

      • Danielle, having lived elsewhere, I am American by ‘thought’ and I have no doubt that this country is unique and their citizens have a spirit that embraces.

      • “And I think what is happening in politics, schools and news media speaks to what “‘guides the minds’ of the vast majority of Americans.”

        I do agree that much of what is reflected every day in politics, schools and news media indeed forcefully (externally) “guides the minds” of a great many Americans, perhaps a majority. I’ll concede also that those reflections do suggest “darker spirits” are also present in Americans’ minds, along with that tender-hearted spirit I alluded to. But I do believe that those external reflections – of “coarseness,” in all its unethical characterizations and qualities – mis-represent what is predominant inside the vast majority of Americans’ minds, and magnify the darkness to make it seem more pervasive and controlling within Americans’ minds than it is.

  3. Beats being a restaurant dishwasher(s). I’d like to see the twins opt for something better but it’s their decision and a lucrative one at that. As far as marriage,I really feel badly for them there. It’s conceivable that a man could fall in love and marry both girls but it wouldn’t be fair (or legal?) and I doubt the girls could accommodate each other easily.

  4. Just found your web site, and so far I’m enjoying it. I agree much of what you’ve said in the few posts I’ve read so far.

    This one I’m unsure about. Unless I missed it, you never really explain why “freak shows” are intrinsically unethical. I understand intellectually how one would recoil from the idea of paying to see a circus geek bite off a chicken’s head. In that case, the indivdual is being debased. He is doing something he otherwise would not do, something freakish and ugly, simply so he can feed his habit (if you are correct in your claim that most had drug problems.) By paying to see this, we are partaking in his self-debasement.

    These women: are they doing something freakish and ugly that they otherwise would not do? Most (although not necessarily me) would say appearing on television (even a reality show) is stooping to repulsive behavior.

    I think that there is a good case to be made that it is normal human behavior to have a heightened interest in “unusual” things. I *think* that from infancy onward, persons are fascinated by what is unusual and strange. Because most decent people don’t want to make others suffer needlessly, we don’t (and our culture has trained us in this) stare at unusually fat/tall/otherwise “odd” humans. That’s a matter of learned manners, and I approve of it.

    It’s easy to say that wanting to watch these women in a reality show is evidence of a debased taste. I would say the same thing about wanting to listen to, for example, some horrible insipid piece of pop music over a masterpiece of jazz. But preferring the former isn’t unethical; it’s just bad *taste*. That’s the worst we can really say about it.

    So, again, your claim that these women are debasing themselves by doing a TV show ultimately just comes down to a matter of taste. How can it be unethical if I am not hurting them by watching, and if they don’t report that they are suffering by participating?

    • Since the post never said that the show was unethical, or that freak shows are unethical, we have no argument. Paying someone to harm or debase themselves out of desperation—the geek situation, or 30’s dance marathons—is unethical. That doesn’t apply to the twins, and I didn’t imply that it does. “Banning freak shows was unethical, not the shows themselves.” That wasn’t clear enough for you?

      • Well–no. I think your essay lacks clarity, now that you mention it. You say geek shows are unethical to watch or support; you then say that “reality shows” featuring (say) deformed individuals are essentially the same kind of entertainment, “thinly disguised” geek shows.

        I have to infer then that you think it is at least questionably ethical to watch or support the latter. If not, why even lump the conjoined twins show in with circus geeks. I assume you weren’t trying to piece together an essay from various non-sequiturs.

        So, to answer your question, the bolded sentence you proffer to demonstrate the clarity of your position may be clear. The other few hundred words, not so much…

  5. I apologize. It seems you ARE making a distinction between freak shows and geek shows. I think perhaps you are uncertain if there is a bright line dividing the two, since you don’t make much of the distinction–or at least you gloss over it quickly. I stand corrected.

    • The distinction is when a show entices or otherwise compensates someone for objectively harmful behavior, making the audience complicit in the harm. That’s a geek show. The Anna Nicole Show was a geek show. Scott Baio’s show was a geek show, as he subjected himself to emotional and other abuse from old girl friends as entertainment for others. I’m torn about “Jackass.” I’m torn about the Biggest Loser and Celebrity Boot Camp, as well as Fear Factor.

      Freak shows are when someone agrees to exhibit themselves as they are and have to be, for voyeuristic individuals to watch in exchange for cash. Most celebrity reality shows are freak shows. Playboy is a freak show. Hollywood is a freak show. Bodybuilding. Cirq de Soleil.

      I think Ethics Alarms has been consistent in making the distinction.

  6. Thanks for a smart post about an ethically complicated issue. The truth of the matter is that people like Abby and Brittany will always be stared at, gawked at, and sometimes ridiculed. Being “celebrities” may actually shield them more than “living normally”, because rather than just being gawked at they will also be begged for autographs and interviewed and asked questions and basically treated like important beings, rather than just weird, abnormal “freaks.” For people who are visibly “different,” it is not always possible to “fit in.” Sometimes, standing out on purpose leads to a more fulfilling existence, because you are acknowledging, even reveling in, your own weirdness. I believe the young women should have the right to display their lives on television if it makes them happy and/or pays the bills. They should have the rights to a career like anybody else, even if the career itself makes people uncomfortable.

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