Mike Adams

If you want to avoid seeing your 18-year-old turn into a freak within the first year of college, it’s best to make sure he, she, or it avoids taking a course in sociology. That is especially the case if your kid plans to attend Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont.

Professor Laurie Essig teaches a course at Middlebury called “The Sociology of Freakishness.” She justifies the course by saying that “American popular culture began with the freak show” and that “P.T. Barnum taught us that freaks are always made- not born.” Better not tell that to GLEAM (Gay & Lesbian Employees at Middlebury). They might argue that there’s such a thing as a “freak gene.” Next thing you know, the freaks will be entitled to their own “Freak Resource Center.”

According to Essig, a freak is “a performance or display of otherness for fun and profit.” She claims that she has designed her course in order to “explore the history of the freak in American culture as well as how our culture is still structured around the trope of the freak show.” She wants students to become “sociologists of freakishness” whose job it is “to ask what configurations of power are at play in the performance. How do gender, race, nationality, sexuality and class come into play and how are those forms of power translated into a performance of otherness that forces us to watch it over and over again?”

After I read that job description I began to worry that I might be one of those freaks they’re studying. After all, a lot of sociologists read my columns “over and over again,” seemingly “forced” to do so. Maybe, there’s a freak-watcher gene, even though “freaks are made – not born.” Maybe there’s even an intellectually consistent sociologist somewhere. Maybe the moon landing was faked. Maybe professional wrestling is real.

I want to take “The Sociology of Freakishness” if no other reason than to take in the excellent assigned readings. Among those are Catherine Dunn’s Geek Love and Rosemarie Thomson’s Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body.

There are also numerous lectures I found on the course syllabus for “The Sociology of Freakishness,” which make me want to enroll right now. For example, one lecture, scheduled for early October, requires students to read Suzan-Lori Parks’, “Venus.” Next, students ponder these profound intellectual questions: Can the freak be reclaimed as an active subject in her own enfreakment? Is that what Parks was trying to do? And why?

By mid-October, students are asked to read Lori Merish’s “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics,” and then watch Shirley Temple films in class. Finally, they are urged to bring to class “some contemporary examples of Children as Freaks.”

Shortly thereafter, students read Cecile Lindsay’s, “Bodybuilding: A Postmodern Freak Show,” and Cyril Siorat’s, “Beyond Modern Primitivism”, from the book Tattoo. They are then asked to “Come to class with examples of bodily freaks in our own culture- for example, tattooing, piercing, ear stretching.” They are then asked to “Think about the relationship between bodily freaks and notions of the ‘primitive.’” That’s some deep thinking to require of sociology students.

By the end of October, students read the professor’s own writing, specifically “Plasticity: On the Unexpected Uses of Plastic Surgery”. They are then asked to discuss this profound question: When is surgery “necessary” and when is it “freakish”?

In an early November class meeting, students are asked to “Think about contemporary manifestations of blackface as a genre of the freak show.” In order to provide a real balance to the class, students are then encouraged to study whiteface. In other words, they read about Michael Jackson. The reading is David D. Yuan’s, “The Celebrity Freak: Michael Jackson’s Grotesque Glory.”

Students are then asked to “Do some research on the most recent Jackson trials and Michael Jackson as a racial and sexual freak.” It is unclear whether students are asked to visit Never-land Ranch or attend a meeting of the North American Man-Boy Love Association. But, then again, calling the NAMBLA meeting a “freak show” might offend GLEAM. So many victims, so little time!

Just before Thanksgiving, students are introduced to a lecture on “YouTube, MySpace, and the importance of self-enfreakment.” They are told to find some examples in new media of freakishness. When they return from break, students get to read the professor’s own essay, “The Pleasure of Freaks.” This all takes place within a lecture titled “Does Pop Culture Need Freaks?”

I don’t know about “pop culture” but academia doesn’t need any more freaks. We just need to put bars on the professors’ windows and charge the public to peer inside their offices. Spectators should be allowed to toss them an occasional peanut or banana.

Eventually, we’ll need to pay someone to clean up the stuff that gathers in their cages. The freaks may call it scholarship. But it smells like crap to me.


Mike Adams

Mike Adams is a criminology professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and author of Letters to a Young Progressive: How To Avoid Wasting Your Life Protesting Things You Don't Understand.