Until four months ago I hadn’t had cable since VH1 still aired episodes of Behind the Music, which isn’t to say that I’ve led a cable-free life, but that my viewing has been caught on other people’s TVs. In October I moved into a new apartment and waiting for me inside the closet was a cable box. What started that day was a love affair with The Food Network, but when my tastes drifted away from food I often found myself looking at TLC, mostly because it’s a low channel and a good point to start surfing from. TLC is a strange thing and like a number of different cable channels it is less about what it started as, The Learning Channel, and more about new and exciting reality TV programming. What I remember of TLC is the original Trading Spaces, which I watched a crazy amount of my freshman year of college, and shows like A Baby Story, which could make me flip channels faster than WWF wrestling. I’ve seen programming since then, heck I’m a fan of What Not to Wear, but I hadn’t spent any length of time watching it.

It was a Sunday night, I was unpacking boxes, or possibly pretending to fold laundry, but there wasn’t much on (even with all those cable channels) and while flipping through channels I saw a fat person on TV. Being a fat person with a critical eye for popular culture, if I see a fattie on TV I have to stop to watch. When that show ended another began this one titled The World’s Heaviest Man. After that wonderful program was Half Ton-Mom. Apparently that Sunday was fatties on TLC night.

Not long after that on another Sunday, I was home, again…doing just about the same thing, all the way down to watching TLC. This night’s lineup included a show about a woman whose legs are still growing, a show about folks who have a condition which makes them very tall and an hour on a young girl with a very rare form of dwarfism. That’s when I dubbed Sunday night “Freak Show Night” on TLC. According to Wikipedia the term freak show is dehumanizing and archaic and freak shows themselves are banned in a number of states. While there are still a few groups in the country who call what they do a “freak show”, most go by the more generic and less freak-ish term “sideshow”. I’ve seen the Sideshow at Coney Island a few times and it a glorious sight to behold, full of proud performers, balanced somewhere between tradition and self aware postmodernism.

I really wonder what went through the heads of the television executives during the meetings where these line-ups were conceived. Were “World’s Heaviest Man” and shows surrounding fat folks considered an eye opening story of one individual’s struggles with “morbid obesity”? Are three hours on different individuals with rare forms of dwarfism really supposed to highlight those who have different abilities? What is the public actually learning about the woman with the legs that won’t stop growing? Or is the TV simply putting distance between the freaks and the audience? Placing the gawking in the privacy of our own homes and attempting to save all parties from the reality of a freak show? TLC does the job right, even recreating some approximation of a ten-in-one show (ten shows in one tent for the price of one admission) by concentrating its content into one evening.

Two weeks ago amidst my heightening angst surrounding the L Word’s treatment of its trans character and their heavy handed way of ripping news from the headlines there was an ad on TLC for a new documentary about Thomas Beatie. The icing on the cake of this show was its title: Pregnant Man. Like Beatie was an ice age body found in Finland, or even the first man to ever be pregnant instead of just the first to admit it in the pages of The Advocate. I have to admit that while I watched a good deal of TLCs other freak show programming, I couldn’t bring myself to watch more than five minutes of Pregnant Man. In those five minutes they discussed Beatie’s attempts at privacy and the press he did for money, and that’s when I put The Food Network back on.

The freak show has changed. It still features unique and different individuals, but instead of barkers yelling over crowds of people there are commercials, medical terminology replaces the out and out of calling someone a freak of nature, and tents have become TVs. But it is alive and well, still parading about as entertainment, with a new connotation, one of learning and care (TLC), not just of spectacle. Instead of paying 10 cents to see some fantastic oddity, we are tuning in to purportedly gain understanding and knowledge.

Creative Commons License