PUBLIC TALK: John Public As We See Him: Returning Authoritative Perspectives on “Midgets”, Science and Depression-era Show Audiences
|John Public As We See Him: Returning Authoritative Perspectives on “Midgets”, Science and Depression-era Show Audiences : Public Talk with Guy Kirkwood
Buddie Thompson, a self-described ‘midget’ with a penchant for studying his fellow human beings (both ‘little’ and ‘big’), navigated complex and competing conceptualisations of what being short-statured signified in the Depression-era United States. In these years the American ‘Freak Show’ no longer held the same widespread popular appeal it had had prior to the beginning of the century, while the discourses of medical science, reflecting the height of the eugenics movement as well as recent developments in the new field of endocrinology, intersected to make for particularly dangerous ground for those with ‘extraordinary bodies’. Thompson, and other ‘little people’ had career options which expanded beyond the increasingly moralised ‘freak show’, to traveling ‘midget troupes’, ‘Liliputian’ operatic companies, and miniature sized ‘midget city’ exhibits at World’s Fairs, but these involved no less fraught performative styles of self-representation.
By closely analysing Buddie Thompson’s insider account of little person show performers, As I Know Them: A Midget’s Story of Show People, self-published in 1936, I will examine how Thompson developed a unique and authoritative perspective which engaged in the complex and competing discourses of both popular culture and medical science. Thompson specifically rejected the social authority of medical physicians and their advice on new experimental hormone treatments, but only by professing to a superior scientific knowledge of the functioning of ‘glands of internal secretion’. He also rejected popular and offensive ‘outsider’ accounts of ‘midget’ show life offered by journalists which traded in obscenity and perverse interest, while nonetheless retaining countless anecdotes which played upon stereotypes of prodigious (but nonetheless ‘healthy’) male midget sexuality. Most importantly, Thompson devoted large parts of his narrative to returning gaze upon ‘John Public’ himself/herself, making his audience and readers the target of a close sociological and psychological study
typically reserved for those with supposedly pathological or non-normative bodies. While Thompson lived until 1968, his relatively short show career, which appears to have finished before the end of the 1930s but included involvement in important historical moments like the Chicago Century of Progress World’s Fair, spoke to the increasingly difficulties of self-exhibition for small-statured people as a potentially empowering and profitable occupation supplanted and specifically rejected by the more recognisable minority-modelled organisations such as the Little People of America.
Guy Kirkwood is a PhD student at The University of Western Australia whose research focuses on late 19th and early 20th century American 'freak shows'. His working thesis aims to locate the perspectives and performance strategies of specific individuals within different historical and cultural moments, as well as within distinct regimes of normalisation. He has also taught some second and third year units at UWA, focusing broadly on African American history, as well as American colonialism. Guy hopes to finish his PhD at the end of the year and to have the opportunity to pursue future projects in the 'sideshow' of academia.
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