These are the "Carlonia Twins," conjoined twins born into slavery in 1851 who were sold at birth to the carnival and then kidnapped by a rival in the business. The man who originally bought them traveled to the UK to get them back, this time with their mother (a slave) in tow. He returned to the US with them and gave the twins an education that resulted in them learning five languages as well as how to sing, dance, and play music.
This was a remarkable opportunity, and the cost for this opportunity was a life of being displayed as a spectacle for public consumption.
Many other children were forced down paths of public display for circus freak shows. Consider Lionel the Lion Man, who suffered from hypertrichosis and whose dreams of becoming a dentist never materialized because he was put on display as a freak from the age of five. General Tom Thumb was discovered by PT Barnum at the age of four. The Jones Twins were another set of conjoined twins, but they only lived to be 15 months old, and they spent most of their short lives being ogled for profit.
Exploiting children for profit in the name of entertainment is nothing new, but we have gotten much more efficient.
Oxygen has announced a new television show in which Shawty Lo (a has-been rapper) will appear with 10 of his "baby mamas" (he has more, but some of them refused to participate), 11 of his children, and his current 19-year-old girlfriend.
Oxygen's plans have been met with vocal pushback. There's a Change.org petition asking for it to be shelved. There's this piece by Nick Chiles on My Brown Baby talking about why this show is such a troubling use of racial stereotypes. There's this Clutch piece by Tami Winfrey Harris bemoaning the conflation of this show with "Black America" and the plight of the black family. Several people are calling for viewer boycotts.
A lot of the controversy for this particular show is revolving around the portrayal of racial stereotypes and the harm that it does to continue propagating these kinds of images of minorities in the media while more nuanced, full, and real portrayals of minority characterization are often not funded, further limiting the portrayal of minorities and further solidifying the place of stereotypes in the cultural norms.
I completely agree with those concerns and think that they are very much things we should be talking about.
But I want to focus on a different part of this equation for a second. Shawty Lo and his ten "baby mamas" and girlfriend are adults. Their decision to participate in this show is certainly worthy of criticism, but it is their decision. We can be ethical consumers and choose not to reward that decision with our views. We can boycott, petition, and loudly complain, and I'm glad that we are.
But there are eleven children on this show who are not adults, who do not get to be active agents in this decision, and that is a problem that crosses racial lines. It's a problem that is deeply rooted in our history of voyeurism and spectacle, and it's a tradition we need to question more actively.
A quick glance at TLC's lineup, for instance, brings us many examples. Toddlers in Tiaras, which I wrote about before, is just one of the current shows that highlights this problem. A Tiaras spinoff, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, has proven to be very popular. The "plus 8" part of Jon and Kate Plus Eight spent much of their early lives behind the camera. 19 Kids and Counting is another culprit.
Of course, this same lineup reminds us of the original manifestation of this fascination: the circus freak show. Also on TLC, you will find Abby and Brittany, a show about conjoined twins; Little Couple, a show about "newlywed little people"; and Strange Sex, a show that explores sexual fetishes. All of these shows draw viewers for the same reason the 19th century oddities did; they represent the "other," and we are drawn to the spectacle.
We could argue over the cultural impact of these shows (Do they help to normalize medical conditions and therefore increase tolerance? Do they dehumanize the participants and therefore increase stigma?). We can argue over why we're drawn to watching them. We can argue over how to handle the spectacle-viewer relationship in media. We can argue over where the line of exploitation is when dealing with sharing pictures of your child online or child modeling or child acting.
But the one thing it seems that we can't argue about is that there have always be some people who are willing to display themselves as an oddity and other people who have been willing to pay for it.
The American Dream and Oddity
I understand why people are willing to participate in their own exploitation. In some ways, I even admire it.
For many of these people, society had already cast them off. The conjoined twins who were born into slavery weren't going to receive care and fair treatment outside of the circus, either. People born with physical deformities are constantly mistreated in our contemporary culture, in everything from cruel comments from strangers to fewer job opportunities. Even the "baby mamas" and Honey Boo Boos of the reality TV world are reacting against a society that has already cast them into stereotypical positions, positions that are frequently void of power.
And through elective exploitation, they have found a way to flip the script and harness some of that power for themselves--economic power. If you recognize that you are going to be a spectacle regardless of your actions, then perhaps it makes some sense to act in a way that lets you profit from it.
In fact, it's really a slight distortion of the American Dream. The American Dream narrative tells us to find what we're good at, work hard, and make money. The amount of money we make is supposed to be a direct measure of our success, and the narrative is one that is very individually focused. Pull yourself up by your boot straps.
Those who choose a life of public spectacle have often capitalized on a position of powerlessness in order to access that measure of success. Lionel the Lion Boy wanted to be a dentist, but that wasn't a likely path to success for someone with his condition. He was going to be gawked at regardless of what he was doing, so he decided to charge for the gawking.
That may be disturbing, but it makes some sense, right?
Children, Community, and Responsibility
Of course, the problem with the American Dream is that our wholly individualistic narrative is flawed. We exist in communities. We are social creatures. What others do impacts our own actions. What we do impacts others.
Perhaps that's why the exploitation of children in these television shows hits so much harder (or perhaps that's why it should hit so much harder). We don't hold children up to the same "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality. While there's always the errant politician calling to end things like the school lunch program, we're generally much more likely to provide public assistance to children than we are to adults--and with much less complaint. The fact that we care about children so much is a testament to our recognition that we're not wholly individual. Our children are our future--the future we're not actually in.
What does it mean that we are willing to sell our collective future's dignity for a quick buck? What does it mean that we're willing to pay?
Our children are fragile extensions of our collective selves, but they are also individuals. We cannot deny them the opportunity to craft their own stories and make their own choices in the name of entertainment.
We also need to ask ourselves why some children's futures are easier to sell than others. Do you think that Oxygen's Senior Vice President, Cori Abraham, would be willing to sell her own children's identity in this way? Do you think that this is path she would want for them?
While I think that Shawty Lo has every right to make a fool of himself on television (and I think that we have every right to refuse to watch), I think that dragging his children into it is a whole different issue.