Circus and Fair | (2023)

Transgression of gender norms and sexual propriety was practically inherent to the culture of the fair or carnival, and to a lesser extent, strongly present in circus performances. Traveling carnivals originated in European medieval trade fairs, and developed during the early modern period, adding theater performances along public thoroughfares, such as the French théâtre de la foire in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and displays of human oddities (Semonin 1996). By the nineteenth century a wide array of shows and single acts constituted programs of public entertainment that traveled to towns and cities, including, by the end of the century, food concessions, rides, games of chance, theaters, fun and horror houses, menageries, and even small circuses (Nickell 2005). In many countries, the fair or carnival became a beloved form of popular public entertainment, gradually losing some of its fascination toward the end of the twentieth century, although it remains alive in the early twenty-first century in county fairs all over the United States and in beach towns like Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, or Old Orchard Beach in Maine. The circus, which can overlap with the carnival but has a different performance syntax and its own acts, such as clowns or equestrian acrobats, was born in the late eighteenth century in England and in Italy. It became a dominant form of entertainment in the United States, imported in 1793 from Britain as the rolling show, and by the late nineteenth century developed into what some scholars refer to as "the culture of the Big Top" (Davis 2002).


Carnival and circus acts push the body beyond predictable, familiar physical constraints and, through the performance of skill and strength, test the limits of danger. Women performers captured the attention of audiences with daring horse-riding acrobatic acts and perilous exercises on the tightrope or flying trapeze, or by entering the lions' cage and taming ferocious beasts, or by weightlifting and wrestling. Bearded ladies jolted assumptions about the sexed wholeness of the body, normalcy, and the relationship of sex and gender. To compensate for the masculine beard, these women followed a strategy of self-presentation in publicity and photographs that stressed feminine clothing, female needle skills, marriage, and motherhood. For example, bearded ladies Annie Jones (1865–1902), Jane Barnell (aka Lady Olga, 1871–?), Madame Devere (1842–?), Baroness de Barcsy (1866–1925), and Grace Gilbert (1880–1925) all presented themselves in elegant feminine attire (Nickell 2005, Hartzman 2005). Tattooed women were displayed as exotic pictures, their completely decorated body both underlining and concealing nudity in a deeply erotic, but non-normative performance (Mifflin 1997). Male sideshow and trapeze acts could also challenge the boundaries of gender, with ambiguous body contours andgestures, the cultivation of grace and delicacy, or blurred gendered features, complicating sexual binaries.

The marginal, at times even "queer," associations of the carnival and circus were countered by entrepreneurs who stressed gender norms, family life, and a normal business environment. The U.S. circus skillfully manipulated tensions between the attraction power of the bold, risk-taking, new woman, while carefully reinscribing her into conventional feminine sartorial and gestural programs. Nudity was both exploited and hidden—by covering the female performers of tableaux vivants (living pictures) with body paint that emphasized contour but hid flesh, carefully controlled to be made "respectable" (Davis 2002). Such contrasts, between strength and daring and the ultrafeminine revealing clothing, were a mainstay of female circus acts.


In turn-of-the-century France, carnivals regularly included Oriental-themed palaces where dancers—presented as avatars of an eponymous "Belle Fatma" or beautiful Fatma, a generic, stereotypical, "Oriental" dancer, usually French-born—regaled spectators with a safe, exotic spectacle of the "Other," through suggestively veiled bodies and sexually charged dances (Çelik and Kinney 1990). This feature of French fairgrounds and amusement parks was ubiquitous, reproduced in music-halls, such as the late-1880s Moulin Rouge in Paris (Oberthür 1994). The Parisian theme, in turn, in the United States, was the source of a whole industry of exotic attractions, and entertainment entrepreneur Frank Bostock (1866–1912) presented his early-twentieth-century exhibits entitled "Gay Paree" or "Moulin Rouge," advertised in brochures as "the sensation of London, the rage of Paris—with Parisian dancing girls and Mirza the queen," that fit into the girl-show genres of the carnival midway. The post-World War II fair in North America maintained an overt sexual component, through revues, shows with chorus girls and strip-tease acts, accompanying state-of-the-art musical performers of black music in particular (Stencell 2002).

In the United States the famous showman P. T. Barnum (1810–1891) created a special kind of museum to exhibit human wonders, along with other departures from natural norms. In France the equivalent was the "Musée Dupuytren" and its ilk, usually located inside the fair or midway. These museums were built on an array of shocking displays, eliciting fear, revulsion, and fascination among viewers, especially through highly visible sexual content. Mummified body parts and bodies in the cases and jars of the musée anatomique, provided uncensored glimpses of sexual secrets; the exhibition of a human specimen labeled as foreign or exotic reduced the "Other" to a consumable, helpless product. In the 1920s French poet Pierre MacOrlan (1883–1970) wrote about fairs from the turn of the twentieth century, describing displays of grotesquely deformed female organs made of wax and covered with the marks of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases (MacOrlan 1929).

The secreting-away of an exhibit behind heavily drawn curtains could work up viewers' prurient curiosity about the forbidden, promising access to undisclosed sexually illicit displays against an entrance fee of only a few cents extra (Nickell 2005, Stencell 2002). These secrets, once revealed, were simply puns or practical jokes, not remotely resembling the sensational revelations promised.

Fair organizers in turn of the twentieth century Europe were attacked for promoting sleazy sexuality and for favoring actual sex traffic in the alleys and shanties of the fairgrounds. In France, as in Germany (Otterman) moral conservatives periodically led politically motivated campaigns against the fairs and their alleged depravity (Rearick 1985). In 1929 a French journalist attacked the presentation of shows not suitable for children such as "The Mystery of Woman" or "The Well of the Parisian Woman" (Plessis 1929). Others, at the turn of the century, had charged that some erotic fair booths like the "Temple de l'Amour (temple of love), the "Salon de la Belle Amande (beautiful Amanda's salon), and the Palais de Phryné, (the palace of Phrynea—Latin poet Horace's promiscuous lover) were dens of prostitution. These booths were decorated with suggestive photographs and equipped with reflectors and enlarging lenses that allowed spectators to see the reproduction of tableaux from the salons, and they also had adjoining private rooms (Gallici-Rancy [1903?]).

The carnival midway's transgressive connotations continued well into the 1950s, through the presence of sex, eroticism, violent images and emotions, and the social marginality of many of its employees. Queer gender performances were found in North American half-and-half shows. These were impersonations of fake hermaphrodites by performers such as Albert-Alberta the man woman (1899–1963), who was actually a man, and maintained the claim to his dual sex—as well as being a native of France—until his death (Hartzman 2005), or the Great Omi, the Zebra man (1892–1969), married to a woman who emulated his zebra tattooing, wore lipstick and nail polish as well during his performances.

After the 1960s, the overtly sexual content of carnivals and fairs may have receded; according to Stencell, "Girl shows were leaving the midway just as go-go clubs, topless bars and hotel lounges with strippers flourished" (2002, p. 244). However, the overall picture seems more complex. English striptease revues, such as "Twisting the Nude," were still operating in the mid-1960s, andstandard rides such as the "Skylift" or "The Looping" in Germany, Holland, and France, and even the United States, continued well after that, to exploit images of scantily clad women in suggestive poses on panels and sideboards. Sex shows endured, including the French "Naturisme" (nude) show painted by the prolific fairground artist Jacques Courtois, active in the late 1970s. Violent sexual images, inspired by cartoon and horror film motifs, were prevalent from the 1970s on, for instance with a scatological twist on the façade of Coney Island's Dark Maze (Weedon and Ward 2003). In the early twenty-first century, many carnivals and fairgrounds retain the voyeuristic or fetishistic erotic content of the past in the exterior and interior décor of booths and rides. At the same time, since the 1990s women performance artists have blended revue forms and nude or semi-nude dancing with shows infused with their own, less conventional, and less male-driven views of sexuality, for instance at the Coney Island Mermaid Parade (Essig 2005).


Bone, Howard. 2001. Side Show: My Life with Geeks, Freaks, and Vagabonds in the Carny Trade. Northville, MI: Sun Dog Press.

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Francesca Canadé Sautman

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