Pearl's Research Presented at Berkeley Conference


The paper "Historical Voyeurism: Critical Spectatorship of the Victorian Freak Body in the Archive" by Sharrona Pearl, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication, was among the scholarly work presented at the Cultural Studies Association meeting in Berkeley, Calif., March 18-20. 

How do historians view historical images of the body? Can contemporary practices of scholarly spectatorship be decoupled from the historical legacies of scopophilia in which bodily archival sources are necessarily implicated? In this paper, I will explore the archival holdings of Victorian freak show performer Krao the hairy woman, examining the ways in which her image was differently framed depending on her cultural and geographic audience. At the same time, I will consider the ways in which Krao – and female Victorian freaks generally – have been memorialized in the scholarly record. In so doing, I will challenge contemporary scholars to consider our own relationship to bodily images from an ethical and critical perspective. In what ways does studying these images enroll us as a particular kind of freak show audience, albeit one historically removed from original paying viewers? How does an understanding of ourselves as members of an audience change our analyses of our historical actors? 

This paper will argue that in our use of archival images of the body, contemporary scholars need to frame themselves as members of a viewing audience subject to the challenges and implications of voyeurism and scopophilia. Though I will be using Krao as my case study, my claims will be generalized to broader archival practices and considerations. In particular, I will think about the ways in which sensationalized archival images such as those associated with the Victorian freak show have been revisited in a variety of scholarly and non-scholarly retellings, including films, plays, and popular songs. To what extent to these retellings distort and exaggerate the historical impact of these images and the actors upon which they were based? How does the sensational and even erotic nature of bodily archival images inform the ways in which they are analyzed and memorialized in the historical record?