“Victorian Blockbuster Bodies and the Freakish Pleasure of Looking.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 2016.

Sharrona Pearl

What does it mean when we – we the academics, we the commentators, we the critiques and scholarly interlocutors – look at sites that are forbidden from the non-educational pleasure gaze? To put it another way, what kinds of audiences are scholars, and what are the implications of our looking? My interest here is the freak archive, and I seek to pivot between the audiences of the nineteenth-century freak show and today's audiences for the industry this archive has produced. But I also want to challenge us to think about our own responsibility more broadly with respect to our historical materials. Does this responsibility differ when we are dealing with fiction rather than with historical events? How does the interrogation of performance frame the genre of our materials to complicate this division? And what about (as I shall look at in this essay) historical events that have become fictionalized, memorialized in the performance and media spheres? Do performances of the past contribute to the archive of its stories, and does our relationship (and responsibility) to that archive change accordingly?  Yes. Drawing on Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's provocative work on staring, I seek to reclaim looking as a way to open up a more honest dialogue about visibility and difference.

Published in Volume 38, Issue 2, pages 93-106