From the Elephant Man to Barbie Girl: Dissecting the Freak from the Margins to the Mainstream




Freaks, freakshows, bodies, beauty, anomalies, plastic surgery

How to Cite

Lyons, S. (2020). From the Elephant Man to Barbie Girl: Dissecting the Freak from the Margins to the Mainstream. M/C Journal, 23(5).
Vol. 23 No. 5 (2020): anomaly
Published 2020-10-07


In The X-Files episode “Humbug”, agents Scully and Mulder travel to Florida to investigate a series of murders taking place in a community of sideshow performers, or freaks. At the episode’s end, one character, a self-made freak and human blockhead, muses on the future of the freak community:

twenty-first century genetic engineering will not only eradicate the Siamese twins and the alligator-skinned people, but you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a slight overbite or a not-so-high cheek bone … . Nature abhors normality. It can’t go very long without creating a mutant. (“Humbug”) 

Freaks, he says, are there to remind people of the necessity of mutations. His observation that genetic engineering will eradicate anomalies of nature accurately illustrates the gradual shift that society was witnessing in the late twentieth century away from the anomalous freak and toward surgical perfection. Yet this desire for perfection, which has manifested itself in often severe surgical deformities, has seen a shift in what constitutes the freak for a contemporary audience, turning what was once an anomaly into a mass-produced creation. 

While the freaks of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were born with facial or anatomical deformities that warranted their place in the sideshow performance (bearded ladies, midgets, faints, lobster men, alligator-skinned people, etc.), freaks of the twenty-first century can be seen as something created by a plastic surgeon, a shift which undermines the very understanding of freak ontology. As Katherine Dunne put it: “a true freak cannot be made. A true freak must be born” (28).   

In her discussion of the monstrous body, Linda Williams writes that “the monster’s body is perceived as freakish in its possession of too much or too little” (63). This may have included a missing or additional limb, distorted sizes and heights, and anatomical growths. 

John Merrick, or the “Elephant Man” (fig. 1), as he was famously known, perfectly embodied this sense of excess that is vital to what people perceive as the monstrous body. In his discussion of freaks and the freakshow, Robert Bogdan notes that promotional posters exaggerated the already-deformed nature of freaks by emphasising certain physical anomalies and turning them into mythological creatures: “male exhibits with poorly formed arms were billed as ‘The Seal Man’; with poorly formed legs, ‘the Frog Man’; with excesses of hair, ‘The Lion Man’ or ‘Dog Boy’” (100). 

Figure 1: John Merrick (the Elephant Man) <>.

The freak’s anomalous nature made them valuable, financially but also culturally: “in many ways, the concept of ‘freak,’ is an anomaly in current social scientific thinking about demonstrable human variation. During its prime the freak show was a place where human deviance was valuable, and in that sense valued” (Bogdan 268).  

Many freaks were presented as “human wonders”, while “their claims to fame were quite commonplace” (Bogdan 200). Indeed, Bogdan argues that “while highly aggrandized exhibits really were full of grandeur, with respectable freaks the mundane was exploited as amazing and ordinary people were made into human wonders” (200). Lucian Gomoll similarly writes that freakshows “directed judgement away from the audience and onto the performers, assuring observers of their own unmarked normalcy” (“Objects of Dis/Order” 205).

The anomalous nature of the freak therefore promoted the safety of normality at the same time as it purported to showcase the brilliance of the extraordinary. While the freaks themselves were normal, intelligent people, the freakshow served as a vehicle to gaze at oneself with a sense of relief. As much as many freakshows attempt to dismantle notions of normality, they serve to emphasise empathy, not envy. The anomalous freak is never an envied body; the particular dimensions of the freakshow mean that it is the viewer who is to be envied, and the freak who is to be pitied.   

From Freakshow to Sideshow

In nineteenth-century freakshows, exploitation was rife; as Alison Piepmeier explains, “many of the so-called Aztecs, Pinheads, and What Is Its?”, were, in fact, “mentally disabled people dressed in wild costumes and forced to perform” (53). As a result, “freakishness often implied loss of control over one’s self and one’s destiny” (53). P.T. Barnum profited from his exploitation of freaks, while many freaks themselves also benefited from being exhibited. As Jessica Williams writes, “many freak show performers were well paid, self-sufficient, and enjoyed what they did” (69). Bogdan similarly pointed out that “some [freaks] were exploited, it is true, but in the culture of the amusement world, most human oddities were accepted as showmen. They were congratulated for parlaying into an occupation [that], in another context, might have been a burden” (268).  

Americans of all classes, Anissa Janine Wardi argues, enjoyed engaging in the spectacle of the freak. She writes that “it is not serendipitous that the golden age of the freak show coincided with the building of America’s colonial empire” (518). Indeed, the “exploration of the non-Western world, coupled with the transatlantic slave trade, provided the backdrop for America’s imperialist gaze, with the native ‘other’ appearing not merely in the arena of popular entertainment, but particularly in scientific and medical communities” (518). 

Despite the accusations levelled against Barnum, his freakshows were seen as educational and therefore beneficial to both the public and the scientific community, who, thanks to Barnum, directly benefited from the commercialisation of and rising public interest in the freak.  

Discussing “western conventions of viewing exotic others”, Lucian Gomoll writes that “the freak and the ‘normal’ subject produced each other in a relationship of uneven reciprocity” (“Feminist Pleasures” 129). He writes that Barnum “encouraged onlookers to define their own identities in contrast to those on display, as not disabled, not animalistic, not androgynous, not monstrous and so on”. By the twentieth century, he writes, “shows like Barnum’s were banned from public spaces as repugnant and intolerable, and forced to migrate to the margins” (129).

Gomoll commends the Freakatorium, a museum curated by the late sword swallower Johnny Fox, as “demonstrating and commemorating the resourcefulness and talents of those pushed to the social margins” (“Objects of Dis/Order” 207). Gomoll writes that Fox did not merely see freaks as curiosities in the way that Barnum did. Instead, Fox provided a dignified memorial that celebrated the uniqueness of each freak. Fox’s museum displays, he writes, are “respectable spaces devoted to the lives of amazing people, which foster potential empathy from the viewers – a stark contrast to nineteenth-century freakshows” (205). Fox himself described the necessity of the Freakatorium in the wake of the sideshow:  

New York needs a place where people can come see the history of freakdom. People that were born with deformities that were still amazing and sensitive people and they allowed themselves to be viewed and exhibited. They made a good living off doing that. Those people were to be commended for their courageousness and bravery for standing in front of people. (Hartzman)

Fox also described the manner in which the sideshow circuit was banned over time:

then sideshows went out because some little girl was offended because she thought the only place she could work was the sideshow. Her mother thought it was disgraceful that people exhibited themselves so she started calling the governor and state’s attorney trying to get sideshows banned. I think it was Florida or South Carolina. It started happening in other states. They said no exhibiting human anomalies. These people who had been working in sideshows for years had their livelihood taken away from them. What now, they’re supposed to go be institutionalized? (Hartzman) 

Elizabeth Stephens argues that a shift occurred in the early twentieth century, and that by the late ‘30s “people with physical anomalies had been transformed in the cultural imagination from human oddities or monsters to sick people requiring diagnoses and medical intervention” (Stephens). Bogdan noted that by the 1930s, “the meaning of being different changed in American society. Scientific medicine had undermined the mystery of certain forms of human variation, and the exotic and aggrandized modes had lost their flamboyant attractiveness” (274). So-called freaks became seen as diseased bodies who “were now in the province of physicians, not the general public” (274). Indeed, scientific interest transformed the freak into a medical curiosity, contributing to the waning popularity of freakshows. Ironically, although the freaks declined in popularity as they moved into the medical community, medicine would prove to be the domain of a new kind of freak in the ensuing years.    

The Manufactured Freak 

As the freakshow declined in popularity, mainstream culture found other subjects whose appearance provoked curiosity, awe, and revulsion. Although plastic surgery is associated with the mid-to-late twentieth century and beyond, it has a long history in the medical practice. In A History of Plastic Surgery, Paolo Santoni-Rugiu and Philip J. Sykes note that “operations for the sole purpose of improving appearances came on the scene in 1906” (322). Charles C. Miller was one of the earliest pioneers of plastic surgery; Santoni-Rugiu and Sykes write that “he never disguised the fact that his ambition was to do Featural Surgery, correcting imperfections that from a medical point of view were not considered to be deformities” (302). This attitude would fundamentally transform notions of the “normal” body. In the context of cosmetic surgery, it is the normal body that becomes manipulated in order to produce something which, despite intentions, proves undoubtedly freakish.       

Although men certainly engage in plastic surgery (notably Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff) the twenty-first century surgical freak is synonymous with women. Kirsty Fairclough-Isaacs points out the different expectations levelled against men and women with respect to ageing and plastic surgery. While men, she says, “are closely scrutinised for attempting to hide signs of ageing, particularly hair loss”, women, in contrast, “are routinely maligned if they fail to hide the signs of ageing” (363). She observes that while popular culture may accept the ageing man, the ageing woman is less embraced by society. Consequently, women are encouraged—by the media, their fans, and by social norms around beauty—to engage in surgical manipulation, but in such a way as to make their enhancements appear seamless. Women who have successful plastic surgery—in the sense that their ageing is well-hidden—are accepted as having successfully manipulated their faces so as to appear flawless, while those whose surgical exploits are excessive or turn out badly become decidedly freakish. 

One of the most infamous plastic surgery cases is that of Jocelyn Wildenstein, also known as “catwoman”. Born Jocelynnys Dayannys da Silva Bezerra Périsset in 1940, Wildenstein met billionaire art dealer Alec N. Wildenstein whom she married in the late 1970s. After discovering her husband was being unfaithful, Wildenstein purportedly turned to cosmetic surgery in order to sculpt her face to resemble a cat, her husband’s favourite animal. Ironically but not surprisingly, her husband purportedly screamed in terror when he saw his wife’s revamped face for the first time. And although their relationship ended in divorce, Wildenstein, dubbed “the Bride of Wildenstein”, continued to visit her plastic surgeon, and her face became progressively more distorted over the years (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Jocelyn Wildenstein over the years <>. 

The exaggerated and freakish contours of Wildenstein’s face would undoubtedly remind viewers of the anatomical exaggerations seen in traditional freaks. Yet she does not belong to the world of the nineteenth century freak. Her deformities are self-inflicted in an attempt to fulfil certain mainstream beauty ideals to exaggerated lengths.    

Like many women, Wildenstein has repeatedly denied ever having received plastic surgery, claiming that her face is natural, while professing admiration for Brigitte Bardot, her beauty idol. Such denial has made her the target of further criticism, since women are not only expected to conceal the signs of ageing successfully but are also ironically expected to be honest and transparent about having had work done to their faces and bodies, particularly when it is obvious. The role that denial plays not just in Wildenstein’s case, but in plastic surgery cases more broadly, constitutes a “desirability of naturalness” (122), according to Debra Gimlin. There is, she argues, an “aesthetic preference for (surgically enhanced) ‘naturalness’” (122), a desire that sits between the natural body and the freak. This kind of appearance promotes more of an uncanny naturalness that removes signs of ageing but without being excessive; as opposed to women whose use of plastic surgery is obvious (and deemed excessive according to Williams’ “monstrous body”) the unnatural look that some plastic surgery promotes is akin to an absence of normal features, such as wrinkles. One surgeon that Gimlin cites argues that he would not remove the wrinkles of a woman in her 60s: “she’s gonna look like a freak without them”, he says. This admission signifies a clear distinction between what we understand as freakish plastic surgery (Wildenstein) and the not-yet-freakish appearance of women whose surgically enhanced appearance is at once uncanny and accepted, perpetuating norms around plastic surgery and beauty.   

Denial is thus part of the fabric of performing naturalness and the desire to make the unnatural seem natural, adding another quasi-freakish dimension to the increasingly normalised appearance of surgically enhanced women. While Wildenstein is mocked for her grotesque appearance, in addition to her denial of having had plastic surgery, women who have navigated plastic surgery successfully are congratulated and envied. Although contemporary media increasingly advocates the ability to age naturally, with actresses like Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep frequently cited as natural older beauties, natural ageing is only accepted to the extent that this look of naturalness is appeasing. Unflattering, unaltered naturalness, on the other hand, is demonised, with such women encouraged to turn to the knife after all in order to achieve a more acceptable look of natural ageing, one that will inevitably and ironically provoke further criticism. For women considering plastic surgery, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.    

Grant McCracken notes the similarities between Wildenstein and the famous French body artist Orlan: “like Orlan, Wildenstein had engaged in an extravagant, destructive creativity. But where Orlan sought transformational opportunity by moving upward in the Renaissance hierarchy, toward saints and angels, Wildenstein moved downwards, toward animals” (25). McCracken argues that it isn’t entirely clear whether Orlan and Wildenstein are “outliers or precursors” to the contemporary obsession with plastic surgery. But he notes how the transition of plastic surgery from a “shameful secret” to a ubiquitous if not obligatory phenomenon coincides with the surgical work of Orlan and Wildenstein. “The question remains”, he says, “what will we use this surgery to do to ourselves? Orlan and Wildenstein suggest two possibilities” (26).

Meredith Jones, in her discussion of Wildenstein, echoes the earlier sentiments of Williams in regards to the monster’s body possessing too much or too little. In Wildenstein’s case, her freakishness is provoked by excess: “when too many body parts become independent they are deemed too disparate: wayward children who no longer lend harmony or respect to their host body. Jocelyn Wildenstein’s features do this: her cheeks, her eyes, her forehead and her lips are all striking enough to be deemed untoward” (125). For Jones, the combination of these features “form a grotesquery that means their host can only be deemed, at best, perversely beautiful” (125).  

Wildenstein has been referred to as a “modern-day freak”, and to a certain extent she does share something in common with the nineteenth century freak, specifically through the manner in which her distorted features invite viewers to gawk. Like the Elephant Man, her freakish body possesses “too much”, as Williams put it. Yet her appearance evokes none of the empathy afforded traditional freaks, whose facial or anatomical deformities were inherent and thus cause for empathy. They played no role in the formation of their deformities, only reclaiming agency once they exhibited themselves.       

While Wildenstein is, certainly, an anomaly in the sense that she is the only known woman who has had her features surgically altered to appear cat-like, her appearance more broadly represents an unnerving trajectory that reconstructs the freak as someone manufactured rather than born, upending Katherine Dunne’s assertion that true freaks are born, not made. Indeed, Wildenstein can be seen as a precursor to Nannette Hammond and Valeria Lukyanova, women who surgically enhanced their faces and bodies to resemble a real-life Barbie doll. 

Hammond, a woman from Cincinnati, has been called the first ‘Human Barbie’, chronicling the surgical process on her Instagram account. She states that her children and husband are “just so proud of me and what I’ve achieved through surgery” (Levine). This surgery has included numerous breast augmentations, botox injections and dental veneers, in addition to eyelash extensions and monthly fake tans. 

But while Hammond is certainly considered a “scalpel junkie”, Valeria Lukyanova’s desire to transform herself into a living Barbie doll is particularly uncanny. Michael’s Idov’s article in GQ magazine titled: “This is not a Barbie Doll. This is an Actual Human Being” attests to the uncanny appearance of Lukyanova. “Meeting Valeria Lukyanova is the closest you will come to an alien encounter”, Idov writes, describing the “queasy fear” he felt upon meeting her. “A living Barbie is automatically an Uncanny Valley Girl. Her beauty, though I hesitate to use the term, is pitched at the exact precipice where the male gaze curdles in on itself.” 

Lukyanova, a Ukrainian, admits to having had breast implants, but denies that she has had any more modifications, despite the uncanny symmetry of her face and body that would otherwise allude to further surgeries (Figure 3).   

Importantly, Lukyanova’s transformation both fulfils and affronts beauty standards. In this sense, she is at once freakish but does not fit the profile of the traditional freak, whose deformities are never confused with ideals of beauty, at least not in theory. While Johnny Fox saw freaks as talented, unique individuals, their appeal was borne of their defiance of the ideal, rather than a reinforcement of it, and the fact that their appearance was anomalous and unique, rather than reproducible at whim.      

Figure 3: Valeria Lukyanova with a Barbie Doll <>.


As a modern-day freak, these Barbie girls are a specific kind of abomination that undermines the very notion of the freak due to their emphasis on acceptance, on becoming mainstream, rather than being confined to the margins. As Jones puts it: “if a trajectory […] is drawn between mainstream cosmetic surgery and these individuals who have ‘gone too far’, we see that while they may be ‘freaks’ now, they nevertheless point towards a moment when such modifications could in fact be near mainstream” (188). 

The emphasis that is placed on mainstream acceptance and reproducibility in these cases affronts traditional notions of the freak as an anomalous individual whose features cannot be replicated. But the shift that society has seen towards genetic and surgical perfection has only accentuated the importance of biological anomalies who affront the status quo. While Wildenstein and the Barbie girls may provoke a similar sense of shock, revulsion and pity as the Elephant Man experienced, they possess none of the exceptionality or cultural importance of real freaks, whose very existence admonishes mainstream standards of beauty, ability, and biology.  


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Author Biography

Siobhan Lyons

Siobhan Lyons is a media scholar, having earned her PhD from Macquarie University in 2017. Her books include Death and the Machine: Intersections of Mortality and Robotics (Palgrave, 2018), and Ruin Porn and the Obsession with Decay (Palgrave, 2018). She has also published chapters in Understanding Nietzsche, Understanding Modernism (Bloomsbury, 2019), Westworld and Philosophy (Wiley Blackwell, 2018), and Philosophical Approaches to the Devil (Routledge, 2016).