“The circus aesthetic is born in a queer world from queer artists and disrupts the normative at every turn. The lady with the beard is the ringleader and not in the sideshow… a bridge into this magical world.”
Jennifer Miller (Hou, “Queer Spectacle…”)
I was initially introduced to Jennifer Miller through reading “Live From New York,” the epilogue of Sideshow USA by Rachel Adams. Miller is a performer, a playwright, a professor, and an activist, just to name a few of her accomplishments – but, if that were not enough to impress you, she has also chosen to defy gender norms and embrace the fact that she has a beard. While many women, myself included, choose to remove almost all of their body hair, Miller has not. This defiance is what primarily peaked my interest in her. In discussing Miller and her popular performance group Circus Amok, Adams states, “Miller’s goal is to empower women to refuse time-consuming, expensive, and painful beauty regimens, or at least to recognize them as choices rather than necessities” (221). This is just one of the many arguments made by Miller that really drew me into researching her circus-activist mindset.
Jennifer Miller has accomplished many things in her fifty-four years of life, such as winning two awards for her work with Circus Amok and touring two solo shows (Morphadyke and Free Toasters Everyday) as well as starring in multiple documentaries regarding politics and “otherness.” Among these many achievements, Circus Amok is the Jennifer Miller production that stood out to me the most. This street production began in 1989 and is based in New York City. With regards to the performer’s’ intentions, Circus Amok’s website makes this compelling statement “Circus Amok invites the audience to envision a more empowered life of community interaction while enjoying a queer celebratory spectacle” (Circus Amok). Their performances are an anomaly within both the circus and freak show community. Instead of being exploited for their differences as many were in original freak shows, the performers of Circus Amok utilize diversity as a way to draw people together and uses the “freak show” as a platform to discuss and examine social and political issues relevant to society today, particularly those relating to sex and gender.
In “Queer Spectacle: Jennifer Miller and Circus Amok,” Christine Hou makes the argument that “making art is not the same as political action, (although it is not uncommon for them to overlap), nor should it replace it. Instead, political – and in this Circus’s case – public art can be seen as the equivalent of planting a seed, a means of prompting curiosity and asking questions.” Through performance and entertainment, Jennifer Miller is not telling people what to think, but inviting them to question societal norms. After reading further about Miller and her various activist performances, I wish there were more people like her back when the freak show was a main form of entertainment in society.
I would argue that Miller is bringing to the table something that people desperately need: the ability to think for oneself and to question what one is being told. In my opinion, people, myself included, don’t ask enough questions about the things happening around them. For example, after becoming more familiar with the history of freak shows and human zoos, I see that, for centuries, supposedly “exotic” people were displaced from their home countries and locked in zoos to be on display at World Fairs, while human beings who were without limbs, fatter or shorter than average, disabled, or otherwise non-normative were exhibited as entertainment. No one stopped to question it.
Jennifer Miller is redefining the sideshow platform. She is turning the tables on the audience and making people question why they want to be entertained by a woman with a beard. Miller and her fellow performers create skits that aim to make people think. For instance, one specific skit is described as follows:
“In an act called “The Rope of Death,” a male clown mounts a tightrope, where he sheds a layer of clothing one piece at a time, balancing precariously all the while. Underneath his baggy Chaplinesque suit he is wearing a full-skirted women’s gown, to which he adds a pair of high-heeled shoes. The balancing act may be read as a metaphor for the laborious and unstable construction of gender; the “rope of death” is anchored by cast members at either end, the struggle suggesting the extreme difficulty of keeping the entire system in the air.” (Adams 223).
This is just one of the many metaphors that are woven throughout the show, metaphors that make the audience think in a very subtle and non-abrasive manner. Miller and her colleagues use Circus Amok to question a plethora of issues including blurring the lines of sexuality, gender, and identity as well as issues like racial profiling and the distribution of wealth. These are the type of questions that really make people think about the world around them instead of being yet another passive citizen.
I think that I find this subject so interesting because I am always ecstatic to discover someone who is questioning social and political issues. Jennifer Miller and her group of performers are using their performance skills to get people to listen to them. This stands in stark contrast to how a sideshow used to be when a showman would exploit so-called “freaks” in order to make money. With all of the ugliness and hate in the world, Jennifer Miller and Circus Amok give me a breath of fresh air that I believe people desperately need.
Adams, Rachel. “Live From New York.” Sideshow USA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.
Circus Amok. Circus Amok, 2015. Web. 16 November 2015.
Hou, Christine Shan Shan. “Queer Spectacle: Jennifer Miller and Circus Amok.” Hyperallergic. 2 September 2012. Web. 10 November 2015.