67: Janet Davis’ The Circus Age

In The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top, Janet Davis shows that turn-of-the-century railroad circuses and wild west shows were central to the formation of a new, modern American nation-state because they presented an ambiguous picture of America that questioned, played with, and interrogated changing cultural norms.

Davis combines extensive archival work and interdisciplinary methodology to bring the world of the circus to life.  She emphasizes the ways in which transvestites, weight-lifting women, near-naked star performers, and the constant display of married freaks and “abnormal” body types both heightened fears and expressed anxieties about transgression of gender roles within a raced and classed society.  Daring white female riders and animal trainers were presented as dainty ladies despite the risks they took at work, while nonwhite performers were often presented with inverted gender roles and sexualized bodies in sideshow displays; race and class intersected to create a spectacle of gender transgression.  She also shows how circuses played with their relationship to capitalism, both literally as sites of proletarianization and labor unrest (as well as sites of leisure where people went to escape industrialization) and figuratively as fantastic reconfigurations of imperialism in exotic locales.

Throughout, Davis balances performance (both literally and in the academic sense) with the physical production of the circus itself, including advertisements, transportation, and logistics, and she shows how the circus was as much a product of industrial capitalism and empire as it was an escape from the massive social upheavals and prevailing attitudes regarding race, class, and gender.  The book also provides a particular historical answer to a major question in American Studies: by showing how American imperialism abroad intersects with social divisions at home.

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