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Circus Freak Shows: Bullying Culture, Mass Media and Personal Responsibility

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This past Halloween, I watched the film Monster House with my children. It is one of the unnecessary DVDs that we own but one that I had not actively watched before. It is a children's film about a haunted house. I expected puerile jokes and unnecessary references to films that no one cares about anymore. I was wrong.

The basic plot of Monster House is that a house is possessed by the spirit of a dead woman, Constance, who steals children's toys that land on her grass. Before being "rescued" by the man she marries, Constance had spent her life as an unwilling freak show act in a circus where children paid money to laugh, belittle and humiliate her. Constance dies falling into the foundations of the house she was building with her rescuer-husband, after, once again, being belittled by a group of small children. The house thus becomes both Constance's grave and her avenger.

Possessed by the spirit of the abused Constance, the house is portrayed as insane, evil and violent. There is no discussion of whether or not she was justified in her paranoia following years of intense bullying. The house is angry and frightened because Constance was angry and frightened. But, no one listened when Constance was alive and no one listened when she died. Instead, the climax of the film is the complete destruction of Constance.

It is easy to dismiss Monster House as just another poorly executed children's movie but this film is simply a reflection of our culture. We may no longer have circus freak shows designed to bully and humiliate those who do not fit our gendered dichotomy of human bodies, but our bullying culture still exists in the form of reality television, shock-jock radio programs, the ubiquity of "lifestyle" and celebrity magazines, and mass media coverage of "news". Much of our "entertainment" now rests on the same constructions as the circus freak show, we are simply unwilling to acknowledge our own personal responsibility in consuming these forms of "entertainment" and the harm that they cause.

Just as we now blame Mel Greig and Michael Christian for the death of Jacintha Saldanha, we blame Constance for her actions without looking at the context. I do not want to minimize what Greig and Christian did, since anyone who is no longer 15 should know the potential consequences of 'pranks', but they are not the only ones who are guilty in the death of Saldanha. Focusing our blame on Greig and Christian is a convenient way to minimize our collective guilt as a society that actively encourages the same bullying experienced by Constance.

Greig and Christian would not have made the prank call if there was not an audience for it. We cannot simply blame the two, although their culpability is without doubt, we also need to examine our own behaviour. We need to take personal responsibility for perpetuating and perpetrating bullying culture. Without an audience of consumers buying magazines like Heat and Grazia or newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail or watching/listening to shock jocks like Howard Stern and Matthew Wright, there would be no financial incentive for these people to behave in a crass and offensive manner. Before we start blaming others, we need to check our own behaviour, examine our own privilege, and stop financially supporting an industry based on the abject humiliation of others. The harm caused to vulnerable people who participate in reality television is obvious, yet millions of people watch shows like Big Brother and X-Factor and laugh at the judges' vile comments. Millions of people take to Twitter to insult the physical appearance of contestants.

We shouldn't need the Leveson Inquiry to regulate the media. We should be holding the media accountable through our financial power. We can change print media simply by refusing to consume misogynistic, racist, disablist and homophobic stories. We can change talk radio by switching off Greig, Christian and Stern. We can change the culture of bullying traumatised families by refusing to purchase newspapers or watch television newscasts that show images of traumatised parents mourning the loss of their children. We can stop buying newspapers that doorstop grieving parents. We can stop consuming media that suggest that women and children are somehow responsible for their own deaths at the hands of violent men for just exisiting.

Monster House is a film, which uses the emotional and physical abuse experienced by a vulnerable woman and then blames the woman for her behavior, whilst excusing the children, and their parents, who bullied her during her life. In fact, the film never makes the direct correlation between the long-term abuse experienced by Constance and her quite justified paranoia and subsequent behaviour. The blame is entirely Constance's despite the fact that society had conspired against her for cheap entertainment.

Contemporary mass media from reality television to celebrity culture, from talk shows to shock jocks, together form a 21st century freak show, only now the phenomenon is 24/7 and shows no respect for private boundaries or personal space. We are invited to laugh and jeer at vulnerable people, like Constance, and we pay to financially support their exploitation. We continue to exploit the most vulnerable members of our communities for our entertainment: in reality television, in "traditional" and online media, in the music industry and in pornography.

Life isn't a circus freak show. Lets just stop acting like it is.