The same was true for me. Outside of Carnival—in Montana, where we lived off-season and I went to school—I was an effeminate kid with a big perm (don’t ask) who hated sports and loved Whitney Houston. “Is it a boy or is it a girl?” a school photographer once asked a teacher within earshot. When I signed up to lip-sync “How Shall I Know” for the fifth grade talent show, another teacher called me “uncomfortably abnormal” and sent me to the school psychologist. (Their loss. I would have killed it.)
To them I was the sideshow freak.
The opposite was true for the carnival crowd. I was accepted, even celebrated. When I was in elementary school, my parents would only let me walk around when they were working, and that was all the time. They knew that Slim, who drove the Ferris wheel, or Chief, the mustachioed merry-go-round operator with no teeth, or Ruby, a dwarf who acted as the world’s shortest woman, would drop everything and take out anyone who’d messed with me.
“This really interesting melting pot of people — very insular, a society unto itself — is one of the things that fascinate me about Carnival,” del Toro said. (For Blanchett, the appeal was different: “When I was young, I wanted to be a contortionist — you know, put your legs behind your head. To this day, magic tricks make me scream.”)
In the United States, a circus impresario, PT Barnum, popularized the often brutal exhibition of people with disabilities for the entertainment of others – so-called freak shows or sideshows. As traveling fairgrounds increased in the 1920s and ’30s, emanating from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the Ferris wheel made its debut, these acts were presented in tents (later trailers) set up halfway through.
Sideshows eventually disappeared from carnival lineups, the result of ordinances banning them and altering social mores — though some still exist, according to Marc Hartzman, author of “American Sideshow: An Encyclopedia of History’s Most Wondrous and Curiously Strange Performers.”