Stand Back Ladies and Gentlemen! The Wonders of the World! Conformity and Confrontation in Winnifred Eaton’s Freak Show Setting in “The Loves of Sakura Jiro and the Three-Headed Maid”

Posted in Asian Diaspora, Canada, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Papers/Presentations, Women on 2012-01-30 01:37Z by Steven

Stand Back Ladies and Gentlemen! The Wonders of the World! Conformity and Confrontation in Winnifred Eaton’s Freak Show Setting in “The Loves of Sakura Jiro and the Three-Headed Maid”

Winnifred Eaton Project Symposium
2007-03-15 through 2007-03-16
Owens Art Gallery
Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada


Christine Mayor
Mount Allison University

The freak show claims true wonders but encourages fraud, offers multicultural exhibits only to reinforce white supremacy, and asserts authenticity while promoting an exotic and aggrandized racial performance. While many have critiqued Winnifred Eaton’s false persona, questioned her authenticity as an “armchair ethnographer,” and accused her of reinforcing Orientalist stereotypes, this essay will concentrate on her deployment of the freak show in the short story “The Loves of Sakura Jiro and the Three-Headed Maid” to challenge widely held American values at the turn of the century. As Pat Shea argues, Eaton’s fiction skilfully balances “concession and resistance,” ensuring commercial success and readership while parodying and subverting white supremacy (19). Eaton capitalises on the potential of the freak show to entice and entertain readers, thus giving her freer reign to critique aspects of the nation, the ideology of whiteness, and the entertainment industry, while playfully exploring her own sideshow hoax as Onoto Watanna.

Historically, the freak show is not simply a form of entertainment, but is also a powerful tool for defining the self through negation, and “allow[s] ordinary people to confront, and master, the most extreme and terrifying forms of Otherness they could imagine” (Adams 2). In the public setting of a sideshow, each audience member is encouraged to identify with the uniform, “normal”, mass, and is distanced from the exotic, disabled, and/or freakishly skilled “Other”. As Robert Bogdan argues,

Americans viewing such displays of non-Western people did not confront their own ethnocentrism…[but]merely [had] confirmed old prejudices and beliefs regarding the separateness of the “enlightened” and “primitive” worlds; they left the freak show reassured of their own superiority by such proofs of others’ inferiority. (197)

…In this manner, Eaton’s image of the freak show may serve as a metaphor for the entertainment industry and a defence of her own passing as Japanese. Eaton, as a mixed-race subject, stands in as a “racial freak” that aggrandizes and exoticises her own identity to gain wider marketability and popularity. Ferens explores in detail Eaton’s conceit of the freak show, stating, “The dime museum may be usefully interpreted as a trope for the popular publishing industry of which Winnifred was, by 1903, a seasoned worker. The two businesses have a similar social function and structure: a metropolitan location, a publisher/manager, a press agent, a stable of expendable writers/performers, and a broad, unsophisticated customer base” (147). The ease with which these two industries can be paralleled further highlights the various ways in which difference is produced and staged to be profitable. Eaton describes in her fiction, the tactics used by the sideshow manager to increase the interest in the acts, which are strikingly similar to the way Eaton packaged herself as an artist. Eaton created for herself a Japanese persona presented through a pen-name, pictures in exotic dress, and authority through racial and familial authenticity. Eaton’s Japanese persona was her commodity and allowed her work to be judged apart from Western literary standards, as, “The naïveté and lack of literary technique that would have disadvantaged her as a white writer suddenly became part of what reviewers recognized as the “peculiar charm” of her untutored style” (Ferens 118). Eaton’s passing thereby allowed her to simultaneously critique and exploit the dominant system, as well as forcing readers to question how we understand and construct the identities of others. Eaton’s playful and cynical arguments that appearances are all that matter in either industry, and that each person must compete as best they can, serve as a critique of the discriminatory American capitalist system and defend her own elaborate hoax…

Read the entire paper here.

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