Keeping Up With The Thumbs On Jersey Shore

08/23/2011 11:09 am ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011
  • Melanie Benjamin Author, 'Alice I Have Been' and 'The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb'

Freak: One that is markedly unusual or abnormal. (Definition provided by Merriam-Webster Dictionary.)

The question came in the middle of a radio talk show on NPR, the Diane Rehm Show, to be specific.

The caller, barely concealing his anger (and without having read the book beforehand, of course!), accused me of glorifying an era that exploited people with disabilities, the era of the "freak show." He accused me of doing the same thing, in writing a book, "The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb," about a woman who became famous because of her diminutive size.

I tried to be sympathetic; I said that I understood where he was coming from. I also said that my point in writing the book was to show that the woman in question, Mrs. Tom Thumb, deserved to be remembered for so much more than her size; she deserved to be remembered for her fierce intelligence, her ambition, her drive. I also said that she was never exploited in her life; she chose her path to fame and fortune herself. No one ever forced Lavinia Warren Stratton to do a thing she didn't want to.

Then we went on to the next caller, before I had time to explain something else: that the "freak show" is still alive and well today. Only we call it "reality television."

I think an argument can be made -- OK, I'll go ahead and make it! -- that the performers in the era of P. T. Barnum (Chang and Eng, the famous Siamese Twins; General and Mrs. Tom Thumb; the various giants and giantesses, the "Wild Man of Borneo," etc., etc.) were the first reality stars. There was no television, but these people became famous because they were "markedly unusual or abnormal" people living normal lives -- at least, on stage.

People flocked to see General and Mrs. Tom Thumb dance together. They bought photographs of them seated at a table, playing cards. They delighted in seeing them drive their own -- miniature -- carriage, pulled by miniature horses. All mundane things, actually. Yet the fact that they were being done by small people (he was 36 inches tall, she was 32) was newsworthy.

Kim Kardashian just got married this past weekend, or so someone told me. She made $17 million dollars off this wedding. People tune in every week to see the Kardashians (who, let's face it, can be described as "markedly unusual or abnormal"; they certainly can't be described as "talented") stumble through life. Before them, people tuned into to see Ozzy Osborne try to figure out how to use his coffee maker.

How different is this from paying to see Mrs. Tom Thumb waltz with her husband? And while I don't know the exact figures, she and the General made a fortune off their very public wedding, managed by their great friend P. T. Barnum.

Over on TLC, there are shows like "Little People, Big World" and "The Little Couple," shows that invite a much more obvious comparison to the popularity of General and Mrs. Tom Thumb. Again, the appeal is in watching people different from us navigate "real" life -- as "real" as life can be, anyway, played out in front of cameras (or on stage, as in the case of the Thumbs).

But that's too obvious, for me. I maintain that Jersey Shore is just as much of a "freak show" (not the phrase I would choose, but the phrase that has been in common usage for over a century) as anything P. T. Barnum put together. "Markedly unusual or abnormal" -- yes, I believe that does sum up Snooki and company, if only for their otherworldly tans.

Now, do we feel sorry for any of these people? The Snookis, the Real Housewives, the Kardashians? Heck, no. We may shake our heads, we may wonder what's wrong with a society that has turned them all into celebrities, we may guiltily admit that we actually watch their shows, but we don't feel sorry for them. In some secret part of our psyche, we probably admire them for finding a way to turn their lives into an industry, for cashing in on our collective, voyeuristic desire to observe unusual people living "normal" lives.

Just as General and Mrs. Tom Thumb did, 150 years ago.

The more things change, the more they stay the same -- that's what I should have said to the radio caller. But don't feel sorry for the Thumbs. Or the Snookis. Or the Kardashians.

They laughed -- and are laughing -- all the way to the bank.