This week saw the final performance of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. There are those who are saddened by what they view is the end of some idealized and romanticized past. I would argue that such a past never really existed. Others, like myself, see it as a relic, a rusting and obsolete relic of an ignorant past.
I was a kid in the 1970’s when the circus came, settling in a field just at the edge of our little Illinois town. I was fascinated by the tents, the odd collection of circus people, and the animals. Even at so young an age I lamented for chained elephants, and big cats kept in uncomfortable small cages. But I was a kid, and absolutely I was awed by the performances.
Even then, however, it felt decrepit, the final gasp of a bygone era. I recall coming away a little sad, and a bit dirty at the utility and slavery of otherwise autonomous, free-roaming creatures. I came away a little emotionally damaged. That lament extended to the people as well. It seemed to primitive and antiquated labelling people as “Freaks,” as in the “Freak Show.” (Besides, Republicans would go out of their minds about where the “half man/half woman” might decide to use the restroom!)
As I became more acquainted with history and other cultures the circus was merely part of the continuum of human and animal exploitation for entertainment evolving for thousands of years ago from brutal contests and shows one might well have found in Rome’s famed coliseum. Circuses, over the centuries had merely evolved to the tastes and tolerances of their contemporary audiences.
And tastes and tolerances absolutely change. No one would ever consider having bears wrestle in a mall parking lot, as once happened in 19th Century America, and which still takes place in a few places around the globe. It was once entertaining to watch white men in Black face mock African American culture and music. We now consider that racist. So what, precisely, are we holding onto by exalting circuses to some elevated cultural and historical status?
Circuses are a thing of the past. I would submit that circus shows today are less akin to the show I saw as a boy, and more like a cross between the flashy Circ du Soleil and a Disney parade, but with more animal abuse and exploitation.