This season on American Horror Story I am fascinated by the conflict between the carnival performers and the “normal” citizens of Jupiter. While modern audiences are not at all surprised that someone who looks like Dandy could turn out to be evil, the citizens of Jupiter are still operating under the assumption that moral quality is reflected in physical appearance.
This assumption is a very old one in European culture; throughout history and around the world, people who are born looking different from the average population have been treated with a wide variety of reactions. Classical Greece laid a foundation of prejudice against people whose forms did not meet an ideal standard, but throughout the medieval ages the portrayal of people with deformities in Western Europe varied. However, “by the end of the Renaissance, art had equated deformity with sin, madness and physical corruption. Although there had been some sympathetic depictions of deformity, the prejudicial legacy of Classical Greece had been preserved” (Sullivan, 2001, 265).
Fast forward to Jupiter, Florida, United States in 1952. The fear and hatred exhibited towards the carnival performers is still rooted in philosophical justifications during the show’s setting. In the show’s setting, and in the past, people were rationalizing their fear of people who looked different from them by embracing the same principles of the Just World Theory. No one wanted to believe that they could just as easily have been born looking the same way, or consider that their children could be born that way. Just World Theory describes our tendency to blame people’s action, behavior, or morality for any unfortunate experience they have. It is too terrifying for our minds to realize just how random our circumstances really are, that you are not born rich, or beautiful, or talented, or into a happy family because you deserve it more than anyone else. There is no reason you could not have been born into completely different circumstances.
Confronting this concept inspires fear in a lot of people, which I think may help explain the frequent negative reactions to physical differences throughout human history. Our minds’ concern that anything different in our environments could be a potential threat may also be a factor, but I haven’t read much about this topic. I think it is an interesting, and important one that I look forward to learning more about.
The “normal” people of Jupiter have so far been pretty horrible people towards Jimmy and the other carnival workers so far, but we should remember that if our society is any more compassionate or empathetic now, it is largely because a better understanding of biology and genetics took away our excuses not to be.