Sideshows generally offer up a lot of disturbing content, from pickled stillborn babes to exploited “freaks.”
And then there’s the headless woman.
Surface level, there’s not much to complain about here. A doctor showcases the wonders of our modern age by presenting a woman’s decapitated body, kept alive via the power of science. Traditionally this took the form of an array of converging tubes that descend into the woman’s neck stump. The tubes connect to an oxygen tank, a battery and maybe some other bit of vaguely medical or all-out fake equipment. While the body is presented as mindless, it continues to twitch and obeys the doctor’s commands to perform simple tasks. It may even engage in vaudevillian shenanigans.
Seems harmless enough, right? The whole act is of course an illusion, but what are we to make of the base female objectification of the whole scenario? Here the female body is presented absolutely objectified, devoid of personality, soul, reasoning or the vast majority of emotional expression. She’s of course curvy and often dressed in a low-cut skirt or even something skimpier. There are no eyes for leering onlookers to face. Moral accountability drains completely away.
Just consider this photograph of a headless woman sign by Eudora Welty, which features a bikini-clad body with its arm around one man shaking the hand of another. If the implied rape and/or necrophilia of this wasn’t creepy enough, the text “$1,000 if not alive” is just icing on the cake.
It all falls in line with a 2012 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, “Seeing women as objects: The sexual body part recognition bias.” Simply put, the study found that men and women tend to see women as an assemblage of various parts rather than a complete whole.
“Regardless of gender, participants consistently recognized women’s sexual body parts more easily when presented in isolation. Men’s sexual body parts, on the other hand, were more memorable as part of their entire bodies.”
I had trouble finding a suitable image for this blog post. I initially planned to use the Welty image referenced above, but it wasn’t covered by our image plan. So I performed a few Getty and Corbis searches for “headless woman” and was thoroughly creeped out by pages of alluring advertising shots of nude and clothed female forms, all of their heads perfectly out of frame for maximum objectification. It’s a common trick of not only the sideshow, but of advertising and art as well.
Given all of that, the thought of 1930s fair-goers molesting a reanimated headless woman is just a step to the left.
About the author: Robert Lamb is a senior writer and podcaster at HowStuffWorks, where he co-hosts Stuff to Blow Your Mind with Julie Douglas. He has a love for monsters, an aversion to slugs and a hankering for electronic music.