A visit to the circus showed this writer every rights violation
I went to the circus every year with my family until I was 12. I don’t remember it being a particularly enjoyable experience, but I also don’t remember it being a torturous, avoid-at-all-costs family bonding extravaganza. Up until last week, I was pretty neutral on the circus. And then I went to the circus for the first time as a cognizant adult, and found neutrality to be a wholly misplaced reaction to the creative choices made by whomever planned the 80th Annual Tigris Shrine Circus in Syracuse, NY. I’m not sure if they were trying to break some sort of twisted record, but during the two-hour performance the Shriner’s managed to violate not only women and animal rights, but nearly all of the rights afforded to sentient beings.
The most obvious and oft-referenced citation stemmed from concern about the treatment of the animals in the circus. Shriner’’s had many animals: tigers, lions, puppies, small ponies, large ponies, a donkey and an elephant. They all had sad eyes. But I would have sad eyes too, if I were an elephant that had seemingly been mistaken for a jungle gym, or a donkey employed quite literally to play the “ass” among a group of ponies trained solely to walk in a circle. I understand that circuses like Shriner’s have pledged that given their circumstances, they provide their animals with comfortable and safe living conditions — I’m just not sure how shoving four lions into a 10×4 wooden cage for transport meets that standard.
Moreover, I’m not entirely sure why there needed to be four lions in a 10×4 cage. At some point watching animals perform tricks they were in no way naturally inclined to do got confused with entertainment. But it’s 2013, and if I wanted to watch an animal do something, I’d find a cat gif on Tumblr. I would not transport an animal thousands of miles from its home, force it into a small box with strangers and force it to jump through a hoop of fire.
If I were running a circus, I would make an attempt to recognize some aspects of the women’s rights movement by providing my female employees with outfits that covered more than 15 percent of their bodies. I would not craft my grand finale to include roughly fifteen women in blonde wigs and star-spangled bikinis dangling from ropes to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” And really, I was so very saddened by the turn that finale took, since it started off so promisingly with an oddly mis-appropriated audio recording of JFK giving his “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech.
Nearly every woman who performed in the circus was clad in a skin tight leotard and heels. The only exception was the dog trainer and the trapeze artist — the trainer wore a suit and the trapeze artists took off their heels before beginning their act, but made sure to put them on as soon as they’d dismounted the bars.
I’m an advertising student, so I understand the value of sex appeal. What I don’t understand what possible use sex appeal could serve at a family-centered event designed primarily to entertain children. What entertainment effect would be lost if the women performing weren’t wearing heels the entire time? The men too were dressed in a way that emphasized their sexuality and exuded masculinity. I’m not sure that this is the appropriate venue to dissect acceptability of using gender roles to continue perpetuating discrimination; but be it appropriate in certain situations or not, what’s the value of sexualizing a circus?
Beyond the grown men and women, the circus featured three children under the age of 12, one of whom was an 11-year-old trapeze artist and she was held to the same sexualized standard as her adult counterparts.
The ethnically diverse performance troupe was constantly stereotyped, by grouping all the Latino performers together, giving their act a spanish sounding name, playing some mariachi-style music and pandering to a lowest common denominator mockery of a diverse Latino culture.
Truly though, the most worrisome aspect of the circus was their disregard of their primary audience: young children. Circuses were meant to be an entertaining, low-cost, low-involvement family show. It’s possible that when the Tigris Shrine Circus started 80 years ago the stereotypes they were perpetuating weren’t as harshly attacked as they are today. But is there a place in society for a group that rests their judgment on 80-year-old ideals?
They may be steeped in history and insulated from recourse by their connection to children’s health, but a charitable mission doesn’t equate to carte blanche. The Shiner’s either need to update their values to reflect 21st century norms, or call it a day.
Kait Hulbert is a sophomore CMD major who will never again dream of running away to the circus. Email her at khulber2[at]ithaca[dot]edu.