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Clown Amongst Clowns: Social Deviance in Circus

a city that folds self up like an umbrella. Quietly and swiftly every night it…[picks] up in its magicians arms theater, hotel, schoolroom, barracks, home, whisking them all miles away, and setting them down before sunrise in a new place. (PBS, 2019)


For as long as there have been outcasts, there have been circuses. Long hailed and popularized as some sort of home for freaks, circus performances are a place for the masses to one watch in awe and wonder as those who dare attempt the seemingly impossible perform superhuman feats with grace and ease. Circuses have almost always had a place in American history, and are present today just as much as they were in the 1800s, though they have taken different forms and held different positions in social life across the centuries.

As for myself, I picked up my first twirling baton at the age of seven. At the time, though, that realm was more about marching bands and early Sunday morning contests with lots of other little girls in an unreasonable amount of make-up. I didn’t truly enter the circus scene until 2013, when I began training in aerial arts. It was obvious early on that this was not a common activity. I certainly didn’t know anyone else in my school who took those classes. This idea of being “deviant” seemed to have a harsh undertone, but in truth it’s much more a synonym for difference than it is anything negative.

I was then, and am now, drawn to circus because of the complete physicality with which I can tell stories — every last ounce of passion, fear, tragedy, joy, and love can be poured out through each muscle fiber in a circus performance. I certainly consider myself an artist, but not everyone in the industry does. In fact, the idea of a circus “artist,” rather than “performer,” is still relatively new. What is the line between our function as entertainers and as creators with a message? How can we possibly put circus into any sort of category in the arts community, let alone society at large? How can we define deviance in circus “back in the day,” now, or in the future? In this paper, I aim to answer these questions through a combination of research pertaining to sociological deviance and circus itself, from peer-reviewed articles to personal interviews conducted remotely. Before we can step right up to the big top, though, we must first understand the inner workings of sociological deviance.

Sociological Deviance

The term “deviant” is something we may associate with an insult. We might imagine something anywhere from a kid with a can of spray paint and a bad attitude, to a drug dealer extorting that same kid for money he doesn’t have. These are easier to argue as “deviant” personalities, because they are actively harming someone else (or at the very least, someone else’s property). Deviance can be quieter, more discreet; it can be something only noticeable if you look hard enough for it. Once upon a time in history being queer could get you labeled as a deviant. If you were a woman, simply wearing pants would make you look like an outsider, a lost cause, or simply just bad.

That’s the thing about deviance: whether or not something or some behavior can be labeled deviant is completely dependent upon the culture in which it takes place. Straying from the beaten path is what warrants the label of “deviant.” As Kerry Ferris and Jill Stein tell us, deviance is any “behavior, trait, belief, or other characteristic that violates a norm and causes a negative reaction,” (2020). These authors also tell us that deviance doesn’t necessarily justify punishment within or banishment from a community — only very extreme and serious behavior, like crime, can do that. All others practitioners of deviance simply exist in society alongside their more conventional counterparts. Because of this, we alllive amongst what our own individual cultures may consider deviants.

In fact, according to Robert Merton’s Structural Strain Theory, some level of deviance is inevitable for everyone. What impacts an individual’s experience of feeling deviant or conforming will often depend on their position in social structure (Ferris and Stein, 2020). Merton further developed this idea by designing a rubric of deviance typology. Those who experience true conformity are those who have pursued socially acceptable goals through similarly acceptable means. Someone who pursues those acceptable goals through less conventional means would be classified as an “innovator.” On the other hand, were someone to tow the line of culturally acceptable means of achieving not-so-acceptable goals, they would be called a “ritualist.”

Then there are those who stray quite far from the beaten path. Those who completely abandoned society’s prescribed goals and means is a “retreatist,” and those who find their own new goals and new ways to get there are “rebels.” There are many people who may consider circus artists to fall under one or both of these two categories; I admit there was a time in my life when I fully believed being a circus artist making a living was a completely impossible feat. But where can we actually put circus arts and he people who perform them on Merton’s rubric? How has that classification changed over time, and how will it continue changing, if at all? I aim to uncover this for us in the next few pages. To even attempt to determine what the future of circus’ place in society may be, we must first consider its place in sociological history.

In the Beginning, There Were… peanuts.

Circus as a concept has always been about pushing the boundaries of human ability. What I believe some fail to recognize, however, is that the pushing of these boundaries is as much about innovation and creativity as it is about flirting with risk: “In 1878, James Bailey lit his circus with electricity, and as a result a rage proportion of [Americans] saw electricity for the first time at the circus,” (King, 2018). I, for one, was surprised to read this. In some ways, traditional tent circuses are often portrayed as a sort of dirt palace, with un-showered carnies and animal droppings lying around. James Bailey (later of Barnum & Bailey), however, sought to bring progress to the people alongside his creative entertainment pursuits.

Throughout the industrial revolution in the late 1800s, the American public’s mass migration from rural areas into large cities created a strange new set of sociological experiences: “density, division of labor, and differentiation of individual identity in the city [led] to an ‘intensification of nervous stimulation’ for city dwellers…[and] circus provided exposure to some forms of nervous stimulation for attendees, many coming from agrarian communities,” (King 2018) . As we learned from Ferris and Stein’s work, leisure and work time became much more separated after the Industrial Revolution (2020), and circus was a great example of escaping form the realities of labor into a totally fantastical experience.

Despite many other creative liberties taken in the 2016 film “The Greatest Showman,”one thing the movie musical portrayed accurately was how much circuses were a magnet for supposed societal deviants. As Colby King writes in his 2018 article “Taking Sociology to the Circus,” there were any number of reasons folks might have run away with the circus: “both push and pull factors encouraged people to join the circus…opportunity to do unique work, but often also…a means of escaping life as a marginalized person in a small town.” Anyone from people of color to those with more unusual physical differences were considered deviants at this time, and thus found their place in circus.

This wasn’t the magical fairyland for “misfit-toys-archetypes” as Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum would have us believing. As King elaborates, “Inequalities that existed in society were often reinforced in circus work, with workers struggling with inequalities of power and exploitation,” (2018). In fact, Barnum openly admitted to underpaying employees. Additionally, African Americans working in circus were often tasked with the most difficult and menial labor. Being labeled a “freak” was far more to comfort the “normal” audience members, who felt they could “other” themselves away from what they saw onstage: “[freaks] function as magnets to which culture secures its anxieties, questions, and needs at any given moment,” (Garland-Thomson, 1996).

If we operate under the assumption that conventional success is financial, and the means of doing so is by working a traditional, stable job, then circus certainly didn’t check either of these boxes. Were I to rank the Ghost of Circus Past (patent pending) on the Merton Rubric, I would need to separate the performers themselves from those who owned and operated them. Entrepreneurs like Barnum & Bailey were known to take home most of the profits, and thus you could certainly refer to them as innovators (though due to their questionable ethics, this title does feel a little too celebratory). By pursuing financial success in away not yet seen by the public, they were finding their own path to goal-conformity. The performers, however, at the mercy of ignorant times in history, were forced to abandon hope of achieving any sort of success through any sort of means. Thus, I would feel the need to label them as retreatists.

The Circus of Today (and I’m not talking about U.S. presidential elections)

There are a number of ways in which “freakism” is alive and well in circus today. Things like contortion acts and fire-eating as still common disciplines, and perform regularly to applause and praise. There are other artists, though, who have chosen to reframe the notion of “freaks” and their place in entertainment. Jennifer Miller, creator of Circus Amok, is a cisgender lesbian who performs with a full beard. In her show, she not only departs from the traditionally feminine persona of a bearded lady character, but she also uses her shows as an opportunity to discuss and question modern social issues framed around a reimagined freak show. Jade Bryan writes of Miller’s performance, saying: “Miller’s transgressive reappropriating of the ‘bearded lady’ persona destabilizes the ‘neutral body’ while reversing the power dynamic of starer/stared-at tacit in the historical freak show,” (2018).

The term “freak” itself is more layered than we may anticipate. Renate Lorenz writes that it “historically refers not only to bodies, but also to demoralizing social practices…’Freak’ does not mark any position in the aside, but instead marks a movement of distantiation, of keeping distance from ideals of being-white, being-heterosexual, being-normal, being-efficient,” (2012). This is almost exactly the definition of deviance being pressed through a circus-flavored filter. In society, those who did not fit the predetermined mold were received poorly, and thus unofficially ushered into a place they wouldn’t be seen unless you bought a ticket to witness their otherness.

There is still some work to do in terms of legitimization of circus in the United States. However, our European counterparts started to make strides in this arena as early as the 18th and 19th century. Magali Sizorn describes how there has been a shift in the classification of circus to being more of an art form than a spectacle: “What the public was looking for, however, was mainly city onsite and beauty, the theatrical and idealized staging of surpassing one’s limits and producing strong emotions,” (2019 and Vigarello, 2002). As society’s interests began to change, the circus followed suit to meet the demand. As we know, the people influence society as much as society influences its members.

Since the mid-to-late 20th century, there has been a significant shift in how circus operates and replenishes its stock of performers. In the classic days, there were “circus families” who passed down their talents across generations. Today, there are specialized institutions where one can go to train professionally as a circus artist. One of the first schools, the Fratellini School of Circus Arts in Paris, France, was founded in honor of Annie Fratellini, an accomplished circus artist, dancer, and musician. The namesake herself writes that “In my opinion, the creation of a circus school was absolutely necessary, not only for the blossoming of the art of the circus in France, but for its very survival,” (Devaulx, 1977) Sizorn further explains that the training available within Fratellini’s curriculum, as well as that of other European schools at the time, was extremely concentrated by focusing on cultivating an artists abilities in a single discipline, which directly contrasted to the model of existing art schools in other disciplines (2019). This begins circus’ journey closer to conformity; by developing schools of circus arts, the industry is creating a more conventional means of achieving success in the field.

The Circus of Tomorrow

Any art form that refuses to evolve will have a hard time surviving into the future. Being the massive enterprise that it is, it’s no surprise that circus has chosen to get with the times. As I mentioned above, the United States circus world is still very young when compared to that of circus across the world. Therefore, most of the measurable change in social perception of circus has occurred in Europe. Optimistically, we can hope to see these types of changes reflected in the progression of circus presence in America.

As we started to see with both the implementation of circus schools as well as general cultural reinterpretation of the field, circus has endeavored to turn non-art into art, or as Sizorn calls it, “artification”: “The recognition of what came to be known as the contemporary circus turned away from ‘internal’ artification (of the performance itself) to take the path of ‘external’ artification,” (Sizorn, 2019 and Maisonneuve, 2009). Sizorn further explains this by noting circus’ collaboration with other disciplines already validated as “true” art, like theater and contemporary dance. The audiences who appreciated the latter two forms of entertainment began to dip their toes into the circus scene as well.

France particularly made some huge strides with regard to government support for circus artists. The late 20th century saw some impressive legislation protecting the rights of circus performers and validating their line of work:

Indeed, since the French law no. 85-660 dated 3 July 1985, circus professionals have the status of authors, paid in royalties. Furthermore, since the law no. 94-361 passed on 10 May 1994, their ‘acts and circus stunts’ are governed by the code of intellectual property and categorized with choreographic works. According to French law, this code protects the rights of authors to all ‘intellectual works,’ the main eligibility criteria for inclusion in that category resides in the work’s originality, and in the imprint left by the author’s personality,” (Sizorn, 2019)

Here we see artists receiving legal protection over their intellectual property. With this sort of legitimization also comes a greater opportunity for financial benefit, which once again puts circus artists in a different category of deviance — increased monetary success through feats of risk and physical exceptionalism would certainly make them innovators.

Progress within circus schools themselves is also developing. As circus becomes more accessible and acceptable, the kind of student who is accepted to and thrives in circus school is changing, and the barrier of entry is rising. Sizorn writes, “over half of the artists in Cirque du Soleil are actually former athletes. Given this problem, and in a context of increased international competition, the technical requirements for entering these degree-level schools are becoming more demanding,” (2019). Now that circus has become a society in and of itself, it’s plausible that the definition of deviance within the circus community may become more relevant to those in the industry than the definition of where they fall on Merton’s rubric within society at large. Does attending circus school make you deviant because that isn’t the traditional path of circus development? Or, as school and training becomes more accessible, are those who remain “self-taught” now the outliers?

Voices of Modern and Post-Modern Circus

By far the most interesting bit of research I was able to do for this paper was the variety of answers I received when conducting a survey about circus and deviance. By connecting with a number of circus artists and educators from my own time in circus school, I learned about circus and deviance from some very well-seasoned, first-hand accounts. There is so much I could say about each of these interviewee’s accomplishments, but if I indulged myself that much it would double the length of this already too-long paper. I’ve included links to their biographies on the citations page.

Do you consider circus to be “deviant” in society at large?

I was curious to know how such established embers of the circus community felt about the industry they entered sometimes as long as 50+ years ago. The reactions I received mostly fell on the “no” side of the spectrum. Elsie Smith, co-founder of the New England Center for Circus arts which I attended, and Tony Duncan, world-renowned juggler and current coach at NECCA, both felt circus ought not be classified as deviant — odd, perhaps, but not deviant. Jenna Ciotta, NECCA 2019 graduate and global perform/practitioner of circus and shibari arts, agreed with Smith and Duncan, and argued that the popularization of entertainment giant Cirque du Soleil pushed circus arts further into the mainstream realm. Aimée Hancock, who currently directs curriculum design at NECCA, felt it could be classified as deviant perhaps, but with much greater context and reframing. She writes: “Circus has always been a moving target, shape shifter, unpredictable…I do believe there is a positive effect — by reminding people of their freedom-loving nature and bringing dreams to life in front of their eyes, but the necessarily unroofed lifestyle and required personal commitment to a belief system that indulges fantasy and spectacle goes against the grain of many societal expectations.” This piqued my interest particularly because it plays on that sort of observation of “otherness” mentioned by Garland-Thomson. In this context however, Hancock reframes the idea of something other, something deviant, making audiences feel comforted by how they are not different, and instead proposes that viewing circus is an opportunity to consider how your own deviance might come to the surface as a means of freedom.

Is circus considered deviant within the larger arts community?

I felt this was an important addition to my first question. In a lot of ways, circus does not fit into any sort of box, whether it be an imagined mental categorization by an observer or check-box on a grant proposal submission form. Duncan felt similarly to how he did about the previous question — its not necessarily deviant, but it perhaps isn’t as well respected. Ciotta agreed that circus is “poorly understood and also underfunded,” but not necessarily deviant. Here was where many respondents began to consider the part of the definition of deviance that mentions a negative reaction to behavior. In this vein, Hancock firmly believed that circus experience in the arts community is different than that of its traditional counterparts: “Circus is the clown in the circus of the larger arts community,” adding that “the transitory lifestyle and the constant search for novelty and fantasy creates this chimera, this silver skinned shape shifter of an art form.”

Has your perception of circus as a “deviant” activity/career changed over time?

Duncan, the survey responded with the longest circus history, has not changed his perception that circus is firmly not deviant. He did add, however that there were existing deviant members of society within the group: “When [I] got involved in it there were a lot of ‘counter culture’ members in juggling, so there was a string strand of being against conformity and individual creativity and accomplishment.” Smith and Hancock both noted how the growing accessibility of circus and its permeation through our culture as a teaching tool has lessened its deviant quality. Smith writes: “When I started circus over 30 years ago, the only reference [people had] was having seen a circus. But now people might say ‘my sister tried aerial fabric’ or ‘my kid got to juggle in school.’ As a profession and an art form it is still deviant, but as an activity that people do it’s slightly less so.”

Where does it fall on the Merton Rubric?

If there’s anything we’ve learned from these answers (and if there’s anything I know about circus), it’s that those involved want very much not to be defined by any one term or idea. So, what better way to test this nerve than by asking them to quite literally put themselves in a box? I presented them with Merton’s Rubric of Deviance. Duncan and Hancock remained true to what I felt they would, and did not want to put circus in a singular category. Between Smith, Smith-Forchion, and Ciotta, they believed circus has taken shape in different archetypes over time. Smith felt that when she first started circus training, it was as a way to escape from her norms and to challenge herself. This made her give relief past self a retreatist marker with a sprinkle of rebellion. Nowadays she feels there’s more elements of innovation, and feels her students expression parts of all three of those.

Smith-Forchion felt strongly about circus being a means of rebellion then and now, adding: “Within circus itself…there is a norming that is happening where we ourselves are risking becoming more [conforming] but that is always the case with innovation and creativity coming in waves.” I agree with this notion — everyone is a unique game-changer until their brilliance becomes repeated. As that happens within the circus community, someone else has to come along and continue the line.

Ciotta’s approach was a bit different. She brings a very relevant perspective for those entering the industry today, clarifying that her perspective stems from her understanding of institution being related to the means of the state, and culture as being society and the interests of the people. With this in mind, she notes that “while it’s tempting to think of circus as inherently innovative, I don’t think much of circus is actually interested in innovating anything that challenges the interests of the state.” This is true. While there are definitely artists out there looking to making rebellious innovative work (she mentions Bread and Puppet as a notable group), the unfortunate reality of circus, particularly in the U.S., is that it artists make work for profit as a means to survive. In many ways, circus performers are at the mercy of “what pays,” as it were. Ciotta continues:

“to the extent that folks are looking to produce circus for the sake of monetizing it…I think most circus necessarily falls into the comforts category. And to move outside of that cage try necessarily falls into he conformity category. And to move outside of that category necessarily means moving away from ‘professional’ circus that is designed to yield a paycheck, given the risk that either institutions or society will be unsupportive of or interfere with the work.”

Final Thoughts

In true circus fashion, the answer to how we can define circus deviance is multi-faceted and every changing. In fact, I think there very essence of circus culture being a gathering place of diversity means that it could only produce this kind of answer; everyone comes to circus for different reasons, and therefore it fits into everyone’s social groups in a different way. For me, circus a place for expression an joy-bringing. Every time a small child’s eyes light up at the sight of my costume, or an elderly woman comes to me to say “I used to twirl batons in the high school band!” I know I’ve touched someone, and I’ve brought them an escape from their day-to-day that they didn’t know they needed. To me, circus is deviant, and it has to be. If we’re not the place folks can run away to, for an afternoon or the rest of their lives, then there’s no emotional or societal outlet for those very human feelings everyone else bottles up when they put on their slacks and go to work. I like what we do, and if that means we’re the clownfish in an otherwise homogenous sea…well, then I think we’re doing something right.



Bryan, J. (2018). Reclaiming “Freak” Discourses of Queer Desirability in Circus Amok. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, 12(3), 375–378. jlcds.2018.29

Devaulx, N. (1977) Le cirque à l’ancienne, avec Alexis Gruss Jr. Paris: Veyrier.

Ferris, K. et al. (2013). The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology (Seventh).

King, C. (2018, November 18). Taking sociology to the circus. Everyday Sociology Blog.

Retrieved December 12, 2022, from taking-sociology-to-the-circus.html

Lorenz, R. (2012) Queer Art: A Freak Theory. Bielefeld: Transcript-Verlag, Print.

Maisonneuve S. (2009) L’invention du disque, 1877–1949. Paris: Éditions des archives contem- poraines.

Sizorn, M. (2019). The Artification of Trapeze Acts: A New Paradigm for Circus Arts. Cultural Sociology, 13(3), 354–370.

The Circus : Part 1. (2019). PBS.

Thomson, R. G. (1996). Freakery: Cultural spectacles of the extraordinary body. New York University Press.

Vigarello, G. (2002) Du jeu ancien au show sportif. Paris: Seuil

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