Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood by James Baldwin

With Here be Dragons or Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhoodan article written in 1985, James Baldwin portrays the modern figure of the monster and the way it is treated in the American society. Inspired by his personal experiences and using the example of androgyny, he manages to demonstrate that “freaks” are rejected, and scare people because they represent their inner fears and deviances. He ends his article talking about Michael Jackson, as an illustration of the individual who does not fit with the ideal of what a male African-American pop star should be.

Being a strange mixture

“Freaks are called freaks and are treated as they are treated- in the main, abominably- because they are human beings who cause to echo, deep within us, our most profound terrors and desires”.

To Baldwin, androgyny is a mixture of both “male and female characteristics” in the way we look. He also says that androgynous people are in the same state as the hermaphrodites. Hermaphrodites are individuals having “both male and female sexual equipments”.  The idea of the freak being the mixture of opposite elements shows that the values and the rules on which society has created its norms can be questioned, and can be changed.

“We are all androgynous, not only because we are all born of a woman impregnated by the seed of a man but because each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other… we are a part of each other” 

In other words, normality as it is commonly presented, has nothing natural, and it has nothing biological either. It is a construction.

Having the power to shame society

The Baldwin case

James Baldwin
James Baldwin

The author portrays himself as a freak and a threat because of his race and his sexual orientation. He is not only a freak by being black and gay, but he is also a threat because he sends back to two elements that are not assumed by society. The history of black people, and the fact that there are more homosexuals that it seems in the American society. By being something else than the kind of black man people wanted him to be and by assuming his homosexuality, James Baldwin did not fit with any societal norms, and being a freak allowed him to see the truth about the weakness of the American ideal of masculinity.

The Michael Jackson Case

“The Michael Jackson cacophony is fascinating in that it is not about Jackson at all. I hope he has the good sense to know it and the good fortune to snatch his life out of the jaws of a carnivorous success. He will not swiftly be forgiven for having turned so many tables, for he damn sure grabbed the brass ring, and the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo has nothing on Michael. All that noise is about America, as the dishonest custodian of black life and wealth; the blacks, especially males, in America; and the burning, buried American guilt; and sex and sexual roles and sexual panic; money, success and despair…”

M. Jackson through the years

By talking about Michael Jackson, James Baldwin gives another  illustration of what he calls a freak: someone who succeeds in existing by himself without corresponding to any standards. To Baldwin, Michael Jackson has succeeded in getting where nobody expected him to be. The author felt that Jackson was going to be treated “abominably” because he would reflect everything that the American society would hide to maintain its order.

From 1985, when this article was written, until today, we have seen the rise and fall the late King of Pop. Baldwin’s statement on Jackson sounds now like a prophecy.

Le “freak”, c’est chic?

Prince Roger Nelson
Rick James a.k.a « Super Freak »

What James Baldwin says about himself or about Michael Jackson, affects any public or anonymous unfitted characters. Even though society may treat freaks “abominably” as James Baldwin says in his article, they would not have any interest if they did not have the role of reminder of what shames the society. We can wonder if, since the notion of normal and abnormal are both constructed, freak and non-freak are really part of each other.

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