The Human Specimen: Nonfiction Representations of Conjoined Twins
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Although representational platforms have changed since audiences took pleasure from gazing curiously at conjoined twins in sideshows, representations of conjoined twins remain a staple of nonfiction television. This article looks at several nonfiction television shows that relegate conjoined twins to scientific specimens, rather than humans, and how singleton ideals and biases are projected on to them. Alice Domurat Dreger says singletons, or single-bodied people, “understand psychosocial individuality as requiring anatomical individuality” and these ideals help maintain “order” through predictability. These singleton standards reveal themselves in what the shows privilege – scientific discovery, separation and independence – in large part via voiceover. The shows’ visuals, however, often compete with the master narrative; images of capable, though anomalous, bodies counter claims of incompetence. Instead of being seen as humans, conjoined twins are construed as specimens in need of scientific explanation and restructuring, resulting in the heroic doctor figures whom José van Dijck’s work describes, while the narratives reflect Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s notion that “error” replaced “wonder” as modern science, medicine, and ethics evolved since the nineteenth century. Surgical advancements, equipment and doctors often overshadow the twins, and individual lives are privileged above all else. These shows project “error” onto conjoined twins (sometimes literally) and narratively resolve the scientific problem that the twins’ bodies pose. The voiceover again undermines the visuals, indicating an investment in “error” and scientific progress over human agency; even though conjoined twins have adapted to their bodies, they are characterized as “struggling”. Examining these nonfiction representations of conjoined twins foregrounds how “being human” is more complicated for those with anomalous bodies who must constantly negotiate scientific discourses and social demands while endeavouring to be seen as people at all in the face of overriding narratives about their humanity.
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