Under the Big Top

by Molly Labell

 Have you checked out “Circus” on PBS yet? The  new   documentary, aired as six hour-long episodes, gives viewers a glimpse of the clown alleys and sawdust floors behind the Big Apple Circus.

The men get more airtime during the first episode than the women, and only one of the ten featured performers on PBS’s website is a woman, but the hard-working ladies of the Big Apple are depicted as disciplined and devoted to their craft. Their athleticism and talent is beyond impressive, and they walk on the tightrope and fly on the trapeze (and chain-smoke) with as much skill and focus as their male colleagues.

One recurring topic in the first episode is family. Many of the people we see on the show were born into a circus family and still perform with them, and “Circus” has at least one married couple on its roster of performers. What I’m beginning to see in the show and what I’ve learned from my own experience as a former camper and counselor at a circus camp (I still can’t juggle, but let’s keep that between us!) is that traditional gender roles don’t seem to hold up in the circus world. A circus might be comprised of families, but each member is working as hard as the next. A wife and husband or a brother and sister are doing equally as intense physical work. I’m curious to see if the gender roles within the family change as pressure mounts on “Circus.”

If you do a Google search for women in the circus, old-timey pictures of tattooed ladies, bearded women, conjoined twins, and Saartjie Baartman show up the most. But if you search a little harder you might find info about Sarah Schwarz, one of the Big Apple Circus’s wirewalkers, or the X Bud Roses, an all-girls acrobatic troupe that can also currently be seen in the Big Apple Circus.

Let me know if you’ve been watching “Circus.” How do you think the women are being portrayed?

PHOTO COURTESY OF: thingstoseenyc.com

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