March 18, 2007
Linda Frost, who is an English professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was invited by the Asian American Studies Department to come and speak on her current research project with the students. So, after listening to an introduction about Professor Frost, I was expecting to listen to her discuss the concept of “whiteness” in America, something my Anthropology class has been playing with for a few weeks now. Instead, I was caught off guard. Way off guard.Linda Frost’s new research project involved the study of conjoined twins. I’m thinking to myself “Golly, this is interesting, but how does this have anything to do with Asian American Studies?” Well, I guess you could stretch it and say that the un-PC term for conjoined twin is Siamese twin, but still. Frost was particularly interested in two sets of female conjoined twins: Millie-Christine McCoy, African American conjoined twins from the 1860s, and Violet and Daisy Hilton, English twins who were famous during the early 1920-30 vaudeville years. Frost compared the two twins and researched into how one set of twins (Millie-Christine) had more success than the other.
In the end, it all comes down to mysterious aura and the not-1-not-2-entity conflict that separates the two twins. Millie-Christine, outside of appearing at shows and performing, were very private. No one knew what the “real” Millie-Christine were like, and this fascinated the public even more. Millie-Christine also refused to be differentiated as two separate entities. The twins were to be addressed as “Millie-Christine,” as one. You could also say that this was a testament against the cruel mother/baby separation that happened all the time during the years of slavery. But anyway, with two heads functioning as one person, this is harder for the average person to relate; all of us just have one head instead of two, how does that work? Up the fascination factor another notch.
With Violet and Daisy Hilton, these ladies had very exposed private lives. Magazines would write about their love lives and were interested in everything about these pretty girls. Having nothing mysterious about them, the Hilton twins did not yield as much respect as the McCoys. Violet and Daisy Hilton also explicitly stated that they were two separate ladies, so they came off as normal twins who just happen to be “chained for life” (that was the title of their 1940′s movie flop). The Hiltons were relatively normal: the McCoys were something else. So when given the choice of seeing the norm or seeing the peculiar, you’d flock to see the McCoys.
The one relation to the whole concept of whiteness is how the two twins referred to themselves. The McCoys, raised in an environment of slavery and the concept that whites were superior, thought of themselves as one person in an effort to withstand the possibility of separation. You could separate two people, but you can’t cut one person in half. On the other hand, each Hilton was independent because each knew that being conjoined was just a misfortune, but they had the capacity to live on their own. However, the only reason why the Hiltons were successful was the fact that they were conjoined in the first place. Don’t push away the one thing that’s bringing in the dough, dears.
So, I thought I wasn’t going to get anything out of this talk, and now you have my full analysis. The talk was a little “freak”y at times, but I did gain a lot of knowledge and perspective with regards to race/societal status. Pat on back.