For many, P.T. Barnum is the equivalent of Robert E. Lee, a colorful character who made a career exploiting and dehumanizing those with disabilities. So it’s understandable that the disabled community was dismayed when it was announced last year that a big-budget musical was being made about the circus impresario. He may have coined the term “show business,” according to him, but he also brought the freak show into popular parlance.
The Greatest Showman, released this week, amounts to what was expected: a good-hearted film that situates Barnum as a white savior. Its message of tolerance and acceptance is great to hear in a country divided by every line imaginable. But for those with disabilities, The Greatest Showman reminds them of Barnum’s cruelty, and Hollywood’s continued misunderstanding of how to accurately represent disability.
A film version of Barnum would always require softening to be palatable to an audience. Screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon are aware that Barnum isn’t a sympathetic character, yet they manipulate sympathy by presenting him as a well-meaning family man and ally to the disabled. Gone are the stories of him buying his first circus “oddity,” a blind slave woman named Joice Heth, in favor of a simpler story of a poor tailor’s son who wants to make good for his wife and daughters.
In The Greatest Showman Barnum opens a museum of fictional oddities only to realize people want “something real,” and sets out to find outrageous people. Because disabled people were often kept out of sight or institutionalized in the late 1800s, the real Barnum could buy and truss up these “oddities” as marvels, their freakishness a commodity for the impresario.
Barnum’s motivations in the film inhabit a bizarre gray area. He wants to prove himself worthy of his wife’s wealthy family, as well those in high society. He desires respect and acceptance above money, but that’s not to say he doesn’t profit financially. He is situated as an outsider, a man in love with wonder and magic which leads him to his first “oddity,” Charles Stratton (played by Sam Humphrey), the man whom the real Barnum advertised as “General Tom Thumb.”
Stratton is introduced while being denied a bank loan for reasons that can only stem from him being a little person. Like Barnum, he doesn’t command respect from those in power and so both characters are painted as outcasts, shunned by society. But the distinction here is in which one of them wields power. It is Barnum who “hires” Stratton—though, historically it’s said Stratton’s parents sold him—and thus becomes the savior for the poor, lonely Tom Thumb.
The term “white savior” often applies to minority films, wherein a white character becomes the audience’s eyes and ears into a story based on a minority experience. (Think Emma Stone’s Skeeter in The Help.) The white person is situated as the only one capable of saving or elevating the downtrodden minority. This trope extends to disabled narratives as well, and fits Barnum here to a T.
Barnum’s quest—and regardless of the film’s intentions, The Greatest Showman is about Barnum—is about legitimacy. Once he teams up with the able-bodied and physically beautiful opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), he casts out the Bearded Lady and other oddities who made him his money. Barnum is presented as an able-bodied “ally,” but the term is misappropriated. His persona prevents him from truly understanding those with disabilities, leaving him to betray his true friends and seek validation from the able-bodied.
Barnum convinces those who join his circus that he sees their “value,” a term meant to describe a person’s intrinsic rather than monetary worth. This not only flies in the face of history—Barnum profited off the disabled for years—but it’s also undermined by the film’s narrative, which can’t present Barnum as the unlikable, capitalist phenom he truly was. We’re given happy scenes of the American Dream where Barnum buys his wife a new house, his children take ballet lessons, and he gets the respect of the hoi polloi. Yet the everyday lives of the performers are never shown on screen. Are these people living in equally lofty surroundings? As far as the audience knows, they all live in the circus tent. When Barnum loses everything and tells the performers there’s no money to pay them, it’s hard not to question whether they’ve been paid at all up to this point.
Historically, Barnum’s American Museum hosted a slew of people with various medical issues and disabilities, including the aforementioned Charles Stratton, a bearded woman (played by Keala Settle), and people with various forms of albinism. The Greatest Showman settles for presenting characters who look different but aren’t aesthetically grotesque. All those assembled on screen may pass for able-bodied, or possess “talents” that are physically palatable.
The goal is to keep the audience as comfortable as possible but, to disabled people watching, these characters acknowledge the community but never create fully human people. It’s easier for an able-bodied audience in 2017 to watch a woman with a beard on her face or a person covered in tattoos than it is to watch someone with microcephaly.
The Greatest Showman creates an “us versus them” narrative in which Barnum believes he is an outcast, yet never thinks to factor in the able-bodied privilege that’s allowed him to profit off other people’s differences. Barnum’s role as the “greatest showman,” an inventor who creates things, leaves him in an unnamed third tier; he’s not the disabled “us” of his oddities nor is he the “them” of the wealthy. He’s flits between and experiences both worlds while carving out a universe of his own. Once Barnum loses the respect of the rich, the film transitions the “us versus them” narrative to explore how Barnum has turned against himself. He’s never condemned for belittling and humiliating his oddities. In fact it is the people he’s exploited who galvanize him to accept who he is.
The “This is Me” message, presented in the film’s heavily marketed theme song, only truly applies to able-bodied people and is interpreted as finding happiness with one’s self. Barnum succeeds by accepting his skills, finding a product, and effectively marketing it. In the context of Barnum’s performers, the performance of “This is Me” acts as a rallying cry for self-acceptance—“I’m not scared to be seen / I make no apologies / This is me”—yet isn’t applied to Barnum’s treatment of them. Instead it is juxtaposed with scenes of screaming masses who pay money to stare. Barnum tells Stratton if people are going to stare, he might as well get paid and this mentality is never properly contextualized or proven wrong, especially with multiple scenes of happy audiences smiling and singing along while simultaneously gawping at these “oddities.” The group wants acceptance from society, not from the man making money off them who, in the previous scene, also humiliated them. The message falls flat because it isn’t being applied to the disabled characters but to the able-bodied audience.
Really, no one expected The Greatest Showman to break the mold in terms of accurately representing Barnum or the disabled community. However, the screenwriters’ manipulations in softening Barnum for an able-bodied audience feels particularly scummy, a tacit awareness of what people will and won’t tolerate. The lack of disabled characters given time within the narrative and the film’s peppy “accept yourself” mentality only work for those who aren’t disabled in the audience. Acceptance comes from the masses, and until Hollywood is ready to accurately represent those with different abilities, “this is me” is nothing but an empty promise knitted on a sampler.