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The Greatest Showman: Does it “Rewrite the Stars” or Rewrite the Past?

The musical drama was a commercial and critical success, but how high are levels of historical accuracy and is Barnum’s treatment of his performers adequately portrayed?

Michael Gracey’s all singing, all dancing, musical extravaganza was a global box office smash, and it’s not hard to see why. With a soundtrack so catchy and a Hollywood cast so polished, the Greatest Showman drew in toe-tapping audiences of all demographics, and even secured a golden globe for best original song.

Hugh Jackman takes centre stage as P.T Barnum, US self-made businessman and founder of Barnum and Bailey circus 1871. The film reconstructs Barnum’s illustrious career, and we follow the transformation of the protagonist from poor street boy to globally acclaimed entrepreneur across the 2 hours 19 minutes running time. Gathering ‘unusual’ peoples and acts to perform in ‘the Greatest show on earth’, Barnum is depicted as a firm champion of diversity and a modern visionary in his attempts to bring socially repressed individuals into the light.

Jackman pictured next to the real P.T Barnum, who began his showbiz career by reopening a museum of human oddities in lower Manhattan, 1841

The film has a dream-like quality, and Gracey enchants us with inventive use of lighting, filters and CGI to bring to life that circus magic. We watch as the world is shocked yet enthralled by Barnum’s weird and wonderful cohort; the bearded lady, the horseback riding dwarf, the Siamese Twins, and Zendaya’s trapeze artist, to name a few. We sit in apprehension when they face knockbacks, and cheer when they defy the odds. We fret over Barnum’s failures and applaud his successes, and when the final musical ensemble takes hold, we feel uplifted as the unwelcome are finally embraced by mainstream society.

The cast of the Greatest Showman, including Keala Settle as the bearded lady, and Sam Humphrey as General Tom Thumb

However, the historical accuracy of Gracey’s fairy-tale style account has been questioned, and some viewers have slammed the fabrication and romanticisation of P.T Barnum’s life and legacy. Throughout the film he is depicted as a hero of his time, but perhaps there is a need to explore the true nature of the ‘freak show’ during this period, and the real motivations of Barnum himself.

Exhibitions of the bizarre and unconventional were popular throughout the Victorian era, at the height of Euro-American colonialism; a period which saw Western powers exploiting other continents for economic gain. As early forms of globalisation evolved, so did public fascination with the rare and exotic, and minority individuals became the subjects of shows, novels, and early film. Represented in the mass media as extra-ordinary, they were subsequently deemed appropriate for commodification.

The ‘freak show’ became one of the most standard forms of entertainment in the US, and was an opportunity to display those with physical and behavioural rarities. The most popular acts usually included dwarves, limbless people, those of ‘unknown’ race or ‘colour’, those with severe physical deformities and those of extreme size or weight. Such performances normalised ways of thinking about and framing ‘the other’ in the public imagination, and allowed for wider discrimination against minority individuals in society.

An advertisement for the Barnum and Bailey travelling circus, using ‘human curiosities’ as a unique selling point

The reality of P.T Barnum is therefore overshadowed by his depiction in the film, and the Greatest Showman is misguided in its interpretation of the past. Barnum himself was far more interested in exploiting vulnerable people for monetary gain, rather than being a martyr for the socially repressed. One of his most famous early acts was Joice Heth, an 80-year-old blind and paralysed Afro-American slave. Barnum put her on display as the ‘161-year-old nurse of George Washington’, and it is claimed that he earned $1500 a week from her exhibition. When she died, Barnum invited over one thousand people to witness her autopsy. As well as Heth, Barnum exploited other Afro-American people with birth defects, and show cased them in a way that expanded the gulf between white supremacy, and black and minority inferiority.  

Why then, does the Greatest Showman make no attempt to address the atrocities and innate racism behind Barnum’s success? The film industry has a duty to appropriately portray even the ugliest parts of our history, in respect to the minority peoples oppressed and exploited. The way in which the Greatest Showman overlooks Barnum’s cruelties and instead romanticises his path to fame and fortune, contributes to the wider ‘white washing’ and censorship of history that much of western society is guilty of. We ought to feel shame at how Euro-American people and ‘freak show’ promoters treated others, and we ought to bring this to public attention, to educate ourselves on and appropriately acknowledge such serious wrongdoing.

The musical adaptation of Barnum’s career is undoubtedly enchanting and visually stunning, but the dangers of false historical accounts are real. Whilst we may still be listening to ‘rewrite the stars’ and ‘a million dreams’ on Spotify, we should perhaps try and see past shiny Hollywood actors and captivating visual effects, to the truth of the matter at hand. P.T Barnum was not a good guy, and the world needs to realise the unethical bias behind the Greatest Showman.


Second year geography student at the University of Exeter
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