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Why the Real-Life P.T. Barnum from The Greatest Showman Was Actually Problematic

When The Greatest Showman came out in December 2017, it seemed to take the world by storm. With songs to sing at the top of your lungs and actors you love (I’m talking about our queen, Zendaya), the movie was quite possibly something we didn’t know we were waiting for. But, despite the beautifully choreographed dance numbers, the loveable characters, and the heart-warming end scene where P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) hands over the business to Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), the movie hid who P.T. Barnum really was: a con artist that exploited innocent people. Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Barnum made the showman seem like a sly, charming, and passionate character, like Aladdin from Aladdin, but in reality, the man just wanted to make money any way that he could. Yes, the film was exactly what it is, a film full of imagination, but it doesn’t seem right that P.T. Barnum was painted out to be an amazing man when his actions showed the opposite of that.


When P.T. Barnum started out in show business, the talents he featured in his circus ranged from blackface minstrel acts to marketing that a former slave woman was one of George Washington’s nurses (Bustle and L.A. Times). P.T. Barnum “rented” Joice Heth, the former female slave, worked her until she died, and then exploited her after her death. While slavery was illegal in New York and Pennsylvania during this time, he found a loophole that allowed him to rent Heth so he could make her work hours upon hours, day after day until she died in 1836. Even after Heth died, Barnum exploited her corpse to the public and hosted a live autopsy in a New York Saloon (Smithsonian), marketing it as a “reveal” to show that Joice Heth was actually half her age.


Even in the film when Hugh Jackman’s character was trying to find oddities for his show, the music and the dance numbers tried to hide what his character was actually doing. He stuffed pillows in a man’s shirt to make him seem bigger, he put a man on stilts to pretend that he was taller than he actually was, he exploited a woman with facial hair and a beautiful singing voice, and he went out of his way to find Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey), the short man that he portrayed as a general. Intertwined within all of the bright lights are lies that seemed to be quickly brushed over.

When I watched the film for the first time last week, I was prepared to be blown away, and I was. The vocals? Amazing. The dancing? A1. The chemistry of all the characters? Mind-blowing. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I just had to find out if P.T. Barnum was a real person and if he was truly as amazing as the movie was making him out to be. What I discovered was shocking and changed my entire vibe as I finished watching the movie because I don’t stand for what he did to the people he worked with. The Greatest Showman was without a doubt one of the best musical movies I’ve seen in a very long time, and I would recommend it in a heartbeat to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but I just can’t seem to get over how much of a horrible person P.T. Barnum actually was and how horrible it must have been to work with someone who took advantage of people to make money.

Eunice is a current student at TCNJ, and she majors in Communications Studies with minors in Marketing and Graphic Design. She has also been the Graphic Designer for HC TCNJ since Fall of 2018. Although she only has her phone to take photos, she loves to capture the world around her, and doesn't care if she has to stop in the middle of traffic to do so! Eunice is also a food lover and the occasional Netflix and Hulu binger, with her favorite shows right now being "Quantico" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" (She thinks she could totally be a cop or FBI agent). Eunice and many of her favorite photographs can be found on her Instagram account, @blasianchronicles or @eundesigns.
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