As of January 25th, 2018, 20th Century Fox’s new musical masterpiece The Greatest Showman has grossed over 117 million dollars in Canada and the United States alone. The film does not fail to excite and enamour anyone who gets the chance to see it. Loosely based off the life story of American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum, it tells the story of his journey in creating the Barnum and Bailey Circus. He creates a family of freaks and outcasts, with whom he produces a dazzling show for the world to see. By gathering this group of people with odd appearances, Barnum creates a setting where lives are transformed. But who really was P.T. Barnum? A story like this just seems too good to be true.
While the movie shows Barnum to be a brilliant businessman and entertainer, in reality, he was more a “master of promotion and spin.” Barnum used people with deformities and created stories about them to draw the crowds in. For example, Barnum adopted a dwarf known as Zip the Pinhead, who had microcephaly (a disease which makes the head smaller in proportion to the rest of the body). Barnum labeled him as “The What is It,” dressed him in a furry suit, put him in a cage with other monkeys, and ordered him to screech and rattle the bars like his caged companions. Barnum told his customers that he was the missing link between humans and monkeys, discovered in Africa.
This wasn’t the only person to suffer from his storytelling. Barnum purchased and partially paralyzed an African-American woman, Joice Heth, even after slavery had been abolished in New York state. He then put her on display as George Washington’s 161-year-old wet nurse. When she died, he hosted a live autopsy where people could pay 50 cents to see her opened up.
The Greatest Showman has messages that are encouraging at a first glance. But one should question why this film is loosely based on a man that does not have much to be celebrated for. In the film, Barnum says to Tom Thumb, “Everyone is special, no one is like anyone else. That’s the point of my show.” In reality, Barnum’s show was not meant to encourage and lift up the outcasts, but to instead, put them on display to make an extra buck.
Unfortunately, this kind of romanticized storytelling is all too common in Hollywood. Often, the real story is dolled up to become more appealing to audiences, dismissing the unpleasant facts that also contribute to the tale. For example, Maria Von Trapp admits in an autobiography that she didn’t love her husband at all when she married him, something we fail to see in another celebrated musical, The Sound of Music. Does this mean we can’t enjoy movies like The Greatest Showman? Yes and no. We can appreciate the lessons they share and the magic they create, but we should seriously question why Hollywood chooses to ignore what should be considered important details of the actual lives they portray on screen.