Why The Greatest Showman is deceptive and scandalous

Dana was less than impressed with the film’s depiction of cruel ringmaster, PT Barnum

Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman, released in 2017, has become one of the most popular musicals of recent years. I’ve noticed events opening with one of the songs, ‘The Greatest Show,’ and musicians covering the soundtrack.  It preaches empowering messages about loving oneself and stars an all-singing, all-dancing Hugh Jackman as driven dreamer, PT Barnum. The film takes this historical figure and turns him into a lovable hero who parents can swoon over and children can quote while the creators profit on merchandise and soundtrack releases. The problem, however, is that the film is made up of glossed half-truths.

When I heard that there was to be a movie musical based on PT Barnum, I shuddered, and when I watched it, I was outraged.

When I heard that there was to be a movie musical based on PT Barnum, I shuddered, and when I watched it, I was outraged. The film is two hours of hypocritical nonsense that only proves Barnum’s mantra that a sucker truly is ‘born every minute.’ The film sees Barnum rounding up a collection of undesirables to star in his freak show. The show is ridiculed by the public but soon provides the penniless dreamer with riches beyond belief. Along the way he begins an affair with singer Jenny Lind and leaves his cast of freaks behind while he enjoys the fame – this is true, if not a little milder than the way Barnum behaved once he became famous. The film does not end there, however, and soon after his fame begins to dry up and his show crumbles, he returns to the open arms of his beloved cast in a joyous musical reunion. We can only assume that they live happily ever after from then on.

Barnum pictured with General Tom Thumb (stage name of Charles Sherwood Stratton).

Once the credits began to roll, I waited for something at the end of the movie to correct its mistruths. This didn’t happen, and the teary-eyed audience was left with the impression that this film was accurate.  Allow me to shed some light. PT Barnum was a trickster and a serial abuser. He starved and beat his ’employees,’ and mutilated animals purely for entertainment purposes. He capitalised on suffering and was driven solely by money and personal gain. I can appreciate that movies are subjective in their portrayal of historical figures and often add scenarios to make for a better film, but The Greatest Showman truly takes the biscuit. The reason for my acute disappointment is that there is never a point of clarity when the audience becomes enlightened on the satirical false portrayal of Barnum. To see how to do this, see The Producers (1967 Mel Brooks and 2005 Susan Stroman) which features the infamous ‘Springtime for Hitler’ – a satirical look at Nazi Germany and Hitler delivered in a hilariously camp way. The Greatest Showman lacks that ‘aha’ moment and plays to audiences’ lack of knowledge about who Barnum really was. This has led to his character being so popular that he’s inspired cosplay and tattoos of the villainous figure. It’s Hugh Jackman’s portrayal they’re copying, but it is still a portrayal of an unsavoury character.

I can appreciate that movies are subjective in their portrayal of historical figures and often add scenarios to make for a better film, but The Greatest Showman truly takes the biscuit.

I may be overreacting here, but my point remains valid. Hollywood has recreated a monster of history as someone totally different in order to exploit a naive audience. The film is less than enjoyable anyway, but the fact that Barnum is altered to such an unrecognisable portrayal is dastardly. The biggest shambles of the film comes in the form of its anthem, ‘This is Me,’ sung powerfully by Keala Settle, the ‘Bearded Lady’ in the film. The song is about loving who you are and being proud – the complete opposite of Barnum’s ideologies. There have been recorded cases of Barnum locking his acts in cages and not allowing them to be released unless they were performing. These chronically fatigued and abused individuals suffered desperately.

I have had many arguments with people about the ridiculousness of the movie and many people leap to the film’s defence as joyous entertainment. “It’s just a film”, I have been told, which is true –  but I do wonder, if they were to create a film about a significantly more prolific monstrous figure of history and glamourise them with an all-star cast, would people take offence? Jojo Rabbit is a perfect example. A darkly funny adaption of a book that details a horrific period in history, it never distracts the viewers from the atrocities that occurred during World War Two in Germany and still includes shocking reminders of the lives lost.

I have had many arguments with people about the ridiculousness of the movie and many people leap to the film’s defence.

I still shudder when I hear The Greatest Showman’s songs and wince when I see people proudly donning T-shirts emblazoned with the words, ‘This is Me’. I did attempt to rewatch it after my initial kneejerk reaction to see if it was possible to overlook its shambolic disregard for accuracy, but was unable to appreciate it at all, not even as mind-numbing entertainment. It is a loathsome creation that proves Hollywood’s morals are rooted in. As I climb off my soap box, I shall leave you with one message: ‘don’t believe everything you see in the movies.’

What did you think of The Greatest Showman? Five-star fun or just a big fat lie? Let us know in the comments.

Support more young people to have their voices heard

Rife is Watershed‘s online magazine created for young people, by young people.

We offer paid internships and publish work by young writers, photographers, illustrators, and filmmakers from all sorts of backgrounds, helping them get into creative careers. Rife has reached over 8,000 young people through our workshops, over 220 young people have made stuff for Rife on topics ranging from mental health to identity to baked beans, and last year, over 200,000 people visited our website.

In these complex and uncertain times hearing from and supporting young people who are advocating for social change and contributing fresh perspectives has never been so important. 

Through supporting Rife you can ensure that this important work continues and that more young people have their voices heard.