‘The Greatest Showman’: a Great Lesson in Diversity

24 January 2018

By Matthias de Heer - Although I am not a great fan of musical movies - not at all actually - I visited ‘The Greatest Showman’ two weeks ago in cinema. The movie, which is filled with catchy and at some times stunning songs, is based on the life of Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891). This American showman, to whom some refer as ‘the father of advertising and promotion’, used his creative mind for advertising to establish what was at that time the greatest circus the world had ever seen. With his museums and circus, Barnum can be seen as one of the leading stars in the entertainment business before movies came along.

After Barnum partnered up with James Bailey, the ‘Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth’ toured through America and Europe. Alongside the show’s main act, Jumbo the African Elephant, Barnum’s circus exhibited acrobats and the so called ‘freak shows’. Barnum used the term ‘freak’ or ‘curiosity’ as collective nouns for the peculiar people who toured with him, like Annie Jones ‘the Bearded Lady’, the very tiny Charles Stratton whose stage name was ‘General Tom Thumb’ and the Siamese Twins Chang and Eng.

One can argue that Barnum exploited the unusual characteristics of these persons for his own benefit. For example, the tiny Charles Stratton was only four years old when he joined Barnum’s circus. Barnum trained him to imitate historical figures like Napoleon. It is said that, when Stratton was only five to seven years old, he drank wine and smoked cigars to entertain Barnum’s public.    

Although this truly sounds rather cruel, another point of view is that Barnum gave people who wouldn’t have a bright future in nineteenth century America at all, a place where they could work and earn money to play a role in society. This latter is exactly where the movie focuses on. With songs like ‘This is Me’ and ‘Come Alive’, the movie celebrates the diversity of the group of people that Barnum brought together.

Alongside great spectacle, the movie thereby strongly expresses a message of diversity and acceptance, which is still essential for today’s society. Whereas critics state that director Michael Gracey clearly abuses historical facts with his film, I think historical accuracy was not at all at heart of Gracey’s goal. Rather, he took Barnum’s extraordinary life to tell a far more important story: a great lesson in diversity. 

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