The Greatest Showman Conveys an Empowering Message for People in the Disability Community

The Greatest Showman

Our own mothers were ashamed of us. Hid us our whole lives. Then you pull us out of the shadows… Maybe it was about making a buck. But you gave us a real family.

By Nils Skudra

One of the most upbeat films I’ve seen is The Greatest Showman, a 2017 musical biopic starring Hugh Jackman as Phineas Taylor Barnum, the famed American ringmaster who featured a wide variety of human oddities in his New York-based circus.

Upon its release, this film was highly popular in the disability community because of its Oscar-nominated hit song “This Is Me,” which members of the disability community adopted as a song of empowerment. However, some viewers have found Barnum’s legacy controversial because of the use of human oddities as star attractions for his circus, which raises the question of whether he shamelessly exploited them for the purpose of financial success. My review is therefore intended to explore how this topic is explored in the film.

The opening scene features P.T. Barnum leading his circus troupe in a performance, singing “The Greatest Show,” to the enthusiastic applause of the audience. While reveling in his success, Barnum pauses to reminisce on his childhood, a time when he was the son of a poor tailor who earned a living by catering to wealthy New York families. During this time, the young Phineas (portrayed by Ellis Rubin) falls in love with Charity Hallett (portrayed by Skylar Dunn), whose affluent father treats him with scorn and sends Charity away to finishing school. The two children maintain their bond over the years through the song “A Million Dreams,” which expresses Phineas’ aspirations to build a successful life together with her. When Phineas returns as an adult after years of financial hardship, he marries the grown-up Charity (portrayed by Michelle Williams), in spite of her father’s continued disdain, and starts a family with her in New York, living a humble but happy existence.

Barnum’s fortunes take a downturn when he loses his clerical position with a shipping company after it goes bankrupt, and he struggles to find a new means of supporting his family. He secures a loan from the bank to open Barnum’s American Museum, featuring exhibits of wax models that include exotic animals, the guillotine, and a figurine of Napoleon Bonaparte, but fails to attract audiences.

At the suggestion of his daughters to feature something “alive,” Barnum sets about recruiting a troupe of human oddities, including a dwarf, a bearded lady named Lettie Lutz (portrayed by Keala Settle), an albino woman, and conjoined Siamese twins. Through the song “Come Alive,” Barnum encourages them to step into the public sphere and showcase themselves as star attractions:

I see it in your eyes
You believe that lie
That you need to hide your face
Afraid to step outside
So you lock the door
But don’t you stay that way
No more living in those shadows
You and me we know how that goes

‘Cause once you see it, oh you’ll never, never be the same

We’ll be the light that’s turning
Bottle up and keep on shining
You can prove there’s more to you…

Although these lyrics seem to articulate a message of inclusivity and empowerment, at this point in the film Barnum’s motives are purely self-serving. When interviewing his prospective performers, he dismisses their concerns about being ridiculed for their physical appearances, insisting that people will applaud them. This demonstrates an insensitivity to the perspectives of people who are derided as “freaks” by mainstream society – while Barnum believes that audiences are thrilled to experience the exotic and macabre, he shows little regard for how human oddities are treated outside of the circus. Although members of his troupe are harassed by local thugs, Barnum only responds by increasing the promotion of his circus, which becomes an immensely popular venue.

When Barnum is lambasted as a fraud by New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett, he strives to broaden his appeal to wealthy elites by recruiting playwright Phillip Carlyle (portrayed by Zac Efron) as a partner. Through Carlyle’s affluent connections, Barnum secures an invitation to the court of Queen Victoria, where he meets the glamorous Swedish singer Jenny Lind (portrayed by Rebecca Ferguson).

At his request, she agrees to come to New York and perform as his protégé. Her opening performance is a profound moment for Barnum, his wife, Carlyle and African American troupe member Anne Wheeler (portrayed by Zendaya) since Jenny’s singing has a spellbinding effect on their respective emotions: Barnum finds himself captivated by Jenny, which Charity observes with deep distress during the performance, while Carlyle realizes his affection for Anne but shies away from openly displaying it because of his parents’ objections to an interracial romance.

In the aftermath of Jenny’s performance, Barnum distances himself from his troupe as he mingles with elite patrons, barring Lettie and the other performers from taking part in Jenny’s reception. This further demonstrates Barnum’s callousness toward the human oddities who have made him so successful. Although he showcases them for the public’s entertainment, he will not allow them to enjoy the fruits of his success by mingling with affluent members of mainstream society. Consequently, this lends further credence to the belief that Barnum is essentially exploitative of his troupe members during the early stages of his circus career.

It is at this point that Lettie begins singing “This Is Me,” reflecting upon how she and the troupe members have been marginalized by society because of their physical abnormalities and how “I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars.” The song then takes an air of assertiveness and confidence which inspires the other members to join Lettie and stride boldly through the reception hall and outside into the streets where they confront the show’s opponents:

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown ’em out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.

This song resonates profoundly with members of the disability community since it truly conveys a message of identity and empowerment which has become more pronounced in contemporary times.

Individuals with disabilities have faced numerous obstacles to their acceptance and inclusion into mainstream society. Among individuals with autism or other developmental challenges, many have been closeted about their diagnosis because of the associated stigma. However, the disability rights movement and increased advocacy efforts have prompted more members of the disability community to openly assert their identity with pride. While many obstacles still exist in terms of discriminatory social attitudes, identity consciousness and empowerment have played a major role in redefining views, both within and outside of the disability community, about the capacity of its members to become fully integrated members of society. This is captured perfectly by the song.

As the film draws toward its conclusion, Barnum and Carlyle both experience an evolution in their attitudes toward members of the troupe. When Barnum experiences a marital crisis and faces impending financial ruin following the burning of his circus building, Lettie and her fellow performers encourage him to stay the course, emphasizing what his show has meant for them:

Our own mothers were ashamed of us. Hid us our whole lives. Then you pull us out of the shadows… Maybe it was about making a buck. But you gave us a real family.

This statement represents a poignant aspect of Barnum’s circus that he previously was not conscious of. Although his initial conduct is self-serving and exploitative toward the troupe members, the experience has emboldened them by providing a sense of belonging that was absent in their own biological families.

Furthermore, it has inspired them to wear their identities with pride in the face of hostility. This prompts a change in Barnum’s outlook, as he strengthens his bond with the troupe and endeavors to rebuild the circus. Finally, Carlyle overcomes his fear of ostracism, fully embraces his love for Anne, and helps Barnum find a new venue for the troupe’s performances.

In summation, The Greatest Showman is a brilliantly done musical film, with superb performances by Jackman, Williams, Efron, Settle, and Zendaya; beautiful choreography; and upbeat musical numbers. While Barnum’s showcasing of human oddities has been considered exploitative by some historians and film viewers, Jackman convincingly captures the protagonist’s evolution from a self-serving careerist to a figure who truly empathizes with his performers. Furthermore, the film conveys an empowering message for members of the disability community through its portrayal of circus performers who overcome their sense of stigmatization and proudly assert their identity. The Greatest Showman is thus an entertaining and emboldening musical masterpiece that viewers with disabilities can be inspired by.

Nils Skudra and Jackson

I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I’m now working on a secondary Master’s in Library Science. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.

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