What bugs me about The Greatest Showman
As sad as Manic Expressions’ whole situation is, I’ll have to be honest, I’m fine with most of my blogs being gone. I never really took them all that seriously, they were just fun to make but they weren’t something I was passionate about.
There is one blog though that I was really proud of and it was this one, What bugs me about The Greatest Showman.
However, looking back, there were some things I’d also change about it so I’ve decided to rewrite it. Yet it probably won’t be word for word because I was stupid enough not to save it.
Anyway here it goes.
Now I have no problem with movies talking about prejudice, racism, or just simply movies talking about “being yourself”. In fact that there are many good to great movies that touch on one or more of these issues; Black KkKlansman, Boyz N The Hood, Do the Right Thing, Hidden Figures, 12 Years A Slave, Black Panther, I could go on.
What I do have a problem with, and this goes for any message, is when it feels like the movie itself doesn’t really care about the message it keeps trying to push. The Greatest Showman is one such movie as it is one of the most disingenous, if not THE most disingenuous “racism and/or prejudice is bad/be yourself” movies I’ve ever seen.
The moral of the movie is basically centered around how the circus troupe, a mix of physically disabled people, physically disfigured people, people who just have done weird things weird things with their bodies or wear weird costumes, and people of color, are continually being shunned for who they are. And the movie’s whole message keeps presenting itself as “it’s okay to be who you are”.
However this message has nothing to do with the main plot of the movie as no one in the circus troupe is the main character. P.T. Barnum is. It’s literally called The Greatest Showman.
And the main plot of the movie is basically P.T. Barnum trying to climb the social ladder anyway he can and, in the process, abandoning his family and friends. How the hell does that relate to the more serious message of “racism and ableism are bad” or even the more uplifting message of “be yourself”? Barnum being a social climber and trying to impress rich people is already him being himself, as the movie shows he’s always been a very ambitious guy, so if anything the main moral should be more “don’t forget the important things in life”.
However, even though that’s more the message that is actually relevant to the plot of the movie, that’s not the message the movie tries to frame itself around. In interviews the cast and crew kept pushing the movie’s message as it being about “accepting those who are different” and “being yourself”. Just look at this quote from an interview Michelle Williams gave about the movie:
“I think that is a big message in the film, that everyone is important”.
Plus This is Me, the “Be Yourself” anthem from the movie, played in all of the commercials. And you may think that’s just the adverts, not the movie itself, but IT IS LITERALLY THE FIRST SONG THAT PLAYS IN THE END CREDITS.
So first of all there’s a big gap between the message the movie is trying to tell and the actual plot of the movie. But it goes deeper than that. This movie tries to promote itself as a “Be Yourself and Prejudice is bad” movie, right?
But it is also the movie where the outcasts, the characters the main message is centered around, not only aren’t the main characters…but they don’t get much to do in general. And they’re also barely in it.
Most of their screen time is centered around them singing self-empowerment songs. When they’re just talking, they have about 5 minutes of screen time. And this is a movie that is an hour and 40 minutes. And, when they do get to talk, hardly any of them get much of a chance to display any personality. Only three or four of them really get any sort of character. And even they’re pretty one note.
The Bearded Lady I guess is sort of given a mini-arc of being a shy outcast turned outspoken leader of “The Freaks” but this arc is pretty much relegated to her being the first character the movie cuts to anytime we see the troupe reacting to anything Barnum is doing. So if Barnum does something the troupe likes, we’ll cut to her being happy first as if she’s finally coming out of her shell. If Barnum does something the troupe doesn’t like, we’ll cut to the Bearded Lady looking sad as if she feels like all hope is lost.
Then there’s Tom Thumb who…is a snark machine. Whenever the circus troupe is in a scene, the movie will cut to him saying something snarky. The Fat Guy is always laughing for some reason. In every scene he is just laughing. Even in the big fight scene towards the end, where they are fighting protestors who hate their very existence, he’s laughing. And Zendaya’s brother is a mostly silent brute who is always giving angry looks to people who threaten his family and friends.
But other than those quirks, we don’t really know much about any of those characters. We know The Bearded Lady had a job and Tom Thumb lived with his Mom and had some vague fascination with the military I guess because Barnum finds a toy soldier in his house (and, really, movie, you’re going to characterize the dwarf’s interest by giving him something a child would have?) but that’s literally it and we really don’t know ANYTHING about the fat guy’s past or Zendaya’s brother other than it being implied he faced the same things Zendaya faced.
Even though those characters have something vaguely resembling a personality, they still, at the end of the day, don’t really have lives of their own (well, as the movie shows, I’m not talking about the real people they’re based off of). But they don’t have any real dreams or hopes or interests outside of just being accepted by society. So at the end of the day they still just exist to react to whatever Barnum is doing or sometimes people treating them like crap.
Or, in the brother’s case, he also reacts to Zac Efron trying to hit on his sister.
And the rest of them have zero personality and just exist to react to things. And, what’s more important here, is that, personality or not, for a movie that keeps pushing the message of “don’t judge others for being different” or “be yourself”, by letting us not get a chance to really know the circus troupe, the movie ends up being rather hypocritical as it feels like it’s ashamed of the very people it keeps telling us it’s supposedly championing.
By not giving them a major part in the plot, not giving the audience the chance to know these characters a bit better, and also giving them very little screen time, and really only having them come out whenever the movie decides it wants to be a “Be Yourself” movie, it just leads to the feeling that those behind the movie didn’t really care about these characters or the message they kept saying the movie was about. Instead it feels like they decided to make the movie an anti-prejudice and/or racism movie because it’s a hot topic in the news and they wanted to capitalize on the timeliness of that message.
It doesn’t help that The Bearded Lady and Tom Thumb get their own introduction scenes, almost as if the movie is building them up as major characters, and then give Zac Efron and Zendaya, both of whom are introduced very late into the movie, a romantic sub-plot instead so the movie can not only be about ableism but racism as well, as the whole conflict of their sub-plot is how people object to their interracial relationship. And, again, it just makes the whole thing feel forced because I don’t feel like I know much about either character.
I guess Zac Efron and Zendaya kind of have their own separate, individual (though very generic) personalities but these characters don’t have any real connection with each other. They spend more time either flirting with each other or looking nervously at each other than actually talking to each other and we never find out exactly why they are in love in the first place. So when their relationship is being threatened, it falls flat because, as sad as it is that they can’t be together considering the time they grew up in, how am I, the viewer, supposed to know they’re good for each other in the first place? It hasn’t given me any evidence that they could work as a couple.
Sure it’s good on the movie that it acknowledged that interracial relationships were basically illegal (or at least treated as illegal) back then but, without any sort of connection between these characters, why should I care? It just ends up feeling like this sub-plot is here not because they actually wanted to write an anti-racism love story but, again, because they wanted to capitalize on how much of a hot topic racism was (and continues to be) in 2017.
And, yes, what really makes the movie’s attempts at covering ableism, prejudice, and racism even more disingenuous, besides what I just mentioned above, is the use of P.T. Barnum as a protagonist.
Barnum was a very complicated man, especially in regards to how he treated those with physical disabilities or disfigurements and people who, well, weren’t white. In his political career, he did help abolish slavery and he did make some of his talent much more beloved and respected than they might have otherwise been. And he did have good relationships with some of his talent like Tom Thumb.
But, on the other hand, he also bought an African-American slave, lied about her age, and then held a public autopsy of her. He also abused animals, frequently gave Tom Thumb alcohol when he was 5, and also exploited the real Bearded Lady and put her out on display when she was a baby. Oh and look up Zip the Pinhead. I could go on. And none of these things are in the movie.
Yet, to the movie’s credit, I guess it doesn’t completely make the guy out to be an angel like people feared it would. But it does try to make us not only sympathize with but sugar coat the guy. And, at the end of the day, the movie makes him out to be the savior of people he mainly exploited and abused in real life.
At first, the movie actually does make him flawed. It seems like he’s only telling his troupe to accept and love themselves just to get them to be part of his circus, not because he actually cares about them, which is highlighted when, in another scene, his reaction to finding out people are protesting giving these people a venue to be seen is to promote that fact and how, when he starts being accepted by rich people, he pretty much ditches them so he can manage Jenny Lind. All of these things are portrayed as wrong by the movie itself.
But then the ending of the movie happens. Near the end of the movie Barnum has been fired by Jenny, everyone thinks he’s cheating on his wife with her, and his family won’t speak to him. It seems like all hope is lost and then the circus catches fire. He then saves everyone from that fire. Then, after that happens, he reunites with the troupe. Now does he apologize to the troupe for ditching them and not treating them like human beings? Surely that happens in a movie with this song:
NOPE that doesn’t happen. The troupe tells him it was okay that he exploited them because, by bringing them together, he made them a “family”. And then, later on, the mean ol’ Critic who kept criticizing him in the paper, tells him that not only has he changed his mind on the circus but that his circus, which the movie shows came from a place of him wanting to exploit these people, was a “celebration of humanity” all along. So the movie gives the literal EXPLOITER who, while not as bad as his real life counterpart, still came in with the intent of exploiting these people (he literally promoted them as “being something you’ve never seen before”, what does that sound like?) as a literal champion of the rights of people of color, the physically disabled, and the physically disfigured.
This in general points out even more how disingenuous the whole message felt. And the people behind the movie, while I don’t hate them, aren’t really helping as they said this movie was never made to be a biopic of Barnum. As they say, it was made to be the type of movie Barnum would make about himself. So, what they’re basically saying is, their movie, that is trying to have the message of “Be Yourself” and “Don’t hate yourself for looking different” is also the movie the man who ran a business making fun of those who were different would make to make himself look good? To me, that just seems very contradictory, like they didn’t think this creative decision (or the decision to use Barnum in general) through.
It also doesn’t help that they try to make the movie seem progressive and woke while making not only Barnum the hero whose story this apparently literally is but Jenny Lind, a progressive woman in real life who also started many charities, the villain.
Though I guess this is not that surprising. Apparently the movie had been in development hell for years. Hell it took 8 years for this movie to get on the big screen. And, when movies are in development hell, there will probably be a lot of cooks in the kitchen, some who have different ideas for what the movie should be about.
And, while there are many movies that have been in development hell for years that still end up being consistent, sometimes you do get cases like this where it just ends up feeling like too many people wanted too many different things and we end up with this weird compromise where things contradict with each other.
But, at the end of the day, all you can look at is the movie itself. And what bugs me about The Greatest Showman is that, with its usage of an extremely problematic figure as the hero who many times went against the message the movie is trying to push, the underdeveloped anti-racism romantic sub-plot, and the usage of physically disabled people as more characters to cheer the lead on or sing about the message of the movie than characters with their own lives, it ends up feeling like the most phony, fake attempt at a progressive movie I’ve seen in quite a while. For a movie that has songs like this, it should’ve listened to its own message:
3 thoughts on “What bugs me about The Greatest Showman”
I haven’t really seen ‘The Greatest Showman’, but yes, it does sound like it’s not entirely clear what its message is.
And while I didn’t save your previous blog, I DID snag a copy and paste of your blog about ‘white savior’ movies, which mentions ‘The Greatest Showman’ and how in real life it was Tom Thumb (and not some invented person played by Zac Efron) who came to the rescue after the fire. If you like, I can send it to you.
Sure, that’d be great, thanks!
I sent it to you via Manic Expression’s message system. Anyway, here’s the relevant paragraph for ‘The Greatest Showman’.
“And, of course, there’s The Greatest Showman, where circus performers that are a mix of physically disabled people and people of color are shown as basically having a shitty life and are only able to get the respect they deserve when they are employed by…P.T. Barnum?
And, like The Blind Side and, to a lesser extent, Hidden Figures, that movie made its characters seem a lot more reliant on P.T. Barnum than they really were. In real life, some of these performers, like Tom Thumb/Charles Stratton and Chang and Eng, the two conjoined twins, actually managed to find success outside of Barnum’s management. Look it up. Hell, remember the scene in that movie where the circus burned down? Remember how Zac Efron, whose character, like Kevin Costner’s, didn’t even exist in real life, was the one to pay for a new building? Well in real life it was actually Tom Thumb, who had become so successful he used his fortune to be able to pay for the damages and get a new building for Barnum.
Weird how a movie that claims to promote body positivity can’t possibly imagine someone who doesn’t look like Zac Efron being able to save the day. Even when it’s true.”