Thursday, January 4, 2018

Freak Shows Aren't Over: A Review of "The Greatest Showman"

If you know me at all, you know how I love my movies. You know that Weight Watchers commercial with Oprah yelling, "I. LOVE. BREAD."-- yea, that's me and movies (and bread). And the only place better than the theater to watch a movie is on the couch under a blanket with 7 dogs and the fireplace on in the winter--but I only have 1 dog and no fireplace. I LOVE going to the movie theater. I will happily fill my purse up with snacks and pay some stupid $11.25 ticket price and drag my family and friends to see a movie multiple times at the theater if it makes me laugh, cry, and/or has good music. OKAY I JUST REALLY LOVE MOVIES.

But if there's something I love a little bit more than movies, it's speaking up for disability rights. As a member of a community that has been burned too many times by the media, I view everything through an advocacy lens. This movie/ TV show/ commercial/ musical/ book/ article is amazing for XYZ reasons but how could it better serve minority communities? How could it better represent diversity? How could it better educate the public on disabilities? I know this probably sounds like I'm really fun at parties, but it's my reality. We have the technological magic to entertain and influence and educate billions of people through mainstream media and it is simply not used in a way that benefits people with disabilities (and people of many other minority groups as well, need I remind you).

And yet here we are. By now, I am sure most of you have seen the trailer for The Greatest Showman. If you've somehow managed to miss the trailers and the Facebook adds and the Instagram adds and the Amazon Prime boxes and even the world's first live movie commercial, I have attached the trailer for your viewing pleasure. I don't even have cable and I have been overwhelmed with the amount of advertisement exposure I have had for this movie. As if they knew I'd have something to say about it.




I can't lie, at first glance this shit looks magical. What is better than the beloved underdog story of the white man who overcomes adversity and then... oh... becomes a savior to the disabled? And then mix in Zac Efron and fireworks and elephants and a complicated romance? I had a lot of feelings after watching the trailer for the first time. I instantly knew this was going to be a movie I would go see 3 times at the theater just for the music alone (and Zac Efron, if we're being honest). But then I started getting sweaty and nervous and wanted to throw up a little bit because... you know... PT Barnum is a garbage human being? 

Or maybe you didn't know that. Because, like most other things that do not benefit the rich, able-bodied, white man, the history of disability rights has been swept under the rug and no one wants to talk about how Pure Trash Barnum exploited individuals with disabilities for his own fame and fortune because that just might make the circus seem a little less... magical. 

So if you're not caught up on your circus trivia and disability rights history, consider this a crash course. (I dedicated 12 weeks of research during my senior year at Augustana to this very topic, and if you are interested in reading my 30-page paper, I will attach it via a Google Doc link below). 

In the 1830's, PT Barnum turned up unsuccessful in the museum business and decided that odd-looking humans would attract a bigger crowd. He was right. People love to stare. So he began buying people with disabilities-- literally trading families money for their loved ones that they had been hiding away from society (the most common reality for people with disabilities at this time was institutionalism). The first person he purchased was a slave named Joice Heath, a black woman who was blind, who he falsely advertised as a nurse of George Washington. Next was Charles Stratton, a boy with dwarfism whom Barnum nicknamed "Tom Thumb" and directed to sing and dance for audiences. Sometime later was a woman with dwarfism named Lavinia Warren.  Then a woman with a beard. An overweight man. And the list goes on. Throughout his career, Barnum purchased hundreds of people with disabilities or other unusual life situations and forced them to perform as part of what he called "The Greatest Show on Earth" but what was truly just an opportunity for the rich to pay money to gawk, stare, and laugh at odd people who had been previously locked away. Barnum is also responsible for coining the term "midget" to describe people with dwarfism who performed in his freak shows. Previously, the word did not have a negative connotation, as it originated from the term "midge" which is a specific species of fly. But 200 years later, that word still stings like a bee. 

As you can probably imagine, the film absolutely does not address the entire truth about PT Barnum. In my honest, humble, and non-professional-movie-critic opinion, it depicts purchasing individuals with disabilities and profiting off of their performances as a relatively normal thing to do. Sure, there are people who call him out when he tries to lie and advertise his performers as even MORE odd or unique, but not once does anyone actually say, "Hey, maybe this is actually really awful and inhumane." Even after profiting off all of these people that he has exploited, Barnum leaves them behind when he finds a beautiful, able-bodied opera singer to manage. Like, he quite literally uninvites his performers to a party and shoves them out the door because he is embarrassed by how they look--because ugly people are only important when they make money, am I right?

After a series of events like his circus burning down and his wife leaving him and all of his performers hating him, I was left with a small bit of hope that the movie would end with proving how awful PT Barnum was, but alas, he manages to redeem himself and come out on top. He feeds his performers some fluff about how they're beautiful and important (and of course the man with dwarfism is used for comedic relief by walking across a bar top and sitting on Barnum's ring leader hat) and he rebuilds his circus and wins his family back and the movie ends with a loud, flaming display of lions, tigers, and people with disabilities.

It didn't really surprise me when the entire theater cheered and applauded at the end of the movie. Some people even gave a standing ovation. As an able-bodied person, I think it would be really easy to view PT Barnum as a brilliant man who-- even though he had bumps along the way-- gave job opportunities to people with disabilities and created the spectacle of the circus. And even if you have the ethics and empathy to know that purchasing humans and profiting off of their performances made PT Barnum an awful person, it would still be easy to enjoy this movie and convince yourself that circuses are different now.

Sure, maybe we don't buy people with disabilities off of their parents or abuse animals to train them to jump through rings of fire as often as we did in the 1800's. But from the comfort of your own home, you can now stare at a wide variety of human oddities without guilt or shame with just a click of your TV remote. Want to stare at fat people? There's a TLC program for that. Want to stare at people with dwarfism? There is quite the variety of shows for that. Want to stare at someone odd that you see in public for a little bit longer? Snap a picture with your cell phone. Want to watch people with dwarfism fight each other? Head over to your local entertainment hall and purchase a ticket for a night of Micro Wrestling. Want to see how far you can pick up and throw a person with dwarfism? Your local bar might be hosting a Midget Tossing contest. Do you want your Christmas work party to have "real elves" serving the appetizers? I can get you the company's contact information who recruits people to do that.

We can't continue to live under the pretense that circuses are in the past. They have just manifested into other forms of exploitation. And that's not really an improvement. People frequently argue that individuals with disabilities choose these jobs for themselves and are thus responsible for the negative attention they receive. I disagree. What can you expect from those who are raised in a culture that normalizes staring and laughing at odd people? What can you expect when there is an opportunity for Hollywood to produce a movie that sheds light on the awful impact PT Barnum had on the disabled community and they use the line, "They're laughing at us anyways, might as well get paid." You can expect to overhear people in the movie theater bathroom laugh about how they "can't believe a real live midget came to watch a movie about the circus." It's 2018 and we can do SO much better.

Overall, I know that my non-professional-movie-critic opinion will not align with everyone with a disability. And I can't ignore the fact that this movie also tosses around issues with racism and classism, but I just don't feel I have the same education and experience to talk on those topics as I do disability rights/ableism. If you have differing opinions and perspectives about this movie, I would love to hear them, as I still have a lot of feelings about this whole experience that I have to sort through too. But for what it's worth, here are my thoughts:

Am I disappointed that the movie ignores a very critical piece of history that is still relevant today? Absolutely. But can I ignore the fact that, message aside, the movie was actually a theatrical masterpiece? No. Friends, the music was so good. SO good. And I'm not sure if it deserves to win Best Picture, but I can see why it was nominated.

If you haven't seen it yet, I would recommend that you do. (And of course bring your own snacks!)  Download the album on Spotify. Make "This is Me" your 2018 anthem. Swoon over Zac Efron. But promise me that you'll do your research. If taken at face value, this movie has the potential to celebrate and honor someone who was actually a really awful person. But if we do our research and start conversations and dust off the history and truth that has been clouded with fireworks and elephants, we have the power to change the narrative.




My Senior Inquiry Project
https://drive.google.com/file/d/16dhL7df9xKtz4RaQaeDWsLJNhLZd2dDh/view?usp=sharing

4 comments:

  1. Bookmarked your article to read. Of course, I appreciate your viewpoint and would always want to encourage that your experiences are valid. I, too, struggled with resolving my issues with Barnum and his portrayal in the film vs. real life scummy Barnum. My disability is invisible, and that affords me a great deal of privilege. I don't 'look' disabled (excepting when I am visibly affected by it, i.e. limp or have an odd gait due to pain/stiffness/etc). I have a hard time reconciling these films that present disability as something to be pitied or 'overcome', a la "Me Before You" (which I refused to see outright due to a number of factors), and even films like "Wonder", which I found to be a good book about acceptance as one is, but was disappointed Hollywood did not take the opportunity to feature a child actor with an actual facial difference and to instead 'fake' Auggie's features. It's something we deal with every day, and it's not something we need to 'overcome', or some other 'inspiring' phrase. It's not going to magically go away because we keep a positive outlook. Rather, it's a part of us that needs to be accepted as valid and whole. I think perhaps Stella Young is one of my current favourite disability advocates due to the fact that her entire career was spent trying to change the attitudes of those who thought she was only interesting because she had OI, and felt the need to let her know how 'uplifted' and 'inspired' they were that she got out of bed in the morning. I'm rambling now, but my personal opinion carries that I believe more careful consideration needs to be made as to how we can work towards integrating all people into mainstream media, representing everyday humans who put our clothes on one step at a time every morning. Present, and represent, all kinds of people on television and in movies, utilizing as many people who have actually authentically lived those experiences (to some extent) being portrayed in their real life wherever possible. Your last paragraph is critical. We all need to be more critical of what we consume via media, and let creators know when they are not presenting the whole picture or gloss over important pieces of information. Look back at where we've been, so we can press on in moving forward.

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  2. In addition, characters with disabilities should not be pushed into certain tropes (always a force of good, used as background character, stories told only focusing on the disability itself, etc.). We can, and should, definitely be allowed to portray everyday characters just living our lives.

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