P.T. Barnum was a wicked man, and deserves to be remembered as such.
Every so often
pop culture affords us the opportunity to subvert a paradigm, promoting diversity and inclusion through storytelling—the upcoming "A Wrinkle In Time" and "Ocean’s Eight" are perfect examples. But unfortunately and most of the time, like in Hugh Jackman’s new biopic "The Greatest Showman", visual media not only upholds systemic and structural inequalities but goes even further to whitewash over terrible history and evil deeds.
"The Greatest Showman
" presents the founder of the circus P.T. Barnum as a charismatic hero, framed in multiple love story narratives, as we follow his creation of his so-called Greatest Show On Earth. While multiple accounts of Barnum’s real-life personality do indicate his commanding stage presence and business smarts, "The Greatest Showman" appears to gloss over and omit the laundry list of cruelty, misinformation, and exploitation upon which Barnum relied for his capitalist circus and sideshow projects.
Step right up for a reality check about P.T. Barnum.
While historians can claim that Barnum made space for the disabled and atypical to work within their physical means, Barnum’s advent of the “freakshow
” did not work to promote anti-ableist human rights. Instead, he further marginalized and othered them by framing them as those who are not like "normal" people—he displayed them in ways to heighten their perceived monstrousness and physical difference.
The people used as human displays were taunted and verbally abused by spectators, and they were mistreated behind the scenes as well since they had no power to demand equal or even fair treatment to able-bodied carnies and visitors. The "freaks" were not considered equals to the "norms", a fact that "The Greatest Showman" has conveniently overlooked. Often these sideshow performers were indentured servants to the Big Top, since their weekly wages were subsumed into Barnum’s money-making machine to cover lodging and food when touring the country.