'The Greatest Showman' and the Problem of ‘Exploitainment’

Adam Gravano


It's hard to review a movie about Phineas Taylor Barnum, mostly because one worries whether it's bad just to get press and make us see it for camp value. A Barnum move to promote a movie about Barnum would be the type of thing the showman would probably view with favor. One needn't worry about this with The Greatest Showman: it's a fun romp through the world of 19th century New York — a light, airy companion to Gangs of New York or Maggie: A Girl of the Streets.


The original goal of The Greatest Showman was to make a musical about possibly the most iconic American showman of his time — if not all time. Like Lord Byron or Abraham Lincoln or Hugh Hefner, Barnum is as much a myth as a man. It's right for critics to note the cynicism of Barnum, as it receives little attention on screen.


Completely absent from the film is, as noted by other critics, Joice Heth. Yes, the woman who was bought by Barnum and labeled the nurse, the “mammy” of George Washington, is absent, as is her autopsy. Also absent is Tom Thumb being 5 years old, not 22, as he's portrayed in the movie. Barnum's exploitative side is absent, but the absence draws our attention to the lingering ethical question behind “freak show” acts: is it exploitainment? Mere 19th century nostalgic mondo? Or is there something empowering in it?


The Greatest Showman takes the second perspective. These aren't just “freaks.” Yes, the draw is their perceived defects and differences, but what would they be without them? Why shouldn't they take pride in these and showcase them to the world? Is this even right? Is it being done in such a way as to appeal to the coarse and base in us? The question should remain unanswered, as there's plenty of exploitative media to go around for the able-bodied and sound of mind as well: every cable news confrontation, the entire reality television niche, and the revelations of #MeToo lay bare an industry to which Barnum would hardly be a stranger — perhaps even unreconstructed.



The questions receive little attention aside from an “us versus them” narrative. The “us” of the show and its fans versus the “them” of polite, decent society, which finds their act vulgar humbug and carries distaste for its mass appeal, which even tries to run Barnum out of town — by violence if necessary. While the racism of New York's high and low societies is on display, its full extent is really absent from this sunny movie; for good reason. Copperheads by Jennifer Weber makes quite a bit of reference to Fernando Wood's flirtations with secession, and the draft/race riots of the Civil War era all loom in the background for the historically-minded viewer.


Regardless, the narrative of a Barnum trying to force his way into high society, to gain the acceptance he's been denied for his whole life will bring a tear to the viewer's eye. It's an interesting narrative for an era wringing its hands over the rise of populism and the hypocritical moralism of “respectable people.” The undertone of “the 'good people' won't let you in, so have a great time without them” has echoes of the best movements in American life and the worst (the showman in the White House might be able to trace his lineage back to Barnum's American museum). Ultimately returning to his “freaks,” unexploited and even empowered in this telling, and his “family,” is a warm, almost treacly ending.


In all, it's a watchable movie and, if you can suppress the guffaws at just how much is left out, it's even enjoyable. If we judge the movie as more than just a musical, but an act of myth-making, though, it might be exactly how a Barnum or a Ripley would present himself to the world. The recasting of Barnum's legacy and his rehabilitation has an urgency much needed for a time where normalcy has truculently swung back. It might not be a must-watch movie, but it's hard to find fault in a movie with a musical number enthusiastically chirping “this is the greatest show!” If your nostalgia is calling you, if your grandmother prides herself on having no grandchildren — and maybe even no great grandchildren — who haven't been to the circus, you'll do no wrong with The Greatest Showman.


Author Bio:


Adam Gravano is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine

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