The Exploitative Roots of The Greatest Showman

By: Danielle Fraser

The Greatest Showman is an upcoming 2017 movie musical/drama that focuses on the life and career of P.T. Barnum, the man who established the idea of modern day show business, and founder of the world renowned Barnum and Bailey Circus. The film is set to release on December 25th and boasts a cast of Hollywood powerhouses like Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, and Zendaya.

(The Official Trailer for The Greatest Showman)

The trailer hits all the right notes of a feel good family film made for the holiday season. Barnum gets laid off from his job and inspiring music swells up as he makes his dream a reality by putting together a circus of outcasts and showpeople with odd talents. Lines such as “Everyone is special and no one is like everyone else” and “No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else” are emphasized throughout the film. Jackman’s heartfelt delivery as Barnum delivers the theme for the viewer: P.T. Barnum created the circus as a way to celebrate the uniqueness of outcasts and his story can serve as inspiration for others who want to achieve similar aspirations.

According to his own autobiography and other sources, P.T. Barnum did grow his business by traveling across the United States and showcasing oddities. The subjects of his later exhibitions included General Tom Thumb, a 25-inch tall man who sang and danced, Josephine Boisdechene, a bearded woman, and the Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. While Barnum’s American Museum and the Barnum and Bailey circus are more or less common knowledge, Barnum’s first venture is widely unknown.

(A poster advertising Joice Heth’s appearance)

The person to thank for P.T. Barnum’s catapult to fame is Joice Heth*, a slave who was the subject of his first attraction. Barnum bought Heth from her slave owner in the mid 1830’s and subsequently toured her around the United States. Before he would arrive in a city or town, he would anonymously leak outrageous details about Heth to the press in order to drum up controversy and ticket sales. Promotional material emphasized her unbelievable age of 161 years old, claiming she was “the oldest specimen of mortality [the viewer] ever before beheld”, and her role as a nurse to founding father George Washington. The media frenzy surrounding the published claims sold dozens of tickets and local newspapers. People from all over paid twenty-five cents to gawk at her appearance and stories about ‘little George’. Whether Heth saw any of the profits is unrecorded, but highly unlikely.

Barnum’s exploitation of Heth took an even darker turn when she passed away from natural causes. Barnum chose to take advantage of the speculation surrounding Heth’s age and made an event of her autopsy. Spectators and journalists alike bought tickets for fifty cents to watch a doctor cut apart a woman out of morbid curiosity. Although her age was eventually revealed to be a hoax, Barnum continued to claim that the body from the autopsy was not really Heth’s, and that she was still alive. Barnum profited off the spectacle of Heth’s body not only in life but also in her death.

It is listed on the IMDb cast list that Diahann Caroll is rumored to play a role as Joice Heth in the film but there has been no confirmation anywhere else and she isn’t shown in the trailer. Joice Heth’s role in Barnum’s career is also only mentioned briefly in his own autobiography mainly due to the fact that slavery was illegal in the North where Barnum was touring at the time and he became an advocate against slavery later in life. In a world where black women’s stories still struggle to be heard, the fact that this may be glossed over again is upsetting.

The details of Barnum’s start in show business bring about a sobering realization surrounding the source material of The Greatest Showman. The celebration of the different and the unique emphasized in the trailer now reads as an exploitation of the outcast and disenfranchised. The inherent dissonance in tone undermines the intended inspiring message of the film and reveals how black women’s influences in history are often ignored or completely forgotten.

Editor: Ammaarah Mookadam

*Editors Note: Joice Heth was also blind so we suggest you read this piece about how the movie frames disability.

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Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!

You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.

From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.

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