I’ve put off writing this post for a few weeks. I guess I didn’t want to get sucked into an outrage cycle, and the enormity of tackling representation issues feels overwhelming. Writing about something that impacts on how people like me are perceived, and then enduring the comments section is draining. And representation is also a topic I bang on about constantly. Plus I worried it’s all been said already – see the links at the bottom of this post. Just for once, I want to see a movie without my activism hat on. What am I, the fun police?! But I had too many thoughts jotted down to give up, and I kept seeing friends who adored the film and possibly weren’t seeing the problem with the exploitation of disabled people. The emotional labour is draining. Anyway, here goes.
I walked out of The Greatest Showman (after seeing the entire film, as opposed to walking out part way) with my Mum, relieved. “That was a lot better than I thought it would be”, I said to her. “Yes, I thought so too”, she said. While hesitant, I decided to see The Greatest Showman because a few disabled friends had seen it and enjoyed it, and also because there wasn’t a huge choice of films at a small cinema in the country. The music and costumes looked fun. Oh and I love a bit of Zac Efron. I didn’t go into the film to hate watch, but I was wary.
In short, the film was about PT Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman) businessman who established a “live museum” – read freak show – in New York City between 1841-1845. “People are fascinated by the unusual and the macabre.”, he said. “Everyone is special, and nobody is like anyone else. That’s the point of my show.” The performers were shown to be only seen on stage, and not in public, for suspense and shock tactics.
Mum and I had a brief yet in-depth chat about the film on our walk to the car. I told her that when I saw the ads for The Greatest Showman on TV, I was annoyed that a film about a freakshow was being hailed as the most upliftspirational film this year (wait, wasn’t that Wonder?!). And oh look! I invented a new word!
I was annoyed that audiences would look at the characters and think’ “I’m glad I don’t look like that”/”if they can go out of the house looking like that, I’ve got nothing to complain about.” I think I even shouted at the TV. I hate that disabled people – including me – are seen as objects to make others grateful for their lives. We aren’t here to put others’ lives and able-ness in perspective. “You know I’m uncomfortable with the ableist gaze”, I told Mum. She knew.
People like me were in those freakshows, for non disabled people’s benefit. Had I been born a century before, I could have been taken for one of those freak shows. I came across a woman who supposedly had Ichthyosis who was an exhibit in a museum – though not PT Barnum’s. Susi the Elephant Girl worked until the 1960s. People like me are still in shows like Embarrassing Bodies and Beauty and the Beast, we’re still labelled as Alligator Boy and Snake Woman in articles, and we’re still ridiculed and stared at. But we’re taking back the gaze through social media.
Back to my conversation with Mum after the movie: I added that I thought the message of “This is Me” redeemed it a little. Powerful lyrics – maybe it’s the Roar for disabled people?!
When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me
I told her that one thing I hadn’t considered was the sense of community the performers found when they formed the circus. “Their parents hid them away. If shame starts in the home, it continues through life”, Mum said. Yes, indeed it does.
When I got in the car, I googled the actors. Keala Settle, the actor who plays the bearded lady Lette Lutz (who was based on the historic Annie Jones), doesn’t have a beard. It was make up. My heart sank. Why is it too much to expect that an actor has lived experience? I had so hoped the role of Lette Lutz went to a woman performer who actually has a condition that causes facial hair.
However, as Bustle reported, Keala did some research on women with polycystic ovary syndrome:
“Settle prepared for her role by learning about real-life conditions that cause women to grow facial hair, as she told Allure. “I did a ton of research into polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), an endocrine disease in females that can include overproduction of testosterone. It can lead to weight gain, acne, and in some extreme cases, prominent facial and chest hair,” Settle said. The actor in the film looks nothing like her character in The Greatest Showman, but in her research into PCOS, she ended up gaining insights about her own insecurities, as she told Allure.”
In reality, Annie Jones was taken by PT Barnum when she was nine months old (not rescued from a laundry as an adult as Lette was in the film), and her parents were paid a $150 salary. She was with the circus for 36 years.
I looked at the cast further on IMDB. Apart from Australian Sam Humphrey (from the short film Jeremy the Dud which I reviewed here), who plays Charles Stratton (with the stage name General Tom Thumb), there are no actors with disability or facial differences in the film. They’re almost all cripping up. In my research, the man who plays “Dog Boy” – PT Barnum (and the film’s producers) didn’t have enough dignity to make his name known – doesn’t have hair over his face. The actor playing with black patches on his skin doesn’t actually have them. Chang and Eng – famous conjoined twins- were so obviously played by two men, with their arms around each other to suggest they’re conjoined. (Hear an excellent doco about Chang and Eng on the ABC)
And the characters with albinism aren’t played by actors with albinism. They’ve got heavy white makeup on. They weren’t even named in the film – merely labelled as “oddities”.
I asked my friend Kathryn Beaton, who has albinism, what she thought of the characters with albinism.
“I feel conflicted. Florence and Mary Martin, sisters with albinism, were “employed” by P.T. Barnum, as were others with albinism. The inclusion given the historical context was to be expected. I am unable to comment on Caoife Coleman or Mishay Petronelli performances as Dancer Oddity #6 and Dancer Oddity #7 as the audio description was broken. I dislike they have been named such – the film was never going to be a champion for disability but naming the background performers as “oddities” only continues to perpetuate the othering of people with disabilities. [It’s] Romanticized history with the wrong message.”
Surely in keeping true to the theme of disabled and visibly differently peope having some control over their story and perceptions, they could have cast some actually disabled people? Or maybe this is just a nod to the fakery that PT Barnum was criticised for. Disabled people have been advocating for authentic casting for years – getting angrier and angrier. Myself and other disability activists around the world protested Me Before You in 2016; Alice Wong recently wrote a cracking piece on Hollywood’s lack of disability representation for Teen Vogue , Dominick Evans set a challenge for film makers, and Bloody Mallory had some choice words about Freddie Highmore playing an autistic character in The Good Doctor. A quick Google will show you many many more protests happening.
Furthermore Sonia Marcon wrote about the issue with disabled actors who are unable to get work in FilmInk this week:
“I realise that research will have been done to make sure that the able actor will ‘play’ the disabled character properly but this is denying someone a job. It’s not the same as going out and getting inspiration for a setting by having a look at some pretty flowers or a mountain. Those flowers and mountains aren’t looking for a job. I am in contact with, and have worked with, so many actors and performers who have a disability or physical difference. If we can’t get cast in a show playing someone we are, how will we ever get the chance to open the boundaries and play characters who we aren’t?”
The more I researched the history of PT Barnum and freakshows in America, the less enjoyment of the film remained. PT Barnum was not the noble businessman the film portrayed him to be. He bought a black slave – Joice Heth, who he purported to be 161 years old (the doctor who performed an autopsy on Heth said she wouldn’t have been more than 80). Lost Museum states
“Barnum launched his career in the mid -1830s with his exhibition of Joice Heth, an elderly enslaved African-American woman. Heth had been exhibited by others with little success, but Barnum brought her to New York, advertised her age as 161, and claimed that she had been nursemaid to the young George Washington.”
This was unproven.
Barnum also adopted Charles Stratton – a short statured man – when Stratton was four years old. He was adopted for the purpose of being a circus exhibit. Stratton went under the stage name of General Tom Thumb. I heard – on one of the many podcasts about PT Barnum that I listened to – that Stratton made $1500 per week, equivalent to $40000 per week in today’s money. More information on Stratton is here.
In the film, Barnum realised a person with a facial difference could help him – thinking back to when he was a teenager, and a child on the street gave him an apple when his stolen bread was snatched back. The child had a facial difference and was probably homeless. They were dirty. He realised that people different and less fortunate than he was could benefit him.
Hugh Jackman is so likeable that how could we see PT Barnum as anything but? The casting agents certainly performed trickery there. As reviewer James Gordon Bennett asked Barnum in the film:
“Does it bother you that everything you are selling is fake?”
While The Greatest Showman was based on a true story, it deviated a little, as already mentioned. When people – including me – have pointed out the problems, some people have said “Lighten up. It’s only a film. It’s loosely based on a true story. It’s upliftspirational!”
But here’s the thing. It was based on history – albeit with a lot of glossing over and it’s very clear that it’s for the able gaze. It not only makes the audience feel good, but the writers look good – when the audience doesn’t look deep enough.
As Kristen Lopez wrote in Paste:
“Most films detailing the lives of disabled people are often written and directed by the able-bodied. Too often these scripts erroneously believe their own inspirational treacle, proffered by physically able characters to demonstrate a “woke” mentality. A man like P.T. Barnum is no longer an exploiter and profiteer of the disabled: His history is rewritten, leaving him a white, average guy who’s presumably always loved the disabled…and just happens to profit off of them too.”
Something that also makes me uncomfortable is the audience’s reaction in films about disability. I’ve been feeling this for a while – as I wrote in my pieces about Wonder and Me Before You. I get uncomfortable when audiences laugh at discrimination directed to us, or at ableist slurs – especially when they’re not disability-led. There was a moment in the film when Charles Stratton made a joke about himself to Queen Victoria. It was probably scripted, written by a non-disabled writer, but that it was delivered by him put me at ease more. The cinema audience laughed.
The gasps and the sniggers as the bearded lady and man weren’t on only screen, though. There was a rather talkative young woman sitting in front of Mum and I – she just couldn’t get past the bearded lady’s appearance. She giggled and gasped at Lettie’s face a number of times. I wondered if she turned round, would she gasp at my face too?
On a positive note, I really liked the lyrics to This Is Me – it’s body positive and self affirming – and will hopefully make the audience realise that people who are different should not have to change to make others comfortable. I’m not scared to be seen I make no apologies this is me.
I also felt that highlighting the way the circus made the performers feel like they had true family was a positive thing too. It shows the power of connecting with other disabled people. And perhaps the performers did feel empowered from their earnings as an exhibit? Here’s the dialogue from a sentimental exchange between Barnum and Stratton in the film that suggests so:
Charles Stratton: “They’re just going to laugh at us.”
P.T. Barnum: “Well they’re laughing at us anyway, we might as well get paid.”
Is this empowerment much different ro me telling my story for money? Maybe not.
There’s an expectation that disabled people will be grateful to be represented in film – that any representation is good representation even if it means representation as a freak or spectacle; and that a non disabled actor cripping up is authentic. As Lawrence Carter-Long said, it’s not.
“Unless disabled people are writing, producing, directing, playing the flippin’ part and getting the damn paycheck don’t give me a silly song and dance about “accurate representation.” It is not. It cannot be. The word you’re looking for is “appropriation.” Make an effort. Buy or borrow a dictionary. Learn the difference. But do not lie to yourself or to us. We’re not havin’ it.”
I would have loved a story from the perspective of the performers. A cast of people with actual facial differences and disability. I wanted to hear more about how the performers felt empowered, whether their career was a choice, and whether being in the circus gave them a better quality of life than before. But as one circus performer said in the film. “People aren’t going to like it if you put us on stage.”
And that’s the clincher. People want to be placated with actors who can crip up so they’re just shocking enough to make for good cinema, but not too shocking to make audiences turn away. As long as these stories are told, with the able saviour being being the exploiter too, and actors cripping up, and films not being directed by disabled people and audiences feeling pitiful and inspired, people aren’t going to enjoy seeing change.
With the absence of disabled cast and filmmakers, and disabled characters existing solely to inspire and satisfy the curiosity of a non disabled audience, 2017’s The Greatest Showman film is no better than the freak show of the 1800s.
The exploitative and racist roots of The Greatest Showman – Danielle Fraser
The greatest kind of repugnant film – Luke Buckmeister
Freak shows aren’t over – Courtney Simross
Read Screen Australia’s Seeing Ourselves report about disability representation on screen.
Has this piece helped you or made you think? Will you use it in your workplace or classroom? Please consider buying me a drink.