What Barnum's Oddities Tell Us About The Way We Consume Entertainment

Hugh Jackman, who plays circus founder and freak show curator P.T. Barnum in the new musical The Greatest Showman, believes in his movie's overarching ethos: Art should not be reserved for the rich elites who dress up and attend serious plays to assert their own status, like Barnum’s in-laws in the movie do. Art can be whatever transfixes, fascinates, and entertains an audience.
“I think a lot of the time people question what is art, what is worthy. There’s a quote in our movie, which is true – the noblest art is making others happy. Art is melting the hearts of the audience. And it can be in any way, shape, and form. If you want to go somewhere, and you come out two hours later and you are happier about your life, and you are happier within yourself, I would say you’ve done your job,” Jackman told Refinery29.
In this sense, Jackman equates his overarching goal with The Greatest Showman to Barnum’s goal with his circus freak shows. Both Barnum and Jackman’s circus musical want people to forget their lives, and gawk at another's. The audience, not the authenticity of the art, is the priority — a dichotomy I surely felt while sitting in the theatre, strapped in tight to a whirlwind of emotions I logically knew were generated by the movie playing me like a highly predictable violin, but couldn’t stop feeling anyway.
Why, I wondered, was I tearing up so much at “This Is Me,” the musical’s pièce de résistance sung Keala Settle’s Lettie Lutz — or, as she’s more commonly known, the Bearded Lady? Lettie bursts into “This Is Me” after Barnum bars her and her fellow oddities from attending one of his fancy afterparties. This comes as a surprise to them. Didn’t Barnum love them? In a way, he did. The movie version of Barnum believed in his oddities, and he coerced them, back when they were trembling and self-loathing, onto the stage to perform for a jeering audience. Yet Barnum’s circus performances made the mistake of translating the audience’s cheer into genuine adoration.
At this moment in the musical, the oddities understand the vast distance that lies between being a star and being accepted. During the number “This Is Me,” Barnum’s collection of oddities, plucked out of the shadows by a man who could supposedly see them for who they were (but were they people, or a way to make money?), finally accept who they are. They figure out that Barnum had treated them like economic objects, and decide to love themselves anyway.
“I’m not scared to be seen,” Lettie sings, marking a departure from when Barnum had first found her, cowering behind a wall made of sheets in the laundry room where she worked. Lettie is joined by her fellow “freaks” — Tom, a little person who Barnum turned into a General, a pair of acrobats whose only real oddity is that they are Black, conjoined twins, and a larger group of unnamed but clearly physically remarkable people.
Judging from the way it is positioned in The Greatest Showman, “This Is Me” is supposed to be a triumph of the self over societal conventions of normalcy. But who’s really triumphing? The oddities, or Barnum, who’s making a profit from their sheer oddness?
Here's the truth: Barnum made a fortune from exploiting a base, universal, and typically suppressed impulse: To gawk. We gawk all the time. Our eyes linger too long on people who are beautiful, who are deformed, who exist more than two standard deviations away from the norm. Yet our fascination is not sanctioned in public. It’s creepy; it makes people uncomfortable. Your parents scold you for doing it, and then later, once your own moral spine holds you up, you scold yourself.
Barnum threw those conventions out the window, and gave people a space in which they could gawk freely and loudly. Some of his oddities were based on pure hoaxes — the traveling exhibit which established the real P.T. Barnum’s reputation as a showman was a blind, nearly paralysed, elderly former slave woman he marketed as being George Washington’s 171-year-old nurse. Did Joice Heth achieve self-acceptance after being sold to P.T. Barnum, and traveling around the country? Would she be happy to know her exploitation continued after her death, when her body was autopsied so the public could learn her real age? Spoiler: She wasn’t 171.
Most of Barnum’s oddities weren’t shaped around outright lies like Heth, but rather on the exaggeration of a pre-existing (and remarkable) trait, like the ones we see in The Greatest Showman. The Bearded Lady, General Tom Thumb, and the Siamese Twins were all part of the real Barnum’s troupe. Barnum made a fortune from placing curiosities into a glass box in his museum, and allowing people to look freely at what they would normally look away from.
But before you turn your nose up at Barnum’s method of pleasing the public, check your own entertainment consuming history. I checked mine. To think of all the hours I spent watching reality TV shows that highlighted lives vastly different than mine. I saw it all: enormous families and enormous bodies, a Mormon with four wives, virgins sharing their first-ever kiss at the marriage altar, people with addictions to eating inedible objects, rooms caving in with hoarded goods, 90-day fiancés. To think of the useless facts I still remember — the nicknames in Honey Boo Boo, each set of twins in 19 Kids and Counting, the specific tensions between Cody’s four wives in Sister Wives.
TLC, and so much reality TV in general, doesn’t celebrate deviance so much as it shines as light on it, and tells us “typical” folk to take a peek. After all, the networks know we’re curious. And the subjects seem all too willing to perform for the circus in our TVs.
Sometimes, these shows aimed to cure people of their alleged freakdom, and incorporate them back into society. In the old TLC show What Not to Wear, concerned friends and family members would call in Stacy London and Clinton Kelly to spare their loved ones from their own terrible style choices. Once the process started, Stacy and Clinton would scrub the hopeless case of all that made them stand out — the sequins, the sparkles, the wigs. After undergoing a drastic makeover, the subject would strut out to triumphant music.
Most of the time, the subject would run her fingers through her newly sleek hair, admire her accentuated figure, and wonder why she ever dressed the way she did. But once in awhile — you could always tell from the slight melancholy in the subject's eyes as she watched her hair get chopped and dyed — she wished she could leap back into the dumpster and rescue her discarded clothes, her discarded identity. Convention be damned. She wanted to go right back to the circus. In those cases, What Not to Wear was one of the cruelest enforcers of rigidly held norms on TV.
Most of us don’t deck ourselves in wardrobes that would get us onto an episode of What Not to Wear. Most of us aren’t Bearded Ladies. Most of us just like gawking at difference because it makes us feel normal and superior. Most of us like watching someone subjectively considered outside the norm fix themselves, and join the masses.
Ultimately, what I admire about The Greatest Showman is that it defies the impulse that made all of those reality shows so successful. For all Barnum loved catering to an audience, the movie gives no voice to us, the gawkers, the onlookers. The audience doesn’t get its own anthem — the oddities do. And after hearing the oddities speak, and love themselves even without the presence of audience, I’ll probably never watch reality TV with quite the same fervour. Those people on those shows shouldn't need to convert my viewership into their own self-acceptance. They should just go right on, loving themselves without me.