Recently, I had the pleasure of going to see "The Greatest Showman," a movie directed by Michael Gracey. The musical was stunning to view, with their choreography and musical numbers on point–at least to me, an average viewer.
The sure-to-be iconic musical number, “This is Me” is truly inspirational to everyone who feels like an outsider or different in some way. Sung by Keala Settle with a beautiful voice, “This is Me” is an empowering song that pushed the movie along to its dazzling story: the creation of the famous Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, formerly known simply as the P.T. Barnum Circus.
However, in reality, everything was not as beautiful and amazing as it seems.
In May 2017, the circus was officially disbanded after 146 years. The show came under fire from criticism from numerous animal activist groups, who questioned the safety and well-being of the circus animals performing. To a child, the thought of seeing that many elephants in one area or seeing a human right next to the open mouth of a lion is the most amazing spectacle to witness. But to someone who might be more aware of the conditions necessary for animals, it’s not so amazing to see.
In 2004, a young lion died from its living conditions while traveling across the Mojave Desert. With a lack of access to water and extremely hot temperatures, the young lion suffered the ultimate consequence. This isn’t the only case of animal cruelty, either. The circus also came under fire for forcing a sick elephant to perform in 1998, along with other critics advocating for the circus to stop using animals in their shows. The circus had to pay whopping fines as a result of their animal mistreatment but yet continued to force animals to perform, show after show.Beyond that, one of the actual founders of the circus had a questionable background. P.T. Barnum began his life as the son of a tailor, and from there had many different occupations as he tried to make a living. What’s problematic about him, however, was how he willingly owned and exploited a slave, named Joice Heth. After finding a loophole in the law that allowed him to basically rent her for $1000, Barnum used her as an exhibit in his show, claiming she was George Washington’s former nurse.
Barnum put Heth to work six days a week, sometimes for as long as 12 hours a day. Even after Heth’s death, Barnum used and exploited her body by charging admission to a public autopsy of her body. Her own death could not have been peaceful, as Barnum chose to make a profit off of his slave’s body.
With a foundation of not only animal mistreatment, but also human mistreatment, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus left behind a hefty legacy. It’s understandable why "The Greatest Showman" wouldn’t include this in the movie, as it doesn’t fit with the magic and amazement that came with the creation of a circus. However, it’s still something that is important to talk about. "The Greatest Showman likely lead to many people to wonder why the Ringling Brothers circus shut down, and while these issues weren’t the sole reason, they definitely were a part of the reason. The next time that the circus comes into town, it might be time to question whether or not it’s truly worth it to go see. As the famous phrase goes, all that glitters is not gold.