Saturday, November 3, 2018

Ten Reasons Why The Greatest Showman is Anything but Great

I know I am taking something beloved and I am giving another perspective. I know I am rubbing against the status quo. I know I am asking you to take something you felt good about, something you have shown your children, something that has a ‘great’ message and I am tearing it apart. I know. But please understand, not everything is as it appears to be. Please don’t underestimate Hollywood. Please, even if only for a moment, be willing to hear a different view regarding this movie.  


    Nothing wrong with having a fictional film… but when Hollywood takes a real human being and pulls out a few facts and then REWRITES history to depict a creative and hard working man with an amazing imagination who believes in others-- it’s not only far-fetched, it is a dangerous notion for those fighting for advocacy for those with disabilities. Let’s get on the same page: P.T. Barnum was described in real life as monstrous, unlikeable and racist. He was interested in one thing: himself. No matter the cost. He was a pioneer of exploiting individuals with disabilities and a key player in bringing acceptance to the dehumanization of these individuals throughout history. BUT, with regards to The Greatest Showman… it’s like the mistreatment, forced labor, human trafficking and abuse never even happened. Hollywood has turned a dark time in our country’s history for individuals with disabilities as an opportunity to airbrush the past and spin the truth in a way that makes P.T. Barnum look like a hero. It is difficult to explain the damage that has been done in our country and the leftover stereotypes from exploitation of disabilities in particular to those who are going to view this movie as truth. (I think most people will view it as truth.)  It’s not true.


    The Greatest Showman makes it clear exactly what it takes to be labeled as a freak. You could be a lady with a full on beard, a human that looks more like a dog, a man on stilts,  black trapeze performers, an obese man, twins born conjoined and still conjoined as adults, a person born with albinism, a man with horns or tattoos OR a person born with a specific genetic mutation resulting in dwarfism. (Do you know what else is a result of a genetic mutation? Click here for a full list. Interesting that only albinism and dwarfism are exploited as freaks in this movie.) It kind of explains why my five year-old gets called freak at the playground though. “At least the individual with dwarfism in this movie is portrayed as a human.” Ha! Yes, well… that’s a start. Can I just point out… most of these differences showcased in the freak group are either self-inflicted (tattoos), a choice (a beard) or not even real (horns). Which for me makes dwarfism stand out even more. YOU ARE FUNNY ENOUGH JUST AS YOU ARE. Just because your bones grow slower than most.


    This film isn’t unlike many other films in that there is a group of oppressed and ostracized people in need of help. In this case, these ‘freaks’ are desperate for acceptance and love. By having a character like the charming P.T. Barnum coming in and seeing these people for the first time made the white able-bodied audience cheer wildly. “He sees their talents. He respects their uniqueness. Bravo.” It implies that without him this group of people could not succeed on their own. They need a ‘white savior’ to come and rescue them and build them up… but let’s be honest….only to use them to make money. How easily the same audience forgets that point. P.T. Barnum is a salesman-- and a good one. Not only does he convince the acts in his shows but also the audience that he is on their side. But, is he?


    A hard truth comes out at the beginning of the story in talking to a person with dwarfism: “They are laughing at you anyway, might as well get paid.” As a mother to a child with dwarfism, I loathe this statement, but I appreciate that it is in this film because that is in fact the truth regarding many people's’ perceptions and we need society to know a need for advocacy and awareness still exists. This film takes this man’s life and showcases his ONLY two options: hide away in the shadows, be blackballed from society and rejected by your family OR choose to be exploited for your differences as a form of entertainment; a.k.a. Be a Star.  I think many individuals with dwarfism still feel this same way today and give in to the lure of easy money by performing as elves, leprechauns, munchkins, sci-fi creatures or oompa lumas. Here’s the thing-- statistically, dwarfism is rare. It is safe to say that most people in our culture do not personally know someone with dwarfism and/or has minimal experience with someone with dwarfism. And the only portrayal of these individuals in the movies is for humor specifically because of their difference. Let’s put that to the test… how many movies can you name with an actor with dwarfism? How many of those actors are portrayed as doctors, lawyers, moms, teachers, insurance agents… anything other than as a joke? Can’t think of any… yeah, me neither. We are just beginning to see a few individuals with dwarfism on TV portrayed as HUMANS. Normal humans. (And all the people said AMEN.) Here’s the deal-- it is NOT A LEAP to say the misrepresentation of individuals with dwarfism in the movie industry has influenced the way our society views individuals with dwarfism. BOOM, That’s the thing. The thing that I NEED others to understand. They are related. They are connected. It affects our day-to-day life. This is the exact heart of our advocacy. To bring about change by educating, teaching, sharing, and bringing awareness to the places in our society where we need the most work. To fight for a better future for my daughter WHICH WILL IN TURN BE A BETTER FUTURE FOR ALL OUR CHILDREN.


    “This is me” implies a switch in the perspective and tone of the movie from seeing these invalids as unworthy to them finding their voice and being proud of who they are. The audience embraces this change with open arms and perhaps a feeling of wanting to cheer them on. The takeaway: we are all worthy/let’s celebrate differences. HOLD UP. That’s surface level and that’s exactly what the film writers wants you to believe but, let’s not be so naive. These individuals are only accepted in the context of them performing. Never within society. Only when they embrace who they-- are as a joke, not as real human beings. Not as anything other than what P. T. Barnum says they are:

    “This is me. In a circus. Because that is my best-case scenario. As a performer. Embracing my freakness. Accepting that’s all I am. Because that’s who society says I am. For now and for always.”

    The message should be “This is me- as a human. Living my life. Like you. Making my own choices. Without stereotypes. Having the same opportunities in life. As you. Being my own hero. As I am.”

    I see those two statements as MASSIVELY different. The top message was… the bottom message could have been and should be.


    Let’s be honest- there really is no in between. Either those with disabilities are seen through a lens of pity OR they are seen as motivation for an able-bodied person- “if he can climb that rock with one leg, then surely I can do it! If that person with dwarfism can run three miles, then surely I can run ten.” These are in fact not things to warrant inspiration. They are normal things… not to say it was easy, but everyday things. The truth is most individuals with disabilities are just living their life in the best way they know how- much like how everyone else is living their life. These individuals use what they have to accomplish their goals-- not so crazy. I am told my daughter is an inspiration often. I wonder... why? Because she is happy? Because she still climbs on the playground? Because she has friends? It is imperative that our culture views individuals with disabilities as EQUALS. As humans. As who they are. And not being DEFINED for their physical difference or disability. But who they are as a whole. Yes, body plays a role but ALSO feelings, thoughts, experiences, passions, hardships, triumphs, likes, dislikes, spiritual beliefs, opinions, talents… etc.


    While I believe in the importance of not defining a person based on differences, I don’t want to downplay what it means for my daughter to be born with dwarfism. Because of her diagnosis, she inherited a history that does not belong to us, but belongs to her. It was an attachment that we needed to fully understand. It wasn’t just, “Your daughter is going to be born with dwarfism,” as the doctor told me at the 33 week ultrasound… there was an AND. AND she now belongs to a group of people that have historically been brutalized and are the victims of marginalization with judgmental ideas that still exists today. As a result, she will in her life be fighting an uphill battle continuing to break down stereotypes leftover and passed down from generation to generation. I feel it out in public when strangers take her picture, when she gets called derogatory names, when people point and say, “eeewwwww,” as if she is disgusting, when people limit what she can do. And soon, when she is a little bit older, she’ll feel it too. As with a black child, he/she inherits the history of slavery and segregation. We can teach our children to be “colorblind” but with that comes a complete disregard of the struggles that black people as a population have endured and how racism is still prevalent today. It erases the significance of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and all the individuals that are not famous but played a huge role in ending slavery, ending segregation and fighting for equality. That happened. It IS significant. BLACK LIVES MATTER. And the reason it is important to acknowledge that is because our country for so long didn't. I want my children to understand that and the fight it took to be heard. I want them to know the real heroes, the bravery, the rub against status quo that it required. I want them to know it is not over and it is still worth standing up for. I want them to know that by listening to stories and asking points of view- only then can we try to get it right. Let’s not downplay history and act like our children won’t notice differences. THEY NOTICE. Let’s talk about differences and dwarfism in a way that humanizes them and normalizes them and does NOT require hush hush/taboo behavior. BECAUSE IT MATTERS.


    The only part of the movie that I could personally connect with was when Caroline (his daughter) was teased by the other ballerinas for smelling like peanuts (a blow referencing the family business). The pain in P.T. Barnum’s eyes captured what this is all about for me: the idea that your child is mistreated for something way beyond their control. THAT felt real. THAT is what I feel. How ironic that it comes from the man that elevated the use of ‘freak shows’ in our county and as a result jeopardizes the very same freedoms for my child that he wants for his own children. More of that Hollywood. More real.


    I mean… hats off to Hollywood for taking a storyline that really in its truth and entirety would not be accepted OR tolerated in today’s society as a positive/feel good message (at least that is my hope) and cleverly playing into the hands of our need and want to feel like we are making a difference. (At what cost?) That we as a culture are moving forward and leaving behind the old prejudices and taking a stand for those with differences. (Even though we are really just reinforcing the idea of separate.) I have to say that at the surface level, this movie is sheer genius. It groups P.T. Barnum, a white able-bodied man as a downtrodden person that no one believes in. (Enter empathy for the real life villain turned theatrical hero.) Hollywood was betting on the fact that the audience bought into that idea-- they are the same… P.T. Barnum and the circus freaks. It worked. People bought it. BUT, THEY ARE NOT THE SAME. They are not one team fighting for equality. They are not combating the stigmas and breaking down the stereotypes together. They are not changing minds and changing hearts for generations to come. AND YET EVERYONE LOVED IT. Bravo, Hollywood… you continually prove that you are CLUELESS about how to INCLUDE the disabled or dwarfism community on how you could be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem.


    I can’t even say I 100% know how it feels. I am close to it but I am not a person with dwarfism myself. I GET TO go the the grocery store by myself and reach everything in sight. I GET to walk past the pickle aisle where the word MIDGET appears on the pickle jars to describe little pickles and not be offended personally (except that I am.). I GET to shop in peace without people staring, snapping pictures or commenting on my physical appearance. I GET that freedom. My daughter does not. It’s one thing to say this level of sensitivity is unnecessary and that these individuals need to not take themselves so seriously and learn to laugh along and that those with dwarfism need to let go of the past… BUT DO YOU KNOW-- REALLY KNOW WHAT IT IS LIKE? Can you really speak on this topic from a place that has endured hardship? Have you really thought about the connection to the history of freak shows to the present day acceptance of ‘dwarf humor’? Can you talk about the realities of what it is like to be a person with dwarfism today and the fight for equality-- in society, in the workplace, in the media, in Hollywood? If the answer is no… that is ok. That was me six years ago. I didn’t get it. But, I do now. My advice would be this: instead of drawing lines in the sand, deciding who gets what freedom, judging perspectives and standing up for something you don’t see as wrong… LISTEN. Open your eyes a bit more. Soften your heart a bit more. There’s most likely not just one side of the story (as in this case) and shouldn’t all sides get a voice? I might not have the platform Hollywood has but I get to speak too. Let’s ask hard questions. (Like are stereotypes still alive today? Am I supporting them or denouncing them?) Let’s take a deeper look into the real message. Let’s look at what history tells us. Let’s learn from the past and make changes for the future. Let’s be willing to challenge the status quo. Let’s understand that if we make this world better for my child, it will be a better world for yours too. We are all better when we come together. When we step into someone else’s shoes and story. When we listen.