Most people today would hear the question, “Have you seen the movie The Greatest Showman?” and think of a heartfelt movie of triumph in the face of adversity. The movie even received an eighty-six percent audience rating on rotten tomatoes. The movie introduces its main character as the previous P.T. Barnum and follows his journey of creating the first ever circus. He starts off as a poor man living with his wife and kids when he unfortunately losses his job. Sympathy for his character is immediately built especially with today’s economy grabbing the audience’s sympathy and they are rooting for him and his circus to succeed. He gathers up what he calls in the movie as “a collection of oddities” or his “freak show,” and he exploits them for their uniqueness. Some of the members of his circus included beautiful actresses such as Zendaya and Keala Settle who are taken advantage of by P.T. Barnum in the movie as well as the others. Barnum’s family moves into an opulent mansion as he starts to make money off of his shows and the members of the circus feel empowered and happy to be apart of it. Barnum’s greed overpowers his moral code and he begins to mistreat the “freaks” that gave him the power and fame in the first place and they band together against him. P.T. Barnum eventually makes his reparations with the crew and everyone lives happily ever after, right? Wrong.
The truth of P.T. Barnum is much deeper and darker than this movie ever attempts to expose. In Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington reveals the horrific details of the first “circus.” Zendaya, in today’s society, is a fashion and beauty icon. Not only is she a beautiful model but is highly respected in her discipline of acting as well. She represents the opposite of P.T. Barnum’s motives that are seen in history. One of the atrocities that Washington details in her book is about a slave named Joice Heth. Barnum purchases her from her previous owner R.W. Lindsay and decides to display her and make money off the ticket purchases. Washington lists the reasons he chose her, “Her eyes were gone, the legacy of some unknown ailment, she was toothless, and her uncut horny nails curved like talons.” To compare the icon that is Zendaya who not only a model in looks but whose character in the movie is not a slave with the reality of Joice Heth is disrespectful to the oppression she faced under Barnum’s ownership. Not only were none of the characters in the movies slaves, but Zendaya was the only Black actor that held a main role in the circus. As Washington mentions in the book, the Barnum that we see in history exploited slaves who had disabilities as a result from injuries they received from previous owners and most of her ailments were a results of others brutalities that he paraded around. From the description above of Joice, not many would picture Zendaya to fill such an important and powerful role. The Greatest Showman gives a fictional narrative to the sad story of Joice Heth’s abuse and oppression. In Medical Apartheid, Washington mentions that even after Joice passed away, Barnum once again stripped her humanity in a large viewing of her autopsy in an attempt to prove outrageous claims he made about her age and false medical diagnoses. It’s a shame that the public remains largely uninformed about the true history of P.T Barnum and his exploitative actions. How can one truly know about the sad truth when authentic histories in the media and cinema are directing society to avoid the harsh reality. Barnum, as stated by Washington, focused on the exploitation of black bodies and fueled the racist atmosphere of the time. It’s important for Hollywood and the actors taking part in these movies to think of the real people that these narratives affected. Joice was never given a voice throughout her struggles and Zendaya’s voice lacked the overwhelming strength and courage that Joice and many other victims deserved. Instead of remembering Zendaya’s beautiful face when thinking of P.T. Barnum, remember Heth’s beautiful courage in the face of so much abuse.