The Greatest Showman: Attitudes to difference

‘Don’t listen to them, they don’t understand yet… No-one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.’ These are great lines in a powerful film which is ostensibly about the value of everyone, no matter how unusual they look. But the reality in life, and also hidden beneath the surface of this film, is that our society is still a long way from recognising the true value of all people.

With appropriate artistic licence The Greatest Showman tells something of the real story of Phineas T Barnum, the famous American showman. The costumes and scenery are evocative of the 1850s in which Barnum lived, but the film uses contemporary styles of music and dance to produce an engaging feel-good movie that will appeal to all ages.

This musical clearly sets out to be a clarion call for changing our attitudes to difference. In it Barnum builds an extended family of people who look different and behave differently. This is not the Barnum whom many assume to be a brash conman because of the famous phrase ‘there’s a sucker born every minute’. And thus, it is closer to the real Barnum who, alongside his life as a showman, was a philanthropist and social reformer. Indeed, there is no evidence that Barnum ever used that famous sucker phrase. It seems that this was wrongly attributed by those seeking to discredit him. Certainly, the real Barnum made the following, very different, statement in his speech to the Connecticut State Legislature in 1865 when he advocated for African Americans to be granted the right to vote: ‘A human soul, that God has created and Christ died for, is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit, and amid all assumptions of caste, it will in due time vindicate the great fact that, without regard to colour or condition, all men are equally children of the common Father.’

This vision is conveyed in This is Me, one of the most powerful songs in the film (amazingly written during an overnight flight on the way to pitch the movie to a studio). The lyrics describe someone previously hiding in the dark (‘I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars. Run away, they say. No one will love you as you are.’), but now emerging into the light (‘I am brave, I am bruised, I am who I’m meant to be… I’m not scared to be seen, I make no apologies, this is me.’)

These are inspirational words. But are they also the reality for people living with physical differences in contemporary society? Unfortunately, too many still feel uncomfortable showing an unusual face or body in public.

And, looking beneath the surface of this film, is the script actually consistent with the message it seeks to convey? Regrettably, the extended family of people with physical differences only really provide a back-drop to Barnum’s family of classically ‘beautiful’ people. When the bearded lady, the giant, the hirsute man and all the other physically different people sing ‘This is me’ we might reply ‘But who are you?’ We are not told their back-story. We are not given the depths of their characters. All we know is how they look.

And perhaps that, in itself, shows how our contemporary society is still a long way from recognising the inherent value of everyone. So, inevitably, it raises the more fundamental question of why all people have worth. Does our significance derive from being valued subjectively by the society in which we live? Or is there an objective basis for the value of all people? As we seek to answer those questions, perhaps we should consider the real Barnum’s statement that ‘all men are equally children of the common Father.’


Nick Pollard is co-founder of EthosEducation.org and EthosMedia.org which provide free downloadable resources to help school pupils and the general public to explore spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues through the latest films.