In 2017, the United States suffered as a nation divided under the new administration of President Donald Trump. Many people blame the country’s acceptance of Trump’s documented mockery and degradation of the marginalized for the rise in hateful and violent speech and actions that have come to light in the past year. This acceptance has left people of color, disabled people, and the LGBTQ community and other minority groups not only disappointed but also fearful that protection of their rights may be dwindling in the country’s current political climate.
Directed by Micheal Gracey, “The Greatest Showman” was released in late December aimed to heal the wounds of 2017 by reminding its audience of an earlier time in America’s history when individuals were shunned for their differences. It also showed Americans that they had overcome hatred and ignorance in a ‘celebration of humanity’ in the past.
Based on the true story of Barnum & Bailey Circus, the film showed P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) search for unique individuals. In many cases, those individuals had spent their lives in hiding to avoid the ridicule that they faced in public, but Barnum brought them onstage and told them that “they [the audience]don’t know it yet, but they’re gonna love you.” The stars were then able to develop self-confidence through performance. Among those that Barnum gave a platform for self-expression was a bearded lady, a little person, and a duo of African- American trapeze artists.
Letti Lutz (Keala Settle), known in the film as the bearded lady, represents a woman whose body produces more than the typical amount of testosterone present in women. She differed from the traditional constraints of the gender binary that people were used to, so she faced anger from those that did not understand her. People would wait outside of the circus to harass and assault her. In the film’s period of the 1870s, science had not yet uncovered the fact that gender is flexible and can vary based on a number of factors such as differences in behavior for XX and XY cells, high or low sex hormone levels, and anatomical differences.
By 2017, the science of gender has evolved, but much of the public has still not yet come around to the idea. Because of this sad fact, 2017 was the deadliest year ever on record for transgender people. As of late October 2017, the Human Rights Campaign documented 28 [transgender]homicides, with 84 percent of those transgender victims being people of color.
In the film, the bearded lady performs a number entitled “This Is Me” in which she triumphantly sings, “I’m not scared to be seen/ I make no apologies, this is me.” While her bravery is inspiring, it shouldn’t be necessary. The hope is that 2018 will see fewer hate crimes committed against those with untraditional gender identities.
Fear of diversity in America is especially obvious when one looks at the conversation surrounding immigration. The president’s most famous campaign promising to build a wall between the United States and Mexico gained favor for him with many people even though the construction of the wall is not realistic or feasible.
People support propositions such as these primarily for one reason: fear. President Trump fuels that fear by flagrantly stating his belief that Mexicans are stealing American jobs and bringing crime into America despite the fact that there is no real basis for those claims.
The same can be said for the treatment of Islamic individuals in America. Many Americans have developed a fear of Muslims based on the presence of Islamic terrorist groups that do not represent the majority of the members of the faith. As a result, President Trump has put in place what has been dubbed a ‘Muslim ban,’ which halted the acceptance of refugees, travelers, and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. Fear of outsiders has historically proven to create a paranoia that leads to more hate crimes, and it is unfair as well as ultimately unhealthy for America as a whole.
The message of “The Greatest Showman” is that the best way to combat fear and ignorance is through exposure and education. At the circus, people eventually saw the beauty in people that they used to fear because they watched them express themselves through happily showcasing their talents. The circus became a ‘celebration of humanity’ because diversity united people rather than divided them. In 2018, Americans need to take a lesson from P.T. Barnum and make an effort to better understand unique individuals.