Make-believe is Hollywood’s stock-in-trade, but the producers of “The Greatest Showman” are spending $84 million on a lie - that the life of P.T. Barnum, the con man who ushered cruelty to animals in to American circuses, is something to celebrate.
Who are they kidding?
A movie sanitizing Barnum’s sordid legacy won’t fool anyone who cares about animals, and although Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has been consigned to its rightful place in the dustbin of history, other circuses still adhere to the business model that he created more than a century ago: chaining, caging and beating animals until they perform.
That’s one reason why I won’t go see “The Greatest Showman” and why I’ll urge my family and friends to skip it, too. The other is that Barnum would stoop to any level to fatten his wallet, including exploiting humans. It was all in a day’s work.
Before waking up to the suffering of nonhuman animals and joining People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, I managed programs for people with developmental disabilities on Long Island, New York. I was drawn to psychology because one of my best friends since kindergarten has cerebral palsy and learning disabilities. We met on the playground one day, when I saw some bullies knock him down and kick sand on him and I made them stop.
Nearly all of my clients had multiple disabilities. Most were autistic, and many also suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or a combination of mental illnesses. In other words, had they lived in a different time, they could have been fodder for P.T. Barnum’s exploitative shows.
Although the movie tells a very different story, P.T. Barnum was more like the playground bully than the hero that Hollywood is making him out to be. Here’s what didn’t make the final cut: Using the tagline “What is it?” and hyping him as “the connecting link between man and monkey,” Barnum, who also performed in blackface for minstrel shows and exploited African-Americans, exhibited a caged human with microcephaly, in addition to exploiting conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker and even a distant cousin who had dwarfism, General Tom Thumb, who was 25 inches tall and accounted for nearly a quarter of the 82 million tickets that Barnum sold in his lifetime.
He had the same disdain for animals.
After chartering a ship and abducting nine elephants, including a calf, from their families in Sri Lanka, he imprisoned them in the cargo hold for four months. They got no fresh air and it was so crowded that they couldn’t take a single step in any direction. One elephant reportedly died. To break their will and make them complacent, handlers shoved a hot poker up their trunks. Barnum didn’t stop there: He was known to have beaten elephants with sharp, metal-tipped bullhooks until they cried out in pain. Circuses still use bullhooks today.
Barnum also confined animals to the basement of his New York museum, including two beluga whales who were boiled alive in their tanks alongside other trapped animals during a fire.
P.T. Barnum was no humanitarian, and for a movie to try and portray him as anything other than what he was - a cruel manipulator whose sole motivation was cold, hard cash - is outrageous. Don’t buy the lie.
John Di Leonardo is the assistant manager of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) Animals in Entertainment Campaign.