P.T. Barnum was known by others as “The Greatest Showman,” but literally labeled himself “The Prince of Humbugs” as an homage to the way he successfully cheated and tricked his audiences. In the upcoming 20th Century Fox holiday blockbuster, featuring Hugh Jackman as Barnum, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), alleges that the star-studded, pop music-infused biopic romanticizes and inaccurately represents a shameful time in America’s history.
The organization is now urging moviegoers to skip out on “The Greatest Showman.” After 36 years of protests and documenting abuse against various circuses (including the eponymous one Barnum created), the organization reduced attendance and successfully helped to shut down the disgraced Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses. Although the film uses CGI instead of wild animals, there are many circuses that still participate in this behavior.
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The reality of Barnum’s “legacy” is advantageously distorted in the upcoming feature film, which stars two former Disney Channel stars, Zendaya and Zac Efron, and glorifies the traveling three-ring circus in a musical which depicts a man only concerned with bringing good-natured entertainment to the American public to support his family. This was not the case for the real P.T. Barnum, a narcissist who exploited men, women, children, and animals for selfish personal gain.
Skeptical that the real story of how Barnum made his big break in the industry will be dismissed from the family-friendly picture, PETA recounts his purchase of the blind, immobile slave named Joice Heth. In 1835, Barnum paraded her around the Northwest as the 161-year-old former nurse of George Washington, labeling her “the most astonishing and interesting curiosity in the world.” All throughout the tri-state area and New England, visitors would line up to gawk at her weakened body and fawn over tales about “little George.” He kept the ruse alive by publishing a story saying she wasn’t human at all, but a whalebone-and-India-rubber automation.
The creator of the Barnum & Bailey Circus continuously sensationalized atrocities for his own financial gain. In 1850, Barnum sent two men from Boston to capture wild elephants in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). The mission “killed large numbers of the huge beasts,” Barnum claimed in his autobiography. The elephants who died on the 12,000-mile long journey to New York City were dumped overboard.
The elephants drew in enormous crowds while the show gained critical acclaim from audiences and the press. Barnum’s circus grew into the elaborate production showcased in Michael Gracey’s high-budget family drama, with prancing horses, dangerously grand cats, and three rings under a tent the size of a palace. PETA suggests that P.T. Barnum’s extravagant greed created a tradition of cruelty that has continued for too long.
A yearlong investigation conducted by Mother Jones certainly aided PETA in killing the deadly circus act. In 2011, the expose detailed horrific accounts of bleeding elephants forced to perform, to videos of workers striking the animals with bullhooks for no reason other than the fact that they could. Animal rights activists have widely celebrated the closing of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey because of the insurmountable evidence illustrating extreme animal cruelty.
“I applaud their decision to move away from an institution grounded on inherently inhumane wild animal acts,” Humane Society of the United States CEO Wayne Pacelle told the AP earlier this year.
The realities of P.T. Barnum’s “showmanship” have echoed throughout the century, and unfortunately, they are realities rooted in violence, exploitation, and deception. The abuse found in the infamous Barnum & Bailey circus tents should be taught and remembered, and PETA wants to make sure audiences oblige to those standards before watching “The Greatest Showman.”