Across today’s cinematic landscape, spotting poor depictions of race or gender can be easy—but how does one spot poor depictions of disability or ableism? Hollywood movies haven’t been quite as receptive towards portraying disabled people in ways that aren’t reductive or trite, and this year alone sees three wildly different depictions of what ableism looks like: the Hugh Jackman musical The Greatest Showman, David Gordon Green’s Stronger (starring Jake Gylenhaal) and the Andrew Garfield vehicle Breathe.
Perhaps it’s the P.T. Barnum biopic that’s most concerning, as its first trailer presents a message that disability can only be identified, promoted and “fixed” through deliverance by a white able-bodied savior.
P.T. Barnum is often considered the great American pitchman who profited off of hoaxes and unusual people, known for promoting and exploiting people with disabilities such as dwarfism, albinism and other body oddities in his “freak shows.” The treatment of Barnum’s “stars” is debatable though the autobiography he wrote in 1854 is filled with pride at his intelligence. According to Barnum, he outright purchased his first oddity, a blind slave woman named Joice Heth, a little less than 10 years before slavery was illegal. His main star, Charles Stratton, a.k.a. General Tom Thumb, was adopted by Barnum at the age of 10, though Stratton was working for Barnum, with parents’ approval, since age 5, after Stratton’s father died. Other circus impresarios may have ad their own spin on the “freak show,” but Barnum remains the premiere name and grandfather of an institution now rightfully perceived as insensitive and out-of-touch.
The circus creator’s name became synonymous with the strange and bizarre, though none of this is evident in the first trailer for director Michael Gracey’s exploration of his life. Barnum, played by the charismatic Hugh Jackman, is presented as trying to make good for his wife and children, a family man who stumbles upon the idea of the circus so quickly it’s surprising that a lightbulb doesn’t appear over his head. In Gracey’s film, Barnum is a benevolent impresario who saw beyond disability when no one else did, settling on a story which erases disabled agency in favor of situating Barnum as an able-bodied representative of the disabled.
Ridiculously saccharine lines like “Every one of us is special” act as an inauthentic equalizer commonly lobbed at disabled people. I’ve heard it myself several times when bringing up criticisms of disabled media representation: Being told everyone is special—and thus shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves—by an attractive, able-bodied man like Jackman is akin to hearing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) shyly tell Wonder Woman he’s an above-average example of the male species. Jackman is special in a way both totally different and unrelatable to most people. The disabled experience and being a charming specimen of masculinity are not the same thing, and it’s offensive to the disabled community to even imply as much.
By the time Jackman’s Barnum declares, “No one ever made a difference being like everyone else,” the trailer might as well be parody in its schmaltzy equalizing of Barnum with those who are disabled. Barnum isn’t like everyone else because he found a way to profit off something no one else did. He didn’t choose to be disabled like the people he “employed” in his shows. Imagine hearing that same line from a person in a wheelchair: What sounds trite and eye-rolling could become a rallying cry if spoken by an actually oppressed party. Jackman isn’t like everyone else—professionally, economically or aesthetically—and yet, as a white, able-bodied male, his agency and power are inherent in his being.
Most films detailing the lives of disabled people are often written and directed by the able-bodied. Too often these scripts erroneously believe their own inspirational treacle, proffered by physically able characters to demonstrate a “woke” mentality. A man like P.T. Barnum is no longer an exploiter and profiteer of the disabled: His history is rewritten, leaving him a white, average guy who’s presumably always loved the disabled…and just happens to profit off of them too.
Telling disabled stories through an able-bodied “interpreter” is nothing new. In some cases, like William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 or 1962’s The Miracle Worker, filmmakers often make an attempt to humanize their disabled characters (in the case of the former, an actual disabled person is part of the cast). Recent works like The Theory of Everything, though meant to focus on its disabled protagonist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), often use an “able-bodied buffer” (my term) as a means of helping the audience relate to the bizarre, unknowable disabled. In The Theory of Everything’s case, the buffer is Hawking’s wife. Which might explain why the focus of The Greatest Showman is on P.T. Barnum, and not one of the disabled people he employed.
Movies about circus oddities aren’t their own genre, and those released tend to focus on the classier aspects (think of the glossy Like Water for Elephants from 2011). The one most often referenced is Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932), about a cabal of circus performers who band together to save one of their own from a villainous (and able-bodied) woman. Director Browning, who himself grew up in the circus, attempted to present the story in a sensitive manner but was forced to turn it into a horror story at the studio’s behest because disability was meant to frighten in those days. A few circus performers attempted to capitalize in the film industry off of Freaks as a means of supporting themselves and presenting an authentic look at disability, but too often these performers found their disability utilized for cheap gimmickry. Conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton turned in Chained for Life in 1951, a sad and low-budget story that attempted to humanize them but only showed an autobiographical exploration that was as depressing to see on film as it was for them to live.
In 1999, Jodie Foster announced plans to make Flora Plum, a romantic drama about a “circus freak” suffering from hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth) who finds love with a penniless drifter. The character would have been played by an able-bodied woman—Claire Danes—but was focused on a disabled woman finding love, a rare combination in disabled cinema. Unfortunately, the project is still floundering almost 20 years later; it’s doubtful we’ll ever see it. One has to wonder if what’s holding it up isn’t just the lack of a Barnum-esque figure, but the fact that it’s about a disabled person thriving and being a romantic subject.
Why are talented individuals drawn to these projects? I hate to say it, but actors, directors and screenwriters could be in it for the awards potential, as the past successes of My Left Foot, The Theory of Everything and Million Dollar Baby have attested. Interviews with Eddie Redmayne and Daniel Day-Lewis have the actors discussing a desire to tell stories about disabled people to spark conversation and enhance audience knowledge, to challenge themselves and present an emotional life that both honors the people they’re playing and provides the audience with new insight. This, in itself, is ableist thinking: They want to represent disabled people on the screen to educate able-bodied audiences about the existence of disabilities. They may believe they’re making a movie that will connect with people but the lack of people shaping these narratives who aren’t disabled will always present a limited scope.
The Greatest Showman’s “this is me” message isn’t meant to connect to disabled audiences, but act as a salve for the able-bodied, for those who perceive P.T. Barnum as a man who saw beyond the image (ironic considering he was a man who often shaped the image of the disabled as something to pity or be awed by). Last year’s weepy romance Me Before You achieved its goal of reminding able-bodied audiences to live their lives, or else face the cruel wrath of being struck down in their prime with a wheelchair. Similar stories, including Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning drama Million Dollar Baby, reiterated the idea that dying was better than being confined to a wheelchair. Breathe and Stronger’s recent trailers play up their “inspirational true story” angle, carefully chosen to appeal to the non-disabled masses.
There’s some hope that much of The Greatest Showman’s problems lie with marketing. Maybe the film itself will present Barnum as a flawed figure; it could humanize those with disabilities and remove the stigmas of past features. There are only a handful of prominent disabled actors mass audiences would be able to name, and hardly—if any—disabled directors or screenwriters making major motion pictures. This leaves most films removed from the disabled experience, with the few that do depict the disabled offering an overall message focused on inspiring an able-bodied audience.
As a disabled critic I’d love to have something positive to say about these movies, if only so we can open the doors to actual disabled people directing, writing and starring in work that’s actually about them.