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  • Writer's pictureCatrina Hull

The Greatest Showman: A Lesson About the Gilded Age

Updated: Aug 2, 2018

While historically inaccurate, with large portions of the story missing or not accurately portrayed, The Greatest Showman is filled with catchy music, romanticized clothing design, and a feel good message.

Critics argue that The #GreatestShowman does history an injustice. They claim the movie paints P.T. Barnum as something he wasn't: a hero. They point to the injustices, the corruption, and the ugly truth of the reality of P.T. Barnum's ventures and they say "this movie glosses over all the dirt and puts something shiny over it".

And to a degree, they're right... But there's something those critics are missing about this box office hit.

The Greatest Showman captures the very heart of the Gilded Age.

If you've never heard of it, let me explain.

The #GildedAge is a term used to describe America post Civil War - 1900. It was coined by famous author, Mark Twain, in the 1920's to describe a time period of deep corruption, social injustice, and widespread poverty that was being masked with a thin layer of economic prosperity for some and exciting scientific discovery A.K.A. gold gilding.

In other words, a time period that at first glance might look lovely and wonderful, but beneath the surface it wasn't quite as wonderful as it appeared.


Electricity was being utilized with lightbulbs for the first time. Railroads were expanding. Skyscrapers were being built. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company was established. Steamboats were being used to bring immigrants to America, a land of great opportunity and hope.

Such exciting times! But underneath all the thrills and all the shine of great things happening...

  • Children had no protection from being forced to work, and many died because of dangerous conditions.

  • Thousands of immigrants who safely arrived at Ellis Island were turned away because they failed inspections.

  • Gangs were rampant in cities.

  • Electrical accidents were common as companies tried to figure out how to safely run power through cities.

  • There was a huge gap between the poor and the wealthy class who had monopolies over whole industries.

There was a lot of ugly reality beneath all the shine.

The Greatest Showman (a movie set in the time period of the Gilded Age) perfectly embodies this concept. The songs are catchy, the storyline is intriguing, the clothing captures the audiences imagination, and the choreography is flashy, but the reality is this is a movie about a man who made a living off of people that society considered freaks. His museum burned to the ground with many animals inside.

OF COURSE, it's sad. OF COURSE, it's horrific. But nobody went to this movie expecting to see the true reality. The audience wanted the mask on. They wanted the gilding. They wanted to see a showman and that's what they got.

The Greatest Showman brings to the forefront of trending conversation a great lesson in American history. The Gilded Age was a time of unprecedented technological and economic growth, but it was also a time that was full of deep corruption and prejudice. P.T. Barnum's venture, as controversial or shocking as it might be, is a lot more complex than a two hour movie meant for entertainment. So no, in case the many times in which the whole cast broke out into perfectly choreographed song and dance didn't tip you off...this is not a biography of P.T. Barnum.

This is The Greatest Showman - take it for it for what it is: an excellent picture of the Gilded Age. Enjoy the movie for the award winning music (which by the way is totally awesome! Get it here.*) Enjoy it for the cool costumes. Enjoy it for the storyline...and realize that beneath all of that - there's a more complex reality.

*Disclaimer: I make a small commission off of any purchases made through that link.

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