I recently saw The Greatest Showman, the original movie musical loosely based on the life of P.T. Barnum, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. The songs were much better than I was expecting (of course, “This Is Me” did just win a Golden Globe), and I really enjoyed all of the characters. The only character I came out of the theater hating was opera singer Jenny Lind.
And therein lies the problem with The Greatest Showman. The major problem, of course, is that it absolutely whitewashes the history and moral character of a man like P.T. Barnum. (Actually, when I read up on Barnum after seeing the movie, what I learned about him made me sort of angry that I liked the film so much.) I expected that to some degree. This isn’t the first time a movie has retconned a historical figure and made them seem like a better person than they actually were. Another, slightly smaller, not insignificant sin this movie has committed is the unbelievable character assassination against Jenny Lind.
In the movie, Barnum meets Jenny – a renowned opera singer known as “The Swedish Nightingale” – in Queen Victoria’s court and is immediately infatuated with her. In an effort to seem more respectable, he weasels his way into an introduction and vows to make her as famous in America as she is in Europe. She agrees, and he leaves his circus/museum to go on tour with her. He borrows heavily in order to fund the tour and her appearance fees, including taking out a mortgage on his house without telling his wife, Charity.
During the course of the tour, Jenny falls in love with Barnum, and one night she makes a move on him. He rejects her, since he seemingly finally remembers he has a wife back in New York, and Jenny is livid. Her singing suffers, and the night before he goes back to New York, she plants a kiss on him right on stage. This is, naturally, photographed by numerous journalists, and appears on the front page of the paper, prompting Charity to leave him. When his museum burns to the ground, he learns he doesn’t have the money to rebuild because Jenny quit the tour and he lost everything.
Needless to say, I came out of that movie absolutely hating Jenny. What a horrible person! What kind of woman gets mad that a married man won’t kiss her, and then quits her own tour in a jealous huff? Well, it turns out, no one, because that is not how it happened at all.
The real Jenny Lind did meet Barnum while he was in Europe and agreed to the tour if he paid her fee in advance, which he did. She then donated the proceeds to charity, primarily donating to ensure free education for poor children in Sweden. The tour was a huge success, and Barnum made four times his original investment. When Jenny realized how popular it was, she asked for a new contract so that she could negotiate for more money, which she also gave to charity.
In the end, Jenny was uncomfortable with Barnum’s management techniques. Tickets were so popular that they were auctioned off, and Jenny asked for more tickets to be made available at reasonable prices. She also did not like the way he marketed her tour. So after 93 concerts out of the promised 150, she exercised a clause in her contract that allowed her to withdraw from the tour, which she went on to finish under new management.
In real life, there was absolutely no romance between Jenny and Barnum, and they parted ways amicably. Why then, does The Greatest Showman insert an unnecessary romantic entanglement and make Jenny out to be the villain?
It’s because The Greatest Showman has created a version of P.T. Barnum that probably didn’t exist. This Barnum is a good guy™, who worked his way up from poverty to impress the parents of the woman he loved. This Barnum filled his museum with “curiosities” to give people better jobs than they would get normally. (In the film, Barnum first sees 22-year-old Charles Stratton – the man who will become Tom Thumb – he and his mother are being denied a loan. In real life, 4-year-old Stratton was a distant cousin of Barnum’s.) This Barnum would never behave in such a manner that someone like Jenny Lind would want to sever business ties with him. Therefore, to complete the image that The Greatest Showman wants to portray, Jenny had to be the villain.
That’s a problem. That’s a big problem. I don’t think a film with heavyweights like Hugh Jackman and Michelle Williams needs to smear someone’s name for cheap drama. And in 2018, we shouldn’t be seeing a female character torn down in order to prop a male character up. If The Greatest Showman didn’t want Barnum’s image tainted (or the image they were trying to create), it could have come up with a plausible solution to get him off Jenny’s tour without turning her into a jealous, spiteful person.
He could have simply missed his family and his museum and wanted to leave. There was no reason to have Jenny kiss him, or have his wife leave him. The climax of the movie is the museum burning down; there didn’t need to be romantic drama on top of that. And if they wanted the romantic drama, it could have simply come from the fact that Barnum didn’t tell Charity he took a mortgage out on the house. It was already there; during the scene in which Charity walks out, she seems more upset that he didn’t tell her about the loan than the photo of Jenny kissing him.
In this time of greater attention to the #MeToo campaign, of the Women’s March, of women banding together to get equal treatment, it’s frustrating that films continue to vilify women in such a manner, to perpetuate the idea that a jilted woman only seeks to ruin the life of the man who rejected her. What’s worse is that they sabotage Jenny as a character so that Barnum looks better in comparison. Why should Jenny have to suffer for an overly-polished version of P.T. Barnum? Why does he get to come out of this movie looking like a saint, while Jenny Lind gets dragged through the mud? Hell, even the (male) theater reviewer who hates Barnum gets a redemption scene. Jenny just gets trashed.
I want some justice for Jenny Lind. I want to know how, in the almost decade it took for this movie to be made, no one ever sat down and went, “Do we really need this in the film?” Because the answer is no; it really isn’t necessary. Jenny and her tour may have been an important part of the narrative, but the rest of it is only there so that we remember that Barnum is a good guy™, and that’s kind of despicable.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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