The Greatest Showman and "The Other Woman"

A man and a woman meet.

He's tall, handsome, charismatic.  Looks a lot like Hugh Jackman because, in fact, it is Hugh Jackman, decked out in top hat and tails and a thousand watt grin.

The woman, an opera singer swathed in silks, flutters her lashes and gazes up coyly.  (She is a red-head after all.  The universal signal of what her favorite scarlet letter must be.)

The movie is The Greatest Showman, the latest Hugh Jackman-headlined musical, very loosely based on the life of circus entrepreneur, P. T. Barnum.  By the time of this scene, the story's plot has reached the mid-point, and since the script refuses to criticize Barnum, or show him warts and all, we are in desperate need of a villain. 
     Enter the other woman.
Women: Every One A Temptress.  Ammirite?
Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman)
from The Greatest Showman

Vixens or Victims?

Literature is full of femme fatales: seductive sirens and "other women" who exist solely to tempt the virtuous hero before being roundly rebuffed and sent packing.

After all, Queen Guinevere and her lady parts were the downfall of all those virtuous men of Camelot.  Sir Lancelot, who single handedly defeated everything else, never stood a chance.  Ditto Helen of Troy, forcing Paris to abduct her and imprison her in a foreign city while poor, defenseless, armor-clad warriors had to kill each day and rape priestesses each night.
Anne Boleyn: The Ultimate "Other Woman"
Definitely in charge of this situation...

Or, to look at only the "other women" trope, married Odysseus subdued Circe - presented as a predatory witch - slept with her, stayed with her voluntarily for a year, abandoned her, and for his "virtue" was rewarded with the 20-year fidelity of his clueless wife.  Almost every recounting of the history of Henry VIII casts Anne Boleyn as the sole downfall of the most powerful man in England.  Despite her having refused him the first several times.  Nope: dem women.  Sneaking around with nation-destroying boobies.  Tellingly, later mythology around Anne accuses her, too, of "witchcraft."

Arthur Miller's The Crucible lays the Salem Witch trials solely and squarely on the shoulders of Abigail Williams, who was twelve years old in reality, but is a nubile and vengeful woman scorned in Miller's play.  If not a witch herself, then certainly a hunter of one.  And the married John Proctor, whose only fault was sleeping with a teenage girl - where have we heard that one before? - is sobbing over the loss of his "good name" by the end of the play.

Heck!  Remember the 90's?  We all laid the blame for Bill Clinton's affair on "other woman" Monica Lewinsky.  A narrative that is finally being reckoned with today.  Most damning, Lewinsky is on the record in Vanity Fair saying:
     I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position. (Emphasis mine.)
An Affair to Remember

This is not to deny that in the case of an affair it takes, at minimum, three to tango.  Nor is this to exonerate women from any responsibility they may bear in the particulars of a case.  Women are fully capable of being villains as well as victims.  As that ancient wisdom from The Muppets Take Manhattan said:
     "Peoples is peoples.  Is good peoples.  Is bad peoples.  Is peoples.  Peoples is peoples."
But it's important to recognize that the narratives we tell ourselves are powerful and affect how we view reality.  For example, a 2017 study from the University of Cardiff found that when a woman cheats on a man, she is blamed for the infidelity.  However, when a man cheats on a woman, "the other woman" is blamed while the philandering man gets off scot free.  This is true even in cases, quite frequent, where the cheating man was lying to all parties, and keeping the news of his attachment secret from the woman he pursued.

The MTV show, Decoded has an excellent breakdown of why we victim blame, pointing out the importance of grammar on the way that we tend to judge cases.  Essentially, if we tell the story of a victim from her point of view, we tend to focus on what she could have done to avoid the situation.  Conversely, if we told the story from the point of view of the predator, we would see how his actions were the ones that put the victim in an untenable position.

Narrative and Responsibility

This is what The Greatest Showman gets wrong in its story-telling.

Time and again, the narrative is framed in such a way that the protagonist, P. T. Barnum, remains that Winner Always Winning, rather than also taking responsibility for his selfish choices and actions.  Other have pointed out how the movie whitewashes Barnum's exploitation of "circus freaks" for his own gain.  But fewer have pointed out how the movie does a disservice to the historical person of Jenny Lind who - in the context of the movie - is a villainous "other woman," whereas in real life she was practically Mother Theresa.

Otto and Jenny: Power Couple
A few highlights: Lind was an international singing sensation through Europe, retiring at the age of 29.  She rebuffed the romantic overtures of both Hans Christian Anderson and the married Felix Mendelssohn, while managing to remain friends and colleagues with them.  She did not much care for P. T. Barnum or the way he marketed her in America, which led to her splitting from Barnum to continue the tour under her own management.  She became the equivalent of a multi-millionaire from that tour, the profits of which she donated entirely to charity, including the foundation of free schools in her native Sweden.  She then met and fell in love with her pianist, Otto Goldschmidt, a Jewish man and son of a notable woman's rights activist.  Lind and Goldschmidt lived a long and happy life. 

     Nevertheless, in both musicalized versions of Barnum's story, The Greatest Showman and Barnum, Lind is branded "the other woman."
But how?  And why?

Framing the Narrative

Because The Greatest Showman can't bear for Barnum to take responsibility, and since the writers have decided on a possible affair as the last obstacle Barnum must overcome, we are treated to a musical sequence showing Lind's first concert in America where the camera frames the narrative for us in the following way:
  • Lind sings center stage to a sold out audience
  • Charity, Barnum's wife, watches from the box, worried
  • Barnum, watching from the wings, is clearly enthralled by Lind's performance - dangerously so
    • Conclusion: Lind is dangerous

But let's look again at the actions, rather than the point of view we're supposed to have:
  • Lind is singing to a sold-out audience.  Her attention is completely and professionally on her performance.
  • Charity, Barnum's wife, is suffering from a fear that her marriage is in danger.  She clearly puts the blame on the woman singing on the stage, even though Lind's attention is on the audience, not on Barnum.
  • Barnum, watching from the wings, grows increasingly enthralled by Lind's performance.  He notices his wife, but is swept up with visions of the heights he can achieve by attaching himself to Lind - who is still not paying him any attention.  By the end, he focuses all his intention on Lind, determined to travel alone with her on tour.
    • Conclusion: Barnum is dangerous.
Bio-pics about artistic and political figures often trade in the question of ambition.  Which means that effectively the protagonist is also the antagonist.  Think Macbeth's rise and fall.  Or to look at musical examples, look no further than the falls of Hamilton in Hamilton and Mama Rose in Gypsy.  It's a plot worthy of examination: that the very thing that drives our heroes are both their angels and their demons.
      Stories of ambition are also stories of responsibility.
The Greatest Showman had multiple opportunities for Barnum to take responsibility: for exploiting his circus performers, for exploiting Jenny Lind, but instead they put the blame on "the upper class" and "the other woman" and even on "the theatre critics" for failing to valorize Barnum sufficiently.

Compare this to Hamilton's trajectory: how his own ambitions help him gain influence in the founding of America, and how those same ambitions keep him from reaching the highest post in the land.  He certainly has an affair with "the other woman," in this case a historically accurate con between a Mrs. Reynolds and her husband who extorted Hamilton by offering him sex at a cost.  What makes the character of Hamilton, as written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, so excellent, though, is that the titular character takes full responsibility for his sordid affair in "The Reynolds Pamphlet," and suffers the rather public consequences of:

Washington: Take Note.
Which is followed soon after by the grace-filled "It's Quiet Uptown" wherein because Hamilton took responsibility for his actions and suffered the consequence, he is granted the opportunity for forgiveness.
     We can't forgive Barnum, because he never admits wrong-doing.  For forgiveness, there must be responsibility.

Plato, Puritans, and the Anti-Theatrical Tradition

There's an additional element to the demonization of Jenny Lind, which is:
     The belief that people in the arts are by their nature promiscuous.

Look at the annual pearl-clutching over who wore what on the red carpet.  Look at the way we all shook our heads knowingly as Weinstein, Spacy, Franco, Ansari, etc. etc. etc. were finally outed.  Look at how we still frame our responses, from feminists such as Joss Whedon to hyperconservatives like Stephen M. Krason, whose article I criticized lately.

At my Catholic college, theatre kids were looked at funny, as though the overly devout were thinking: "Aren't you in theatre?  Don't you sometimes kiss people who aren't your husband?!??!"  (Nevermind that those roles are few, that intimacy scenes are done under tight direction, and that I wasn't in those kissing roles anyway.  Well, except that once.)

This point of view is called the "anti-theatrical" tradition, and can be traced as far back as Plato who, in his Republic, argued that if an actor took on the role of a murderous villain, then by the process of "mimesis" (imitation and repetition), that actor would also become a murderous villain.  By transitive properties, a woman who kisses on-stage must kiss off-stage, too.  And if she can do it, why anyone who goes near a stage must come out a raving sex fiend.

This argument has had various champions throughout the ages, including the likes of (alas) St. Augustine, the Puritan Commonwealth of England, and modern day Evangelicals who all looked at theatre artists and declared with Obi-Wan Kenobi:

On a personal note, as a theatre director I have often been viewed as "the other woman" by significant others of my lead actors.  Of course, nothing whatsoever was going on - except that I was daring to be a woman of power in the arts.  Wholly fictional narratives like The Greatest Showman only perpetuate ideas about women in the arts which I find unfortunate and destructive.

The Show Can't Go On

One of the reasons why I'm in theatre at all, and particularly as a playwright at present, is precisely because the way we shape our stories is the way we view the world.  The Greatest Showman is a pleasant enough musical - although I have some beef with the music proper which I might save for another post - and Hugh Jackman is delightful as always.  But The Greatest Showman could have been a great musical, closer to a Hamilton, if it had been brave enough to tell the truth about the man behind the con.

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Check out: "Frilly Curtains in a Post-Apocalyptic World" and

"Star Wars: The Return of the Stakes; or the Failure Frontier"


  1. megashare9 - I have never written a movie review but I couldn't let this jewel of a movie be slammed by the cynical critics without saying how much I loved it. This was the perfect movie for our family on Christmas Day. Don't pay attention to the "professional" reviews; judge by the moviegoers who are praising the movie. It was moving, upbeat, and romantic. Can't say enough good things about it. Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, and Zendaya are all so talented. Go see it in the theater to really appreciate how magical this movie is.
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