Relationship Analysis: The Greatest Showman
Updated: Sep 2, 2019
It's difficult to know which relationships are good to use as a healthy model when so many that we see in the media and pop culture are toxic--even if they may not seem like it at first. It's especially difficult when our society seems to reward these toxic relationships with attention and acclaim, which makes them seem glamorous and not as terrible as they really are. This past movie season saw the remake of "A Star is Born" gain such acclaim and awards for the portrayal of a devastatingly toxic relationship. People call it a tragic love story, and they are right: it is tragic how two people can treat each other so horribly and think that it's all okay because they "love" each other.
Instead of focusing on what makes that relationship toxic, I want to use this month's Relationship Analysis to draw your attention to healthy relationship portrayals in the wonderful film, "The Greatest Showman."
All pictures included herein are copyright to The Greatest Showman and Fox
If you haven't seen it yet, this delightful musical came out in December 2017 and slowly climbed its way to being a hit. While its initial box office take was nothing to brag about, it kept steady with its earnings over its entire theatrical release--an exception to the profit drop-off rule that most films see after their second weekend. There are so many elements that make this film a hit: the music, the spectacle, the story, and--most importantly-- the characters.
The relationships in this film touch on difficult subjects such as betrayal, racism, adultery, neglect, and bullying. You're probably confused right now, because all of those seem like super toxic subjects, and you're probably wondering why I chose this as a healthy role model. While all of those toxic elements are present, the ways the characters rise up and come together to handle those situations are what makes "The Greatest Showman" a model for healthy relationships.
The unfortunate truth is that we are all going to encounter at least one of these toxic interactions in our life, and our response to that interaction is crucial for building and keeping relationships--including the relationship with ourselves. "The Greatest Showman" shows how to build strong relationships, have open communication, how to atone for your mistakes (we all make them!) and when to forgive someone for their mistake without compromising your boundaries and self-worth.
There's a lot to be learned from the different dynamics and relationships in this film, so let's get to it!
Fiction Relationship Analysis: The Greatest Showman
The film's story is based on the imagination of P.T. Barnum-- historically known for his contribution and creation of the Barnum and Bailey circus. The events and most of the characters in the film are fictional, using the circus as a setting and medium for addressing topics of discrimination and the challenges of a creative career that doesn't abide by socially standardized career molds. In "The Greatest Showman," we see the fall, rise, fall again, and final re-birth of P.T. Barnum, his family, and the people he brings together in friendship.
Phineas and Charity--Healthy
The film opens with a spectacular day dream that young Phineas is having about the grand life he would like to create. However, unlike the spectacle he imagines, P.T. was the son of a modest tailor and came from little money. One of his father's clients is a wealthy man who has a lovely daughter around P.T.'s age. Charity, too, dreams of a life different from New York high society and the two children form a friendship.
P.T.'s father dies, leaving Phineas homeless and penniless. Charity is shipped off to boarding school and while she is away, Phineas gets creative with ways to make money--igniting his entrepreneur spirit-- and learns from the kindness of strangers.
During the span of a single song about a million dreams, is a charming story of two childhood friends who stay in touch through letters despite being pulled apart by money, opportunity, and society. To make himself a man worthy of marrying his childhood friend, P.T. joins the railroad and makes his "fortune." Upon his return, he asks Charity's father for her hand, which he doesn't give nor deny. Charity makes her own choice, but the happy couple isn't able to leave before her father tells Phineas that she'll come back home because Phineas could never give Charity the life she deserves.
This bitter line delivered by a prejudiced man can arguably be considered the major catalyst for the choices P.T. makes in his marriage. Knowing that he came from nothing, has had to work hard for every little thing he's ever earned, and that it's still not as much as what she grew up with--haunts P.T.
Despite all the obstacles in their way from the start, Phineas and Charity are an excellent representation of a healthy partnership and marriage. What's great about their relationship is that you see how a couple can healthily respond to toxic interactions, pressure, and how to overcome and atone for mistakes.
From the beginning, Phineas and Charity built a solid foundation to their relationship. Since they were children when they met (around 11 or 12) they built a friendship first. They bonded over feeling like outsiders and their dreams of creating a fantastic world where they wouldn't be put in a box and stamped with a label, whether that label was "poor and worthless," or "rich with social obligation."
They were both given the opportunity for distance and time to kill their budding relationship, allowing these differences in their status to overcome them and cause them to drift apart. Instead of letting these external forces create a rift, they fought against it and stayed in touch through letters where they continued to share their million dreams with each other and develop a deeper connection that added to their friendship and blossomed into romance.
Starting as friends, they created an equal partnership. From a young age, Charity expressed her dislike for the upper class and the social obligations and expectations her parents forced on her. She wanted to be her own person and wanted to live a life as colorful as what P.T. promised her.
P.T. struggled to hold jobs--not because he wasn't a hard worker, but because it was difficult for his creative mind to be satisfied in a dead-end job. He communicated all his dreams with Charity and she supported him, calculating their budgets and helping him however she could.
Phineas buys his Museum of Curiosities and, despite how strange and terrifying a venture it seems, Charity supports him with her eyes and heart wide open. She, and their children, help to spread the word and drive up interest the best that they can. During this time, we see a true partnership in their relationship.
Despite the time period and the chip on P.T.'s shoulder, he views Charity as his equal in his life and not just a wife. She is his friend and confidant, and he values her opinion and support. He clearly talks with her about all his hopes, dreams, and fears--although he keeps his insecurities to himself and that is the major catalyst for the rift that develops between them.
They work together as a partnership, planning their life together and evaluating the risks that come with P.T.'s imagination and entrepreneurial spirit. While P.T. puts an overwhelming amount of pressure on himself to provide a life as grand as what Charity grew up with, what brings them both the most happiness is sharing their life and experiences together. Their relationship was never based on the material, and it's only when P.T. become materially driven that their relationship develops a strain.
As the plot progresses, we see Phineas become consumed with his focus for "more." He wants more money, more shows, more attention. It's in this quest for more that he loses sight of his friends, family, and the relationships that actually matter.
He starts to take risks, putting up his home as collateral for the Jenny Lind tour, without communicating with his partner. As he falls deeper down the rabbit hole, he begins an emotional affair with greed. The film sets it up for P.T. to have an affair with Jenny--she has clearly fallen in love with him and welcomes the prospect, but he was so consumed with his drive to make a name for himself that he didn't even notice. It wasn't until she made a clear move on him that he finally realized the choices he'd been making and what he had unwittingly sacrificed in the process.
He leaves Jenny Lind to return to his family, but not before she kisses him in front of the press and entire assembly at her final performance. She is hurt and feels used (which is totally fair considering he did use her to elevate himself and that is very hurtful,) so she takes the chance to really show him how dangerous it is to play with other people and their feelings.
When he returned home, the kiss had been published in the paper. The bank foreclosed on their home. P.T. lost all the money he had invested in the tour and the circus burned down. Now homeless and penniless, Charity was taking their two daughters to her parents' house and was "leaving."
This all appears as the makings of NOT a healthy relationship: P.T. had prioritized his work and money above his wife and family, he got himself in a position where he led another woman on to believe there might be romantic interest (note: but he didn't act on it and was faithful. The kiss was not consensual,) and he sacrificed his home and money without consulting his partner about the risk. While all of that is pretty rock bottom, it would be wrong to write off the relationship. All relationships have ups and downs. There will be hard times. There will be times when both partners will make a mistake. People mess up. People get focused on the wrong things or their insecurities cause them to act or make choices that they otherwise wouldn't. Being in a relationship means overcoming these hardships together, because they WILL happen and if you can't do it together, that's what ends the relationship.
What gave their relationship a chance after the hardships it had endured due to P.T.'s personal insecurities, the pressure he put on himself, and then his narrow-visioned drive for success, was the same thing that caused the strain in the first place: communication. P.T. got himself to a point where he was so consumed with his own goals and the dreams in his head that he stopped communicating. It was only once Charity opened up that door and communicated her feelings that there was a chance to mend the relationship.
Charity confronted Phineas and told him what was weighing on her. While she was upset, she wasn't cruel. He tried to explain the kiss wasn't anything he wanted, and she knew that: "You're not in love with her, not with me, not with anybody. Just you and your show." She'd watched as he had been seduced by greed and success and saw how it consumed him. She knew she wasn't edged out as a priority by another woman, but by the business he had built. If she hadn't communicated that to him, he wouldn't have realized that it was his show and his approach to it that was destroying all of his relationships.
She also told him the most important truth: "I never minded the risk, but we always took it together." This showed her greatest betrayal: that he no longer included her in the decisions made about their life and that he no longer treated her as an equal partner.
What is healthy about this is that it is totally fair and valid for Charity to feel upset, hurt, and angry about Phineas's behavior. She should be! Her partner didn't include her in life-changing decisions and altered the entire equal-partner dynamic of their relationship. BUT, even though she was rightfully upset and hurt, she never attacked him verbally or physically. She was never hurtful/vindictive in her words or actions to him. She communicated how his actions hurt her and made her feel, but she never once said something like, "my father was right, you aren't good enough," or equally malicious.
Even at their lowest point, they are still a healthy relationship example because they tell each other their feelings, their wants, their pain, and they don't act out maliciously or vindictively. They listen to each other, and they help each other grow.
Phineas listened to what Charity said and he truly hit rock bottom because he knew that his actions led them to this point. Drinking away his sorrows, his friends came to support him when he needed it most. He knew he made a mistake with them, and he apologized--acknowledging his wrongdoing. Once he started making amends, he knew he couldn't give up. He gathered the courage, because he knew in his heart she deserved it, and made his way back to the one place that he felt lower and more inadequate than even rock bottom: Charity's father's house.
But, through his personal reflection and growth, he realized that this man's opinions of him didn't matter: only the love and opinions of a few good people really matter.
He found Charity and apologized, recognizing that her hurt stemmed not from Jenny Lind, but from what the singer represented: that showbiz was a bigger priority to P.T. and the exclusion of his partner.
Charity heard him out. She emphasized that "however big, however small" she'd be part of it all and could see the sincerity in his eyes that he had heard her, understood her hurt, and meant it when he said "from now on." She wasn't going to just go running back to him if he had just shown up and said "sorry," and nothing else. She expected more from him and knew he was capable of more. She expected and held the standard of being respected as an equal partner. Phineas, likewise, knew that was the best relationship dynamic and wanted her back as his partner; he didn't want to keep working so hard all on his own and missing out on what was most important: his family and the relationships with the people he loved.
Charity and Phineas are a healthy relationship example because they work together as a team in all aspects of their life. They communicate and listen to each other, meeting one another in the middle. When one of them messes up and loses sight of what's important, they don't abandon each other. They hold fast to their standards, but will work together to work through it as long as the other person is in a place to grow and make amends for their mistakes. They offer each other forgiveness, and they make sure that they work to earn that forgiveness, too. It's not just empty actions and empty words. They care about each other, so they care to put in the work.
Phillip and Anne-- Healthy
Phillip Carlyle is the fictional partner of P.T. Barnum. A young man from a wealthy family, he was born to luxury and prestige. He's working as a miserable playwright when P.T. finds him and offers him the opportunity to run the circus along side him. It is here that Phillip meets the beautiful trapeze artist, Anne Wheeler.
Anne is a black trapeze artist who works with her brother. At the turn of the century, it is difficult for them to find work. They, like many of the other acts at P.T.'s circus, are lost souls hoping to find stability and a welcoming home.
While Phillip and Anne have an immediate attraction, their relationship is slow to come together. Following the "star-crossed lovers" trope, they come from very different social backgrounds and have to fight society in order to be together.
Just like Phineas and Charity, Phillip and Anne make some mistakes but they work to overcome them. As romantic as it seems to say "screw you" to social injustices that separate groups of people, it's a lot more difficult to actually do. Within the circus, they are able to be together because that's their world, their turf, and they are in control. Outside, they have to overcome a lot more backlash and it's much more difficult.
The first trip-up that Phillip makes is during Jenny Lind's performance. P.T. treats the circus performers unfairly and with shame--telling Phillip to take them to the standing room only section. Phillip stands with them in solidarity. During the performance, Phillip reaches out and entwines his fingers with Anne's, but when his parents look over and begin to whisper, Phillip lets go. Their shame compelled him to "fall into line" and he was too afraid and/or insecure at the time to reject their toxic social expectations.
The pressure and criticism from external factors make it difficult for him to pursue the relationship he wants. As the viewer, you might be angry with him for what he does, but it's completely understandable. When people who raised you and you hold in a position of trust look at you with such criticism--even if they are wrong-- it is difficult to immediately have the courage to stand up against that criticism. It's hard to know how to handle that situation--especially if you were unprepared. While his reaction is understandable given his upbringing and circumstances, that doesn't mean it wasn't hurtful. Anne is understandably upset and she is reminded of the struggles they face based on their different backgrounds and skin color.
What makes this a healthy relationship, though, is that Phillip and Anne both make the choice not to allow these external factors to influence them and keep them from being happy together. They both fight through the stigma and consciously choose each other.
After this misstep, Phillip makes the choice, personally, to fight for his happiness against social pressure. Through P.T., he invites Anne to the theater with him: a very public event where he escorts her as his date and equal. Their evening is disrupted when they run into his judgmental (and racist) parents. Instead of making the same misstep and bending ot social pressure, Phillip introduces Anne to his parents and faces their judgment head on. After they insult Anne and she leaves, he defends her and voices his disgust about the expectations his parents have for him and "his place" in society. He does this without Anne present which shows that he's making a change in his own life and status--choosing a healthy, yet challenging relationship over the unjust status-quo.
Anne is a little more reluctant--her experiences showing her that society will always win and that they will be divided. It isn't until the circus burns down and Phillip almost died that she is moved to let go of her past hurt and choose a relationship with him--and all the hardships that will come with it-- over succumbing to social oppression.
Every relationship is a choice. You are choosing to be with your partner and choosing to take on all the hardships that come your way together. It's a hard choice that comes with equal parts of happiness and hardships. It's not easy to be in a relationship. Issues always arise, but if you don't actively--consciously--make the choice that sharing your life with this person is better than whatever may come your way as a couple, then your relationship isn't likely going to have the strength to fight through the tough times.
"The Greatest Showman" is a great example of healthy, respectful, and equal romantic partnerships. It shows how difficult relationships can be for different reasons, but also how strong communication, listening, respect, sincerity, and choosing your partner can make your relationship so that you can fight off whatever difficulties come your way, together.