I’ve already professed my love for The Greatest Showman. Let me tell you now about something surprising it exposed about me.
“A Million Dreams” is the love song between Phineas and Charity. It starts when they are children and time-hops into their young adulthood, when Phineas picks her up from her parents’ home and they leave together. He proposes in the next scene.
Here’s the surprising, I would even say the damning, thing: from that moment on, I was confused as to whether they had gotten married or not.
Why was this?
It was because the rooftop dance was so romantic.
I’m not kidding!
In the last modern musical I saw on film, there was another dance between a married couple. It also occurred between rows of hanging laundry. It was the dance between John Travolta (playing Edna Turnblad) and Christopher Walken in Hairspray. Walken plays the scene sweetly, but the film largely plays it for laughs. Because an older couple still being in love is so ridiculous, amiright?
Now, I actually like Hairspray (you haters CAN’T STOP THE BEAT!). But my confusion at the Barnums’ relationship status was illuminating for me. What romantic marriages had I witnessed in Hollywood? Moreover, what long-lasting romantic marriages had I witnessed? Furthermore, what normal long-lasting romantic marriages had I witnessed, where they are working class people, not spies or superheroes or something? Finally, which of these had not been played for laughs?
I could think of just a few, and it took some mental gymnastics: Pacha and Chicha from Emperor’s New Groove, and Carl and Ellie from UP. Both cartoons, which is another issue altogether: are happy, stable marriages considered “kids’ stuff?”
Hopefully you can think of others. But I’m sure you can also admit that they’re rare.
Only after I got married did I realize just how many ridiculous notions I had gleaned from movies and television about how male/female dynamics worked. From sex to conflict, my opinions were shaped by Hollywood more than I could have imagined—and I honestly didn’t watch that many movies or TV shows. I am still surprised to trace the path back to where an expectation began, only to find a scene from a show I had watched in the 90s at its root.
Everyone has seen a “Disney Princess movies ruined my expectations for men” meme. But how much has Hollywood really colored our view of actual, healthy, normal marriage?
So I’m grateful for The Greatest Showman, because for all its historical inaccuracies, the Barnums’ attractive marriage flies in the face of two marriage myths rampant in film.
THE RISK FACTOR
Later in the film, Charity sings, “Some people like a life that is simple and planned. . . . Some people don’t sail the sea ‘cause they’re safer on land.” Do you assume just from the lyrics that she is singing about married life in these lines?
Think about the long-lasting marriages you’ve seen in Hollywood. In the parent/child relationships of Moana, Zootopia, Hairspray, Father of the Bride, or Meet the Parents, who are portrayed as the risk takers? Who are the people stuck in a rut (at least before their kids influence them)?
Usually in fictional accounts, the hero’s exciting story may END with marriage, but existing marriages are more often seen as the solid ground, the “life that is simple and planned.” The exciting risks are all for the young single people.
But Charity’s song “Tightrope” compares marriage, no more and no less, to walking a tightrope. Charity contrasts marriage with the “simple,” “planned,” “safer” life. And it really makes sense to see marriage as a sustained risk.
In marriage, you are promising to love this person through their worst financial seasons. You promise your love even though all the stupid decisions he or she makes now affect you (“You may be right, / You may be wrong, / But say that you’ll bring me along,” sings Charity). You are promising to stay with this person no matter who they become–abusive situations being the exception. You are promising to see the very worst this person has to offer—to be on the receiving end of it even—and still cling to them, fight for them, “risk it all” for them (thanks again, Charity).
Both singleness and marriage are risky in different ways. I’m saying this not to downplay the very real risks singleness involves, but to point out that long-term marriage is not simply the safe, boring road I see in so many films.
I love that The Greatest Showman shows marriage for what it is: a long and beautiful risk, an adventure, rather than the harbor where the adventure ends.
Perhaps the Hollywood stereotype of marriage as stable lends itself to the idea that people don’t change once they’re married.
The journey of finding your true self is one of the most compelling to our minds. In Hollywood or really any fiction, it is often linked to the romance subplot. A typical chick flick or romance, in the first act, seeks to reveal something missing in each person (even before they have met) that the other person can supply. The rest of the chick flick involves finding their best selves in and through finding each other.
The “finding yourself” plot naturally fits with a romance plot. Falling in love involves weighing what really matters to you, figuring out what you’re willing to compromise and what you’re not. A person pulls and pushes you in new ways, exposing what needs to be changed. The Greatest Showman does this with Anne and Phillip’s relationship.
I had totally imbibed the idea that marriage meant major personal overhauls were, for the most part, over. After all, I had found someone who loved me for exactly who I was! I had thought, definitely not “out loud” but subconsciously, that marrying Cap meant “I had arrived.” But people never stop changing, never stop growing. Marriage doesn’t suddenly halt your progress; in fact, it jump-starts it. That person keeps on pulling and pushing you, but in much closer quarters. If you insist on staying the same, you will be miserable.
This is another reason I like The Greatest Showman. Phineas still has growing to do, and it’s during (and even through) his romantic marriage that he does it.
MISS (MRS.?) REPRESENTATION
It’s no secret that Hollywood is a bit out-of-touch with representation. From Asian to Latino to disabled actors, from blue collar workers to Republicans, from older women to black women to young beautiful women, there is some serious lack of or one-sided representation going on. Marriage is not singled out in its misrepresentation.
I’m not demanding Hollywood change (though it would be nice). I won’t try to paint married couples as the victims of Hollywood (other groups have much more claim to that). I’m not dependent on Hollywood acknowledging marriage to know my own marriage is awesome (it’s our ninth anniversary today, and you guys… I LOVE THAT MAN.).
I just think we should be aware–aware that for marriage, like for everything else in Hollywood, the view is lopsided. We can’t ever just placidly assume what we watch is representational, for anything.
That’s my takeaway for all my readers. My own takeaway is a new appreciation for what Cap and I are doing in this marriage: the good story we’re telling.
“I’d risk it all / For this life we choose.”