What The Greatest Showman teaches us about shame

What The Greatest Showman teaches us about shame March 28, 2018

I watched The Greatest Showman twice in one week. It is one of the most extraordinary movies I’ve seen in a while (though Wonder deserves mention as well). The second time I saw it, I was overwhelmed by the way honor and shame shape the entire narrative.

The Greatest Show of Shame

While I’ll try to limit spoilers, I make no promises.

The Greatest Showman loosely tells the story of P.T. Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman), the founder of history’s most famous circus show. The movie certainly whitewashes the real man of history. As some have said, he essentially “creating pop culture” by reinventing promotions and marketing as we know it.

If you read of his business exploits, you will likely call his life the greatest show of shamelessness on earth. For him, even bad press was good press. He delighted in public applause. According to the NY Times, “In ill health in 1891, he persuaded a New York newspaper, The Evening Sun, to publish his obituary while he was still alive so he could read it; he died days later at the age of 81.”

He grew up the son of an inn-keeper and tailor. The movie depicts Barnum’s ambition to rise from the dregs of society; in the quest make something of himself, he uses social “oddities” (called “freaks” by the general public) in various capacities. With sufficient creative liberty, the movie beautifully juxtaposes Barnum’s search for fame and success with the emergence of outcasts to stage performers.

When Barnum attains the public acclaim he has long desired, he runs the risk of losing his way. Will he then be ashamed of those who are social outcasts and lack the status he now enjoys? He must choose whether he will protect his fame or embrace the shame that his performers endure daily.

“This is Me”

At a key point in the story, we hear the movie’s “anthem song,” called “This is Me”. The lyrics and a video are included below. 

I am not a stranger to the dark
“Hide away”, they say
“‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts”
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
“Run away”, they say
“No one’ll love you as you are”

But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious

When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ‘cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me

The song is a tour through the experience of shame and liberation from it.

Not Ashamed to Be Seen

Shame tells us to hide, to remain in the dark where we won’t be exposed. Why? Shame reviles us as “broken.” Our hearts and minds are scarred by the searing pain of rejection. In case we did not know how to respond, we are told to “run away” and in case we don’t know why, we’re given a reason, “No one’ll love you as you are.”

And thus begins a perpetual cycle of trying to adapt, to fit in. We do this so that we will either blend in and go unnoticed or win the crowd’s applause with some great achievement concocted by ambition.

But, in one of my favorite lines from the movie, Jenny Lin says,

“I was born out of wedlock. And that brought shame upon my family. Life always manages to remind me that I don’t deserve a place in this world. And that leaves a hole that no ovation can ever fill.”

The second stanza almost carries biblical echoes. Its truth is powerful. The song announces, “But I won’t let them break me down to dust.” The weight of shame threatens to bury us, even making us less than human. How can one simply decide this? From the dust, God made us in His image. Those who are in Christ will not be enslaved by the dust. Being conformed to Christ’s image, “we are glorious” (Rom 8:30; John 17:22).

Shame is so predictable. It dispenses its poison through the words of serpents. We should anticipate “when the sharpest words wanna cut me down.” How can one simply say, “I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out”?

A Song for the Unashamed

We must fill our hearts and minds with true stories, rooted in Scripture and reinforced by friends who love us because they know us. One needs a sober perspective, not the hollow whisper of self-esteem. Only then can we celebrate, “I am brave, I am bruised. I am who I’m meant to be, this is me”

The world gives its marching orders. It stands threatens anyone who does not conform. But Christ’s people play a different song, “Look out ‘cause here I come. And I’m marching on to the beat I drum.”

Likewise, in my other favorite song from the movie, Hugh Jackman’s character sings,

I drank champagne with kings and queens
The politicians praised my name
But those are someone else’s dreams
The pitfalls of the man I became
For years and years
I chased their cheers
The crazy speed of always needing more
But when I stop
And see you here
I remember who all this was for

When we know our song, our story, then we know our identity, that we belong to a family that spans every nation. We find the courage to say, “I’m not scared to be seen. I make no apologies, this is me.”

Lingering Questions

Many will watch the movie and think, “I am not shameful. I am special.” But they don’t know why, objectively, apart from the fact they simply wish it so. Their sense of worth remains tethered to their job title and others’ opinions. They do not know how the truth sheds light on the world as it truly is.

Apart from the gospel, we sail through life seeking liberation from shame. Yet, our hope is rudderless.

Watching the movie, I could not help but ask, “What exactly makes one worthy of honor or shame?” I realized more clearly how we need to clean up our language and explicitly state what is honorable and why. On the one hand, not everyone is equally worthy of honor in every respect. On the other hand, even if we ought not to be ashamed of our peculiarities, we do not for that reason have reason to boast of grandeur.

There is much truth in The Greatest Showman and the song above. But we need to give it more reflection. If we don’t clean up our thinking about honor-shame language (and the values attached to it), we are prone to dilute it, settling for either fame and mere self-esteem.



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