P.T. Barnum has been in the news again because of The Greatest Showman, a movie which has been getting some pretty harsh criticism not so much because of the movie as a movie but because of the man celebrated in it. Barnum hired ‘freaks', many of whom were forced into the work as children, and profited greatly from them, which was not uncommon at the time. He was probably a better man than many at the time; I did not read that he forced anyone into this. However, he eagerly bought out contracts and hired children as young as 5 to join his show. Even if he is better by comparison, that's a far cry from declaring him good.
However, there was a clear benefit to many of those who put themselves on display. “Many of his performers were paid handsome sums, some earning as much as today’s sports stars.” For example,
General Tom Thumb” benefited handsomely. For around fifteen years, he was paid upwards of $150 per week ($4,100 today) for his performances, and, upon retiring, lived in New York’s “most fashionable neighborhood,” owned a yacht, and dressed like a dandy. A man Barnum named Zip, who was born with a head deformity, eventually make 1000 dollars a week in 1860’s money, lived in a very nice home Barnum bought for him, and retired in his 80’s a millionaire. Some Siamese twins who toured with Barnum joined as adults after running out of the 1.3 million dollars (in today’s money) they invested well. When they died, they left a fortune to their wives. The Tattooed Man made the equivalent of $37,000 dollars a week and hired armed guards to protect him. The Dog-Faced Boy made out the best: “Throughout the 1880s, Fedor was among the highest paid performers in the business, netting $500 per week ($13,000 today). By the time of his retirement, his saving totalled nearly $300,000 ($7.6 million).”
In spite of this benefit to many of the freaks, the argument is that Barnum treated them unfairly to gain an unfair advantage or benefit for himself. He exploited them, right? No amount of money or fame could compensate for the dehumanization and commodification of other human beings so that Barnum could benefit.
We live in a world that condemns Barnum’s exploitation. But we also live in a world the has made consent a holy grail. So what do we do when these two things clash? Can the consenting – especially if they benefit well from a transaction – still be exploited? Most of the freaks agreed to it. In fact, most of them ended up pretty well off financially, far better off than they likely would have if Barnum had not hired them.
So, if they consented to work for Barnum, how is this wrong? An agreement was reached, a form of social contract; Barnum profited from them, but they did from him as well. Even if you make the argument he exploited them because he had an unfair advantage or treated them unfairly, it was “their body their choice,” right? As long as they were not coerced, we should be celebrating how these freaks took what society used against them and turned it to their own advantage. In today’s term, I think we would call that empowerment. Unless, of course, there is something about the very nature of what happened that is in some sense wrong.