We can all agree that the last few years in Donald Trump’s America have felt like an eternity – filled with a dizzying array of national outrages and humiliations. But if there has been one theme that has consistently defined this period it is raw male fragility, particularly white male fragility. Being a part of this loathsome demographic myself, it has been to my personal horror that two of my favorite movies from the past few years have been 2017’s The Greatest Showman and this year’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. These movie musicals are highly similar in a variety of ways. Most notably, despite some slight nods to progressivism, both films showcase the triumph of male fragility – putting forth white male protagonists marked by this pathology, but in the end, failing to critique them or hold them accountable.
To begin to understand how white male fragility triumphs in The Greatest Showman and Eurovision Song Contest, one has to simply note the flaws that are shared by the films’ central characters. Both men display a gift for show business and a notable artistic flair. But both also harbor a pronounced narcissism and carelessness for others, which makes their status as enduring and unaccountable protagonists indicative of where their respective films’ allegiances truly lie.
Consider P.T. Barnum, the titular lead in The Greatest Showman. Played by a dashing if somewhat long-in-the-tooth Hugh Jackman, Barnum is charismatic, ambitious and capable of belting out some glorious tunes. Yet Barnum’s pursuit of fortune is driven largely by his insecurities. The film depicts Barnum’s experiences with childhood poverty and the disparagement of the upper classes as being behind his desperate need to elevate himself above his station. His insecurity is shown to be so deeply entrenched, however, that even when he completes his rags-to-riches arc midway through the film, he is still dissatisfied. While he has obtained wealth and fame, it is not the right type of wealth and fame. He still finds himself treated with disdain by the American aristocracy due to producing what they deem to be low art or a lesser form of entertainment, prompting him into action that proves to be destructive or at the very least hurtful for those around him.
It is here that Barnum’s carelessness and exploitative behavior come into sharpest focus. While the showman initially launches a museum that largely consists of ghoulish wax figures, he soon begins showcasing actual flesh-and-blood human beings. Gathering together performers like the dwarf Charles Stratton/General Tom Thumb (played by Sam Humphrey), bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) and Walter the dog boy (Luciano Acuna Jr.), Barnum’s behavior toward his troupe is at best questionable and at worst unsavory. Even if one can look past the fact that Barnum has basically assembled a human zoo, his erratic behavior toward his troupe is repugnant. Warm and congenial with his group initially, Barnum all but abandons them once he realizes that his wealth has not secured the approbation of the moneyed elite. Barnum’s shift in focus is most evident once he encounters the “Swedish Songbird” Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) during the film’s second half. Realizing that Lind is his ticket to long-sought social acceptance, the showman jettisons his role as a ringmaster to his circus to promote Lind, sidelining his troupe and largely shutting them out of his life both figuratively and literally.
Perhaps most disturbing, though, is how Barnum’s exploitative and careless streak extends to those who are ostensibly the closest to him. Throughout The Greatest Showman, Barnum’s wife Charity Hallett-Barnum (Michelle Williams) is illustrated as a tireless cheerleader, an idealized female partner who never wavers despite him injecting their life together with multiple hardships and nearly constant flux. Not only does she agree to abandon her affluent background and marry an initially penniless Barnum early in the story, she raises basically no objection when his desperate need for affirmation prompts him to quit a stable job as a shipping clerk to launch a risky showbusiness career. It is not until Barnum embarks on his promotional tour of Jenny’s Lind career – subjecting the ironically-named Charity to prolonged periods of loneliness and salacious newspaper reports regarding Barnum and Lind – that she finally breaks and modestly asserts herself.
Jackman’s Barnum finds a spiritual successor in Eurovision‘s Lars Erickssong. Similar to the 19th- century showman, Erickssong (played by an absolutely too long-in-the-tooth Will Ferrell) is an ambitious dreamer. He is derided and lampooned by various sects of his community, and also aspires to elevate his life through showbusiness. Having been inspired as a young child by the musical stylings of Abba at the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest, Lars is wholeheartedly obsessed with winning the contest with his bandmate Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) – who together form the musical duo “Fire Saga.” The rationale behind Erickssong’s competitive zeal are never truly made clear in the script by Andrew Steele and Ferrell. But mainly, Lars seems to believe that by winning the song contest he will at last receive the acceptance that he so cravenly desires from both his small fishing town of Húsavík and his crusty, disapproving father (played inexplicably by a glowering Pierce Brosnan).
But just like Barnum, Lars’ antics throughout Eurovision show that toxic male neediness often leaves collateral damage in its wake. His obsessive need for acceptance leads him to engage in all sorts of questionable behavior – ranging from the merely annoying to the extremely serious. For instance, early in Eurovision, the character’s elation at obtaining a chance to compete in the qualifying competition for the song contest lead to him sprinting throughout Húsavík, ringing a bell meant only for emergencies and bringing the town to a literal standstill. Later, once Fire Saga has won a place in the competition, a wedge develops between the bandmates after a Russian performer named Alexander Lemtov (played beautifully by Brit Dan Stevens) appears to take a shine to Sigrit. Lars reaction to Lemtov is both noxious and inappropriate, specifically due to him having already repeatedly denied Sigrit’s romantic affections out of a self-absorbed fear that it will dilute their efficacy as a musical duo. The destructive effects of his reaction eventually culminate with him designing a costume for Sigrit without her knowledge that features an elongated scarf that very nearly kills her during the competition’s semi-finals.
Sigrit’s devotion to Lars neatly mirrors Charity’s relationship with Barnum. Despite Lars’ behavior repeatedly subjecting Sigirt to disappointment, upheaval or even complete and utter humiliation, for most of the movie, she remains his most ardent supporter. To the film’s credit, the screenwriters do more to flesh out McAdams’ character than The Greatest Showman does for Williams’ role and characterize her as more of an autonomous human being rather than a male fantasy figure. It is repeatedly suggested, for instance, that she is by far the more musically talented member of Fire Saga. The character and the actress are also given more space to confront Lars when he displays his abundant failings, such as when he attempts to chastise her for going out dancing with Lemtov even after she discovers him naked in bed with a Greek performer named Mita (Melissanthi Mahut). Most importantly, she calls him out when he abandons her after the band’s disastrous semi-finals performance, completely shirking his responsibility as both a love interest or even as a friend.
But true accountability for Lars’ various flaws and follies never truly materialize, just as they never do for Jackman’s Barnum. In both cases, the two men eventually reach a personal and professional nadir, and both are forced to grapple – at least partially – with the realization that their pathological fragility has brought about near ruin for those around them. And yet, in keeping with each film’s agenda of bolstering male fragility, legitimate consequences elude both protagonists. Neither one is forced to experience lasting loss, and neither are required to do much of substance in order to make amends. In the end, both films basically fail to orchestrate redemption arcs for their protagonists that feel credible or earned.
Jackman’s Barnum is probably the more egregious of the two when it comes to how his redemption narrative plays out. He never even apologizes to his theater troupe. After his museum/circus burns down and all seems lost, the Barnum performers join him at their favorite watering hole and welcome him back into their familial fold instantly and with no conditions or strings attached. And while it’s true that Charity does briefly leave him following news reports that he shared a smooch with Jenny Lind while on tour, this is a consequence that also doesn’t last. He is able to quickly win her back with some soulful crooning and a dramatic kiss on the seashore near her childhood home where they first met many years ago.
As for Ferrell’s Lars, he too must face a brief reckoning with his past misbehavior. It is slightly more substantial than Barnum’s, but his moment of transformation still materializes in a way that is predominantly canned and unconvincing. Directly after abandoning Sigrit following the Eurovision semi-finals, Lars has a conversation with his father where not only does his father reverse decades of long-held and frequently expressed animosity toward his son and his son’s career, but Lars himself suddenly changes his mind about wanting to pursue a relationship with Sigrit. Following this realization, he returns to Scotland just in time to join her for Fire Saga’s performance in the finals. To the character and the film’s credit, Lars does then actually sideline himself to some degree, making a genuine effort to place his needs secondary to Sigrit’s. Instead of barreling ahead with the song he wrote, he allows Sigrit to take the lead on song she had penned in secret, even though such a move automatically disqualifies them from Eurovision. It’s a strong moment in the film, but one that still does not feel entirely convincing or like a satisfying redemption arc. It does not nullify the character’s long history of self-absorbed behavior or erase how he has spent the entirety of the movie rejecting Sigrit, embarrassing her or denigrating her beliefs – however silly those beliefs may be. The general lack of weight or consequence is then exacerbated by the movie’s epilogue, which features Lars getting to enjoy a triumphant return to his home town and eventually a happy life with Sigrit and their new baby.
In viewing The Greatest Showman and Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, one is struck by how much there is to like about both films. Each one of these musicals features an array of absolute bangers, tunes that will have you singing along and tapping your toes long after their final frames role. In addition, the leading actor in each film does some of their very best work. I would be remiss to not talk about the authentic joy Jackman conveys during his many solos or the subtle beauty of Will Ferrell’s acting during a scene where his character listens to McAdams’ Sigrit composing a song. One can also see the positive influence of these two films being produced in a far more politically correct time than earlier musicals. In both movies, there are an abundance of women, people of color and LGBTQ characters. More importantly, these characters are not reduced to being jokes – as they likely would have been as little as 10-15 years ago. 2005’s Wedding Crashers, another film directed by Eurovision director David Dobkin and also featuring Ferrell and McAdams, is a perfect example of that earlier approach – particularly its treatment of the Todd Cleary character played by Keir O’Donnell.
In general, the two films put forth a humane outlook, at least on their respective surfaces, one where those who have been historically ostracized and othered can find not only acceptance but a surrogate family where they can reliably obtain safety, support and love. A philosophical approach like this can be incredibly infectious; just take a look at the thunderingly charming and charmingly thunderous song “From Now On,” specifically its touching refrain: “And we will come back home, home again.” However, even a musical fan as delusional as I am can recognize that this is all a lie or, at the very least, mere window dressing, one treated as secondary to each film’s primary concern: the preservation of the fragile male ego. Because while each work does make a small amount of room for diverse characters, they are both far more wedded to their two white, straight, boring male leads. Both extend deeply sympathetic outlooks to these protagonists, spend inordinate time on their various insecurities and neither appear interested in offering a serious critique of said insecurities, making their eventual redemption feel earned or putting them through a ringer laced with real or lasting consequences.
So while there is indeed much to like and admire about each respective work, in the era of Donald Trump and the tidal wave of white male fragility and grievance that his presidency has unleashed, you are still left wanting. You remain acutely aware of the painful truth that each film could have been so much more.