In the old days, if you were a slightly unhinged person on the fringes of society, you ran away to join the circus. Now you’re more likely to run for high political office.
Back in the late 1800s, if you were running away to join the circus, there was no better circus to join than PT Barnum’s. This was the man for whom the expression “legendary showman” might have been invented.
There was no idea too outrageous, no experience too devoid of good taste and no act that was too unmarketable for PT Barnum to take under his wing. His expertise in promotion made him wealthy beyond the dreams of most of the people who attended his circuses, but he always gave his audience a show to remember and they always came back for more.
There’s a new movie out about him called The Greatest Showman…which he certainly was…a reworking of his own description of his circus — “the greatest show on earth”.
The launch track from The Greatest Showman, “This Is Me”, is proving very popular.
Sung by Keala Settle, who plays the bearded lady in the movie, this is a powerful story of self-acceptance.
It can’t have been easy being different from everyone else in the late 1800s. If we think it’s hard to be a non-conformist now, we can’t begin to imagine how people who didn’t fit in with the norms of the time were treated.
Medical treatment wasn’t anything like it is today, and a range of perfectly treatable conditions just had to run their own course. People lacked the money, doctors lacked the expertise and, in many cases, the treatments just didn’t exist to give sufferers a decent quality of life.
Shunned by the people around them, often including their own family, life as part of a travelling show was sometimes the only option apart from starvation.
The tragedy of our supposedly more sophisticated modern world is that I’m not sure self-acceptance has got much easier in the intervening hundred years or so. Yes, thankfully there are options available now using treatments that weren’t known about a century or more ago. But that just covers physical ailments.
The psychological manifestations of feeling different to everyone else and cut off from the world around you are probably harder. At least people in the 1880s didn’t have to cope with social media and smartphone pictures to make them feel more badly about themselves than they already did.
That’s why the message of “This Is Me” matters as much today as it ever did.
Recently I read something along the lines of “you can never attract love into your life until you start to love yourself”.
“This Is Me” is all about standing up for yourself, being proud of who you are, accepting yourself with all your deformities and insecurities. And, yes, loving yourself even when there’s nobody else around you who loves you back.
It’s about stepping out from the shadows…not shyly, hesitantly, cautiously, but bravely, boldly and proudly.
The world may deride you. But you should never deride yourself or see yourself as anything other than blessed to be who you are, doing what you do.
I know that’s much easier said than done, but that’s why great songs like “This Is Me” serve as a reminder for things we all know we should do, but often don’t in practice.
I’m 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 will love you as you are
Run away…hide away…no-one will love you. They’re the messages we absorb all the time.
Perhaps your family, friends or co-workers give you those messages. Perhaps you feel you’re not good enough as the person you are. Somehow you’re lacking whatever it takes for people to want to be with you and to love you. You can’t understand why…and that hurts deep inside, the sort of hurt that won’t go away after a long cry and a good night’s sleep.
But I’ve got news for you.
You are good enough. You do deserve to feel love. You deserve to cry tears of joy, not tears of sadness.
Stop listening to the voices that tell you different. As “This Is Me” puts it…
When the sharpest words gonna 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 to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies
This is me
There’s a defiance in this which signifies the start of that journey towards self-acceptance which Keala Settle delivers really well. You get a real sense that after years of being ground down and mistreated, she’s finally reached the point where she’s not going to take it any more.
She can’t change who she is, or what she is, but she can change how she feels about herself and her place in the world.
She can proudly say “this is me”, and leave the world to decide to accept her on her own terms or pass on by. Either way, that won’t change her new-found resolve to love herself for the person she is, whatever people around her might say.
“This Is Me” is a message for the ages. It’s a message for all of us. It’s a message for the world.
Just because people are different, it doesn’t mean they need to be abused, marginalised or crushed under our heel.
They are who they are and we need to accept them for that.
Let’s hope the popularity of The Greatest Showman might help more people think about others in that way. Just maybe we’ll start to tip the scales in favour of the people who need it for a change.
“This Is Me” was written by the movie musicals industry’s current superstar songwriters, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote great tunes like “City Of Dreams” for last year’s blockbuster musical La La Land.
But I don’t think they’ve ever written a more important song than “This Is Me”. I’ll let Keala Settle tell the story…