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Last year’s huge hit film Greatest Showman, with its highly fictionalized story of P.T. Barnum’s rise from the slums to the apex of American success and society, could be thought of as a case study in what makes American’s quintessentially themselves. There is however one scene that makes another and for the purposes of this essay, more important point about the American character: The meeting with Queen Victoria. For the three people on Ricochet who have been living under a rock and have not seen it yet, the meeting threatens to end in disaster when the Queen makes a remark about Tom Thumb’s height and gets from him the response “You ain’t exactly reachin’ the top shelf yourself, sister.”
And everyone in the room holds his/her breath waiting to see how the Queen responds to this irreverent remark concerning her person. Will she be offended at the lack of deference to her state? Will she ignore it? Or will she be able to laugh at herself? She does, they do, the audience does (it was a laugh line after all) and the film goes on. More than anything else, though, this one line of dialogue is what distinguishes Barnum’s Americans from the British subjects in the scene. Not attire, status or fame, but the attitude toward a person who is supposed to be and is accustomed to being treated with deference and even reverence by others in society. The Brits are shocked and the Americans are all kicking themselves for not having made the remark first.