Film & TV Editor Lucy Fitzgerald looks back on a childhood musical movie favourite and reconsiders its themes through an adult lens.
The musical film Hairspray (2007), directed by Adam Shankman, is a reimagining of John Waters’ much more risqué 1988 original. Set in 1960s Baltimore, the story follows the naively idealistic Tracy Turnblad, a larger-than-life high schooler brimming with optimism and big dreams. She navigates the difficult dynamics of fame and family but along the way to self-actualisation she must confront discrimination. On her journey to stardom, her dewy-eyed outlook of the world is challenged as she learns of society's ills in the form of virulent racist attitudes during this time of segregation.
With school offering her no stimulation and often finding herself in detention due to “inappropriate hair height” (her towering Jackie “Beehive” obstructing other students’ blackboard view - scandalous!) she yearns for a more exciting life. The lights and cameras are just out of reach – the contemptuous Mrs Von Tussle played with Cruella de Vil-lainy by Michelle Pfeiffer, is hellbent on keeping Tracy out of the limelight; that being exclusively reserved for her prima donna, carbon-copy daughter Amber. Furthermore, the Black cohort of Baltimore’s dance scene is limited to a token, once-a-month airtime opportunity. Tracy’s indomitable spirit, both in her fight for justice and passion for dance, sets her on a mission. But with the station manager in control of their collective dreams, bigotry and nepotism protect the status quo.
"...the Black cohort of Baltimore’s dance scene is limited to a token, once-a-month airtime opportunity."
With every viewing, I am still tickled by the entertainment value of the ensemble cast. Elijah Kelly injects unrelenting energy and charisma into the character of Seaweed. Christopher Walken, who is wackier than ever with his undulating voice, is endearing as Tracy’s father. Queen Latifa brings regal poise and killer vocals as Motormouth Maybelle. The late Jerry Stiller, from the original ‘88 cast, is in equal measure sleazy and benign as the manager of Mr Pinky’s Hefty Hideaway. John Travolta proves he still has Tony Manero’s nimble feet when playing plus-size lady-laundress Edna (“I have to negotiate pleats”) whilst James Marsden as the squeaky clean, Whiter than White TV show host got Twitter’s stamp of approval: “How do casting directors feel knowing they’ll never top James Marsden’s perfection as Corny Collins.” The town’s charming golden boy Link Larkin (Zac Efron) rocks Tracy’s world. With perfectly quaffed hair and supple knees, he is an ode to Elvis but with Zac at the very zenith of his High School Musical fame at the time, he comes across as more darling than dangerous. More pretty, less pelvic. And of course, John Water’s perfectly perverted cameo as The Flasher!
The way in which serious points are presented in a comedic manner in this film is, in my opinion, not nearly discussed enough. Twee songs and throwaway dialogue are laced with political charge – Travolta’s cutesy Timeless To Me verse declares: “Fads keep a-fading, Castro’s invading. But Wilbur, you’re timeless to me.” It is also apparent in Edna’s discouragement of Tracy protesting: “You’ll be on lists! You’ll be on files! J. Edgar Hoover will still be wiretapping your cold, dead body in the grave!” Just as the White supremacy presented in the film is as alive as ever today, such surveillance anxiety is equally relevant now with GCHQ and the NSA’s mass collection of data and infringement on civil liberties. Shankman was serving the social realism!
"When anti-Blackness and fatphobia intersect, the most extreme form of intolerance emerges."
Around the film’s halfway mark, commenting hopefully on social progression, Tracy extols: “People that are different, their time is coming.” On the road to racial integration in Hairspray, progress is also made in the area of limited conventional beauty ideals prevalent in the local TV station’s typical casting standards. It is true that a symptom of White supremacy is fatphobia and it persists so violently that fat people are often denied basic recognition of their humanity. When anti-Blackness and fatphobia intersect, the most extreme form of intolerance emerges. In a June 2020 IGTV post, Sonya Renee Taylor (author, poet and social justice activist) said: “We are not going to get rid of the oppressive system of White supremacist delusion while still honouring its henchmen inside of us. Because the systems of ableism, cis-centrism, homophobia, transphobia and fatphobia, they are the henchmen of White supremacist delusion… They are the systems that Whiteness uses to segregate within Whiteness. Again, it’s a system of hierarchy so all White people ain’t at the top. They create, again, these other areas of oppression so that there are still less and less and less people who are viable for the position of the top rung. We have to destroy the ladder.” So, in the social pecking order of Baltimore, Tracy is initially ostracised because of her weight, but she is eventually embraced for her dance talent. Seaweed, on the other hand, exercises a dance ability far superior to that of Tracy’s, yet remains unable to advance from his rigidly imposed, restricted position in the local entertainment scene. Tracy’s winning ticket into the show’s main cast was a performance of Seaweed’s own routine (further 2020s parallels can be seen in Addison Rae’s proliferation of fame doing TikTok dances choreographed by Black content creators who comparatively have no acclaim conferred upon them). Ultimately, despite one “flaw” in her image, the Corny Collins crew permit Tracy’s entrance due to her possession of an overpowering currency: Whiteness.What’s more, when I think of my personal relationship with this film, I recently realised Hairspray was my first proper introduction to race relations on screen, albeit a simplified, binary depiction, pleasantly packaged in the form of fun moves and melodies. With a more critical lens 14 years on, I contend that it may exist in the White Saviour category. Tracy, the White protagonist, is painted as the heroine, as the catalyst for The Corny Collins Show to become permanently integrated, as if it was solely her virtue that finally mobilised the town to think and act differently. A video essay entitled White Saviour Trope from YouTube channel The Take, when speaking of the symptoms of a White Saviour movie, states: “In the end, while the White Saviour is positioned as relatively selfless, the resolution almost certainly involves them being rewarded with some sort of personal fulfilment.” Indeed, whilst the finale number You Can’t Stop The Beat is a galvanising song of progress - a stance, or rather dance, of unity, the closing shot zooms in on Tracy - the White protagonist and her White love interest, sharing a kiss. So, the (White) Kids Are Alright. More sinisterly, the song Come so far (got so far to go) is relegated to the credits scene. As many disengage as the crew names appear, the result of this is that the audience, crucially the White audience, is left with false and the uplifting feeling that everything has been solved.
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