Hairspray is a musical about a fat girl named Tracy who just wants to make it big on a local variety and dance show. In her quest to do so, she gets the guy and ends racism! Yay!
The one tragic thing about having your feminist critical eye opened is that it becomes harder to enjoy things that have problematic elements. I really love Hairspray—it’s a feel-great show with tremendously catchy music—but upon sitting down to critique it, I realized I’d have to be pretty hard on it.
On the bright side, this musical is one of a very few works about fat women where they are the leading ladies, dieting or weight loss are never part of their plots, and they get to have love interests and be beautiful just like any other girl. Tracy never worries about what she should or shouldn’t be eating, and dismisses people who try to police her. Other people may be rude to her or overlook her because of her weight, but Tracy herself is never concerned with it. She encourages her (also fat) mom to feel beautiful in her own body—and in a much stronger way than the original 1988 John Waters film, on which it was based, did. On top of that, Tracy is not a stereotypical ‘lazy fat girl’: she’s determined, energetic, and is a great dancer. Fat-positive stories like this are still rare in our media, and their message is one worth sending to girls.
It has its fair share of problems as well, though. For one thing, the fact that Tracy’s mom is a role consistently played by men in drag (because guys acting like women are apparently funnier than female comediennes) is problematic.
Plus, the race issues are dealt with in a very make-white-folks-feel-good Hollywood way. When the musical starts, the black members of the variety show’s cast are allowed to dance on the show, but only one day a month, on their special “Negro Day”. The white host, Corny Collins, believes that it’s time for integration, but the producer Velma von Tussle (who’s also the mother of the show’s ingénue starlet, Amber) is appalled by the idea.
Over the course of the show, Tracy meets and befriends several black kids as well as Maybelle, the black host of the Negro Day shows, and learns some of their newer, more innovative dance moves. She convinces them to march on the studio and demand that the show integrate, but the march ends poorly, with the organizers briefly imprisoned. In the end, however, they manage to integrate the show and everyone dances together happily, with even disgraced villains Amber and Velma being welcomed back to shake it for the finale. It’s a very tied-up-with-a-bow ending: integrating the show is the only race-related issue affecting the black people involved in the show, and they do it! Yay, racism is over! This sort of ‘we solved it!’ mentality is one of the tactics used to suggest that racism always happens in obvious, discrete instances with clear solutions.
It’s a constant and frustrating problem for intersectional feminism that a show with such a good message about one thing can perpetuate such a problematic concept about another issue. I would still certainly recommend you see this show—it’s won several Tony awards and the music really is fun and eminently sing-a-long-able—but keep in mind that very little in the media is perfect in terms of representation or feminism.
I’m surprised to hear you be so negative about this. I agree that there are some maybe too-tidy endings to all of the problems in the film, but (a) this is musical theater and (b) integrating the Corny Collins show is a Big Deal for the kids who are actually on the show, and actually probably changes their lives significantly for the better. Does it end racism? Of course not, but it’s a TV show, which means that their television audience will be exposed to integration, which might ultimately have a positive effect in society. There will never be an easy answer to racism or fat shaming or any of a number of societal ills, but this show at least takes some steps in the right direction.
Also, I remember a time when stuff like this was Actual Fact (segregation). When Sammy Davis Jr. was with the Rat Pack in Las Vegas, there were places that he was not allowed to perform or stay because he was black. It has taken a lot of people fighting over a long period of time to change such travesties.
And the music is amazing.
Pingback: Run and Tell That: Taking a Closer Look at Hairspray | Lady Geek Girl and Friends