(Source of photo – justwatch.com/uk/movie/hairspray-2007 )
Hairspray the Musical (2007) is a film loved by many. It explores themes of acceptance, triumph and dreams which are relatable subjects used in film, theatre and storytelling all over the world. Rewatching this childhood classic thirteen years later, it was shocking to see how many issues are embedded within Hairspray’s portrayal of 1960s Baltimore, its understanding of race relations and racism as an institution, Tracey Turnblad played by Nikki Blonsky being a white savior to her black castmates on The Corny Collins Show, among other things.
Originally created in 1988, Hairspray follows its predecessors and successors in implying black people need saving in order to promote the comfortability of the dominant culture. Hairspray (2007) allows its white mainstream audience to be a hero which fails to adequately address the difficulties faced by black people globally and the role all white people must play in order to resolve it. It instead boils the 1960s period down to big hair, multi-coloured clothes and a specific sound. Anti-black racism is not just some funny thing that happened, it is instead a concerted effort to control, alienate and harm black people for generations.
Born in Maryland, Baltimore Tracey Turnblad is a high school student dying to pursue her dreams of becoming a dancer. One day, The Corny Collins Show announces they are searching for a new cast member. Turnblad skips lessons at Patterson Park High school in order to finally get her chance to shine. Despite her talents, Tracey experiences fatphobia and judgement in pursuit of her dreams. Velma Von Tussel played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Corny Collin’s show Producer and former Miss Baltimore Crab, on several occasions makes comments about Tracey’s size aiming to belittle and put Tracey in her place.
Tracey having the audacity to be fat, confident and visible is an insult to Velma Von Tussel who proudly shares in her solo song “Miss Baltimore Crab” she doesn’t eat dessert in order to stay skinny and societally acceptable. The audience are encouraged to see the way Tracey is treated by Velma Von Tussel and her daughter Amber Von Tussel as wrong, however this is not a concrete challenge of fatphobia. From Good Morning Baltimore to You Can’t Stop the Beat, the audience are constantly bombarded with “fat jokes” throughout both Edna and Tracey’s performance. Tracey’s mother Edna Turnblad is performed by John Travolta, a cishet man in a fat suit immediately implying fat women are not real women. This overshadows any attempt made to push Tracey Turnblad as an empowering character.
Despite Hairspray being hailed one of the most progressive and political musicals, it is clear that its narrative relies entirely on framing its fat characters as “the butt of the joke” reinforcing a damaging trend in both past and contemporary media. From Raja Gosnell’s Big Mama’s House, “Fat Monica” in hit TV sitcom Friends and more recently Netflix’s Teen Horror show Insatiable, all of these representations rely on dehumanising fat people and viewing their bodies as a something to judge, criticise and overall feel superior to. Punching downwards on marginalised groups should not be an acceptable form of comedy. Such representations have consequences for fat people.
The Hairspray the Musical (2007) is no stranger to criticism. We can also look at its oversimplified understanding of racism and the damage it creates. For example. from the onset of the film, we as audience members are expected to juxtapose Prudy Pingleton performed by Allison Janney’s controlling parenting and anti-black racism with Edna Turnblad and the environment she has created for Tracey to not only be herself but enjoy “coloured music”. Racism however is a systematic issue. Tracey watching Corny Collins Show on Coloured Day does not change the fact that she as an individual benefits from white supremacy and as a white person has been socialised to be racist. Unfortunately, such representations imply that racism is about good and bad people. In this context, it is then no surprise that Hairspray relies on the longstanding white saviour trope in order to push the narrative of the film forward.
According to Mercedes Reed at The University of San Francisco (2018) “The White Savior Complex is the idea that people who benefit from white privilege are wanting to help those in underserved communities for their own benefit more than that of the communities”. When Coloured Day is cancelled and Motormouth Maybelle performed by Queen Latifah and her castmates are fed up of being pushed aside, it is Tracey’s idea to protest against the show’s racial segregation. It is also Tracey who “borrows” Seaweed played by Elijah Kelley’s dance move in her breakthrough dance number which lands her a spot on the Corny Collins Show.
The white saviour trope prevents us from hearing about the stories and experiences of the black protagonists who are overlooked, stolen from and increasingly marginalised by white dominant society. The black protagonists are instead a thing to be saved and subsequently used for self-benefit. This is worsened by the fact that in reality, The Buddy Deane Show (1957 – 1963) in which this musical is based on had a surprise event where the show was unsegregated. This created an environment where violence in the form of arson or bomb threats became a regular in response to the shows broadcast. In Hairspray the Musical (2007) the white audience are overwhelmingly happy and accepting of the desegregation of the show all thanks to Tracey Turnblad and her challenging ways.
Yes, the original creator John Waters (1988) wanted to create a happy ending to this era. However, the idea that mass surveillance, housing discrimination, lynching, employment, education and overall segregation could end over night is not only offensive because it centres the feelings and comfortability of a white audience, but also reinforces the misunderstanding that racism could easily be resolved if both sides come together. This ignores the complicity, power dynamics and self-interest involved from white people in maintaining the status quo.
Black people do not need the Tracey Turnblad’s of the world to save us. It Is important to consider what an African American director would have created in reimagining this time period. A fairy tale ending cannot exist truly if you are doing a disservice to all the black activists, leaders and revolutionaries who made the changes we see today or overlook your black audience’s realities and past in prioritising the comfortability of a white audience.
Looking back at Hairspray thirteen years later was a shocking experience to say the least. Will I always enjoy the music to a degree? Yes. Does it challenge societal hierarchies in a way many reviews have portrayed it to be? No.