Monday, January 20, 2014

It's About Accepting Yourself, and Also Racism (Hairspray)

It's a funny thing to find out that one of your good friends doesn't read your blog because he's sick of you calling everything he loves racist. 

Which is why I was almost kind of hesitant to talk about Hairspray today, because, you guessed it, this movie is a teensy weensy bit racist. I mean I love it, but there is definitely stuff here that could be improved.

On the other hand, it tries. And you have no idea how happy that in and of itself makes me. Hairspray desperately tries to depict race in a fair and even-handed manner, and that's kind of, in a very strange way, the problem. But we'll get to that in a minute.

So when Hairspray came out in 2007, I was already well on my way to being the intellectual giant you see before you now (well, sort of - I was in college?), and I was already quite familiar with the story in the movie. Sadly, as has been overshadowed by the blistering popularity of the shiny happy musical, Hairspray was originally an independent film, put out by John Waters (master of sketchiness) in 1988. The original, while possessing the same basic story is a very, very different movie. Where the remake (which is based much more on the stage musical they made based on the original film) is all shiny, happy, squeaky clean fun, the original is, well, gritty.

Or as gritty as a movie about a bunch of teenagers singing and dancing on a variety show in the early sixties can be. Which is, as it happens, rather gritty.

I mean, there's just so much social commentary in the original version that didn't make it into the remake. It's so much harsher and deeper. And it's so much...dirtier? Less appropriate for children, at any rate. But I think what I love about the original, and what failed to translate into the remake, no matter how incredibly, disgustingly catchy those songs are, is the irreverence the film held for everyone and everything. The remake is too reverent, almost, making sure its viewers know the lessons they must learn and the important values that must be conveyed.

The original is a sour patch kid, and the remake is a shot of pure sugar straight to the bloodstream.

But we aren't really here to talk about the original. Not exactly, except to say that this movie, more than most, really helped shape my filmic taste, especially my taste in humor. It's a good movie, for all that it's insane, and I love it.

The plot of the movie(s) is simple. [Note, from here on, we're just referring to the 2007 version.] Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is an overweight teenager with surprisingly liberal views, a lower-class family background, and a dream to be a local television star - specifically as a dancer on The Corny Collins Show. Tracy is a good dancer, and it's not so much that her dream is drastically out of the question, but that it's so close and yet so far. Still, Tracy never gives up hope, and one day her hope is rewarded. One of the regular dancers has gotten pregnant, so they're holding tryouts for a new girl! Yay!

Tracy drags her best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes) along to the audition, where she does show she can dance, but tragically is cut out of the competition by the racist, angry, bitch-queen that is Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, in one of her best performances, I kid you not). Velma's the show's choreographer, and makes sure that the spotlight stays on her little darling, Amber (Brittany Snow), and Amber's dreamy boyfriend, Link (Zac Efron). Velma Von Tussle isn't going to let anyone get in the way of Amber's future success, especially not some low-class little fat girl.

Velma's not a very nice person. That's actually most of what makes her so fun. She has literally no redeeming features. It's fantastic.

Anyway, Tracy gets detention for cutting school and winds up meeting all the black kids the school has somehow been hiding. Because of course they're all in in-school detention. She meets Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), a Corny Collins castmember who appears on their monthly "Negro Day". Seaweed and Tracy hit it off pretty quickly, which makes sense. They both love to dance. Seaweed teaches Tracy a cool new dance, and this cool new dance is exactly what she needs to get the attention of both Link and Corny Collins himself (James Marsden). Bam, Tracy is the newest member of the Corny Collins Show.

It seems like everything is smooth sailing from there, too. Tracy is more popular than she's ever been, she's leading the charts, her family is making some money, and she's finally realized her dream. Plus, Link has totally noticed her. Score!

There's just one problem: Velma Von Tussle. Velma can't really take shots at Tracy, since Tracy is so beloved by her city Baltimore now, but she can take aim at everything Tracy loves, like her parents, Link, and her progressive values. So, Velma cancels "Negro Day", effectively ending all minority representation on Baltimore's local stations.

Naturally, the black community is outraged by this. Well, maybe outraged is the wrong word. They're stoic and tragic and noble instead. Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), the host of "Negro Day" and mother of Seaweed and Little Inez (Taylor Parks), leads the black community in a peaceful, noble protest of the segregation on Baltimore's channels. Tracy defies her parents' wishes and joins their march, only to accidentally bean a police officer with a sign and go on the run from the cops. 

She runs to Penny, who unsuccessfully hides her - side note, Allison Janney is amazing as Penny's mother and seriously this cast is just great - until they are both rescued by Seaweed and his friends. Oh right, and Penny and Seaweed are in awkward, adorable love. 

The Miss Teenage Hairspray contest is the next day, and while Tracy is officially still wanted by the police, everyone knows that if Tracy wins the contest then she'll be back on the show. Or something. Actually, besides being a moral victory, I'm really not sure what Tracy getting on the show will accomplish. But, whatever. Plot.

The gang enacts a ridiculous scheme to get Tracy inside the building, where she storms the show and gives an inspiring dance, in a suitably unsubtle black and white dress. Then Link decides to break the code and bring Little Inez in to dance, and the phones light up. Before you know it, Little Inez becomes Miss Teenage Hairspray, and the Corny Collins Show is officially integrated! Velma gets fired, Amber apparently turns out to not be terrible sort of, and Corny and Maybelle make eyes at each other in the host booth.

It's all adorable and well-sung and charming, and so cute that you completely forget that it's kind of, well, offensive.

Now, let me get a few things out of the way first. Like I've said, I really do love this movie. Yes, I love the original more, but that doesn't mean this doesn't hit the spot sometimes. I like musicals, I like body positivity, and I like female-driven stories that aren't primarily about romance. This has everything I like, for the most part. Tracy is a fantastic character. She's likable, fun, and she doesn't feel the need to change herself in order to be more attractive to the guy she likes. She just figures that as soon as he finally sees her, he'll fall in love. Which he does. Tracy might be overweight, but she likes herself and the way she looks.

Actually, that might be my favorite part of the film. While Tracy's weight is used as a target for everyone who dislikes her, and she never denies that she's heavy, she genuinely doesn't seem to care. She likes herself. And for a teenage female protagonist that is ridiculously huge.

But then there's the thing I don't actually like about Tracy, and, to be fair, it's not her fault. It's the writers. You see, Tracy, for all that she's lovely and progressive and amazing, entirely benefits by stealing the efforts of black people. And their spotlight. And a lot of things, really. Which is just depressing. True, probably, but hella depressing.

When Tracy gets her big break, it's because Seaweed taught her a cool new dance that was only being danced in the black neighborhoods. Then Tracy busts it out at a school dance, but since she's dancing it on the white side of the segregated gym, people notice. Bear in mind, this is a dance that Seaweed either created or brought into the area, and Tracy is the one who benefits.

Her first day on the show, Tracy says that the only change she'd make is that she'd "make every day 'Negro Day'!" And while that's admirable, it really is, what it serves to do is put a link in our minds between this white teenage girl and civil rights. Instead of linking civil rights issues to one of the actual black people in the freaking story.

Then, later, she goes on the march with Maybelle and Seaweed, and when the march turns sour, all of the media attention is on Tracy. Again, not actually her fault. But what happens in the narrative is that a white girl shows up at an event with hundreds, maybe thousands, of black people, and the media only pay attention to this one white girl. One.

In fact, the manhunt for Tracy and her competing in Miss Teenage Hairspray massively overpowers the actual story here: that Baltimore is enforcing segregation laws and that there was a huge protest, and hey, maybe the black community has something to say here?

The reason people are excited to see her on TV is partially because she's a favorite on the show, but also because she's just been plastered all over their sets for being at an integration protest, and now it looks like Miss Teenage Hairspray is about to become a referendum on integration in Baltimore.

Again, that's not really a bad thing, per se. I really love that Tracy is written as a character who cares deeply about race relations, who really and truly wants Seaweed and Little Inez dancing with her up on the show, and who is willing to risk her dream to help others. That's all admirable and amazing, and I don't want to dismiss that.

But that doesn't change the fact that the writers have cocked this up. Because instead of Tracy coming across as a concerned citizen, and a good person, what she is a White Savior. She is the girl who will single-handedly free Baltimore's black community from its oppression, and she will do it with the power of dance. Dances that she learned from them, of course.


Unfortunately, all of this masks the even larger problem in Hairspray, which goes back to the original movie and why, ultimately, I think that one's better. Simply put, the black people in the 2007 Hairspray aren't funny. I don't mean that in the minstrel-y, horrific "entertain me" way, but I mean that in the most basic sense, the black people in this movie don't get to be funny. They don't have funny songs, or funny dances, not really. They sing about their race. Or their nobility. Or how it's okay that everyone discriminates against them, because they will persevere.

They don't get to be in on the joke. They have to stand on the sidelines being all noble and stuff, while everyone else has a fun time. And it's a damn shame.

Why the hell do you cast Queen Latifah, who is incredibly funny, as your black female lead, and then not give her anything to do? Everyone else in the movie gets a chance to laugh at themself. Velma gets her awkward seduction of Tracy's dad. Penny and her mother have an entire subplot of hilarity. Corny Collins gets to snark around in the background. Heck, even the deeply painful John Travolta as Tracy's mom gets some kicks in. But not the black characters. Nope. Seaweed gets only a couple of jokes, and by and large, he's defined by his relationship to Penny or his race. He doesn't really have anything else, and sadly, he's lucky. Pretty much all the other black characters are defined only by their race.

I'm not saying that the story of Hairspray is inherently bad. It's not. I love that this movie aims to tell a story about race relations and feminism and changing social mores in Baltimore in 1962. I think that's seriously amazing.

It's just that there was a way to do it better. There was a way to do it and let everyone be in on the joke. As it is, however, the black people aren't a part of the fun. They have to stand over there and give Tracy her depth as a character. We know she's deep because she cares about integration, right? But that's the thing - if you take that away, all the scenes of the black characters are actually kind of deeply offensive.

Like, all the black kids are in detention? And it's only black kids in detention? That might have been an interesting commentary on the higher likelihood of minorities to be incarcerated if the film had managed to toss an aside, or have a snarky comment, or even just make a joke about it, but it didn't. The black kids are in detention because obviously they are. The black kids live in the bad part of town because of course they do, but don't worry. You white kids are safe. Because no one in this neighborhood harbors any ill will about the treatment of minorities in Baltimore. You'll be fine.

Oh right, and Motormouth Maybelle is all noble and stuff, or she's singing about how she's super hot (which is a great song), but she's singing it while black women dance around with plates of cornbread and green beans and ham.

Deeper sigh.

Just, it's like every time this movie tries to portray black people it has a seizure and manages to say the worst thing possible. And you kind of want to pinch its cheek for trying so dang hard, but you also want to slap it for getting it so annoyingly wrong.

And, coming around again, this is what I like about the original over the remake. While the original is much darker, and more definitively not a "nice" movie, it's more honest. Yes, there are struggles and this all sucks sometimes. But you know what else? You can still laugh about how terrible the world is. Just because life is hard doesn't mean you have to go around being all stoic. The world is a ridiculous and silly place. Laugh at it.

It's a message I think we can all agree with.

Was your mom in the Navy?


  1. I watched this for the first time recently and I felt seriously uneasy about a lot of this stuff... I'm glad that there are people dissecting these issues instead of blindly saying "Well, Tracy's against segregation so it's all okay!"

    1. I want to love this movie because it's clearly trying so hard, but it's so bad at it. Catchy songs, though.

  2. If you find such issue in all the black kids being in detention in the 2007 film how do you feel about all the black kids being in special ed in the original film?

  3. I love the, saw it in '07 on release, and have the video..and saw the 2016 TV musical.:)

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