The theatrical poster for the original 1988 release of John Waters’ Hairspray featured two pairs of legs, one belonging to a man in dark pants and shoes, the other to a woman in a striped pencil skirt and white heels. They appeared to be dancing.
I was 11 in 1988, and although I knew about Faces of Death and giggling over late night softcore porn on pay cable at sleepovers at my friend Danielle’s mom’s house, I had no idea who John Waters was. Still, I found myself standing, idly slurping a slushie through a straw in the aggressively brown, aggressively upholstered lobby of the mall movie theater, and looking at this poster with curiosity while my friends collected their popcorn and Sno-Caps so we could go catch the latest entry in the Police Academy series, which we paid actual money to see.
I look at the poster now and can’t really figure why that moment has stuck in my memory all these years. It seemed extremely cool to my 11-year-old eyes, and the title -- HAIRSPRAY -- resonated with me in an era in which my friends and I were in a constant silent competition to see who could “pouf” their hair into the most perfectly round donut-shaped forehead explosion. Hairspray was a part of my life on a level with eating and breathing. I could argue the merits of Aqua Net versus Adorn, although I preferred Aussie’s Sprunch Spray, which was basically glue.
It felt -- and I swear I am not making this up -- like the poster was speaking to me, a flat paper siren signing that it was meant for me to see it, that this was important, that I should remember.
You know the story, if only because you are familiar with the 2002 musical redux or the 2007 film version based on the Broadway show, but in case not: Tracy Turnblad is a fat teenager in early-1960s Baltimore, where racial segregation is still the norm, and the thing she wants most is to be on local dance TV series, The Corny Collins Show. When Tracy wins a dance competition, Collins suggests she audition for the show. Tracy and her best friend Penny try out, and Tracy is selected, although only over the vicious protestations of mean rich girl Amber Von Tussle, the most popular girl on the show. As Tracy's star rises, she uses her newfound fame to campaign for desegregation of both The Corny Collins Show and of the local amusement park -- which is owned by Amber Von Tussle's parents.
I did not see Hairspray for a few years after first seeing that poster. I don’t remember the exact circumstances -- I probably caught it on cable at my mom’s place, as she had all the premium movie channels my dad did not. When I finally did, one of the first things I noticed was the fact that Tracy Turnblad doesn’t seem to know she is supposed to hate herself -- she doesn’t seem to understand that she’s not supposed to wear attention-grabbing clothes, or to go after the hot guy, which were two things I knew with more certainty than anything else in my life at the time.
Tracy Turnblad is fat, full stop. She’s not fat only by Hollywood standards, and she doesn’t wear a size 10. She is legitimately, genuinely fat, as is her mother Edna, played by the always-perfect-in-everything Divine. Tracy is also the most self-assured teenager you’ll ever meet. Her bulletproof confidence never wavers, even when her peers are openly disparaging her size, and even when her mother is plying her with diet pills and bemoaning how she looks “big as a house” on televsion. If that weren’t enough, Tracy also gets crap from the rich kids for being “white trash” and “dirty.”
But Tracy Turnblad doesn’t give a fuck. At a Corny Collins-sponsored dance contest, prior to trying for the show, she marches directly into the middle of the front line for “The Madison,” putting herself between pretty, popular Amber and her boyfriend Link, whom Tracy will eventually date.
Tracy’s enthusiasm for herself seems to infect everyone around her. Later, on The Corny Collins show, she is asked to do Ladies’ Choice, in which she selects a dance partner out of a lineup of all the conventionally handsome boys on the show. While a lot of these dudes were making jokes at her expense when she first tried out, now the whole line seems to be gunning for her affection, as she eventually settles on Link Larkin, the handsome leading man. He doesn’t like her in spite of her size, nor because of it. He rather seems oblivious to it, dazzled by her unsinkable charm.
Tracy’s unbashed self-acceptance is what this film is most often remembered for, and Tracy Turnblad is frequently held up as an icon of body positivity and confidence (you can even buy an updated plus-size version of the roach dress she wears in the final scene). She not only accepts herself, but beyond that, she celebrates who she is, and what she looks like. She is excruciatingly earnest and upbeat, and it’s hard to not see her as a ray of sunshine amongst the film’s more cynical characters.
But here’s the surprising thing: Tracy Turnblad, fat heroine, is also a razor sharp satire of a white savior complex.
Abject worship of Tracy aside, Hairspray isn’t actually a movie about a cheerful fat girl who achieves her dream of dancing on a local TV show (although, it is telling that this is what it tends to be remembered for -- likely because ANY story about a cheerful fat girl being happy with herself is so very rare). Hairspray is really about racial segregation in 1960s Baltimore. The Corny Collins Show is segregated. The local amusement park is segregated. Tracy realizes the extent of this injustice almost by accident, and warms to the cause over the course of the film, until she basically sets out to “fix” racial segregation in her city, in collaboration with her new friends.
Under different circumstances, turning such a serious topic into kitsch could be a total disaster. But Hairspray focuses all its campy mockery squarely on its white characters, making fun of their overt racism and their fear of desegregation -- as well as their fear of black people in general. Amber Von Tussle’s parents (portrayed, incredibly, by Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry) don’t want to see their amusement park integrated. They chide their daughter for choosing “colored” songs on the Corny Collins show, instruct her to “act white,” and eventually chant together on television, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” This last bit was lifted directly from former Alabama Governor George Wallace’s 1963 inaugural address, and became a popular slogan of the era amongst whites opposed to racial integration.
But as over-the-top as the Von Tussles are, Penny Pingleton’s mother is completely outrageous. Having tracked her rebellious daughter to a record shop in a predominantly black neighborhood, Prudence Pingleton walks the streets clutching her purse and throat and screaming incoherently at any black person who even looks at her. When a drunk man asks her for some change, she practically throws her purse at him and begs him not to “hurt” her; it’s hard not to read this as coded to mean she’s afraid he will rape her. (In a great moment, the man in question patiently takes some money from her purse, hands it back to her, and says thank you.) As she runs down the street, several black residents openly laugh at her; when she finds a police car, she begs the cop inside for help, only to rush away flailing and shrieking in terror when the cop also turns out to be black.
Eventually, Penny’s parents literally cage their daughter in her bedroom when Penny starts dating Seaweed, the son of Motormouth Maybelle, a popular local figure who hosts the once-a-month Negro Day on The Corny Collins show, and who owns a record shop. (As a fun aside, the quack doctor who tries to hypnotize Penny into liking white boys is played by John Waters -- but you probably knew that.)
Prudence Pingleton is an extreme case, and it’s obvious we’re supposed to laugh at her. Still, even Tracy doesn’t escape the satire -- at one point, mid-makeout-sesson with Link, she sighs wistfully and says, with all her characteristic earnestness, “Oh Link, I wish I was dark skinned!”
Link replies, “Oh Tracy, our souls are black, even if our skin is white.”
What’s brilliant about this exchange is that this is shit that white people actually say. Presented as a punchline, the absurdity of it is inescapable. When Tracy finally successfully integrates The Corny Collins Show in the big final scene -- after Motormouth Maybelle and Little Inez have convinced the governor to free her from reform school -- she does it by simply pushing a guard out of the way and leading her friends in front of the television cameras, and this happy fairytale ending manages to be satisfying not because it’s anything close to realistic, but because it’s not -- wouldn’t it be nice if a go-getter attitude and a sunny disposition could solve all the world’s injustices?
Refreshingly, Hairspray doesn’t hate its characters, even as it relentlessly makes fun of them. It’s a good-natured, kind-hearted silliness that falls more under the category of laughing with the film rather than at it. Like pretty much all John Waters movies, Hairspray is at its core a romantic ode to the pleasures of refusing to fit in, and the joys of being totally unacceptable. It is a film about being the opposite of what social pressure wants you to be, and basking in the attention, negative or otherwise. And if we can’t laugh at ourselves, what else have we got?
I missed all this when I saw the film as a kid. In fact, what stuck with me most on that first viewing was the too-brief scene in which squeaky-clean Tracy and friends find themselves in a beatnik apartment where Ric Ocasek paints and Pia Zadora talks about ironing her hair and eventually offers the invitation, “Let’s get naked and smoke!” I didn’t want to be Tracy; I wanted to be the beatnik chick, and it’s probably not a coincidence that I quit the hair pouf shortly thereafter and bought a straightening iron for my hair (after a few ill-conceived efforts at literally ironing my hair with an actual clothes iron, as done in the movie -- thanks for that idea, John Waters).
Of course, this was all before I saw Beetlejuice -- which came out a month later that same year. But that, my friends, is another story.