Hairspray is a very interesting film and musical as the protagonist is plus size but the story presents a character of this body type be more than just a source of humor due to “gluttonous practices.” The heart of the story is the theme of acceptance of difference, whether it be size, race or even economic background. The protagonist, Traci Turnblad, uses her privilege and local celebrity platform to bring on a cultural change which in this case involved integrating a very popular dance show. The very title implies the significance of appearance which is conveyed better in the 1988 original with the opening sequence being that of the council members getting ready to go live on television.
I truly believe that what makes this Hairspray so appealing is the layers that come with it. The story follows Tracy’s rise in dance show scene, the racial conflicts of the 1960s, the socioeconomic differences of their community, as well as the relationship between the two mothers, Edna and Velma, and their daughters, Tracy and Amber. With the live broadcast of the musical adaption set to air tonight, I thought it would be great to take a look at these two very distinct films and how they help set the standard for what makes a great body positive, plus size protagonist lead story.
A Look At Some of the Major Characters
Tracy Turnblad in the 1988 original is very assertive, tenacious, and very self-assured. Her size never limits her aspirations both professionally and romantically. She can move. I remember being so jealous of her freedom and confidence that allowed her to dance the way that she does. (Note: Growing up in a conservative Christian household meant little to no chances of dancing so to this day at most I can just sway in time to the beat, though let it be known that I can hold my own on Dance Dance Revolution.) She shows off her skills at the Record Hop event which gets her noticed by the host of Tracy’s favorite dance show, Corny Collins, her love interest, Link Larkin, and his girlfriend, Amber Von Tussle. Tracy makes quite the impression to the point that she is invited to audition for a spot on the dance council the very next day, which she wins. What makes her character so amazing is the fact that not only is she body positive, but she believe in equality, to the point that she also is willing to put her council position on the line in order for her to do the right thing. Even when she is threatened with reform school, she continues to work in the movement towards integration. However, the Tracy in the musical adaption has her assertiveness replaced with blind-optimism. There is nothing wrong with optimism, but I believe that having this change makes her come off as a bit of an airhead. In addition, she is portrayed as having greater insecurities attributed to her size. For instance in one scene Link tells her that, “This adventure is too big for me,” and Tracy immediately gasps and starts to cry. While she doesn’t give him a chance to explain himself she does dismiss his futile attempt of an explanation much like how I think the original Tracy probably would do.
Link Larkin is Tracy’s love interest in both films. He clearly breaks off his relationship with Amber, even taking the extra measure of requesting that they stay friends, because he wants to pursue Tracy. In the 1988 he blatantly asks Tracy to go steady, publicly gives her his ring and from then on they are an item. He encourages Tracy and joins Tracy as she protests the WZZT station’s decision to have the Corny Collins Show remain white only. While in the musical Link does stand up for Tracy on more than one occasion, he doesn’t make the move towards actually having a relationship with her until the final minutes of the film. He is also a bit more self centered in that he only thinks about his career and his big break. He is also hesitant to join Tracy’s cause or even share in her friendships with Motomouth Maybelle and her children. Granted in the musical Link does have a personality compared to the original who had very limited lines and really seemed to only be there to be the “the boyfriend.”
Amber Von Tussle is mean, conventionally beautiful and very privileged. She believes that she is entitled to the spotlight due to her beauty and social status, ideals that were passed down from her mother Velma, former beauty queen. She does get punished for her horrible treatment of Tracy (which for the most part consisted of spreading rumors regarding Tracy’s sexual history, family origin and even social status), as well as getting what she deserves for taking part of her parents’ scheme for getting her crowned Miss Auto-show 1963, but this idea of consequences for being against social change does not carry over to the musical. Instead she is shown rejecting her mother’s anti-integration beliefs and dances with an African American dancer in the final number.
Edna Turnblad is Tracy’s mother and really my only source of confusion as her character is always performed by men. I remember when John Travolta was cast to play Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad, I was a bit upset. The notion that as a woman being plus size made you less feminine and more masculine was something that I’ve had first hand experience with. At the time I felt that this casting choice was a move toward making this idea a joke and didn’t know that this wasn’t a new concept as Edna was originally played by drag queen diva, Divine. I’ve since moved passed that . With Edna you get a chance to see where Tracy gets her spunk and confidence. As soon as Traci begins appearing in the Corny Collins Show she makes sure to protect her daughter by becoming her agent and even negotiates hard to ensure that Tracy gets her fair share from her modeling sponsorship with Mr. Pinkey, owner of the Hefty Hideaway. Although she does take on the role of Tracy’s agent like in the original, Edna’s character does change substantially in the musical. She is shown to have very low self esteem to the point that she tries to encourage Tracy to give up on dancing due to concern that her daughter will be picked on due to her size. Additionally, she mentions in the song, (Hey Mama) Welcome to the 60’s that she hasn’t been out of the house since she was a size 10 in 1951. The one positive that comes from this change is that Tracy is the one that pushes her to let go of the past (and to an extent thin beauty/body standards), and even embrace who she is in the present. As event by her joining in on the final dance number at the end of the film, Edna learns to love herself unconditionally just like her daughter.
Motormouth Maybelle is essentially the culmination of the two central issues in Hairspray, size and race. She like Edna and Tracy has a plus size figure, yet is also marginalized because of her race. In both films she is unapologetic regarding who she is, fighting for the right to be have equal access and representation in their Baltimore community as well as on the Corny Collins Show. She also supports Tracy and her friends in their endeavors to help with the movement, providing insights to how doing so will affect them. In the musical we do get a more fashionable diva personality which I love because it demonstrates that even with the difficulties of the time the talent and fabulousness that is Miss Maybelle will not be denied.
As for the bad?…
So are there any significant negative aspects in these films? Not really. For one thing, I only have one major problem and its with the musical adaption, as it enforces stereotypes involving weight and food as a source of humor in various instances. Edna is encouraged to stay at Motormouth Maybelle’s platter party by being shown the layout of food. Link finds candy under Tracy’s pillow when he visits, and her mattress is shown to have a dent to signify how heavy she really is. The mannequins at the Hefty Hideaway have donuts in there hands and customers are immediately met with the confection once they enter the store. (Although it could be argued that Mr. Pinkey’s decision to push donuts to his customers is just “good business sense” as he is making his own economy.) Moreover, in both films diets and diet pills are mentioned briefly in conversations which is an obvious step back from the otherwise body positive position they hold. That said, though I believe that neither film is perfect when concerning the issues of race, feminism, or even body love, it does make a clear statement that is still relevant today.
What are your thoughts about the two films? Will you be watching Hairspray Live! tonight?
ABOUT THE +SIZE MATTERS SERIES: Whether or not we are conscious of it, what we consume as entertainment has a great impact on our personal growth and identity. In many cases media literacy has been dismissed to be unnecessary, yet the truth remains that media influences social ideals and constructs of such concepts as gender, race and body ideals. Disregarding the significance of media in turn promotes the continuation of stereotypes and fosters a negative self-image especially in girls and women. Critical media consumption aids the fight against the over-sexualization, and under-representation of women, that can lead to the creation of works that aid female empowerment. It all starts with us. With that in mind, “+ Size Matters” will analyze past and present plus size representation in media as doing so sheds light on the beauty/body standards and stereotypes that still need to be broken.