Hairspray the (2nd) Movie: Now I’ve Tasted Chocolate and I’m Never Going Back

July 16, 2007

In Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad‘s dream of dancing on “The Corny Collins Show” also propels her into the black kids’ group at her Baltimore high school: desperate to audition for the show, she cuts class and consequently gets sent to detention. Detention, it turns out, is where all the black students hang out, and it’s not a punishment so much as a dance party.

Tracy is one of those sunny, big-hearted kids who doesn’t even notice social boundaries and taboos; interested in Seaweed Stubbs’s moves, she mixes right in with her new companions. She’s white, but, as John Waters wrote in the original screenplay, her soul is black. Tracy’s own efforts to get accepted on television as an overweight, working-class girl with admittedly fabulous hair become much more than that. She vocalizes her generation’s vision of love and tolerance, pushes her mother Edna to find her own sense of self-worth, and instigates a fight for racial integration on the dance show.

As far as Hairspray is concerned, Tracy’s presence on the Corny show is essentially linked to the fact that Lil’ Inez, Seaweed’s younger sister, will also dance her way on stage by the end of the film. This is about any kind of outsider status. “People who are different,” Tracy promises, “their time is coming.”

Mama, Welcome to the Sixties

The prejudice against Tracy and, especially, Edna, for being overweight is likened here to racism. If black people are integrated on TV dance shows, then fat people are too…or vice versa…or…huh? It’s not that I have a problem with the movie drawing this parallel; I’d just rather the writers *actually draw it* instead of plopping it down as the central conceit of the film without ever really dealing with the complications. In one song, “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful,” the leading African-American character, Motormouth Maybelle, sings with and to Edna about being large and sexy, enjoying food, and being proud of one’s body (“Well ladies, big is back!/ And as for black, it’s…Beautiful!”). These two likeable women exist in contrast to the movie’s villains, Velma and Amber Von Tussel, who are both obnoxiously blonde, rich, sexually manipulative, and of course racist. Queen Latifah has a stature of her own, so her sympathy towards Edna is believable, even as she tempts her with cornbread, etc. In another scene, however, Edna is coaxed out of the house and into a new decade while a Supremes-style pop group of incredibly svelte and sexy black women (coming to life from billboards and posters on brick walls) sing the chorus of “Welcome to the ’60s.” Edna doesn’t really have anything in common with these fantasy women (just compare John Travolta to Skinny Beyonce).

The entrance into this new decade is not just about welcoming difference, but explicitly tied to embracing black culture. The teenagers are thrilled with their new African-American friends and this access to a future that is edgy, fun, and dynamic. Penny and Tracy can’t contain their excitement at leaving school grounds with Seaweed and his friends: “Imagine, being invited places by colored people!” “It feels so hip!” Seaweed doesn’t mind their clunky attempts at non-racism. I guess he figures that their slightly condescending appreciation is better than outright hatred: “I’m glad you feel that way friends, ’cause not everybody does.” He then goes on to sing with pride about his community, backed up by the rest of the Detention crew. Black culture is something rich and powerful, something the world should admire: “The darker the chocolate/ The richer the taste/ And that’s where it’s at…Now run and tell that!”

In her essay “Eating the Other,” bell hooks wrote about the 1988 John Waters original: “When Traci says she wants to be black, blackness becomes a metaphor for freedom, an end to boundaries. Blackness is vital not because it represents the ‘primitive’ but because it invites engagement in a revolutionary ethos that dares to challenge and disrupt the status quo…[Traci] sees her liberation linked to black liberation and an effort to end racist domination.” Tracy and her friends don’t just appropriate black culture but transform their appreciation of black music and dance into political action. The movie understands the dangers of fetishizing a community, and that’s how we get such funny lines as the opening song for the Corny show about its “Nice white kids/ Who like to lead the way/ And once a month/ We have our ‘Negro day!'” The fact that Lil’ Inez wins the final “Miss Hairspray” competition and not Tracy (who, after all, got her best moves from Seaweed) is the story’s way of proving its political commitment.

The original movie became a quirky cult classic, with Ricki Lake and Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) as its two stars. The 2007 version is really great, but it is shiny and polished and sure to be a mainstream family favorite (three of its supporting roles are played by young Disney stars, Amanda Bynes, Britanny Snow, and Zac Efron). The ’60s are adorable to us–which is not to say they weren’t also adorable in the ’80s–but the concerns of the time can now easily appear quaint. And yet, with last month’s Supreme Court ruling on school integration, perhaps we need to pay attention to the politics of such a film more than ever.

How interesting, then, that Hairspray relies on this blithe clumping together of values, so that “black” doesn’t just mean a certain kind of music and dance, but also youth, modernity, and liberation. It also means sex.

Jungle Fever?

The liberation of the ’60s gets expressed in the physical freedom of dance and the interracial sexual experience. Tracy’s sensuality comes through in her love of life and dance. She explores this further and risk-free in the company of her new black friend, while her heart remains stuck on the “nice white kid” Link Larkin. But that doesn’t mean Tracy’s innocent: she’s a teenager of the ’60s! Dreaming of her life with Link, she sings “Round three’s/ When we kiss inside his car/ Won’t go all the way/ But I’ll go pretty far!”

Meanwhile her best friend, Penny Pingleton, goes even further. Always wearing pigtails and sucking on a lollipop, Amanda Bynes plays Penny as the good-natured and slightly dotty, big-eyed companion to Tracy. But then she meets Seaweed and her entire character changes. She starts to dance and sing: “In my ivory tower/ Life was just a Hostess snack/ But now i’ve tasted chocolate/And I’m never going back!”

Bynes doesn’t have a very powerful voice, but it’s highly sexualized: she belts out her love songs with the growl of today’s kittenish pop stars. Penny is wild now, grown-up, literally free from her mother’s restraints. As she makes out with Seaweed on television, she exposes herself, putting her sexuality and rebellion on display with the young black man whose body signifies sex and defiance. Back to bell hooks:

“Constructing the black male body as site of pleasure and power, rap and the dances associated with it suggest vibrancy, intensity, and an unsurpassed joy in living. It may very well be that living on the edge, so close to the possibility of being ‘exterminated’ (which is how many young black males feel) heightens one’s ability to risk and make one’s pleasure more intense…The overall tendency in the culture is to see young black men as both dangerous and desirable.”

Queen Latifah’s Motormouth acts happy to teach these white children about resistance and dance, encouraging their experimentation and offering only a gentle warning to Seaweed and Penny. (In movies like this, the black community is always the welcoming party, no prejudices or resentments of their own. Other movies like Mississippi Masala and Liberty Heights offer a different, more realistic take on interracial relationships.)

bell hooks writes that, in such cultural moments, “the over-riding fear is that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate–that the Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten.” Hairspray is billed as a movie that promotes equality and social justice (with Michelle Pfeiffer getting anxious about her children seeing her play “a racist”), and of course it does promote those values. But it also relies on some strange ideas about race, presenting as a given that “blackness” can be correlated to resistance, the ’60s, and, most problematically of all, sexual liberation.


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