As everyone knows by now, Hairspray centers on Tracey Turnblad, a young overweight girl in the early 60’s who seeks her dream of dancing for a television dance show and in so doing pursues her instinctive belief in the equality of blacks. This story, by the inimitable John Waters (who has a cameo as a flasher who’s friendly to Tracey but flashes the bitchy girls who mock her), has several gender twists to it.
Tracey’s mother, Edna, was originally played by the unique drag queen Divine (photo at right), who gave the role a hearty warmth. Her camp twisted this fairly traditional story to bring all us countercultural types on board. Here, John Travolta (below left) plays the role with, as A.O. Scott of the New York Times notes, a heavy dose of realism. There’s not much camp here, though. Think Tootsie. With Divine in the film or Harvey Fierstein in the musical, Waters delinked gender from motherhood, making it patently clear that one’s mother could be a man. Different motherhoods only get their due in Almodovar’s All About My Mother, not the film version of Hairspray.
While there’s plenty of anti-racism discourse in the film, feminism is all sotto voce. The two principal”female”roles are heavy-set women (Tracey and her mom) who discover their own sexiness throughout the film. This storyline is straight out of”fat is a feminist issue,”and it makes a powerful statement that even heavier women can get the hot guy, fame, and happiness. The film luxuriates in the joys of eating (donuts served on a platter at the plus-size women’s clothing store) and dieting is something to escape, not observe. This is the lure for the gay audience â€“ we gays love a woman who’s”different”but still blows everyone away.
Intersectionality is not even protean here â€“ plenty of black women, but the racism they suffer is indistinct from that faced by men. In a strange way, the deliberately naÃ¯ve portrait of civil rights has a deliciousness of the moral certainty of the early 60’s, in contrast to the contested identities and issues around race in more recent decades. Who couldn’t cheer for the subversiveness of then-derided, now-accepted (hetero)interracial lust?
As I sat in the Ziegfield theater, surrounded by hundreds of gay men (many lawyers among them), we laughed, cheered, and applauded the screen. The show’s subversiveness is diminished. Let’s hope the real different mothers and the real heavy gals in the world benefit from this confection of a film in ways more lasting than the joys of a good donut.