Hairspray is one of those movies that would have been really, really cool, if only it weren’t for that little itty bitty problem of a badly written character that grates on you every time you see them.
The movie looks at issues of traditional beauty – specifically, white, slim, tall blond beauty while following short, fat Tracy Turnblad’s quest to get on the singing-and-dancing Corny Collins Show. Among other things, her obstacles include traditional blond beauty Amber Von Tussle and her mother, Velma, a controlling, bigoted stage-mother which Michelle Pfeiffer delivers with glee. Her play on the words ‘right’ and ‘white’ are almost worth the price of admission alone. ‘Motormouth’ Maybelle (Queen Latifah) is portrayed with spirit and a desire to bring about change but also an honesty and dignity about the obstacles in the way. The way Tracy herself comes to accept her image for what it is is nicely delivered.
But what grated on me was Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad, played by John Travolta in drag. Edna knows that The Corny Collins Show is for tall, slim, traditionally beautiful blonds and actively discourages Tracy from pursuing her dream and being disappointed. She spends most of the movie fretting about her looks and hiding in the house. More to the point, Travolta does it in a campy, OTT way that seems to be fairly typical of men playing women. (David Hewlett, I’m looking at you.)
Edna spends much of the time eating. Because, you know, if a woman’s fat, it has to be because she’s not no willpower when it comes to food. In one scene, she’s lured to stay at a ‘black’ party with mountains of food. Haha, isn’t that funny – the fat woman being lured away from her principles by a table groaning with food.
I think the portrayal of Edna could have been done so much better than Travolta in drag and stereotypes about weight and food. Why not have her be a woman with her own successful business (she irons other people’s clothes out of her home) with decent business instincts (she insists on being paid more for difficult items, and refuses to sign a contract for Tracy without looking at it) and be played with all the dignity and style that, say, Camryn Manheim can muster? Why does Edna always have to be eating? Why does she have to be so preoccupied with her looks? Latifah isn’t exactly a waif but she oozes confidence and dignity – why not afford Edna the same?
As I said, Hairspray in a fantastic movie that looks at our obsession with a narrow standard of beauty, makes you laugh precisely because the wit is so dead-on truthful. And then they undermined that by giving Travolta carte blanche on both female and fat stereotypes.