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.


  1. says

    I definitely agree on the constantly eating gags, those really irritated me all throughout. (And I’m no fan of Travolta, ever.)

    That said, I think it’s important to the story that Edna is not like Maybelle from the get-go. She discourages Tracy because of her own insecurities, and through the movie, she conquers them. She comes to realize that her husband loves her for who she is, so first she realizes she doesn’t need to be thin to be attractive to him, then she realizes she doesn’t need to be thin to be *happy*, period. (I refer specifically to when she decides to go out and dance at the end, and the line, “You can’t stop my happiness because I like the way I am.”) Her arch is gaining confidence (since Tracy never struggles with it herself, which I actually love), so her having issues with how she looks through much of the movie is a necessity.

    But yeah. Could really have done without the eating jokes.

    • Sarah _ Arminell says

      From what I understand of the original Broadway Production to bring more comedy to Hairspray the original script includes for Tracy’s Mum Edna to be played by a male in drag. The movie with John Travolta as Edna is an adaption of the Broadway production.

  2. scarlett says

    Reb; I know Maybelle and Edna are two different characters. But I think Maybelle and Latifah proved that you could have a big woman who was dignified, principles and stylish.

    One of my favorite songs in the movie is ‘Timeless to Me’ which I thought was a lovely sentiment about the fact they would get old, fat, bald and grey together but still be timeless to each other. There’s a general theme throughout the movie about being confident with yourself which I loved. Which is why Travolta’s portrayal of Edna was particularly grating; with as much potential as she had as a character, I thought that was largely wasted by making jokes about fat and food.

    C.L. Hanson; I didn’t see any point to having Edna played by a man in drag. (We were talking about this and Maggie and Maria brought a few things up regarding the original that I found really interesting if they want to bring it up again.) I was a fan of the style and dignity Camryn Manheim brought to her role in The Practice which was why I cited her as a possible alternative. But John Travalta?!?!? He himself said he was surprised to be thought of for the role, and I think he largely compounded the initial problem of having Edna played by a man in drag and making jokes about fat and food. That, and the ‘Timeless to Me’ with Christopher Walken came across as neitehr gay or straight and I think that took away from the sweetness of the sentiment.

  3. says

    I think it’s better to have a movie where there are larger characters that have a wide range of personalities. Don’t you think it’s better to have a movie where there are actually enough big woman characters to choose from that one of them turns out to be a buffoon? I think that if you have a movie with several large women characters and they are all “dignified, principled and stylish” that would be kind of lame. It would be unrealistic, and to be honest, quite condescending. Fat characters might as well be as equally represented (from a personality standpoint) as the thin ones usually are, don’t you think?

  4. says

    John, there’s also the larger context: most of the fat women in all movies put together are buffoons. It might be nice to see contrast within one movie, but at this point ANY dignified fat female character is providing a contrast to 99% of what moviegoers see each year.

  5. scarlett says

    Beta’s right. I can think of half a dozen fat female characters which are played with dignity and style (and if I wasn’t a fan of Latifah and Manheim, I’m not sure I’d have anything.) But I can think of entire movies which evolve around laughing at the fat woman – Kathy Bates in About Schmit, the general obnoxiousness that was Shallow Hall and that awful Eddie Murphy movie released about a year ago.

  6. Ragtime says

    I guess I am old and out of the loop, but I was completely lost in this post until I got to “John Travolta” and realized that there must have been a re-make of Hairspray.

    I have only seen the original movie, with Divine playing Edna Turnblatt and Ricki Lake as Tracy. The answer to “why was Edna played by a man in drag” was that it was a John Waters movie, and Divine always played a character in drag in a John Waters movie.

    Now, it’s been over a decade since I saw it, but my memory is that Divine played her character as always eating and food-obsessed, but that Ricki Lake did not. In fact, I don’t recall Traci eating at all (although her skinny blond best friend was always shown sucking on a lollipop). It was part of the generational divide that the “fat mother” was food obsessed, but the “fat daughter” was not.

    Have you seen the original? I’d be interested in the comparison.

  7. Mecha says

    Well, since I have to chime in on the drag front to keep my queer cred… (okay, I just felt like doing the looking up 😉

    From what I remember/can assemble, the original roll in the 1988 Waters film was a drag role (by Divine, an actual transvestite). It’s become somewhat of a tradition, from that point on, to have the mother role as a drag role, but less with the transvestites doing the job. (You can see it in the Broadway and London productions.) Unfortunately, that’s about all I’m aware of, but it feels to me like a case of people taking that particular detail in a not-so-respectful direction. Divine was a large man (I use man only because I don’t know what he saw himself as gender-wise, and I’ve seen both male and female, and she did non-crossing roles as well, including in the same movie, so it’s not clear to me. As far as I know, he might have seen herself as female. Ah, for a world where trans isn’t so weirdly treated.), and as far as I know played it for the role specifically, but that doesn’t mean that ‘guys dressing up in womens clothing’ is what’s appropriate or necessary for the role being done elsewhere.

    There might be a useful contrast with the original, but I don’t have either and so can’t do it.


  8. says

    Mecha, I have never longed so much for a gender-free language in which everyone gets the same pronoun as I do now, after reading your comment.

    And I’ve longed for that quite a lot in the past. 😀

  9. scarlett says

    Ragtime and Mecha, your comments say to me that that having Edna played by a man had a particular contect in the original which has been lost in the remake. Bloody hell, I hate it when movies get remade like that. :(

    Ragtime, the characters sound about the same – Edna eats a lot, we rarely see Tracy eating (often it’s a bone of contention between them) and Tracy’s best friend, the skinny blond girl, always has a lollipop in her mouth. Again, I don’t know if something’s been lost in the context between the two movies but having Edna constantly eating and then fretting about her weight seemed like a really bad, tacky stereotype.

  10. MaggieCat says

    After I knew about this article, I sat down and watched the original Hairspray which I admittedly hadn’t seen in years. I haven’t ever seen the remake since I haven’t been able to sit through a Travolta movie since Primary Colors and haven’t liked one since Pulp Fiction. I just can’t watch him destroy one of my favorite characters, because I’ve always loved Edna Turnblad.

    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.

    This isn’t the Edna I know and love. This doesn’t happen in the original. Tracy doesn’t even tell her parents that she’s auditioning for the show, they find out when Penny sits them down to watch Tracy’s first day on the show. Before that Edna has made one reference to Tracy’s weight (asking if she took her appetite suppressant (doctor ordered, but they were handing out bennies like tic-tacs back then) and it’s not followed up on when she says no) and only one after that which isn’t even in Tracy’s presence. Partly because Tracy almost instantly gets a job modeling for the Hefty Hideaway, but really the only person who regularly brings up Tracy’s size is Amber. Edna’s self image doesn’t seem particularly poor, other than having to be dragged into the beauty shop by Tracy (who quite rightly declares “You deserve this!”) and that was probably more financial than anything else.

    I also counted how many times I saw Edna eating in the film: twice. And one doesn’t count because it was a family dinner with all the Turnblads present. She makes a couple of references to diet pills early on, but I’d call that far from food obsessed.

    I just… it doesn’t seem like the same movie. This barely sounds like the same movie I’ve loved since I was 7 or 8 years old, and I think it’s very sad that little girls out there won’t be getting the same experience I did from watching a movie where the only people who think being fat or “upper lower class” is shameful are the ones whose opinions shouldn’t matter.

    I’ll stop babbling about my love of the original now– I need to go find a way to work the phrase “hair-do scofflaws” into daily conversation. :-)

  11. Mecha says

    Beta: Well, looking at things as I was yesterday, the male pronoun seems dominant for Divine, but it is more common in our society to assume that a physical male crossdresser of any sort is ‘male’ as long as they’re pre-op on the sex change front. (And even post-op, for a number of people), no matter what they think of themselves as. So unfortunately the problem is compounded by that I couldn’t find any direct quotes that made it clear, in my quick search, how they saw themselves, and that’s the core of dealing with someone’s gender identity: how they self identify. But when someone’s dead or unavailable… all you’re left with is the family and maybe the friends and writers who may or may not have been trans-aware.

    I don’t mind having non-gender-neutral pronouns, I just would like a world where people understood how to respect people by calling them the one they wanted accurately. As far as I understand, a lot of trans people really do want gender specificity. They just want it to be the RIGHT gender. But geez, having something besides ‘them’ or ‘they’ would be lovely sometimes, since I don’t like using those particularly much.


  12. MaggieCat says

    While it’s not conclusive proof, Divine’s obituary says this:
    “He always disliked being labelled a transvestite and insisted that cha-cha heels and thigh-splitting spandex dresses were purely ‘work clothes’ designed to make people laugh.” Which would seem to line up with at least one quote I recall to the effect that ‘when you think of a bombshell you think of Marilyn Monroe or Jane Mansfield, not a 300 pound man in a dress’.

  13. Koolie says

    I totally agree with everyone above. Why should Edna need to eat to be happy? The only way Edna would have become a happy and confident women was to get out of her comfort zone and realise what was out there. With people still offerng her food when she is out and about, it is merely showing her that food is the answer and that she cannot go or be anywhere without food in order to be happy. Edna needed to be showed this.
    Another scene was when Tracy took her mother out into the world and the first thing Edna said was “Can we stop off at the wiener stand”? meaning hot dog stand. This just proves that Edna turns to food when she is uncomfortable, and that she is eating her own feeling and emotions.
    All up, Hairspray was a pretty good movie with humour, catchy plot and some messages pretty much everyone can relate to in some way or another.

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