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Why I’m in the Tracy Turnblad Fan Club

2011 November 24

I know we finished the surprising not-obviously-feminist-films-we-love series a while back, but I just watched Hairspray again and had such a familiar rush of affection I thought it was time to put pen to paper. Fingers to keyboard. You know what I mean.

I’ve never seen the more recent musical film version because I love the original so much, but I’d be interested to hear what BadReppers think of it. If you’ve not seen the real thing, here’s the trailer:


Made in 1988 by the incomparable John Waters, it’s set in 1962 Baltimore. IMDb says:

‘Pleasantly Plump’ teenager Tracy Turnblad achieves her dream of becoming a regular on the Corny Collins Dance Show. Now a teen hero, she starts using her fame to speak out for the causes she believes in, most of all integration. In doing so, she earns the wrath of the show’s former star, Amber Von Tussle, as well as Amber’s manipulative, pro-segregation parents. The rivalry comes to a head as Amber and Tracy vie for the title of Miss Auto Show 1963.

Divine and Ricki Lake as Edna and Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray 1988But that doesn’t really cover it. It’s a delirious, high-camp, queer, irreverent and satirical version of the early 60s that shows Dirty Dancing up as the insipid whitewashed pap that it is. (Sorry, but you know I’m speaking the truth.) Tracy Turnblad, played by Ricki Lake, is a heroine and a half. Big, happy, confident, working class Tracy has a lot of soul and a keen sense of justice. She wins the day, the guy, and the hearts of the town because she can dance, because she’s nice and because she stands up for what she believes in. In this case: civil rights.

What is so refreshing to see even now (perhaps especially now) is a large teenage female character who radiates energy and self-confidence. She’s not a sidekick, she’s the star through and through, and the Elvis-a-like heartthrob falls head over heels for her, as does everyone else. When she dances in triumph with her chain of friends at the end of the film I DEFY YOU not to be cheering her on.

I love her for some of the same reasons I love Mae West in, well, all her films (she basically plays the same character every time). She’s larger and older than her counterpart spindly 1930s starlets, but in every film the men follow her around with their jaws bumping on the floor. It simultaneously surprises me and makes me think ‘why the hell not?’ She wrote the scripts, anyway – why not cast herself as a sex symbol? She was a sex symbol. We’re faced with such a tidal wave of body propaganda it’s easy to internalise it. Here’s a gratuitous embed of the trailer to West’s 1933 film I’m No Angel:

Anyway, back to the 80s/60s/whatever planet John Waters comes from. Another thing I love about Hairspray is the fabulous supporting cast of characters. Divine as Tracy’s mother Edna steals every scene she’s in, but I also love Tracy’s best friend Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) who seems pretty drippy until she meets kind, dishy Seaweed, son of local soul queen Motormouth Mabel. It’s actually quiet Penny Pingleton that starts shouting ‘segregation never, integration now!’ outside the Corny Collins Show. Penny and Tracy are touchingly devoted to each other too, encouraging each other and enjoying each other’s happiness. Plus bitchy Amber von Tussle and her snobbish, racist parents (her mother is played by Debbie Harry) are deliciously hateable.

The film is not without its flaws and it definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it. It’s the only film (I think…) that I’ve ever watched and put on again straight away, though admittedly that’s partly because of the superb soundtrack, which features Lesley Gore’s irresistible anthem You Don’t Own Me. Here it is!


2 Responses leave one →
  1. November 24, 2011

    On balance I would genuinely recommend the remake, actually- Queen Latifah owns every scene she’s in, Zac Efron gives good Elvis-fanboy, and Seaweed and Penny are particularly adorable. Tracy is really good too.

    What I suspect it lacks, despite the fact it’s a musical, is the proudly camp/queering undertones of the original, which I have only seen bits of – John Travolta takes Divine’s role and while he’s fun, it’s not the same. It’s ‘guy in a fat suit’ humour in places and it’s very MTV-sheeny as a film in general. But it’s definitely worth a look – the cast are really great. We should watch them back to back and compare! My sister found the musical version more accessible but owns both versions and they are big faves.

    They were both good inroads for talking to her – she has a learning disability – about the civil rights movement. It is a very white civil rights fairytale in the sense that the white characters kind of show up and lead the breakthrough (I would love Inez, who is kind of Tracy’s counterpart in the black community in the musical in that singing is her dream, to have her own film, for example). But it opened up discussion with her really well and I love the way it nails the transition period, in fashion, music and attitudes, from the fifties into the sixties.


  2. November 24, 2011

    Also – the remake has no beatniks! I used to love the beatniks! I re-watched that bit recently ( and it was frankly embarrassing – but it was a huge influence on me when I were a wee nipper.

    Likewise the hippy in the Producers was my favourite bit, and he was cut in the remake. I seem to have a thing for long-dead subcultures…

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