I’ve been trying to start this post up for a while, but I just keep getting “I Can Hear the Bells” stuck in my head instead of actually writing it.
I had all but forgotten about the show Hairspray when I found it on my iPod on a bus ride a couple months back (like I said, I keep failing to actually write this post). I listened to it for the first time since getting into Fat Acceptance, and it gave me a few things to think about from that lens. I’ll clarify first that I can only talk about the Broadway version – I never saw the original movie, and while I like the movie musical, I just can’t adapt to changes in lyrics after memorizing the soundtrack that I own.
So obviously, there’s a whole lot of great Fat-Positivity in this show. For those who don’t know, we follow the life of high school student Tracey Turnblad, a fat dancer whose dreams are to dance on, and then to integrate, a popular TV show in 1960’s Baltimore. Tracey and her mother are both fat, as is Motormouth Maybelle, the black woman who leads the charge to integrate. Food, weight, love, diversity and acceptance all run through the show, and it ends with a bright future for all involved.
Tracey is a fantastic fat role model, to the point where I was stunned that I didn’t immediately think of her when I first started in on FA. Her size is a constant feature of the story, but she never lets anyone tell her that it will prevent her from anything that she wants to do, from becoming a TV star to getting the guy of her dreams. There’s a very relatable stock character in the unpopular girl who dreams of showing the whole world that she has a talent they never would have guessed, and Tracey being fat actually kind of helps to justify the trope; she isn’t just Hollywood homely, but has a body that would realistically be made fun of. All the same, she’s sunny and optimistic.
“Everybody warns that he won’t like what he’ll see,/ but I know that he’ll look inside of me.”
“Oh-oh-oh give me a chance,/ cause when I start to dance/ I’m a movie star.”
What struck me while I was listening this time, also, was the choice of talent for Tracey – dance. Hairspray is a very physical show with a whole lot of movement. To have not just a fat heroine, but a fat heroine who is physically talented and very active, and all of it without one iota of pressure from the show for her to use that talent to lose weight, is extraordinary. Tracey is never depicted as a sloth or a glutton.
Which does bring me to her mother, though. It doesn’t disturb the overall FA sense of the show, but it did bug me on this listen to hear the emphasis that IS given to Edna Turnblad’s eating habits. All of it can, I think, be read in a positive way – Edna just likes food and eats lots of it – but I think there’s also a sense that she at least is especially fat because she eats too much. There are jokes scattered about Edna’s lack of physical stamina, and I find it just a little bit of a shame to have them nestled in-between otherwise really surprisingly fat-positive messages.
“You can’t stop my happiness/ cause I like the way I am./ And you just can’t stop my knife and fork/ when I see a Christmas ham./ So if you don’t like the way I look well,/ I just don’t give a damn!”
BUT – overall, food is something overwhelmingly positive in the show. It’s love and health and strength, culminating in the whole song “Big, Blonde and Beautiful.” (I have NO idea why I am unable to find the Broadway version of the song on youtube; a search will bring up Queen Latifah in the movie version. Broadway lyrics are here.)
“Can’t you hear that rumbling? That’s our hunger to be free,/ It’s time to finally taste equality.”
Now, what I feel far, FAR less qualified to talk about is the intersectionality of the show.
The Civil Rights movement is the backdrop to the story, and act two is primarily about the struggle that Tracey faces as an ally to Maybelle and her son, Seaweed, as they lead the effort to integrate the Corny Collins show. There’s a strong sense during the show that discrimination is basically the same and always wrong, especially on something as silly as looks – whether it’s the color of your skin or the size of your body.
And while that’s a message I agree with…I think I just don’t know enough to comfortably conflate FA with older civil rights movements. It feels somehow like I’d be trivializing the struggle of people of color to claim that Fat Acceptance is equivalent to it. There are certainly similarities in my mind, but it just feels…lesser. Not that there aren’t serious social issues around fat stigma and bullying and the like, but that I don’t feel comfortable with the phrase ‘fat oppression’. I might get bullied for my size, but people don’t think of me as a potential criminal. The government has never told me that I couldn’t marry or that I had to stay away from thin people. It just doesn’t feel on the same level.
That’s really a tangent, though. If you haven’t seen the show, I recommend the movie musical version to get the full story, although there are a few songs missing there that were in the Broadway soundtrack, and some things are changed. I’m not sure why Hairspray flew under my FA radar for so long, given the absolute emphasis on being yourself and following your dreams no matter how big you are.