Gender Roles – Women
Self-Esteem and Body Image
Room for Improvement:
Gender Roles – Men
Gender Roles - Women: 4 Stars
Tracy has a lot of energy and confidence and isn’t afraid to dream big. But it’s a bit disappointing that all her passion and zeal is poured into a daily dance competition. She doesn’t have any interest in school or civil rights until she ends up on the Corny Collins show. To her credit, however, Tracy quickly realizes the injustices of segregation and puts her own dreams on the line in order to support equality.
Hairspray includes a few other noteworthy women, like Motormouth Maybelle and Edna Turnblad. Maybelle is a classy Black woman who organizes and leads a march to end racial segregation, while Edna is a timid white woman who slowly learns to stop hiding behind her weight and open up to the world. Despite the stark differences between the two, both women exercise some significant strength and confidence by the end of the film.
Self-Esteem and Body Image: 5 Stars
Hairspray is the story of an overweight girl who becomes an overnight dance sensation. She is wildly popular and universally loved due to her enthusiasm for life and her undeniable talents on the dance floor. While Tracy’s triumph may be unlikely, more positive portrayals such as this could certainly lead to brighter expectations and broader perspectives on the talents and values of larger women.
On the down side, Hairspray does make a fair number of jokes about Tracy and Edna’s eating habits, which uncomfortably links normal food consumption with unhealthy bodies. It’s also frustrating that Edna’s character is played by a man, John Travolta. This turns what might have been a sincere and interesting character into something laughable and uncomfortable. Had Edna been portrayed as a real person, too ashamed of her body to go outdoors, her reality might have been too sad for Hairspray’s audiences. The seriousness of the issue would have brought down the mood of what is meant to be a light-hearted comedy. But this alone tells us that we need more real women like Edna in films. To show us that their fears and insecurities are not a joke and that these women need our encouragement and support to come out of the shadows and bring their unique gifts and talents into the light.
Plot: 5 Stars
Although Tracy begins the film as just another batty, love-struck teenager, she quickly becomes engaged in the civil rights movement. She’s passionate enough about doing what’s right to risk losing her own dreams of dancing on the Corny Collins show and becoming Miss Teen Hairspray. Unfortunately, Hairspray’s depiction of the civil rights movement is almost cartoonish and somewhat diminishes what Tracy and her friends are up against. The film never indicates that their protest puts them in any significant danger, and even suggests that it’s only a fragile minority of white people that still support segregation. The walls come tumbling down around them without much effort or struggle. To a large degree, the final dance battle between Amber and Tracy is the more daunting challenge, which makes Hairspray come across as just another fluffy teenage drama with an overweight girl at the center. The film does end on a positive note about integration, however, and sends a resounding message about breaking down barriers and loving yourself, whatever your color and whatever your size.
Character Development: 4 Stars
Tracy goes through a subtle transformation over the course of the film. She begins her story thinking that nothing is more important than dancing on a popular TV show and winning the heart of the local heartthrob. But in time she learns that things like equality and justice are more important than fame and having fun. Because Hairspray is a musical, a lot of Tracy’s personality is delivered through songs rather than dialogue, which means there aren’t as many opportunities to develop her as a person. As a result, we don’t get any sort of indication that she’s been transformed into a more serious activist - someone who will continue fighting for integration in other facets of day to day life. It's just as likely that this is a one-time interest, and now that Corny Collins is integrated she’ll simply go back to dancing and having fun. In some respects, it’s a far too serious question for a film that doesn’t take itself very seriously.
Hairspray also spends some time developing the character of Tracy’s mother Edna. She begins the film ashamed of her own body and afraid of the way people will treat her overweight daughter. She’s spent 10 years locked up in her home, afraid to go out in public. But Tracy’s sudden popularity eventually convinces her that the world may be a safer, warmer place than she realizes. She finds the strength to leave the safety of her home and explore the new era that’s awakening around her, and one step at a time, Edna learns to be comfortable with who she is, and to even be proud of it.
Gender Roles - Men: 3 Stars
Hairspray doesn’t devote much attention to its male characters. Tracy’s love interest Link is a typical heartthrob who wants to be famous and popular - but he still has the independence to see Tracy’s talent and fall in love with her for who she is. Tracy’s father Wilbur is another supportive and encouraging male character who isn’t distracted by appearances and doesn’t see any reason that Tracy’s weight should hold her back. Unfortunately, neither of these characters are given much depth or dimension. Link in particular is more of an empty plot device than a real person. He falls out of love with Amber and in love with Tracy with little struggle or self-reflection - but simply because the happy-ending called for it.
Love: 2 Stars
Hairspray is full of trite and silly romances that seem to blossom out of thin air. Tracy’s romance with Link is based on their shared love of dancing, and to some small extent, their shared belief in integration. But Link falls in love with Tracy too easily, without any concern for how it might affect his popularity or career. In fact, they fall in love without even spending a moment alone with together. As a result, the romance is a little too unbelievable to be inspiring.
Hairspray also creates a simple romance between Tracy’s friends Penny and Seaweed, despite the dangers facing bi-racial couples in the era. Again, the idea of an unconventional love story is intriguing and heartwarming, but their attraction has little foundation. Penny and Seaweed barely exchange words with each other - just a fair amount of flirting and a simple decision that they belong together. Their connection is certainly entertaining, but without enough buildup to be realistic.
Finally, the love story between Tracy’s parents, Wilbur and Edna, is by far the most substantial and compelling relationship in the film. Edna is a woman with a lot of insecurities about her appearance, but she still puts the necessary trust and devotion into her marriage. Likewise, Wilbur tends to Edna’s insecurities without frustration or impatience. He takes the time to encourage her and convince her that he will always love her for who she is, regardless of her size or her age. Their relationship, far more than any of the others, consistently rings genuine and true.