How 'Hairspray' Aerosols Ideology Into Place
by Michelle Erica Green

"Integrationist? You Look Like a Hair Hopper To Me!"

In the spring of 1988, cult filmmaker and "Prince of Puke" John Waters surprised many of his fans by releasing a commercial and critical hit. Famous for such "exercises in bad taste" as Pink Flamingos (1972), the story of a competition for the title "Filthiest Person Alive," and Polyester (1981), filmed in "Odorama" with true-to-life scratch-and-sniff stink, Waters previously had been celebrated for sparking "the golden age of trash" in the American cinema (Edelstein 47). But Hairspray bore little resemblance to any of the previous ten features by the self-appointed Sultan of Sleaze; not once during the PG-rated movie did a character eat dog droppings, vomit on another character, commit an act of indecent exposure or suffocate while performing oral sex. "It was the only shock left," Waters told a People magazine reporter when asked about his decision to go mainstream. "I'd love to sell out completely. It's just that nobody has been willing to buy." (Geist 61).

Despite its creator's assertion, however, Hairspray could hardly be described as a safe bet for Hollywood marketing interests. The film combined--or, in the words of the Time magazine reviewer, "miscegenated" (Corliss 101)--two seemingly irreconcilable genres: the teen comedy of errors and the political message story. Corliss' term linked the structure of the film to its content, for Hairspray's major subplot involved a white girl and black boy fighting for both the right to date one another and an end to segregation on a television dance show. The main plot focused on the less important fight between a thin nouveau-riche blonde and a chubby lower-class brunette for the Miss Auto Show 1963 title, a title won through mastery of the stylized dance moves of the period. Although Waters' shameless crossbreeding of Gandhi and Grease attracted favorable notices for its entertainment value, few critics knew what to make of the strategy behind Hairspray's structure. Thus this film that The New Yorker dismissed as "an entertainingly imbecilic musical comedy--a piece of pop dadaism," garnered guarded praise in Newsweek as "at once heartfelt and hilarious...the first movie to treat the civil rights movement with a camp sensibility" (Kael 87, Ansen 70). 1

Interestingly, although many critics noted Hairspray's merger of "the two most dreaded film genres today--the teen flick and the message movie" (Geist 62, along with Corliss, Ansen, Kael, Vincent Canby, et al), not one mentioned that the film was a musical. This may be attributable to the indeterminate definition of that term for rock-era films, coupled with the fact that the label "musical" has usually meant box-office poison during the 1980s. Hairspray has more in common with movies like Saturday Night Fever, Fame, and Flashdance, which focus on contemporary characters learning to dance to popular music, than with a film like Grease, set during the Hairspray era but using a more traditional Hollywood musical structure and Broadway-styled songs. Unlike the films mentioned previously, all the songs in Hairspray stem from a visible diegetic source: an amplifier, radio or television set is present in nearly every scene. The dance numbers follow the conventions of the television dance show rather than the Hollywood musical number; because they are meant to be informal, the dancing is never as polished as in traditional production numbers. Hairspray does not fit easily into any of Rick Altman's categories for film musicals, although it meets his generic requirements in the broadest sense, by balancing dualities before concluding with the union of couples during a huge number that pulls together the various elements of the film. But neither is it a "soundtrack film" like American Gigolo or Top Gun in which the source of the music is not directly relevant to the narrative. Hairspray falls somewhere in between, blurring and parodying such distinctions, though it functions as a musical not only in its unification of several couples, but in the larger gathering of racially diverse communities and the still broader "marriage" of genres.

Rather than attempt to locate Hairspray within an existing category for musical film, it seems more fruitful to explore how music works within the context set up by the plot. Given its self-satirical posture, it is admittedly difficult to take Hairspray seriously as a message movie. But neither is it quite "imbecilic," as Kael charges. Throughout the campy musical production numbers, the film dances around the issues of race, class struggle, peer pressure, consumerism, intergenerational conflicts, teen sexuality, commodification of female bodies in advertising, and other social problems which ultimately become the real focus of conflict between the two main characters. Although it tries to outgrow itself-- denouncing the varnished hair of white teenagers as a manifestation of an ideology which insists that stray hairs and stray black people must be kept off white dance shows--Hairspray remains sentimental about the moment just before the revolution begins, a moment symbolized by its music. Music works simultaneously as a regressive and progressive force, for Waters wants to critique his culture and consume it too. Though he demonstrates the progressive social and economic logic of racial integration throughout the film, he fights to maintain a place for the structures of the disintegrating segregationist society of the late 1950s. Within the nostalgic settings of the television dance show, the amusement park, and the high school gym, a space remains for sentiment as the society changes beyond. Hairspray insists that integration should be fun. Even as he encourages his audience to laugh at the naivete of the characters, who come to the utopian conclusion that dancing will set them all free, Waters evokes a powerful longing for a fictitious moment when it appeared that prejudice, along with the bouffant hairdo, might just fall apart to the tune of a Chubby Checker hit.

Hairspray balances this building impetus for change against the built-in apparatus for nostalgia provided by the use of a dance show as the focal point for the action of the plot. The dance show plays songs which are new and exciting to the diegetic audience, but Golden Oldies to the film's viewers. Although this could seem jarring or alienating, Waters brings up the music over a rose-colored dance sequence whose effect instead is warmly sentimental. Several impeccably-groomed, absurdly swooning teen couples slow dance and preen on "The Corny Collins Show." A couple kiss and then affectionately squirt hairspray onto one another's heads. The most talented dancer, German-named and Aryan-looking Amber von Tussle, tries to promote her father's new amusement park in between grooming and courting rituals. 2 Then the picture fades to black and white as the camera pans back to film the dancers; the audience is now watching "Corny Collins" not from within the studio, but on the television set of Tracy Turnblad, who practices dancing with her friends at home in hopes of getting onto the show. Despite the fun Waters pokes at the dancers and their wanna-bes by exaggerating everything from the conformist, overchoreographed dances to the excessive use of hairspray and adjustment of falsies, it is clear from his lavish dance sequences, obsessive attention to the clothing, and lack of biting satire that he is fond of the performances himself. The film audience is invited to share in the pleasure of the teens, silly or not.

The audience of Hairspray is thus intimately constructed as an "insider" audience; like Tracy Turnblad, it watches the excesses of the rich, beautiful youths on the show with half-disgusted, half-envious eyes. Tracy serves both as a comic scapegoat and point of identification for the audience; her passion for the music may be portrayed as excessive and ridiculous, but to laugh at Tracy is to laugh at oneself for taking pleasure in the film. The overdressed, overweight daughter of Edna, the obese local gossip, and Wilbur, the owner of Hardy Har Joke Shop, Tracy is an omnivorous consumer of media marketing pleasures. Her working-class parents don't really discourage her enthusiasm, though she never finishes her chores, for their lives, too, revolve around watching the pleasures of others.

Tracy knows that many of the Collins regulars are snobby and frivolous, but that doesn't stop her from wanting to join them. She and her peers Penny and Nadine are hopelessly underchallenged by their public schools and frustrated at the limited routes for fighting for social change. Rather than try to change the world through the unpleasant business of politics, dealt with only briefly in Hairspray, they respond instead to the combination of popularity, sexuality, affluence, and influence offered by "The Corny Collins Show." All three, however, face obstacles in their quest to become Corny Collins Council members: Penny's hair, clothes, and tastes are hopelessly ratty, Tracy is--well, fat--and Nadine is "colored." In spite of the fact that the majority of music played on "Corny Collins" is performed by black artists, causing older television viewers complain that "it ain't right for kids to be on TV dancing to that colored music," the show remains segregated. Nevertheless it cultivates popularity among black viewers, having a Negro Day on the last Thursday of every month and inviting "Baltimore's Queen of Soul," Motormouth Maybelle, to judge its dance contests. But the strains are showing. Brokenhearted little black girls get thrown out on pre-teen day. Amber gets into trouble with her mother for having the temerity to "go and pick a colored group"--the Five Duotones, whose name suggests integration--when selecting a record for the show. Meanwhile, dancers who can perform black dances gain popularity in viewer polls.

Integration is a popular concept among the teenagers because it permits them to learn new dances and signifies rebellion against their parents. But few have given any real thought to what it would mean to integrate television-- particularly to integrate a dance show, inviting blacks and whites to dance with one another in a sexually suggestive manner. Most of the youths are torn between wanting to conform and wanting to break free from convention; they neck surreptitiously in convertibles and fight with their parents about clothes and curfews, but aren't ready to rebel outright on a political issue. Whereas Penny is rejected from the Corny Collins Council for being too childish and backward, Nadine--the tallest, thinnest, and most talented of the three girls--stands no chance of getting onto the show as a consequence of her race, light-skinned though she is. Tracy, who tells Council members that she would certainly swim in an integrated pool, suffers the least from her physical appearance despite the fact that hers deviates the most from the other Council members. While Nadine and Penny fail, Tracy comes through the auditions with flying colors; her appeal to marketing interests, insisting that other "pleasingly plump or chunky" viewers would tune in to see her dancing on the show, convinces the judges to admit her to the Council. By the end of her first day on the show, Tracy is a local celebrity, mobbed by autograph hunters and receiving commercial endorsements. Complacent fat people, it would seem, do just fine in 1962 Baltimore society.

Though Tracy does not remain a complacent fat person for long, she does remain temporarily obsessed with "hairhopper" culture, defined by consumerism--and by its music. Acceptance onto "Corny Collins" makes Tracy an immediate object of consumption and commodification as both seller and buyer. She preens to the tune of "Town Without Pity,", then dances "The Continental" to success on the show. As "Duke of Earl" plays over the television where Tracy dances, her mother answers the first telephone call from the powerful male sponsors who represent the chance for the family to move up in society. While shopping for dresses to wear on television--to the tune of "Momma Didn't Lie"--Tracy is hired by the owner of Hefty Hideaway, a clothing shop for large women who serves all-you-can- eat desserts to his customers as they shop. The owner agrees to become a sponsor of the show in exchange for free advertising time, and he agrees to give Tracy free clothes if she will model them during these commercial breaks. Tracy appears on the TV spots wearing his dresses and eating his eclairs, the consumer consumed by the envious eyes of other overweight spectators who will rush out to Hefty Hideaway themselves. Although each of these songs has a diegetic source-- television, car radio, store speakers--their function is nondiegetic as well, linking the happy, carefree mood of the music to the pleasures of buying, selling, and marketing. "Welcome to the '60s, Momma!" Tracy exclaims as her mother, emerging from a salon with a new dress and hairdo, takes a few tentative dance steps to the music she had previously condemned. Edna Turnblad believes she has entered the '60s, as Penny says, simply because "Even Jackie Kennedy, our First Lady, feathers her hair." But ironically, it is really to the '50s that Tracy welcomes her mother. The '60s as the audience understands it has not yet begun, despite a couple of references to trouble in Cuba and race riots in the South. For now, consumerism is the only site of social transformation.

Tracy makes another valuable connection on "The Corny Collins Show"; she steals Amber's Elvis-lookalike boyfriend, and with Link as her partner is able to get viewer's votes as the best female dancer on the show. But life isn't all pleasure for Tracy. When her enormous hair blocks another student's view of the blackboard in her math class despite the repeated punishment of "Hairdo Detention," Tracy gets put into a special education class. "Special ed! That's for retards--and the colored students you try to keep back," she complains to the principal, who implies strongly that what goes on inside Tracy's head represents the real threat to the "proper" education of herself and her peers. In special ed, though, she meets Seaweed, the son of Motormouth Maybelle and a first-rate dancer when he isn't fighting the school's racist policies. The two become good friends. When Tracy is hit in the head by Amber during a game of dodge ball, Link asks her to go steady with him--at precisely the moment that Seaweed and Penny, who have rushed to Tracy's side, meet one another's eyes and stare passionately.

As the couples form, the film transforms; it leaves the consumer culture of the 1950s and enters the '60s proper. Tracy, Penny, and Link want to learn new dances--the kind Seaweed can do. 3 They go to an impromptu sock hop hosted by Motormouth Maybelle, during which they learn several new steps. But the party is interrupted by Penny's hysterically racist mother Prudence, who comes to "save" her daughter from Seaweed and tells Maybelle, "Don't you try any of your spells on me, you native woman!" Finally the "white children" understand that for the black performers, dancing is much more than a lighthearted manifestation of hairhopper culture. It represents the expression of their own culture and the hope for integration all at once. When Seaweed and his sister are refused admission to "The Corny Collins Show" on Family Day, Tracy and Penny join with them to begin a demonstration outside the station. As "You Don't Own Me" ironically begins to play over Corny Collins' broadcast system, fights begin inside and outside the station. Corny Collins demands the right to integrate, only to be threatened by the station manager. The oddly-named Amber's mother accusingly asks Edna Turnblad whether her daughter is mulatto--"She must be yellow." Penny and Seaweed are forced to flee as the police arrive, while Tracy rouses the other teens with the chant, "Two-Four-Six-Eight, TV's got to integrate!"

That evening Tracy, Link, and Penny attend an all-black dance event in northern Baltimore. The four are forced to flee when their parents pursue them and take refuge in a house near the dance, which turns out to be inhabited by two "real beatniks," something the four teenagers have henceforth only read about, who listen to strange music. "Are you a checkerboard chick?" the black-clad, straight-haired beatnik woman asks a puzzled Penny, who has never heard the phrase before. "You know, black and white? Salt and pepper?" Penny isn't sure how to respond, but with the encouragement of Link (whose name suggests Lincoln), Tracy courageously announces that she herself is an integrationist. "Integrationist! You look like a hair hopper to me!" the woman responds disgustedly. "Let's get high, and I'll iron the chick's hair." Although the context of this discussion is preposterously comic, hairspray and prejudice are explicitly linked for the first time in the film. The four teenagers flee the house immediately afterwards to avoid getting mixed up with the marijuana and to escape the woman's suggestion that they "get naked," but they have seen the future. As a Tuscon McCall rip-off of "Unchained Melody"--a song about separated lovers--pours out of the dance hall doors, Penny is kidnapped from Seaweed by her parents to be given shock treatments and Tracy is rushed back to her "safe" neighborhood. But neither can go home again; the frightening, atonal '60s have already entered Baltimore. Tracy and Penny will never use hairspray again.

Penny irons her hair first, locked in her bedroom while all her peers attend the opening of Tilted Acres, Amber's father's segregated new amusement park. As Tracy teaches the crowd "The Waddle," a dance she has learned from Seaweed, integrationists and segregationists clash outside the gates and finally storm the park. Link's kneecaps are broken in the ensuing riot and Tracy, beaten and arrested by the Maryland police, is dragged off to reform school. There she irons her hair while Motormouth Maybelle rushes to Annapolis and handcuffs herself to the governor in an attempt to secure Tracy's release. The film's preposterous climax, which involves, among other subplots, a bomb hidden in Velma von Tussle's enormous hairdo and the successful integration of "The Corny Collins Show" through the agency of Tracy's father's gag gifts, gathers the entire community together--with the exception of the von Tussles--performing "The Roach," bringing them full circle from the night Tracy fled the roaches in the house of the beatniks. Tracy and Link are reunited with Penny and Seaweed, who sneak into the show dressed as nuns and become the first interracial couple on TV. The movie closes on a happy, utopian note which suppresses the long road ahead before true integration and economic equality can be reached.

Hairspray actually presents itself as more campy than it is. Waters includes several "in-jokes" for his cult following (Amber's public vomiting and Velma's exploding hair are just a few examples; when Wilbur Turnblad reminds his Edna, played by Divine, that selling plastic doggie-doo for a living isn't always easy, nobody who witnessed Divine eat thing real thing in Pink Flamingos is likely to miss the reference). Even some of the songs function as jokes, such as the rip-off of "Unchained Melody" by the Righteous Brothers--a duo often wrongly assumed to be black--by a black performer. But the pervasive influence of music in Hairspray is much more insidious.

Waters casts several performers better known for their musical careers than their acting: Amber's tacky nouveau riche parents are played by Blondie lead singer Debbie Harry and Cher's ex-partner Sonny Bono, while the beatniks are played by schlock-pop singer Pia Zadora and Cars lead vocalist Ric Ocasek. Harry and Bono bring a full set of associations to their roles; Harry, whose career dropped off substantially in the past ten years 4, is completely believable as a "Miss Soft Crab" of days long past, while Bono, a preposterous hero even during the tacky 1970s, lets his cheesy moustache and hideous clothing create Franklin von Tussle's character. The irony of using Ocasek, widely regarded as an intelligent though quirky performer, as a drug addict, is surpassed only by using Zadora--an industry insider-by-marriage who won a Golden Globe Award for acting largely by virtue of her husband's connections--as a rebel beatnik. But individual viewers watching Hairspray certainly bring their own memories of the performers to the film, and thus their own reasons for sharing Waters' sentimentality about popular song. By using musical performers who automatically conjure certain associations in a film about how musical associations function, Waters is able to bring yet another form of nostalgia into play--nostalgia for musical stars whose careers dwindled when their music went out of style. Waters uses the regressive to become progressive: his celebrity casting choices are so tacky that they seem inspired.

Nostalgia, not radicalism, wins out at the end of Hairspray. Rebel Tracy accepts the Baltimore Auto Show crown and the accolades of "The Corny Collins Show," rather than rejecting both as a manifestation, like hairspray, of an oppressive 1950s ideology. But uneasiness remains. The festive atmosphere of both the Auto Show and Tilted Acres, though brash and cheerful, maintains a constant reminder of the nasty side of the carnivalesque--the sense that these are freak shows complete with a jokester, a fat lady, and a collection of sexual deviants persists. The fact that many of the performers have achieved fame in contemporary tabloids for various personal problems and that Edna Turnblad is played by an obese man in drag contributes to the sense that the heterosexual romantic couple and the nuclear family, though idealized by the film, aren't quite as normal as they seem. These concerns are forgotten, however, as the radio begins another tune; the time to begin the real work of changing social values has not begun yet.

Funny or not, Hairspray is a complicated film. By insisting on keeping his pleasures in the face of revolution, Waters seems to be taking a swipe at serious documentary-style films which subject audiences to visions of struggle and horror to make a point about the need for serious fighting to overcome obstacles. Though he demonstrates through Tracy's and Penny's actions that a society can't iron out its problems, as Edna Turnblad can't "iron" hers out, just by listening to the radio, he refuses to consider the ways in which the music industry is part of the problem. The film can't suppress the painful irony of a segregated show playing music by black performers, but it doesn't examine the policies of the television, record, or film industries to discover how this absurdity occurred. Waters' satire is above all aimed at himself, for his ridiculous attachment to a era which appears comic only through the manipulations of the music and the dance numbers. He can't deny the extent to which hairspray holds more in place than random curls; it keeps Lesley Gore from being displaced by the Supremes and helps the von Tussles fight integration at the local level.

Ultimately, Hairspray can't find it in its heart to repress itself. Although the transformation of the white characters from victims of '50s ideologies to proponents of '60s radicalism is represented overtly by the move from aerosol-induced beehives to ironed-straight locks, the erasure of the Baltimore of Waters' youth goes beyond the superficial. Utopian as it is, the melting pot causes the frizzies. The coming of the revolution represents the inevitable end of the illusory unity of black and white people through the common languages of music and dance, and though he acknowledges that integration isn't so simple, Waters favors the illusion.


1. Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
2. Ansen, David. "A Shock Artist Goes Mainstream." Newsweek 29 February 1988: 70.
3. Corliss, Richard. "Buxom Belles in Baltimore." Time 29 February 1988: 101.
4. Edelstein, David. "Trash Dance." Rolling Stone 24 March 1988: 47-49.
5. Frith, Simon. Music For Pleasure. London: Routledge, 1988.
6. Geist, William. "John Waters: The Sick Man of Cinema Cleans Up His Act, Sort
Of, And Splashes Into the Mainstream With Hairspray." People 14 March 1988: 60-65.
7. Grubb, Kevin. "Putting the Bounce in Hairspray's Dances." Dance Magazine June 1988: 62.
8. Kael, Pauline. "God's Pickpockets." New Yorker 7 March 1988: 84-88.
9. Waters, John. Hairspray. Wr. and dir. John Waters. Chor. Edward Love. With Sonny Bono, Ruth Brown, Divine, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Debbie Harry, Ricki Lake, Ric Ocasek, Leslie Ann Powers, Clayton Prince, Michael St. Gerard, Jerry Stiller, Mink Stole, Shawn Thompson, Pia Zadora. New Line Cinema, 1988.


1 The generic conflicts inherent in Hairspray created a dilemma for various marketing interests. The early posters for the film advertised it as a teen comedy, a tactic likely to attract the youth audience but alienate older viewers who might be put off already by Waters' name on the project. American Film in late 1987 instead promoted the film as a serious look of racism in the early 1960s; while this capsule reached an audience that might otherwise have dismissed any musical out of hand, it also derided Waters' cult following--which the filmmakers were depending upon to bolster attendance. When reviewers recognized that Hairspray was neither a message movie nor a teen pic but a parody of both, the newspaper ads began to incorporate quotes from articles indicating that satire was the film's aim. This allowed both the slapstick and sophisticated elements of the movie to be emphasized.

2 "The Corny Collins Show" is based very loosely on Baltimore's real "Buddy Deane Show," which led the fight to integrate local television during the mid-1960s and was forced to stop broadcasting as a result. The events at Tilted Acres are based even more loosely on the circumstances surrounding the closing of Glen Echo, Maryland's segregated amusement park, which was shut down in 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the subsequent race riot that killed several black teenagers. The nostalgic Hairspray characteristically represses these unhappy follow-ups to the events depicted in the movie.

3 In this number Waters seems to be offering an explicit critique of the 1987 film Dirty Dancing, in which white teenagers rather than their black counterparts "invent" the style of dancing celebrated in both films. Following their "study" with Seaweed during which Maybelle declares that "We're going to teach the white children how to dance," Tracy and Link become the first dancers on "Corny Collins" to perform an openly sexual dance. They also perform the first number in which the woman leads.

4 Harry has remained a popular figure among gay men, however. Two Blondie songs were prominently featured in the film Longtime Companion, which had a soundtrack consisting almost exclusively of songs popular the decade before its release within the gay community.

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