The Dangers of Hairspray

So, as some of you may or may not know, I tend to dabble in the world of theatre here at Muhlenberg College. My dabbling in this world has led me to a lot of wonderful friends, valuable learning experiences, and, really, just a lot of great times. Of late, however, it has provided me with an interesting window into the world of contemporary racism.

Let’s start with an honest fact: the world of theatre has been littered with racism since the dawn of its existence. From the concept of “minstrel shows” to the prevalence white performers performing in black face the old world of theatre has not been particularly friendly to non-white members of society. Now, of course, we have moved into an age where, overt, old-fashioned racism is no longer acceptable. This rule, to an extant, has applied to the world of musical theatre. In fact, many contemporary works of theatre, even musical theatre, have focused on racial issues and the problems they have caused within society. This summer, Muhlenberg College’s Summer Music Theatre program (MSMT for short), is putting on one of those productions, Shaiman, Wittman, O’Donnel, and Meehan’s Hairspray.

Hairspray is a catchy sixties-era musical that deals with the issues of discrimination on the basis of race and on the basis of weight. The intended message of the musical is almost undeniably positive and progressive, as the show is based around the demand for people of all types to be allowed to live as they wish (although in this case doing what they want is dancing on the “Corny Collins Show”). The vehicle that the musical uses to send this message is, however, questionable.

The cast of Hairspray is divided into two groups: black cast members and white cast members. There is nothing unusual about characters in plays being cast according to their race, but Hairspray seems to take the whole notion of racial casting to an extreme.

For the majority of the roles for prospective black cast members, the roles call for the actors to act in extremely stereotypical manners. These stereotypes include language, dress, and even the ways they physically carry themselves on the stage. Many black actors find their niche in playing roles such as this, and, with the opportunity to make a lot of money off of being in any production, black actors often seek out these parts avidly in order to make a living. With exposure to these stereotypes on a daily basis, many black actors are quite adept at portraying these roles in a convincing manner.

When these actors take the stage in these stereotypical roles, they perpetuate the stereotypes within the brains of all of the audience members who see them. When a person goes to see Hairspray, his or her brain is flooded with stereotypical information about the black community.

So, we reach a conflict of interest. On one hand, shows such as Hairspray preach equality. On the other hand, shows such as Hairspray preach stereotypes. I think, what we are seeing in this situation is a general misunderstanding of the meaning of racism in today’s society. Hairspray condemns overt racism and preaches equality. However, Hairspray completely ignores the issue of aversive racism.

Is it Hairspray’s job to tackle the issue of aversive racism? Perhaps not, but, it is definitely not Hairspray’s job to perpetuate stereotypes and feed the vicious cycle of aversive racism. Are productions such as Hairspray valuable in that they promote equality? Should they be avoided because of their perpetuation of stereotypes? Which message comes through more clearly the message of equality or the stereotypes that are so clearly promoted by the script?

4 thoughts on “The Dangers of Hairspray

  1. I watched the first five minutes or so and found the following :
    Nice white kids
    who like to lead the way

    And once a month
    we have our Negro Day
    . .

    You’re letting her listen
    to that race music again?

    . . . .

    “Detroit sound”?

    What’s that, the cries
    of people being mugged?

    Aw, velma, the kids dig
    the rhythm and blues.

    Yeah, they’re kids, Corny.

    That’s why we have to steer
    them in the white direction.

    I turned it off ……. it sounded racist to me.

    • Well obviously the first five minutes aren’t representative of the development of the play as a whole. The intention of all of those lines is to establish racism and segregation on the CC Show. The question isn’t whether there are racist people on the show. Obviously there are. There is no argument about that.
      But the rest of the play shows how Tracy and her friends work to desegregate the show.
      The question of racism comes up in the stereotypical portrayal of POC and whether Tracy only succeeds through cultural appropriation, and whether that makes the message of the show racist.

  2. Are there musicals out there that deals with averse racism? I’ve been looking and can’t find much.

  3. I have seen the movie Hairspray as well as having seen the Broadway production. I think that yes, the perpetuation of sterotypes is not good however, when done in a way that almost mocks the absurditiy of those sterotypes it makes it easier to swallow for whites (in my opinion). When you see a film and you can see that these kids just want to dance and have a good time and that they are not permitted to “mix” because of race it creates a natural question of “why” and at least starts a thinking process that will possibly lead to a discussion. I think that often times it is a starting place for conversation. For me the biggest issue is seeing it as something was “in the past”…my daughter made a comment about being happy that she didn’t live in the 60’s. This bothered me because I don’t think her sentiments are unlike many others; racism is something that was “then” and somehow “now” is better. If nothing else it starts the conversation going.

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