Making the Grades
John Travolta in drag, teen smoking, and many moments of sexual innuendo in a PG movie? Obviously the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration bought into Hairspray's light and fluffy sarcastic tone. Any parents wondering if this musical romp, set in 1962, will be a good choice for their kids, will also need to be convinced this frolic is just harmless fun.
From the perky opening number Good Morning Baltimore, Tracy Tumblad (Nikki Blonsky) has an unstoppably optimistic view of the world around her. Like nearly every other song in this cynical film, the happy lyrics describing a utopian world are in direct opposition to the rundown neighborhood she's dancing through while greeting the "regulars" (including a flasher who we see from the trench coat side). Here she lives the simple life of an iconic cold war teen, along with her father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) who owns the joke shop below their flat, and her reclusive hard-working mother Edna (played by an amazingly disguised Travolta).
Tracy's greatest joys come from the little things like spending time with her best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes). She also loves dancing, which she has been practicing in the exclusively Black detention class at her school. But her favorite pastime is watching the Corny Collins Dance Show. Naively she dreams of being able to strut her stuff on it someday -- even though the short and stout teen is far from the program's typical demographic.
Corny (James Marsden) is Baltimore's Dick Clark, and during this heyday of live studio television, his immensely popular show features handsome and shapely "nice white kids" digging the latest tunes. When the cameras are off however, the smiles fade and politics erupt. Corny wants to quit segregating the Black kids. Currently they appear only on the show's designated "Negro Day" with hostess Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). Unfortunately, station owner Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is dead set against the idea and would really rather focus the cameras on her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow).
Fate begins to interfere with everyone's status quo when one of the female dancer's announces she needs to take a nine-month vacation. With an opening now available, the effervescent Tracy auditions with her best grooves and manages to catch the eye of the show's young male heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Efron). That lands her a spot on the show and brings not only her moves onto the screen but also her seemingly liberated ideas of how White and Black kids should be able to dance together.
Chock full of catchy musical numbers and stellar performances, this movie has surprising appeal as it literally dances its way through sensitive topics about racial prejudice and how we view obesity. Yet its tone, which vacillates between rebellious and flippant, might be offensive to some. Even more problematic may be the not-so-thinly-veiled sexual remarks throughout. Ranging from gossip that implies Tracy has had sex with members of the school football team to Velma's attempt to seduce Wilbur, the bawdy discussions create a stark contrast to the squeaky clean tone and the movie's generous PG rating. Other eyebrow raising content consists of using a crude sexual term and other mild profanities, as well as depictions of teens and adults (including pregnant women and teachers) smoking cigarettes.
For all its poof and coif, Hairspray is much like an artificial sweetener whose sugary fun becomes less appetizing because of a bitter aftertaste.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about Hairspray.
What mixed messages does this film teach? What is the dramatic effect of contrasting the perceived innocence of life in the early 1960s with not-so-innocent sexual remarks and societal problems?
Do you feel it is appropriate to deal with serious issues, like racial segregation, in a comedic fashion? When can humor help to promote understanding and cooperation? When does it belittle or become a distraction?
What is the other prejudice portrayed in this film? Does the media still have a biased view of body image?