How One of the “Nicest Kids in Town” Helped Turn Segregation into Integration (Hairspray)

By:Morgan Baxendale 


Back in the 1960s, in Baltimore, Maryland, you would never think that a plump, regular teenager could make such a monumental difference with integration, but that’s exactly what Tracy Turnblad did. John Water’s production of “Hairspray” emphasized what segregation was like during this time, but also what it looked like to overcome it. This production also made its way to the big screen in 2007, when Nicole Blonksky played the star role as Tracy Turnblad. There were aspects to both the broadway show and the film that showed just what it was like during that time and what the future was going to look like in the lens of segregation.  During this period of time in Baltimore, The Corny Collins Show was one of the most popular entertainment shows that was aired on television. This TV program was based on the real-life Buddy Dean Show that portrayed a typical teenage dance show that mainly consisted of white kids. Tracy Turnblad was completely in love with this show and knew someday she would be dancing on that stage alongside those other hip, rockin’, cool kids. Once Tracy saw there was an opening on the show, she had to go for it, and that’s when she would make an impact that would last for decades. The culture that the country was surrounding itself in needed to be changed, and Tracy Turnblad made a giant step in the right direction because of her actions on The Corny Collins Show.  

The setting of this production was taking place at a pivotal point in the Jim Crow Era of racial segregation. This system regulated African Americans to the position of second class citizens that started back in 1877. The Corny Collins Show was the most popular teenage dance program in Baltimore, June of 1962, and the host of the annual Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant every year, but it demonstrated how segregated the culture was at the time. Even though there were so many great things about the show that people loved, the one pivotal aspect about the show that, in my opinion, needed to change, and that was the fact that it was extremely segregated. A majority of the dancers on the show were popular white teenagers. The show did allow black dancers to be a part of it, but they were only allowed to perform on the show once a month during negro day. If both groups of dancers had to be sharing the stage with one another, the white dancers and the black dancers would have to be separated. Even though people knew this was wrong, producer of the show, Velma von Tussle, wasn’t planning on changing anything anytime soon, until Tracy Turnblad came in and changed it all. 

Ever since Tracy can remember, it has been her dream to dance on The Corny Collins Show. Everyday after school Tracy Turnblad and best friend, Penny, rushed home to watch The Corny Collins Show. She loved the dancing, the energy, and Link Larkin, the heartthrob on the show. On one particular afternoon, Corny Collins announces that one of the dancers on the show would be taking a leave of absence for 9 months and they needed a replacement. Right at that very moment, Tracy knew this was her chance to live out her dreams, but also changing the norm when it came to campaigning for the show to integrate. She was thinking of the bigger picture, not just her desires and dreams, but the hopes of society coming together as one. 

When Tracy arrived at the audition, she knew the environment was going to be hostile and unwelcoming because of Velma von Tussle and the rest of the white teens. All of those teenagers were fully aware of the segregation that was occurring on the show and in their community, but because of higher authorities and people like Velma von Tussle, they didn’t plan on changing their mindset. Velma von Tussle and the other producers of the Corny Collins Show favored a white dancer, but Corny Collins picked Tracy as the replacement because of her talented dance moves, but especially because of her plans for the show moving forward. A lot of people have plans to make big things happen, but to actually have the motivation and drive to do it, is a big difference. Tracy knew that if she could get on this type of stage she could let all of the viewers watching and the people within the show know that integration is where our world is heading, and let’s get on the bus to head there. Tracy exceeded society’s restrictions and judgements in order to make it on the big stage and live out what she was called to do.

The following day after Tracy’s audition for the show, she meets an African American boy named Seaweed who is one of the dancers that performs on the monthly Negro day (that boy sure had some moves). They met in detention after Tracy got in trouble for her hair blocking other students’ view in the classroom. Seaweed and the rest of his crew were all part of the Negro day on The Corny Collins Show, and they, too, wanted to despartely help integrate the show. After their detention session, Seaweed urges Tracy and Link, who was also in detention, to come back to Motormouth Maybelle’s Record Shop. That’s where Tracy meets Seaweed’s little sister Little Inez and his mother to talk about the future of the show and the future they want to see integrated. All of them agreed that something needed to be done about integrating both the black and white dancers on The Corny Collins Show. After much discussion, they decided that a protest was the best way to prove what should be done. 

During the protest, Motormouth Maybelle expresses herself and everyone around her with such power and grace through her number, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” I don’t know this personally, but I’m sure most African Americans in the U.S. have faced hardship, stereotyping, and judgement because of the color of their skin. The words that were sung during this number speak volumes to what some people face everyday and to what some people have been facing for decades. “There’s a light in the darkness, though the night is black as my skin, there’s a light burning bright, showing me the way, but I know where I’ve been.” The community that is surrounding Motormouth Maybelle is truly surreal, but does a great job at emphasizing the severity of this problem and how long it has been occurring. Even in 2020 there are still protests and riots about issues like this going on every single day around our country. You’d think that after almost 60 years that issues of segregation would’ve come to a close, but that’s definitely not the case. At the conclusion of the number, the police take a small incident with one of the members in the protest out of proportion and wanted to arrest people. Criminal injustice and police brutality had affected Black Baltimoreans from a wide range of religious and professional backgrounds. Events like this continue to happen on a daily basis in our society today, and people have no tolerance for it and will do whatever it takes to show higher authorities and the community that they need to accept how our country needs to make this change for the better.

The big event that takes place at the end of every year for the show is Miss Teenage Hairspray Pageant. It’s a competition that each of the girls on the show can participate in, except for the African American girls on the show. Each of the girls are judged on their dancing, specific special talent, and how pretty and lovable they can be toward the audience. Even though Tracy wasn’t allowed to participate because the cops were looking for her because of the events that took place during the protest, she snuck her way in and absolutely stole the show. After Tracy is declared the winner she encourages all of the dancers, including the Black dancers to all join her on stage and show that this is how the show should be. The Corny Collins Show looked and acted completely unified. One of the key moments in the final number of the musical is when Tracy invites Little Inez during “You Can’t Stop the Beat” to join her and dance on stage. Little Inez refined what it was like to be a part of The Corny Collins Show and proved that no matter who you are or what your race is, that you can absolutely be a part of something big like this. Even though Tracy was initially declared the winner of the pageant, she knew that there was something else significant that needed to be done. Tracy knew that the true winner of the pageant was Little Inez for her unbelievable talents, the inspiration she showed to everyone, and the mental toughness that she had to overcome because of the color of her skin.

The Corny Collins Show is now and forevermore officially integrated!” This declaration made by Tracy was the beginning of the end of the hit musical “Hairspray.” After many years of the show being segregated, the show is finally making a turn for the better. Even though most people at this time were comfortable with everyone being separated and treated differently, this was not how it was going to be forever. Yes, severe segregation in the United States came to a close towards the end of the 1960s; however  there are still instances today where people treat others how they did decades ago. Segregation is just something that always seems to be relevant in our culture and something that people need to continue to work on. Hairspray did an incredible job of portraying what segregation was like back in the 1960s, but ended with the reality that we are now and forevermore racially integrated and as a country we need to start acting like it once more.