By: Elicia O.
Listen. I love Hairspray as much as the next gal. In fact, the 2007 film remake may just be my all-time favorite. It has a lot going for it–namely casting Zac Efron as Link–but, above all, it preaches equality. I do not argue that this is an important message, especially in light of the recent Black Lives Matter Movement. However, I do have a bone to pick with screenwriters Thomas Meehan, Mark O’Donnell, and Leslie Dixon about how they went about conveying this message. I understand that Tracy is the main character of this musical. Although having a white lead while simultaneously making the movie about fighting for equal representation in the media just seems like a double-edged sword. Tracy is a very welcome ally to the cause, except there are quite a few ways in which Tracy acts more like a white savior than an ally. I would argue that Tracy’s white savior complex robbed the other black characters of the opportunity to fight for their own rights. I know that this is a pretty big pill to swallow when I just finished explaining how much I love the musical, but stay with me!
First off, by definition, a white savior is someone who seeks to help non-white people in a way that is both self-serving and fails to acknowledge the rich history and culture of the very people one wishes to “save.” Tracy primarily falls within this trope due to her complete and utterly embarrassing ignorance to what it means to be black. I know what you’re thinking. “Well, she is just a teenage white girl from 1960’s Baltimore, ma’am.” I know! And, do you know what that screams to me? White privilege! For instance, the very fact that Tracy is the one who proposes the march is problematic. “Motormouth” Maybelle and the rest of the cast from Corny Collin’s Negro Day were devastated about losing their monthly time slot on the show. So, Tracy tells them that they can just come dance with her and the other white dancers during their regularly scheduled time slot. Motormouth Maybelle looks confused, to say the very least, and asks Tracy if she’s been “dozing off during history,” to which she replies with “Yes, always.” If Tracy does not understand segregation on a fundamental level and the very injustices that they’re fighting against, then why is she the one to propose the march? Why is Tracy the one who is at the forefront of a movement that she knows absolutely nothing about? At least read a book or something or, you know, look out a window. I mean, it’s 1962 for Pete’s sake!
Sadly, Tracy is not entirely at fault here. The black characters actually feed her white savior complex by taking her in as one of their own. For instance, when Tracy goes to detention and starts dancing with the rest of the black students there, they give her some strange looks at first. However, upon seeing her dance, they warm up to her pretty quickly. Seaweed even calls her “one of us” and invites her to his mom’s house for dinner. I’m sorry, what? So, her dance moves and her outcast, “delinquent” are enough for them to identify with her? I mean, they quite literally invited her to the cookout just for being willing to interact with black people. For context, in black culture, to say that a white person is “invited to the cookout” is basically to reward someone for acting like an ally or simply not being racist, which are two very different things. The latter would apply to Tracy’s case. For a modern day example, many were quick to invite Adele to “the cookout” for rapping to Nicki Minaj’s song “Monster.” They also invited her after she used her speech for her Album of the Year award at the Grammy’s to confess that Beyoncé deserved the award more for her album Lemonade. However, this is problematic because it rewards people for passivity in simply not being racist and openly invites them to feel comfortable participating in our blackness. To say it plainly, Tracy is not black. To some degree, Tracy knows what it feels like to be othered based on her appearance. However, that does not qualify her to be able to identify with the black experience. Although, that is exactly what we see in this musical.
If you need more proof of this, Seaweed has to explain to Tracy why she can’t cross the line dividing the whites from the blacks when dancing on The Corny Collins Show. Then, he gives Tracy permission to use his moves at the dance, which she fails to give Seaweed credit for even after his moves help her get on the show. This is cultural appropriation at its core. Except, as the audience, we are less likely to identify it as such because the writers portray Tracy as having this shared identity with the other black students. The writers chose to make Tracy overweight because they needed something to connect her to the black characters. They needed the audience to see her as just as much of an outcast as the black students. So, when Tracy lands a spot as a regular on the show, they see it as a victory for all of them and remain content with their measly one episode a month. These are not the actions of an ally because Tracy is too busy aligning herself with the black experience to use her privilege to help her friends. Tracy’s colorblindness has prevented her from understanding the repercussions of her actions. She doesn’t understand why it’s problematic that she is prospering from appropriating the same moves that white people think are “cool” on her but are oversexualized and deviant on a black body.
Tracy does come to understand at least a fraction of her white privilege toward the end of the musical. After leaving the cookout, she even sits on her daddy’s lap and confesses that she has been living her life “in a bubble,” “thinking that fairness was just going to happen.” Furthermore, she believes that “people like [her] are going to have to get off their fathers’ laps and go out there and fight for it.” This is a good, constructive mentality to have. She’s starting to think like an ally, someone who can use her privilege to help those who don’t have the luxury of seeing the world without color because there are people who remind them of their color every single day.
However, Tracy quickly goes back to disappointing me with the abuse of her white privilege and her “main character” complex. For example, Tracy proposes the march, which is received as this truly revolutionary idea by the black characters as if Martin Luther King and countless others were not marching for civil rights in the South long before that. Anyway, when they encounter a police barricade, “Motormouth” Maybelle speaks to the authorities about the peaceful nature of their march. When the police officer dismisses her, Tracy yells, “Hey, she was talking to you!” Then, she hits the officer with her sign, despite “Motormouth” Maybelle’s warning against it. Ironically, this was immediately after “Motormouth” Maybelle sang “I Know Where I’ve Been,” which has a soul, gospel feel with a message of hope for the Civil Rights Movement. Tracy, Seaweed, and the other black characters joined in as they sang of how “the pride in [their] hearts” will “lift [them] up to tomorrow.” So, this moment is the culmination of Tracy’s ignorance, colorblindness, and the undeniable evidence of her white savior complex and privilege. The march was supposed to be a peaceful protest, but because of her white savior complex, violence and chaos ensued. She didn’t respect the wishes of the very black people she was trying to help because she didn’t understand how the deck was stacked against them. Despite the march being her idea, she didn’t understand the history of the Black struggle and the nonviolent ideologies that marches like theirs were founded upon. She didn’t understand that black people cannot raise their voices at an officer because they risk police brutality, detainment, and even death at the slightest sign of resistance. However, “Motormouth” Maybelle and the other black characters are not upset with Tracy one bit. In fact, they praise her for what she did. As such, the rest of the musical becomes about protecting Tracy, the fugitive, and her grand return to the Corny Collins stage. Although, once she gets there, she does make sure to bring her black friends onto the stage to share the moment with her and finally get their time in the spotlight. But is that really enough?
I can’t say that this musical is all bad. As I said before, despite all of its issues, I still love it. However, that doesn’t mean that I can’t expect better. I wrote this essay because I wanted to stop making excuses for writers who simply “tried.” Hairspray does a really good job of encouraging efforts toward equality, especially by highlighting that a lot of us have been discriminated against, whether that be based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or body image. However, I am not in the business of comparing one’s injustices. Moreover, being an ally and fighting for equality does not require that you have a shared injustice with the oppressed. Although, it does require that you be a human being who cares about people, regardless of whether they are like you. An ally must also be willing to listen, learn, and use their privilege to help others’ voices be heard because the injustices that seem foreign to them are everyday experiences lived by others. That’s where Tracy went wrong. Just because she was the main character in her own story doesn’t mean that she had to be the main character in everyone else’s. She simply wasn’t qualified to take on the burden of such a culture-shaking movement, especially when those around her had been fighting for a whole lot longer than she had. Black people are more than just supporting roles to their white leads. We have stories of our own, and we’ve been fighting for the right to tell them for centuries. We have voices, pain, dreams, and the power to make them come true just like anybody else. I just wish that this musical would have showcased that through Black eyes, instead of through the colorblind eyes of an ignorant girl with a white savior complex.