Hairspray: You Can’t Stop the White Savior Complex

By Hayden Paige and Natalie Wright

From dissecting cow hearts to analyzing musical theatre together, Hayden and Natalie are the epitome of a dynamic duo. Whether growing up listening to Seth Rudetsky’s radio show in the car or donning a pillowcase to act in Annie in 1st grade, both women maintain a long-term love for musical theatre. Read along as these two self-identified theatre nerds debate whether the 2007 movie musical Hairspray actually advocates for racial equality or instead promotes a white savior narrative.

Natalie- So… Hairspray?

Hayden- …

N- …

H- There’s a lot to talk about here. After all, at its core, the 2007 movie musical Hairspray focuses on a young woman trying to bring about integration and promote equality, yet the approach can be problematic at times.

N- Yeah, so definitely a lot to talk about. There are a lot of great things about the show, you know, it’s not as easy as like Miss Saigon where– there it was easy to say, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so racist. This is horrible.’ With Hairspray, you can’t just say this is all good or all bad. There’s a lot to be said about the great things in the show: having so many roles for Black actors and dancers, having a plus-sized woman in the main role, the fun music, Elijah Kelley…

H- Yes. Hairspray does a pretty great job of depicting Black culture in a positive light. There are no blatantly obvious negative stereotypes about Black people that we often see in Hollywood. 

N- And it doesn’t ignore race like so many Broadway productions do. 

H- Which, to be honest, is definitely the bare minimum. To essentially praise a movie for not being actively racist or ignoring race entirely just highlights the prevalence of such racist portrayals and how low our expectations have been made.

N- Watching this movie, it’s pretty obvious that the creative team–director Adam Shankman, screenwriter Leslie Dixon, and playwrights Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan–is entirely white.

H- Even though it is about the civil rights movement, it feels as if white people are the target audience. It’s a feel-good movie for white people to think ‘wow this is so heartwarming.’ Sort of like The Blind Side, you essentially have a white person helping the black people and it’s supposed to be like ‘wow, look how far we’ve come!’ However, in reality, viewers are looking at racism through a very whitewashed perspective – viewing the history of the struggle for integration with Rose Colored Glasses. 

N- One of the most obvious examples of this is that Tracy, the white girl, is the protagonist, not any of the important black characters like Motormouth Maybelle or Seaweed. And this is exemplified when we see Tracy at the front of the march for racial equality on the Corny Collins Show in the song “I Know Where I’ve Been.”

N- This is not the role of an ally, you know? The goal isn’t to be at the front– to prove that you’re a supporter. Being an ally is about lifting other people’s voices up and respecting them and their struggles. The story places Tracy at the forefront of a movement that isn’t about her. Also, just look at her costume (chosen by costume designer Rita Ryack) compared to the others’. The white shirt draws the watcher’s eye toward Tracy– she stands out like a sore thumb.

H- Tracy has her own agenda and does not keep in mind what is best for helping the Black community. When Motormouth Maybelle specifically tells Tracy, “It’s alright… I can handle this,” Tracy completely discounts Maybelle to pursue what she wants, which puts everyone’s lives in jeopardy. By hitting the officer in the head with the sign, she severely escalates the situation. It makes this march no longer a peaceful protest and essentially gives the officers the justification they need to respond with violence. 

N- And of course, this violence isn’t aimed at the white people–

H- Tracy is so ignorant about the way that Black people receive differential treatment by the police. 

N- It’s worth noting that in this version of the story, the police threaten to arrest the protesters, but we don’t actually see that happen. We don’t see the consequences of Tracy’s actions on the Black protesters. We see Tracy gets to run away while the Black protesters are stuck in this position. 

H- The film cuts away from the cops fighting with protesters only 11 seconds after the conflict begins. Way to gloss over police brutality–

N- But crucially, we don’t see any of the Black protesters get arrested or injured, as often happened in situations like this in real life. The film doesn’t want to talk about the very real aspects of the civil rights movement that aren’t pretty, aren’t funny, and most of all aren’t uplifting.

H- Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Viewers are looking at racism through a very whitewashed perspective – viewing the history of the struggle for integration with Rose Colored Glasses.

Hayden Paige

N- So why do the creators think it’s okay to put Tracy at the front of this?

H- Creators of the original musical Meehan and O’Donnell depict Tracy’s ability to understand the struggles of the Black community as being a result of her own struggles as a plus-sized woman. Yet, equating the marginalization of Black and plus-size people is so problematic.

N- If you don’t mind me flexing the racial theory I’ve read–

H- No, go ahead!

N- There’s this one line of thinking in racial theory called anti-Blackness. It’s sort of a counterintuitive title; the theory itself is not anti-Black– it’s about acknowledging anti-Blackness. The idea is that part of what we need to do to, I don’t know, ameliorate anti-Black racism is to identify anti-Blackness as distinct from other subjects. It’s the idea that anti-Blackness should not be classified under “racism” as a whole because it is so unique. And whether or not you agree with this line of theory, it’s an interesting concept to bring up– is it fair, is it respectful to equate racism with fatphobia? Yes, they’re both struggles, like I’ve been there– body image is its own thing. But does it minimize the civil rights movement and the continued work to combat anti-Black racism to compare the two?

H- It’s almost as if because Tracy is plus-sized, she is allowed to step into these Black spaces–

N- And at times appropriate the hell out of them! I mean she gets on the Corny Collins Show because she’s doing a dance she “borrowed” from Seaweed, a dance representative of the Black culture she’s only recently been introduced to. And, I mean, he gives her permission, but she doesn’t give him credit.

H- She also treats Black culture as if she was twelve-year-old me gushing over One Direction. Rather than appreciating Black culture, her excessive excitement feels as if she and her best friend Penny are fetishizing it. When Seaweed invites them over to a party in his neighborhood, Penny exclaims her excitement to be invited somewhere “by colored people,” which Tracy adds is “so hip.” Nikki Blonsky, the actor portraying Tracy, makes the decision to increase the pitch of her voice to a squealing sound and bring her hands to her face in a look of disbelief while delivering this line. Such a portrayal of Tracy’s elation gives the impression that integration is this sort of cool fad that she wants to be part of, diminishing the complexity of the systematic abuse that Black people face on a daily basis.

The film doesn’t want to talk about the very real aspects of the civil rights movement that aren’t pretty, aren’t funny, and most of all aren’t uplifting.

Natalie Wright

N- Yeah, and later when they meet Motormouth Maybelle for the first time, Tracy says the party is “Afro-tastic.” Which I guess is supposed to be a compliment? I mean Maybelle’s response is best described as amused and, perhaps, caught off guard, not offended.

H- There’s a fine line between praising Black culture and fetishizing it. Plus, it’s like you guys have been going to school with Black people for a while now- why are you just now discovering Black culture as if you were discovering a hot new trend? It just shows a big gap between the meaning of Black culture and what she perceives.

 N- There’s an argument to be made that she starts with this attitude but then goes on a character journey and learns from this initial misconception. She has a conversation with her dad where they bring up the fact that if she helps with the march it will likely really hurt her career as a dancer, but she helps anyway. So I think you can argue that she does learn to treat the movement not as a fad but as an important and moral thing to do with real consequences, even if they’re not portrayed realistically.

H- That’s definitely a valid point of view. What are your thoughts on the ending? I found it somewhat problematic. I feel like while they pretended to bring both groups together, as symbolically portrayed in Tracy’s “checkerboard” dress, I felt like the final number, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” felt more like Black’s assimilation into white culture rather than a shared appreciation of both. 

N- I’d actually disagree with that. I think “You Can’t Stop the Beat” does a good job of bringing both styles of dance together. 

H- Whereas songs like “Run and Tell That” really made sure to incorporate traditional elements of Black cultural dance, such as head shaking and drum sounds, I felt like “You Can’t Stop the Beat” lacked even a trace of those elements. My sister actually took traditional African dance classes growing up. When I would pick her up or watch her performances, I remember her teacher, Ms. Debbie Allen, would always speak about some of her favorite aspects of African dance: the asymmetrical body placement, the angular motions, rhythmic movements, and scuffing feet. Throughout “Run and Tell That” Elijah Kelley and friends really embody those movements such as when they drag their feet as they slide down the hallway with bobbing heads and shoulders. Yet, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” does not have these elements. Also, I might add, both “Run and Tell That” along with “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful” were choreographed by Jamal Sims, who is black. However, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” was primarily choreographed by Adam Shankman who identifies as a White Jewish man.

N- That’s a fair criticism, but I’d compare the dance moves in the white girls’ version of “New Girl in Town” to best illustrate my point. You can see that the white dance moves are very structured. There’s only one part of the body moving at any one moment, and it’s like there’s a rod keeping their spines completely straight through all of the dance, almost like a ballet dancer. Now, compare this with the Black girls’ version of “New Girl in Town,” the Black dance is full body motion. They focus a lot on head movement as well, and you can see each character’s personality in their movement and facial expressions. I’d say “You Can’t Stop the Beat”s style is closer to the latter. Its full body motion and allows for more suggestive moments, like Edna’s shimmying, where the previous white dances would never go there. 

H- Ehh, that’s fair. But what about the vocals? The Black girls’ version of “New Girl in Town” incorporates traditional gospel influences and “Run and Tell That” is written in R & B style, whereas there is not even a bit of that in “You Can’t Stop the Beat.

N- I think during Maybelle’s verse there is a bit of gospel influence in the ensemble vocal pattern. But you’re right, it’s definitely not done throughout the song. One thing I really liked about that song though was that they made Little Inez the pageant queen. It was likely mostly Black people calling in to vote for her, thus showing that the integration of television affects everyone in the community, not just those on the show.

H- Well actually… just to play devil’s advocate, I kind of felt like this promotes conforming to white values. Traditionally this sort of pageant and the idea of winning a tiara as a prize has been associated with this idea of white beauty. While you could argue it breaks down this system of white beauty, to me, I feel like it imposes white ideals onto Black women. 

N- Well, what’s the alternative? Some white girl gets it? I think it’s more than just about the title; winning this means that Inez will be the new featured dancer, and honestly, that’s one of the most radical acts we see in this movie.

H- Ooo. That’s a good point. I did not think about it that way, but you are definitely right.

N- So what do you think, does the movie advocate for racial equality or does it promote a white savior narrative?

H- Yes.

N- So both? 

H- …

N- Honestly, fair.