Hairspray (2007): Come so Far; So Far to Go

Posted: October 24, 2013 in Steven Jonas
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,
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Dr. J.’s Commentary: Hairspray: We’ve Come so Far; We Have So Far to Go

by Steven Jonas

Hairspray is a movie that can be taken on a number of levels, your choice. It’s a funny, sassy, heartwarming old-style Hollywood movie musical about teenage life in Baltimore, circa 1962. It’s about actors like Christopher Walken, John Travolta, Queen Latifah, and Michelle Pfeiffer playing against type (and doing it marvelously well). It’s about a classic Hollywood “discovery,” the previously unknown high school senior, an aspiring actress from Great Neck, NY, Nikki Blonsky, delivering a drop-dead performance as the lead, Tracy Turnblad. It’s about terrific singing and dancing all designed to make you feel oh-so-good while you’re watching it.

At the next level, the social issue of obesity is prevalent, how it affects the lives of so many Americans in so many different ways. John Travolta in a fat suit playing Tracy’s mom shows how socially crippling it can be. Tracy, also obese, shows how one can overcome the prejudice our society has against overweight people, even as it encourages overweight (much more now through the role of the food industry than back then, but back then too). Tracy says “I’m happy with myself. I can do tons of stuff, and if you don’t like me because I’m fat, that’s your issue, not mine.”

The next level is classically political. The movie shows very starkly just how the nation was beginning for the first time to deal with race-relations and the coming desegregation, in a former Border State city, Baltimore. A highly popular afternoon teenage TV show that features high-powered singing and dancing by and for teens is totally and consciously segregated. It’s an all-white show, with one “Negro Day” a month. In Tracy’s high school, when she is sent to detention for some minor infraction in the classroom, virtually everyone else there is African-American. It is in that setting that Tracy, who can already dance, is introduced to the coming wave of African-American popular dancing that is about to burst into the mainstream for the first time.

Tracy, who looks entirely different from all the other white kids on the show, somehow manages to win a dance contest and get a slot on it for herself. But by then, she has already been taken by the black dancing and is beginning to spend time with and work her way into the culture. She eventually proclaims that the show should be integrated and, with Queen Latifah who plays the entertainer-leader of the black kids, she is in the leadership of a street march and demonstration that eventually leads to just that eventuality. For a Hollywood movie, this one has an unusual amount of bare-bones, yes, that-is-what-it-was-like, politics in it. The progressive forces are the good guys. The police and the station management are the bad guys (and boy does Michelle Pfeiffer do a marvelous job of playing a bad guy). And the movie ends with the triumph of integration over prejudice, at least circa 1962.

The next level on which one can view the movie and its lessons is not nearly so happy. This is one that is encapsulated in a line from the movie’s climactic musical number: “We’ve come so far; we have so far to go.” Indeed we do, in terms of race relations in our country. The issue is not on the movie’s agenda in any way. But the line does make the politically conscious person think, right to the present. Are things better than in 1962? Of course they are, in many areas of discrimination. Are things worse? Oh yes they are, in the political arena. During the 1960s, it seemed that political racism was on the way out, that George Wallace would be its last howl of un-reason. And then came Nixon and the Southern Strategy that has defined the modern Republican Party.

Race prejudice and its political usage is what defines the Southern Strategy, and defined the Nixonian Republicans into the Reagan Era. Starting with Reagan’s capitulation to the Christian Right, the modern Bush-Cheney-Rove Republican has taken prejudice to a much broader level and made it into their party’s political foundation. Race is there, of course, in the judicial nominations that led to the recent Roberts Court decision that said racism is for communities to decide, through their democratically elected representatives. And racism is there in the conscious campaign started by Ashcroft to use the “Justice” Department to suppress black voting, under the cover of “dealing with election fraud as mandated by the Civil Rights Act (sic, and sick).” But these folks have taken the political use of prejudice to a whole new level.

Just consider: the political exploitation of prejudice against homosexuals simply because of who they are, not anything they have done; the political exploitation of prejudice against those of us (in this case, the majority of the population) who believe life begins at the time of viability, and the drive to criminalize our belief; the political exploitation of prejudice against Hispanics through the whole so-called “illegal immigration crisis”; the political exploitation of a prejudice these people are building from the ground up: Islamophobia; the political exploitation of prejudice against anyone who is labeled a “liberal,” because as Ann Coulter/Sean Hannity/Rush Limbaugh/Bill O’Reilly say out in the open and the party’s leadership says in code words, “liberals” are traitors, and, it so happens, the penalty in this country for treason is death.

Yes, the modern Republican Party has reached new depths. If the Democrats don’t begin to take it on directly on this issue of the political use of prejudice, and soon, it will very likely, very quickly get to be too late. Yes indeed, “We’ve come so far; we have so far to go.”

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY), a weekly contributing author for The Political Junkies, and contributing editor for The Moving Planet Blog.

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