A Sociological Interpretation Of The Film 'Hairspray'

A Sociological Interpretation Of The Film 'Hairspray'

Even though this film was released 12 years ago, and the story took place almost 60 years ago, the social issues highlighted in this film are still a part of major discussions we continue to have today.

New Line Cinema

Directed by Adam Shankman in 2007, the film Hairspray follows an overweight teenager, Tracy Turnblad, as she becomes a dancer on her favorite show, The Corny Collins Show, and soon changes the whole dynamic (as well as future) of the show. The film easily aligns with the conflict theory that focuses on how society is divided, inequalities, and the need for social change. Tracy Turnblad breaks the norms for the dance show as all the dancers fit a certain body image, but she is considered overweight which quickly irritates the boss, Velma Von Tussle, especially since she was picked to for the open spot on the show. The film kicks off its illustration of inequalities with this unequal opportunity to get on the show based on weight and is only the beginning as it quickly turns to inequalities based on race. It is clearly evident that the show needs to have some major changes, and Tracy Turnblad is the girl to set it all in motion.

On The Corny Collins Show, they have one day set aside for black dancers and announcer, Motormouth Maybelle, called "Negro Day." As the film is set in the 1960s, racism is evident throughout the film as many of the people associated with the show believe that they are superior since they're white and the blacks in the community are different and are unequal or inferior to them; therefore, the blacks are undeserving of permanent spots on the show and only receive one day which even ends up getting canceled toward the end of the film. Tracy ends up befriending these black dancers, particularly Seaweed, one day when she is sent to detention in school and quickly recognizes their talent that deserves more time on the show. The more she gets to know Seaweed, Little Inez and Motormouth Maybelle, the more infuriated she becomes toward the racism displayed by The Corny Collins Show. Tracy becomes very outspoken and takes action to help the black dancers get an equal opportunity on the show. At the beginning of the film, she shocks Velma Von Tussle, and possibly many viewers, when Corny Collins asked her what her first act as president would be if she ever got that position; her response was "I'd make every day Negro Day." From this moment to her joining Motormouth Maybelle and the black dancers' march on the WYZT network after "Negro Day" was canceled, Tracy helped fight the racism and prejudice from The Corny Collins Show as Velma Von Tussle tried to steer everyone in the "white direction," not necessarily the "right direction."

While the negative attitudes, thoughts, and judgments toward Tracy and the black dancers was a major part of the film, there was another instance of prejudice seen throughout the story. Tracy's best friend, Penny Pingleton, ends up falling in love with Seaweed which of course causes issues as they would be an interracial couple. And Penny's mother is very religious and protective of Penny. One instance when she found Penny watching The Corny Collins Show with Tracy, she punished Penny by tying her to her bed and left her in her room while saying "devil child, devil child." So it's no question what her feelings toward her daughter dating a black boy would be. When she saw Penny kiss Seaweed on the live finale of The Corny Collins Show her mom literally jumped up from her seat, yelling and tripped over her coffee table.

Also, at this finale, Little Inez (Seaweed's sister) dances and ends up winning Miss Teenage Hairspray which also means she has become the lead dancer on the show. This grande ending allows Corny Collins to stand up to Velma Von Tussle and announces that the show is now and forever officially integrated, calling it the future after she begs him to do something since the show is "turning to gumbo," but he continues to let the dancers be integrated for the finale.

Finally, this film also addresses issues of gender and the socially constructed norms arranged around one's sex. There are traditional roles of gender as well as uncommon roles displayed in the film. Tracy's parents, Edna Turnblad and Wilbur Turnblad, are examples of traditional roles. Wilbur is the money-maker and supporter for the family as he owns and runs a Joke Shop. Edna fulfills the traditional domestic roles of women by staying at home and taking care of the house. However, Edna's character does defy stereotypes in a few ways. For one, she does have an income by doing other women's ironing, mending, washing, etc. Also, her character is played by a man, John Travolta, which is quite uncommon. Additionally, another woman who defies gender stereotypes (or the rigid views of how members of various groups act) is Velma Von Tussle. She is the one controlling The Corny Collins Show while Mr. Spitzer and Corny Collins abide by her views and ideas for the show. For a majority of the film, these two men answer to her and follow her orders instead of the traditional role of the man being the boss. And these men tolerate her role until the end of the film where they finally disregard her prejudiced views and allow the show to grow and become more inclusive.

With a film concentrating on the prevalence of multiple inequalities in the depicted story, it's no doubt going to fit the conflict theory as these inequalities are not functional for the society and there is a need for social change. Hairspray acknowledges, challenges, and begins to overcome these inequalities.
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