Some Thoughts on Hairspray

Via Paul the Spud, I have learned that John Travolta doesn’t believe there’s anything gay about playing a role originated by Divine, in the Broadway musical version of a John Freakin’ Waters movie.

Since I don’t want to get sued, I’m just going to leave this space open for you to fill in your thoughts on that _____________.

I was already outraged about the casting of Travolta in the new movie, which I am otherwise dying to see (inevitable unfavorable comparison to the original notwithstanding, I’m a sucker for both musicals and fat girls dancing), because he’s in a goddamned fat suit. Heaven forbid they hire someone actually fat to play the role. But this?

“There is nothing gay in this movie,” Travolta told the London Times on-line. “I’m not playing a gay man.” Besides, the actor insists, Scientology isn’t anti-gay, despite numerous reports that it seeks to “cure” homosexuality.

Are you fucking kidding me? No, you’re not playing a gay man, you’re just doing a piss poor job of filling a gay man’s — a fat gay man’s, I might add — iconic shoes. The two things aren’t related at all. And of course it’s just silly to suggest that Scientologists might have a problem with teh gays.


While I’m ranting, it was suggested in the Shakesville thread — among many, many other places, no doubt — that Ricki Lake would have made an ideal (if slightly young) Edna for this version. I’m not convinced. I mean, in the happy, imaginary world in my head, in which Ricki Lake is forever Tracy Turnblad, it’s a fantastic idea; I’m just not sure about it in this world.

The 1988 Hairspray was the first remotely fat-positive thing I can ever recall seeing. I remember reading an interview around that time with Ricki Lake in (I’m almost certain) Sassy, titled “Ricki Lake Has Two and a Half Boyfriends.” It was the first I’d ever heard of her, and I vividly recall looking at the pictures of her Hairspray-sized self and thinking, “She gets to date? There are men who would go out with her? SERIOUSLY?!? Is that POSSIBLE?”

I was 13, and I had literally never before encountered the idea that a fat girl could be happy as-is and/or consider herself attractive (let alone be judged attractive by other people). What I knew was that fat was ugly, bad, depressing, miserable, shameful. That no boy in the history of humankind had ever found a fat girl hot. That fat was not something you could ever be comfortable with; that you were required to spend every day of your goddamned life trying not to be fat, and if you failed, you would not deserve love. Those were, after all, the messages my fat family kept giving me, in addition to the whole rest of the world.

And then there was Ricki Lake. And her two and a half boyfriends. And Hairspray.

I haven’t seen Hairspray in years, and I suspect there’s a lot in there that would make me cringe now. And it took me about 15 more years of self-loathing before I really started to embrace the concept of fat acceptance. But still, when I think about where I first encountered the concept at all, that Ricki Lake interview was it. She didn’t (apparently) hate herself. She didn’t hide. She didn’t assume she had no shot with men. She was just her fat self, and that was that. It blew my adolescent mind.

Then she got famous. Then she lost weight. Then she gained weight. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ricki Lake was, as it turned out, not some kind of Fat Supergirl who could let all the hatred bounce right off her big ass, but a fat girl just like me — and just like Oprah, just like Carnie Wilson, just like most of them. A fat girl who wanted more than anything to be thin. “Love yourself the way you are” morphed into “Love yourself enough to get rid of all that odious fat that’s holding you back.” And for a long time, I didn’t even see anything wrong with that.

Recently, Ricki’s been in the news because she’s once again lost weight and is currently thinner than she’s ever been. Here’s what she has to say about it:

“I have become a little obsessed with the scale. I get on the scale every morning to make sure I didn’t gain any weight or maybe I lost more. You want to be well adjusted and not get too extreme.”

Yeah. You wouldn’t want to get too extreme or anything.

Don’t get me wrong — I don’t hate Ricki now, I’m not mad at her for letting the fat girls down, and although I’m disappointed, I’m certainly not confused about why an actor would spend 20 years struggling to lose weight, even after going on the record as being fine with her fat. It is what it is.

But I also really wouldn’t want to see her as Edna at this point (unless she were the only alternative to John Travolta). And frankly, I wonder if she would have taken the role if she’d been offered it. (Maybe she was, for all I know.) Putting on a fat suit would have to be quite the head trip for her these days — not to mention, she’d run the risk of people not even realizing she’s no longer fat (for now), something she seems rather keen to point out.

And again, it’s not like I don’t understand that. She’s an actor; in her field, this is what passes for an important commitment to your career. And substantial weight loss is a very difficult thing to achieve, even temporarily, so I totally get being proud of that accomplishment — lord knows I was, both times I did it — however ultimately counterproductive I believe it is. I also get that even if she were trying to do this only for herself and avoid dwelling on it publicly, every reporter she got within a mile of would still start off with, “OMG, how’d you lose the weight??”

But it’s a huge bummer nonetheless that the first woman who ever made me consider the possibility that fat girls weren’t all doomed to miserable, loveless lives is now, in her own words, “obsessed with the scale.”

And much about this new Hairspray seems like a bummer, although I will probably pay money to see it anyway, just to appreciate Nikki Blonsky.

Also, John Travolta is a fucking tool. That’s all.

30 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Hairspray

  1. Camryn Manheim is a little too young, too, but she would have been awesome in that role.

    I think what’s frustrating about all this is that John Waters made this subversive wonderful movie, and it feels like it’s just been eaten by the media machine that is Hollywood. If they’d really wanted to be true to the original, they would have gone looking for a drag queen right out of the clubs.

  2. Amen! About Rikki, John Travolta, everything.

    I’ve seen the original recently, and it’s still awesome.

  3. Later, rinse, repeat on Manheim, too. Though I imagine her attitude towards her body is like everyone else’s, I respect the heck out of Kathy Bates for never promoting herself through body stigmatization at all. At least if she had its phenomenally below the radar. I might have liked her. Don’t know if she can sing and dance, though.

  4. Kate, I too doubt Ricki Lake would have taken the Edna role if it was offered her, for exactly the reason you described — she wouldn’t have wanted people to think she was “still fat.” Not to mention “that old.”

    I can only conclude that Travolta is an example of “stunt casting” that’s supposed to bring in people who ordinarily wouldn’t go see this film. But I can’t help but wonder if he really does have some bisexual tendencies, at least, which this role allows him to play around with, without having to actually “come out” about it (and screw up his Scientology rank in the process).

    Me, I never trust a fat celebrity anymore, especially not an actor (or a singer who aspires to be an actor), to stay unapologetic about their weight. I just pretty much take for granted that as soon as they become really famous, it’s diet time. Look, nobody becomes an actor to get ignored, and most of the roles out there require that you be thin, thin, thin, and thinner. Even size 4’s are told to slim down for the cameras. It’s insanity.

  5. Just for the record, the views expressed by commenters do not necessarily reflect the views of the owner of this blog.

    They might make her laugh, though.

  6. I was referring more to Meowser’s speculation, in fact, but I don’t think there’s any need for deletion just yet. Hope I’m right. :)

  7. My understanding of libel law is that “I can’t help but wonder if” constitutes opinion, not false statement of fact. But if you know something I don’t, I will understand completely if you have to delete what I wrote. I don’t want to get anyone sued.

  8. Meowser, that’s my understanding, too, hence no deletion. I was teasing, as much as anything.

    But this is, of course, all UNINFORMED SPECULATION that represents nothing but PERSONAL OPINIONS. :)

  9. I don’t give a rat’s ass if JOHN TRAVOLTA LIKES COCK. I wouldn’t know. But I know that he’s no Divine. That role doesn’t need to be gay (although Hairspray is certainly a gay movie — hello, John Waters), and it doesn’t need ot be a man, but it does need to be HIGH. CAMP. I’ve seen no evidence, at least no recent evidence, that Travolta can do camp. If he can’t tell that Hairspray is a gay movie ( hello, John Waters. Hello, musical.), then he definitely has no camp sensibilities at all.

    That said, yeah, Nikki Blonsky. Plus, it’s every fat girl’s favorite movie; I teared up a little at the preview. A remake of a remake of a movie that was already freakin’ fabulous? Phenomenally dumb. Getting my money? Probably so.

  10. BTW BStu, Kathy Bates is a phenominal singer and dancer. She played Ms. Hannigan in the 1999 movie production of Annie and was fantastic! I’ve alway adored Kathy Bates, and would have loved to have seen her in this role.

  11. Since I may not be the only person here for doesn’t trust WIkipedia to be anything other than a gossipy slam book full of superficial impressions (I hate Wikipedia, ‘kay?), here’s a substantiated discussion on Scientology and its positions over the years on matters gay: Religious Tolerance site.

    Casting Travolta was just sad. How many roles are there where fat, gay transvestities get first dibs? Not fair, and not any fun, either.

  12. Kate, once again you have said what I was thinking only you said it better. You is one eloquent beeotch.

    I hope to meet you at BloHer!

  13. Except that Ricki Lake was an ABSOLUTELY ADORABLE fat girl who became a very ordinary-looking sort-of-thin girl. When she was fat, she had a joie de vivre that was gone after she lost the weight….probably because she’s been hungry every waking minute of the day ever since. Been there, done that.

  14. My vote would go to Darcelle XV, but Kathy Bates would be rad! I can’t really think of a role I wouldn’t like to see her do, up to and including Hamlet.

    I’ve been a little hesitant to see this movie because I loved the original so much, and the trailers make it clear that what I loved best about the 1988 movie is going to be missing: it wasn’t a big deal that Tracy (or Edna, for that matter) was fat. She just happened to be fat, like someone might happen to be short, or blonde, or blue-eyed. There was none of that self-conscious ‘oh-ho-ho…what’s crazy about us is that our star is a FAT GIRL! She’s gonna make the BIG time! She’s got a TON of talent!”

    As far as I can remember, “Hairspray” is the ONLY movie I’ve ever seen where a fat character gets to just be a person and the story has nothing to do with her being fat. When I saw this movie (in high school) I remember waiting for the obligatory moment when someone would put Tracy Turnblad in her place, and being so astonished when opportunity after opportunity arose and it never happened. Ditto Edna – it was never an issue in the movie that she was a fat, none-too-pretty drag queen.

    Also WTF??? Not a gay movie? I SO wish they had cast someone else in that role. Anyone else.

    Okay, Kate – you’ve inspired me to get on my bike and go rent “Lust in the Dust” and “Polyester.” There just is no one like John Waters. Sigh.

  15. Great post. How about Queen Latifah as Edna??

    I would watch Queen Latifah in anything (which is another reason I’ll be paying to see the new Hairspray, in fact), but that would probably require recasting the role of her daughter. :)

  16. I actually remember an interview with Ricki Lake the first time she lost the weight. The interviewer was gushing over her newly slim body and asked her how she did it. Her answer was something to the effect of “I took speed and starved myself. I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone.” I’ll admit I was sort of impressed with her honesty!

    Now she’s following in the footsteps of Valerie Bertinelli. A totally faded star who no one cared about, but in the mist of an OBESITY EPIDEMIC!!! they can make a minor comeback if they lose weight and go public with it. So now Ricki did it through healthy eating and exercise and all those wonderful things.

    How many of you think that Ricki got more healthy…and how many think she got better at lying for interviews?

  17. “I would watch Queen Latifah in anything (which is another reason I’ll be paying to see the new Hairspray, in fact), but that would probably require recasting the role of her daughter”

    No, they could have just given her an african-american dad! The inerracial angle could have been fun. I’m white, my half-sister and my baby niece are black, so I know a thing or two about interracial families!

  18. Rose, since Edna is the mom, they actually would have had to keep the white dad to get a white-looking daughter, but great point — and one I didn’t even think of. Privilege strikes again. :)

  19. (Also, there’s no theoretical reason why this couldn’t be about a black family, except that it’s set in 1963, and racial tension is a big part of the plot. Tracy couldn’t really be black without rewriting the whole thing, but since they’ve remade the shit out of it already, that could be one more iteration.)

  20. The casting of Travolta truly made me want to weep. His scenes in the commercials make me cringe. SOB! WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO MY BELOVED EDNA!??!

  21. I don’t see why the audience could be expected to suspend disbelieve over Tracy’s mother being played by a man in drag, and not also suspend disbelieve if she were played by a black woman. [shrug]

    Though it’s all moot now, I guess.

  22. John Pinette has been playing Travolta’s role for ages, I don’t see why they couldn’t have considered him for it. He’s funny, he’s a real fat guy, and more than anything, he ain’t Travolta.


  23. I have issues with this movie… it is a movie, based on a musical, that was based on a movie. So… why don’t people just watch the original movie and be done with it?

Comments are closed.