Sunday, July 22, 2007


"Yet there are many white youths who desire to move beyond whiteness. Critical of white imperialism and "into" difference, they desire cultural spaces where boundaries can be transgressed, where new and alternative relations can be formed. These desires are dramatized by two contemporary films, John Waters' Hairspray and the more recent film by Jim Jarmusch, Mystery Train. In Hairspray, the "cool" white people, working-class Traci and her middle-class boyfriend, transgress class and race boundaries to dance with black folks. She says to him as they stand in a rat-infested alley with winos walking about, "I wish I was dark-skinned." And he replied, "Traci, our souls are black even if our skin is white." Blackness--the culture, the music, the people--is once again associated with pleasure as well as death and decay. Yet their recognition of the particular pleasures and sorrows black folks experience does not lead to cultural appropriation but to an appreciation that extends into the realm of the political--Traci dares to support racial integration. In this film, the longing and desire whites express for contact with black culture is coupled with the recognition of the culture's value. One does not transgress boundaries to stay the same, to reassert white domination. Hairspray is nearly unique in its attempt to construct a fictive universe where white working class "undesirables" are in solidarity with black people. When Traci says she wants to be black, blackness becomes a metaphor for freedom, an end to boundaries. Blackness is vital not because it represents the "primitive" but because it invites engagement in a revolutionary ethos that dares to challenge and disrupt the status quo."

-- bell hooks, "Eating the Other" (1992)

(Shockingly, this Hairspray musical is not bad at all. But it still can't compare to the Waters version, which I'd like to see again soon...)


Anonymous said...

I've never seen the original John Waters film, so I'm not supposed to be all up-in-arms about the Adam Shankman version. Nevertheless, there's something discouraging about the reviews for this recent film, critical acclaim-be-damned. "Camp" is all about not fitting in. It's all about poking fun at a world that shuts people out, cold-heartedly. According to a handful of reviews I've read, however, there are no "squares" in this film, everyone belongs. Consider me skeptical.

ZC said...

Tram, you've got to see the John Waters film--it's fantastic.

This version definitely does tone done whatever edges once existed from the original. But it doesn't jettison those edges completely, which is nice. Is it 'camp' in the sense of camp being a seriously non-serious aesthetic formulated by certain people--outsiders--as a way to make sense of, and deal with, a lot of culture? No, it's not that kind of camp. Like I said, it lacks much of an edge. But there are indeed "squares" in control, a sense of empowered hierarchy to rage against, even if the sense of isolation & initial powerlessness among the outsiders is diluted.

Anonymous said...

I need to see Waters' film because I was surprised I enjoyed Hairspray so much. The strength of it is the script, and the enthousiasm of the performers. I thought the direction/editing was a bit frantic, and some of the dance numbers got lost in the cutting. Still, some of the most fun I've had in theatres this year.