Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Hairspray: The Politics of A Transgender Performance from 1988-2007+

The character Edna Turnblad
Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas, performing Hairspray

My June cruise featured the "Broadway" show Hairspray. It was wonderfully done with many costumes and breathless performers competing for stage time. Performers dropped from the theater ceiling on to the stage and dancing away. They all sang/danced their hearts out. A good time was had by all. 

Hairspray is a touching story about an overweight teen finding her way and love in the 60's. Likely most have either seen the John Waters 1988 cult movie favorite, the 2007 John Travolta movie or the current Broadway version.     

Here is Sugarbeat describes the three version and discussed its Transgender connection:

Diviner in the original 1988 Hairspray 
A romantic, American musical set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, Hairspray follows the life of Tracey Turnblad, an overweight teenager whose ambition it is to dance on a local TV station, [think American Bandstand] but she is held back from achieving her goals and securing the man she loves due to her size. However, over the duration of the film Tracey overcomes these obstacles to secure her ambitions, whilst simultaneously helping to fight  racial perfidious on the show. 

Transgender performances are used to evoke an array of feelings in the viewer ranging from the absurd and humorous to the sinister and uncomfortable. In both John Waters 1988 hairspray and Adam Shankman’s 2007 remake transgender peoples are used to play the role of Edna Turnblad, Tracey’s mother. The way in which Edna is portrayed varies greatly between the two films and in many ways her characterization is essential in emphasizing crucial motifs on which the film is underpinned. In exploring the use of transgender peoples to play the role of Edna I will compare the use of formal aspects in the opening scenes where she is ironing, analyzing how they are engineered in such a fashion as to give a very different reading of Edna and how the use of transgender peoples varies between the two....
Waters was out to shock and entertain and his inclusion of a cult transgender person was designed to add an uncomfortable edge to the film. Shankman’s 2007 version was a more comfortable and sanitized performance designed for mainstream consumption. It is hard to overlook the fact that the audience that Travolta was not transgender. In having an actor who was so easy to recognize and laugh at, the serious issues in the film were somewhat overlooked and the more serious narrative and edginess was removed which in the first film was present due to the inclusion of Divine.     

I immensely enjoyed the production and its PG representation of the Edna Turnblad character played by a male actor. Maybe another short step in the general acceptance of transgender community.  Certainly a mainstream production.  


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