The Big, the Brown, the Blond, and the Black: the Beautiful Moms of Hairspray

I got a Hairspray video from The Edge Christmas party last year. Still, it was over a month before I was reminded we had it, and we finally sat down to watch.

Love it!! The music, the message…the performances!! It was also a chance for us to explain racial prejudice – pride and prejudice, embodied by Velma von Tussle – to our nine-year old girls. They also asked why Edna Turnblad was played – beautifully!! – by a man, and I had to explain that the stuff that she was doing would be hard for a real fat woman of Edna’s girth. Was he really fat? No, John Travolta is well-built. He was probably wearing a fat suit.

I woke up this morning to the girls’ chatter of dialog from the movie. But they weren’t doing the young ‘uns, they were doing the moms! And that got me thinking about the mothers in Hairspray. Being a mom myself, there are definite points for me there.

Like how moms do their best to protect their kids from hurt.

Edna refusing to let Tracy audition may have seemed, as it did to Tracy, narrow-minded. But we hear her explanation to Wilbur: Tracy will just get rejected. And she was right. Tracy was rejected.  And suffered consequences. It was only by a strange twist that Tracy got another chance to strut her stuff and was hired.

And Edna was gracious. Happy for and proud of her daughter, she allowed herself to rise above her shame over her extreme size (54EEE?! I don’t think even the Biggest Losers got that big!) to help her pursue her dream.

And how about Prudy? In an effort to protect Penny from what she believed would be corrupting influences, she ended up pushing her daughter to run away. I told the girls she was like Frollo of Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame: “I am a righteous man, of my virtue I am justly proud…I am so much purer than the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd.” The movie doesn’t show if she changes from judgmental to gracious, though. I can only hope she does. Calling your daughter a “devil child!” and sprinkling her with holy water? Self-righteousness is a deadlier sin than people think.

But I found it ironic that she was praying through the incest passage in Genesis 19. And she sounded so devout! It was pathetic and hilarious! It was obvious to me that she wasn’t paying attention. As long as she went through the motions (read her bible and pray), she felt good about herself. Jesus denounced the self-righteous of his time for having ignored the more important aspects of the Law: justice, mercy and faith.

That’s probably the biggest buzz for me in the movie, being a professing Christian. Thank You, Lord, for the warning.

Then there was Velma. You know, I’ve heard of stage moms and the stories of ambition, but Hairspray shows that the monster to fear is the stage manager mom. I’m sure there are moms out there who are also stage managers, but are not necessarily stage manager moms like Velma. How did they put it? Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Because she had the position and authority to promote her daughter Amber’s success, she could cow those who were in the way and would not be able to fight back. Or so she thought. She bullied, threatened, bribed, framed, cheated. She understood what it was like to want something so much you would “risk communicable diseases…(or) jail” to get it.

But she forgot a rather ignored fact of life: if you try to stay on top by stepping on people’s backs, you will definitely fall when they finally stand up. Tracy stood up to her, and people around her lifted her up (or lowered her down from the rafters to the dance floor), beginning the downhill slide which exposed Velma’s corruption. Corny Collins, Mabel and the Negro kids, and finally, the cameraman, Wilbur and Edna all stood up to her too, and finally the ax landed. Amber distanced herself when she learned of her mother’s cheating, and the producer fired Velma. And the final blow: Corny announces the integration of the Corny Collins Show and grabs Mabel to finish the show.

I love Mabel. She was the misunderstood minority who had the greatest understanding of all the moms. When Negro Day got canceled, she threw a party for the kids because “it deserved to go out with a bang.” They decide to march, and she tells her daughter to stay home: “I don’t want to be worrying about you out there.” When black son Seaweed falls in love with white girl Penny, she gives a warning: “You better brace yourselves for a whole lot of ugly coming from a never-ending parade of stupid.” (You gotta love Penny’s reply: “So you’ve met my mom.”) She encourages her daughter to go for her dreams, and almost gets hysterical with joy when Inez wins Miss Teenage Hairspray.

The rewards of waiting vs the rigors of manipulation.

There’s something about being on the receiving end of prejudice that can make a heart gracious and kind. Not always, I know. Some victims grow up to be victimizers themselves. But there are those who let the hurt touch them and strengthen the good in them, and they overcome, overflowing their strength and joy into the people around them. I believe it has to do with forgiveness: finding, receiving and giving forgiveness.

That’s more than beauty. That’s grace.

Blonde Velma was undoubtedly the most physically beautiful of the moms of Hairspray. Brown Prudy had beautiful and good intentions for Penny, but like they say, the road to hell is paved with them. Big Edna had a beautiful heart: vulnerable, teachable, loving and giving. And Black Mabel was forgiving and accepting, encouraging, with a touch of naughty – I love how she got Edna to stay for the party – towards others and herself that is just…beautiful.

Grace has many definitions. Velma is the beauty or charm of form, movement or expression kind of grace. Edna is goodwill grace. Prudy I’m tempted to say was ungracious, but then I saw this: delay granted for payment of an obligation, which, while sounding kind (specially in money matters, to which it refers), can also imply a superiority (when it becomes a moral attitude). And Mabel is favor. And with that line from her song, we know the secret to her brand of grace.

“I give praise to my God ’cause I know where I’ve been.”

And that’s the kind of beautiful mom I hope I will be.


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