Today is the Hairspray national tour open call. In honor of this hallowed day, when fat actresses across New York (me) will be getting up at the crack of dawn to sit in the freezing cold for four hours (me) even if they can't get in to audition before they have to go to work and have to send a video (me), I would like to have a little chat about Tracy herself.
I've gotta start by saying, I love this show so fucking much. I grew to resent it after everyone in my life started incessantly telling me what a great Tracy Turnblad I would be - hence, "More Than Tracy Turnblad." But ALSO Tracy Turnblad (please cast meeee). I'm sorry, Hairspray! I love you!!!
Tracy is the most famous fat character in the musical theatre canon. She's indisputably fat. It's part of the plot. It's not up for debate. You cannot have a thin Tracy (though many a thin actress has donned a fat suit to play her...ugh) because it doesn't make sense. She is fat. It is part of the plot. But it's not part of her character; Tracy does not have a prototypical fat female character's mindset, and she bucks a LOT of shitty fat stereotypes. A voice teacher of mine once told me she's an ingenue in a character actor's body.
Here is a short of list of reasons Tracy Turnblad is AMAZING fat rep:
1. Tracy DANCES, on TV!!!
Fat people rarely get to dance in musical theatre, and I've heard many stories of larger people having their dance ability underestimated (please remember that the definition of "larger" is very skewed in the entertainment world and especially dance). There also happens to be a long history of cruel jokes about how hilarious it is for fat people to dance - take Fat Monica, for example. Fat people aren't supposed to dare to take up space. Fat people aren't supposed to find joy in their bodies, or with their bodies. Tracy does it all. Guy Branum writes about this concept, and about Tracy, in this excerpt from his book, My Life as a Goddess.
2. Tracy gets famous for the right reasons, and uses her fame to help others.
Hairspray is about a fat girl who gets everything she wants for herself, and it confuses and offends other people. But while they're busy being confused and offended, she's moved on to helping people more marginalized than herself. Instead of dwelling on all the ways she is limited, she not only refuses to let others' opinions of her hold her back, but helps the black community fight for equality, because she realizes that her black friends face far more adversity than she does. She might be fat, but she still acknowledges her white privilege.
3. Tracy falls in (requited!!) love.
Y'ALL. I remember being 10 years old and watching Link sing, "Tracy, I'm in love with you no matter what you weigh." I was like, "but that's impossible." It wasn't even exciting to me, it was just confusing. Their love didn't make sense.
The idea that being fat means no one will ever love you, and you have to become thin to "earn" a relationship, is absolutely everywhere (again, I point to Fat Monica, among many others). Hairspray is one of the only stories I saw as a kid that challenged that. Also, I will note that Link's love for Tracy isn't fetishizing, and isn't "I can see past your body and love you despite it," either. On some level, her body doesn't matter, because he loves her as an entire person, but also, he thinks she's sexy and they're super horny for each other. (YOU GOTTA HAVE BOTH BABY!!!)
4. Tracy enjoys fashion!
Not only does she take immense pride in the height of her hair, but Tracy even becomes a plus size model for Mr. Pinky's Hefty Hideaway, and takes her mother along with her. Like dancing, this is a way we rarely get to see fat people taking pleasure in their bodies. Dressing yourself in clothes you love is empowering and fun! Again, we see Tracy guiltlessly enjoying something denied to so many other fat characters (and real life fat people - fashionable plus size clothes are not easy to find). Culturally, fashion is often tied to the pursuit of conventional attractiveness (and therefore acceptance, love, success, and fame). Seeing a character who is not considered attractive by the world she lives in enjoy fashion reminds us that it's possible to do so without trying to change ourselves to fit society's ideal.
It's actually almost impossible to me that Tracy would be so joyful, so unlimited, so convinced of her own worth. Have you ever met a person who was so optimistic you thought there must be something wrong with them? That's Tracy. She's like some kind of superhuman creature who operates without self-doubt. Her superpower is innocence. And because of that, she's freaking unstoppable. We all have a lot to learn from Tracy.
I'm going to write another blog post soon where I talk about the elements of Hairspray I find problematic - which, though they exist, are in my opinion far outweighed by the good. But today I wanted to focus on the positive (to distract me from being sad that I didn't get to audition in person for the tour)!
Let me know if you love Hairspray as much as I do and if it's had the same impact on you!