Does Travolta validate fat women in Hairspray!?

In comments to my last post, All I Need is a Good Cry and a Good Movie, RadicalMama asked my thoughts about casting Tracy Turnblad’s mother with a thin man when there are so many good actresses who could fill that role in the movie, Hairspray!  I responded at length that I had similar concerns, then realized that the casting really needed to be a man.

Then I went and took a shower, the place where most of my thoughts get “fleshed out,” as did this one.  I wondered if having a thin man, a leading man of leading men, play this particular role and in the way he played it, might have actually been better for the image of big women than having a big woman play the part, herself.  Travolta didn’t play Edna like a skinny guy making fun of a fat woman, like happens in so many movies (especially about African American women).  As CC notes in her post on Hairspray:

“Tracy’s mom gets some dignity and some pathos and she is so much more sympathetic than Divine’s version, who is more or less just a figure of fun.”

Yes, it is funny to see a man in a fat suit strut his stuff as a her, but there is never a moment in the movie where I feel like Travolta is anyone but Edna, the woman who was thin but now is not.  The woman who is ashamed of herself and hides away and tries to protect her own daughter from being publicly ridiculed, and the woman who, finally, says, “I’m big, bold and beautiful” and owns it.

So here’s my question: does having a straight, white, male actor play this role in the way that he does give validity and presence to fat women in a way that speaks to other straight, white men?  I guess I’m asking is do we need the oppressor (and I’m not saying that all straight white men are oppressors of fat women) to validate the oppressed (or that all fat women feel oppressed).  From a Google search just now, I realize I’m late to the discussion, and maybe my take is flawed (it usually is), but I just wonder how Travolta’s role changes things.  If it does, at all.

Here’s an interesting side note: the girls had the new Drew Carrey game show on last night and there was a young man and a young woman facing off against each other.  I still don’t understand the premise of the show enough (I really wasn’t paying attention), but the question was something like “what percentage of Americans think there are too many fat jokes on television?”  His number was in the high 30s or low 40s, something like that.  She picked a number under 10%.  The actually number was over 50%.  My middle daughter said “Wow, she was really low.”  I glanced up and said, “she’s skinny.”  So was he, but I don’t think she ever really paid much attention to fat jokes, because they did not affect her.  Having been thin-ish and now fat-ish, I definitely have a different perspective about what’s funny and what’s not and I do pay attention.



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5 Responses to Does Travolta validate fat women in Hairspray!?

  1. uuMomma says:

    oh, and mama: yes. Let’s get healthy about what’s fat and what’s thin. Many of us live in a mostly-healthy middle. And we are not represented at ALL in the media. Stick thin or obese–as if those are the only choices. Aaargh….I don’t know….what were you saying?


  2. uuMomma says:

    Yeah, I’m not sure about the word “validate” now that I come to think about it.

    RadicalMama: It doesn’t seem right to have the oppressor validate the oppressed, but it does seem to be the way progress is made. When other men see Travolta treating this character with tenderness and respect, perhaps, just perhaps others will do the same. Not sure that’s validation, but it sure brings us a step closer to being seen as people first.

    hsofia: yep, based on John Waters earlier film, which spun into a Broadway show and now the musical is the movie (was that confusing?). And thank you for reminding me of the name of the movie I hope I never see. I was trying to think of the name of Norbit as what can happen when men portray fat women. My daughters so wanted to see that movie and I put my foot down so hard. “But why?” they asked. So I told them “because I can’t stand the way fat women in general and African American fat women in particular are treated in movies like this. Think of the black women you know…does this represent them?”

    I still remember them sighing so hard and saying, “oh, I wish you could just stop being so sensitive sometimes.” But, they never asked again.

    And, they were the ones, after seeing Hairspray, who gushed “John Travolta makes a great woman!”


  3. Because I am clueless about what Hairspray (the movie) is (it’s based on a musical, yes? or a Jon Waters movie from the 80s?), I cannot comment on whether it was appropriate to cast John Travolta as a heavy set woman. But I did see a couple of photos of the character Travolta plays and one thing I noticed right off the bat was that they didn’t give her all kinds of false wrinkles and triple chins, nor did they make her very body a caricature. (see: Norbit – or rather, do NOT see Norbit).

    I couldn’t say whether John Travolta “validates” fat women (I mean, isn’t Queen Latifah in the movie already?) but maybe this movie did a better job of handling the man-in-drag aspect, which is typically used as an opportunity to drag women through the mud.


  4. radicalmama says:

    I dunno. Giving control of whether or not we continue to be oppressed over to the oppressor seems counterintuitive to me. I wouldn’t want a male president of NOW for instance.

    I do appreciate what you said about the kitchiness of the film. I hadn’t considered that aspect of it, and it makes sense.

    As for the last thing, I am a skinny person, always have been and looking at my genetics, probably always will be. However, my little sister has stuggled with her weight since Jr. High. She’s really sensitive to “fat” comments in any context, and it’s really painful for me to see her get hurt, so I think I notice it a lot. (I also get sick of comments about how every woman who is a size 2 is anorexic. I am a 2 and I am not anorexic. (Most) people would never have the audacity to tell my sister she needs to lose weight, but those same people have no problem poking me in the ribs and telling me to eat more. Pisses me off.)

    I would like to have a healthier national standard for body image that is somewhere between an eating disorder and obesity. I don’t like the way Hollywood airbrushes people to make them look perfect in a way that is unnatural. I also don’t like it that obese people are clammoring to make obesity a platform for empowerment. It’s NOT healthy to weigh 400 pounds and while I sympathize with people who struggle and I think that as a society, we need to support them, I also don’t want that to be accepted as a healthy standard.

    (I should also say that imo medical definitions for obesity are a bit harsh. Techinically my sister, at 180 pounds, is obese. I think she’s a little overweight, but she is still beautiful and healthy-looking to me. She reminds me of the women running around neked in renaissance paintings. I was shocked when she told me that was technically obese.)

    I’m sorry, what were we talking about again? 😉
    I’ll stop rambling.


  5. Chalicechick says:

    Linguist Friend didn’t even notice Mrs. Turnblad was being played by a guy until the scene in Mr. Pinky’s, which is like halfway through the movie.


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