The main issue of Hairspray is racial segregation.  As the Civil Rights Movement was very much alive in the 1960’s, Hairspray takes place in Baltimore, 1962, among all of the racism.  The movie Hairspray was written in the ’80s, another time of prevalent racism, and the Broadway musical began in the late ’90s and premiering in 2002–both times of still prevalent racism.  Moral of the story is we make progress, but we have yet to reach our final goal.

The Civil Rights Act of 1960 was a great time in American history, giving African Americans the freedom to vote, having a voice in our government.  Of course, lawfully it looks like they had equal rights to white citizens, but in reality, they were still segregated.  In order for this to be allowed, African Americans were required to take literacy test, pass residency requirements, and poll taxes before being allowed to vote.  Having fewer rights than everyone else and mostly being less fortunate due to this, African Americans were not able to perform these tasks, as expected.  The whites controlled the political system and social institutions making it impossible for African Americans to live up to their full potential (Abernathy.)  In Hairspray, the same kind of thing was going on in the Corny Collins Show.  The whites only allowed African Americans to dance once a month, while trying to play it off like they were happy and excited for them to come on the show.  They even tried to take the song that they wrote and transform the style to fit a more Caucasian-friendly sound.

Footloose, Saturday Night Fever, and The Producers were all Broadway musicals that were adapted from movies in the ’90s (Sternfeld.)  Hairspray followed this trend having adapted from a 1988 John Waters musical.  Along with merely entertaining the thought of forming a musical out of a movie, many racist occurrences came about in this time. In 1998, an African American named James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck.  In 2001, the Cincinnati Riot came about due to the shooting of African American Timothy Thomas.  In 2002 there was a political scandal in which a man of power made a racist comment about African Americans.  All of these may have played a role in bringing this racially significant storyline to the Broadway stage.

The social context is parallel between the show and 1960’s Baltimore.  In the ’60s, white kids would listen to what was known as the all black radio stations, but they never had any black friends (Waters.)  In Hairspray, the Nicest Kids in Town adapted a song that the African Americans wrote themselves.  Also, when Tracy and Penny are invited by Seaweed to hang out on the “black side”, they say they feel “hip” that an African American would want to hang out with a white girl, implying that this was very rare.

At the end of the show Hairspray, African Americans were finally allowed to be shown on the Corny Collins Show regularly along with the white kids.  This was a great triumph in the 1960’s, paralleled by the changed perception of African Americans on television once Martin Luther King made an appearance.  MLK gave African Americans the image of “non resistant” and “peacemakers” (Albernathy.)  Although this was a great feat in the fight for equality, there will still be numerous acts of racial violence in the decades to come.

Through acts of violence, progression in the fight towards equality, and some ridiculous hair, Hairspray was able to speak to audiences both of the 1960’s and of the decades beyond  that.  Racism is alive still today, and any story that has a happy ending will, at least while still in our theater seats, make us forget about the terrible things that happened in our past and the things still happening around us.


Works Cited

Albernathy, Ginsberg.  The Sixties in America. Vl. 1. Salem Press Inc., 1999.

Albernathy, Ginsberg.  The Sixties in America. Vl. 3. Salem Press Inc., 1999.

Sternfeld, Jessica.  The Megamusical.  Indiana University Press, 2006.

Waters, John.  THEATER; Finally, Footlights On the Fat Girls. 2002.