I have to strongly disagree with the author of this article, and with my friend who runs the “Protractor of Fatness” page on Facebook. While my friend does not specify her opinion, the quote she takes from the article does seem to favor one. Yet, it could also be a difference of age that offers a difference between my opinion and theirs. Why? Because my friend is a decade younger than myself, and the article writer is younger than that.
To truly understand why I feel only two of the three John Waters’ films in which Ricki Lake plays a character, are films that I have personally felt were positive and supportive for fat girls in particular. You need to look at all three of them. Ricki is the lead character in “Hairspray,” of course. But, she’s a fairly important supporting character in the other two: “Cry-Baby” and “Serial Mom.” After two such films, and a number of other roles (such as her role on China Beach), to have her show up in the third having lost over 100 pounds in a starvation diet gave me a blow to my own tottering self-esteem.
You have to also look at the American theater/entertainment culture at the time they came out as well. “Hairspray,” came out in 1988, “Cry-Baby” came out in 1990, and “Serial Mom” came out in 1994. The problem for me was that in approximately 1992, Ricki went on a starvation diet because her career was fizzling due to her weight. For a few years after that, I stopped wanting to see her in any particular entertainment venue. In fact, I boycotted “Serial Mom” when it came out. I didn’t watch it until after “Mrs. Winterbourne” in 1996, which I watched mostly because of Brendan Fraser.
Now, I am NOT disagreeing with the main thrust of the article. That main thrust is that in most variations of theater (stage, movie, TV, etc.) there is rarely a depiction of a larger woman who is anything but a comic foil. That a large woman is disgusting and deserves all of the ridicule that they get time and time again. And, sadly that often — particularly during the 1980s and 1990s — fat women were more often than not played by a smaller actress in a “fat suit.” Now, the fat suit for Shallow Hal was required, since it was part of the plot line, but not until the last decade have larger actresses been taken seriously and given dramatic roles.
When I first saw Ricki Lake as Tracy, I was just 2 years out of high school. I was still learning to stand up for myself, and learning to confront those who judged me.
Of course, John Waters’ films always deal in satire and stereotypes. And all of them have far more plotlines than just the main one. In “Hairspray,” the main plotline is focused on integration, and intentionally makes each character in the movie into a 2-dimensional cliché. This tendency by John Waters has led to his films being considered “cult classics”rather than box office draws. Just like with “Mel Brooks’” films, the use of clichéd stereotypes for satirical effect is evident in every single movie either of them have ever directed.
Amber, for example, plays the stereotype jealous and mean girl from moment one in the film. Tracy, in fact, is just as stereotyped, because just like Amber, she makes cruel statements about Amber in the beginning of the movie. She does this because she has a crush on Amber’s boyfriend (who becomes her own).
While, yes, there are many cringe-worthy scenes in the movie relating to Tracy being fat, Tracy’s ability to be proud of herself AND be a “teen leader” throughout most of the movie shines through. For me, that was literally the first time I even considered that I could be considered beautiful. And it was the first time I was able to believe that I could date absolutely anyone I wanted. It gave me the confidence I lacked which allowed me to become attractive to men. Because trust me, ladies and gents, it is NOT whether or not you are a particular size. No, it is whether or not you can stand up and proudly be who the hell you are!