Belligerent Q&A, Vol. XVI: Hairspray author and scholar Dana Heller

Hi John: Look, when you take out this placeholder text and put in the real cutline in don’t forget to make it extra funny. For Pete’s sake, Dana Heller is chair of the English Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., where you are a student. And she’s the author of a book about the John Waters film Hairspray, and Waters totally is coming to ODU on Thursday. Don’t phone this one in. Bring the funny. Your pal, John. PS: Courtesy photo.

NORFOLK, Va. — Dana Heller is chair of the Old Dominion University English department and a professor whose scholarly work has tackled a wide range of subjects. Her most recent book is Hairspray, which discusses the significance of the 1988 film by John Waters. She considers it his most subversive movie.

Also, she is awesome.

Waters, as you should know, is a noted filmmaker, writer, visual artist, and, according to the good people who put such things on Wikipedia, one of the “notable persons who have worn pencil mustaches.”

Additionally, Waters remains the longest-serving Secretary of the U.S. Department of Not Quirky or Cute Camp But the Awesome Kind that Scares You Way Deep Down Where Your Real Dreams Are, also known as HUD. Okay, that last bit is not true but someone please get on that.

Say, maybe you should run it by him yourself. Waters will give a lecture called “This Filthy World” as part of the ODU Presents series at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 10, at Webb University Center, 1301 49th Street, Norfolk. Admission is free but there’s limited seating, so RSVP via (757) 683-3116 or visit the University Events page via this link.

I recently finished Heller’s book, which is terrific. Highly recommended. As always, I should disclose that I am a graduate student at ODU. In addition to being a beautiful, beautiful man.

Heller engaged in this Belligerent Q&A via email. There is some brief adult language below. Which probably is why you’re here.

Q: Just who do you think you are? Please use three examples in your response.

Me? Well, if you must know, I am ODU’s resident champion of all things considered ‘bad taste.’ I’m not sure how it came to this, but I probably have only myself to blame for writing about cultural phenomena such as:

  1. Russian pop music
  2. Reality TV
  3. John Waters movies

There are worse ways to make a living.

Q: Your most recent book is an examination of Hairspray, the Waters film in which “the PG family movie meets the midnight cult film.” You note that Waters “made a PG-rated teenpic that encourages interracial dating and champions a family in which both parents are men.” Why did you omit the awesome part where Debby Harry pops Colleen Fitzpatrick’s zit? Does it blow apart your thesis?

No, in fact the zit-popping scene unequivocally proves my thesis that Hairspray is a teenpic posing as a civil rights comedy. I had an entire chapter on the zit scene but my editor cut it. Wait a minute. Were you making a pun?

Q: You’ve called John Waters a National Treasure. How will Nicholas Cage, reprising his role as Ben Gates, go about trying to rescue Waters from the clutches of the Illuminati while dispensing justice, thrills, and exposition?

By becoming a drag queen (code name: Bertha Venation), who bears an uncanny resemblance to Michaele Salahi, Cage will manage to penetrate into the darkest recesses of the Illuminati’s base station, located inside a Starbucks in a mall in East Baltimore.

Q: You edited the book Makeover Television: Realities Remodeled. It’s always fascinated me that people are willing to expose their insecurities and pain so publicly, however superficial the consumerist, conformist “solutions” offered by makeovers that, like Debby Harry snapping on a rubber glove to pop her daughter’s zit, seem to say, “Lie down. Mother is here.” I thought about that kind of superficial transformative process of such shows while I read Hairspray, because there are transformations represented in Waters’ films but also his films, generally speaking, seem to have transformed over his career from work that has a kind of mission to shock into work that, as in the film Hairspray, shows both communal and individual transformation toward acceptance and power. Indeed, his film creates its subversion by recreating and altering a television program and later adaptations seem to pander to “makeover” culture. What do I mean by the things I just typed?

It means the drugs are kicking in. Relax. Go with it.

Q: You write compellingly about how Hairspray “is the most subversive film that John Waters ever made, and possibly one of the most subversive popular comedy comedies ever made by an American filmmaker,” in part, because of Waters’ “representation of the unruly body.” And you mean subversive in the sense that it “transforms the cultural codes to which it ostensibly adheres.” When we think about the adaptation of the musical to film, does putting a straight actor (and one of a faith whose founder viewed being gay as a perversion) in a role created and recreated by gay men diminish some of force of the subversion Waters achieves in his film? A bit more widely, have the adaptations changed the legacy of the original film?

Every adaptation of an art work changes the meaning of the original in some way. But if I’m reading you right, you are referring here to John Travolta’s casting as Edna Turnblad and his affiliation with the Church of Scientology. That was a controversial decision, no doubt. And the director of the film, Adam Shankman (who is gay himself), got slammed in the LGBTQ press for casting Travolta, who persistently denied that Hairspray was a ‘gay’ film. What Travolta and Shankman failed to recognize is that LGBTQ audiences tend to feel and project a strong sense of ownership over certain cultural properties, and Hairspray is one of them, not simply because Waters is gay but because Edna had (until Travolta) always been played by openly gay performers (Divine and Harvey Fierstein). But I think that Travolta’s casting was a brilliant marketing strategy that helped rebrand Hairspray as a family-friendly film that could appeal to kids (Zack Effron) and their parents, who would have remembered Travolta from an earlier dance film, Saturday Night Fever.

Q: You note that Waters, as he said in a TV interview, makes comedies that “wink” at the audience. When art winks at us, how do you suggest consumers of such art – including those of us who want to make some of our own – return the favor and wink back?

By rewriting the comedies we love in our own creative idioms. We wink back by imitating (or stealing, if you will) from the artists who inspire us to make our own art.

Q: What is camp? If I was camp would I know it, or would I just want other people to know it with me?

Camp is ‘the lie that tells the truth’ (Philip Core). It ‘sees everything in quotation marks’ (Susan Sontag). And if ‘you’ were ‘camp,’ you really would not give a ‘crap’ what ‘other people’ ‘know’ or ‘don’t know.’

Q: Growing up, camp was where I learned exciting truths to hide from my parents. Am I on the right track?

If one of those truths has to do with popping zits so that they make a loud, splooshy sound, yes, you are on the right track.

Q: Does Nicholas Cage know what camp is?

Does the Pope?

Q: In your book Hairspray, you address racial representation as an area in which the film might rightfully be criticized. As in other Hollywood films, this is a Civil Rights movement story told through the eyes of and, in part, resolved through the agency of white characters. Did you ask him about that issue? What are your thoughts?

I did ask Waters about this, and he was quick to say that Hairspray is ‘a white man’s memory of civil rights.’ Waters admitted that he was worried about the racial politics of the film before it was released because he wasn’t sure if audiences were ready for it. But they were, they embraced it.  And I think that’s because the film creates a coalition of outsiders who band together to fight for a common freedom — to be part of the great television dance show that is American history.

There is no question that Hairspray romanticizes white people’s fantasies of blackness and racial otherness. But the film simultaneously pokes fun at those fantasies.  At one point, Tracy wishes that she and her boyfriend, Link, had dark skin.  They long to be part of a culture that they see as sexy and much cooler than white culture, and their wish is genuine yet at the same time satirical. The critic, bell hooks, sums this up nicely when she argues that ‘Hairspray is nearly unique in its attempt to construct a fictive universe where white working class ‘undesirables’ are in solidarity with black people. When Traci [sic] says she wants to be black, blackness becomes a metaphor for freedom, an end to boundaries.’

Q: In one of the most compelling passages in the book, you assert: “(W)e live in a culture of powerlessness.” I want to disagree, but what gives me the right? Discuss.

You have the right, but you refuse to take it. In my book, I explain this through an anecdote: A teacher once asked his students to form a line, beginning with the most powerful student in the class and ending with the least powerful. The teacher was then surprised to see that rather than arguing over who would be first in line, the students all ran to the back of the line. None of them, apparently, either felt they had power or were willing to admit it. A struggle for power occurred over the question of who would get to occupy the position of least powerful.

The anecdote affirms something that is admittedly tough to prove or disprove. But it is something that I have long suspected, although I acknowledge the tentative nature of my suspicion: we live in a culture of powerlessness. We believe in our powerlessness, and we reiterate this belief in the countless ways that we submit ourselves to state agencies, religious institutions, medical experts, advice and lifestyle gurus, intellectual authorities, and consumer appeals. No matter what our personal politics, no matter what our profession, social class, race, religion, sexuality, ability, age, ethnicity, or gender, we live in a culture that thrives — economically and ideologically — on the sublime fantasy of righteous disenfranchisement.

In this fantasy, those who possess and exercise power are evil and corrupt. Those who stand outside of it are morally and spiritually superior. The conventional narrative form this fantasy takes, or variations of it can be found in all arenas of cultural production, but nowhere is it portioned out more generously and reliably than in the realm we know as popular culture.

Q: When Waters comes to Norfolk, will you take him to Harbor Park and say, “See, it’s like our own little Camden Yards,” and then sigh, look down at the ground, and become lost in a moment of reflection before so recovering: “And over there is the highway to the Beach, see?”

I don’t see this happening, although it’s a sweet scene in someone else’s movie.

Rather, I picture us at lunch, No Frill Grill, perhaps. He orders the Reuben, me the Spotswood Salad.

‘I’d like a Diet Coke,’ he tells the waiter.

There’s a moment as we both silently wonder whether or not the waiter recognizes him. But there’s something weightier on our minds, something we must talk about, although neither of us wants to be the first to bring it up.

‘I don’t know how to ask this,” I begin, tentatively.

‘Go ahead,’ he encourages.

‘Ok, do you think Rikki Lake stands a chance of beating JR on Dancing With the Stars?’

And then we talk, and talk, and talk for hours.

Q: Could you talk briefly about how this project came together? Would you have written this without the opportunity to interview Waters?

A few years back, Diane Negra launched a new series at Wiley-Blackwell on popular films and television series that don’t get taken very seriously by the academy. This was a book series custom-made for someone like me. She cornered me at a conference and asked me to write something. So I decided to test her by proposing a book on a film that most would consider wholly unsuitable for scholarly purposes. And she loved it. So then I had to write it. But the fact is that  I would have written it anyway, eventually, even if Mr. Waters had not responded to my interview request. Because as difficult as it is to believe, nobody has ever written a scholarly book on ANY of John Waters’ films. And somebody had to do it. Why not me?

Q: We’ve covered so much ground. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

One of my favorite Waters quotes: ‘We need to make books sexy again. If you go home with someone and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.’

Roger that.

Playing us out is Debby Harry. Poor lip-synching is a must for any respectable Blondie video, but this is some unusually poor drum-synching. But that’s okay. We are not here to judge, but to enjoy. Please put on your beret before viewing, and remember to arbitrarily remove it before the second verse.

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