I’m a sucker for musicals. There is reasonable room for debate as to whether I owe this particular affinity to my mother after making me watch a regular rotation of Hello Dolly, Calamity Jane, Oklahoma!, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and countless others; or my father, a life-long drummer with a soft spot for any Grease rendition, Into the Woods, and the classic Scrooge starring Albert Finney.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter, and my kids didn’t stand a chance. As such, they are well-versed in both classic musicals and modern ones that air regularly on live TV specials or the Disney Channel. So it makes sense that during this summer’s hype of Disney Descendants 2 and approximately twenty-five viewings, I determined my daughter was ready for a different type of high school musical. No, not that one, although Zac Efron is definitely in this.
I’m talking about Hairspray; the story of a high school girl with a body type and mindset that stand out from the still partially-segregated crowd of 1960’s Baltimore. It has been visualized in film, Broadway, and even live television, but the particular version I shared with my fourth grader is the 2007 film version starring John Travolta, Nikki Blonsky, Queen Latifah, and Zac Efron. I pretty much love every moment of this movie; from Tracy’s (Nikki Blonsky) conviction regarding integrated dancing to Penny and Seaweed’s forbidden romance (played by Amanda Bynes and Elijah Kelley, respectively). And obviously, John Travolta’s Edna Turnblad is on point.
But I had absolutely no idea that just two weeks after our first viewing, Charlottesville, Virginia, would be on global news for the clash between two very different groups of people, with race playing a key trigger. What I had expected to be a carefree couple of hours sharing in some great song and dance numbers morphed into a defining moment in my parenting experience a few days later.
Now I admit that I’m not the most proactive in leading conversations with the kids about local and global issues, as I don’t want to burden their innocent hearts and minds with the anger and hatred that permeates this world. I’m also afraid that I won’t be able to answer their questions or deliver information in a way that won’t have them sitting up all night, dwelling on how hurtful others can be.
Which is why I love film. Movies can be such a powerful medium through which we talk to our kids about real-life issues. Granted I never would have guessed that a movie depicting a particularly trying time in our nation’s history some fifty years ago would be so timely and pertinent to an issue today.
As my daughter and I watched the movie, I continuously glanced over to gauge her reactions. She smiled every time Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) started dancing, giggled as I explained how Edna Turnblad’s role has always been played by a man (John Travolta in this case), and pondered over my explanations of segregation. We continued to talk about her own experiences with race, which I think are very different from other children her age. We are a seminary family and have the unique privilege of learning and living with students and their families from all over the world. My daughter’s best friends in her public school are from South Korea and Africa. To her, skin color is a differentiator the way hair or eye color is: in other words, it’s surface level, and doesn’t inspire any emotion other than “we’re different, so what?” To share her own words that still resonate with me, “not liking someone because of their skin color is total nonsense.”
Her conviction in such a statement moved me, and tears still come to my eyes every time I think on that moment. My nine year-old daughter sees race as what makes a person unique, not inferior or dangerous. Since she is still daily requesting to watch Hairspray, we have been able to continue our conversation about race and the relationships between people of different skin colors. Even this week she almost casually said “we are all family.” I smiled and followed up with, “yes, we are all made in the image of God.” She nodded, then went back to singing along to “Without Love” with Tracy, Link (Zac Efron), Penny, and Seaweed, bouncing to the music, probably just as convinced as Tracy that we are meant to sing and dance together. And like Tracy, I hope she is ready to fight for it.