A lavish Broadway musical is perhaps an odd place to go looking for traditional conservative values, particularly a musical whose main theme is tearing down the dusty old ways of doing things and ushering in a new order of freedom from illiberal constraints.
But if, like me, you are that particular brand of nerd that giddily awaited and happily devoured this month’s televised production of “Hairspray Live,” there they were: conservative values on full display. They didn’t always look like we’re told conservative values are supposed to look, but they were there nonetheless, all dressed up in drag and belting out show tunes.
Breaking Down Barriers
At first blush, “Hairspray” seems to set itself as a clear battle between conservatives and liberals, with the conservatives cast menacingly as the villains. The show follows Tracy Turnblad, a teenage girl growing up in 1962 Baltimore whose dream is to dance on the Corky Collins Show. Tracy does not cut a classic model’s silhouette. She is what, in current parlance, you would call “curvy,” and Corky Collins’ existing cast of mean girls are sure to let her know that she doesn’t fit in. But she has pluck, energy, and personality and is determined to make her dream a reality.
With the help of some friends, she earns a spot on the show and becomes an overnight sensation, only to realize that “body image issues” are not the only barrier around the Corky Collins Show. The show is a whites-only affair, and blacks are only allowed to appear once a month, on “negro day.”
Having won her own battle for acceptance, Tracy decides to use her newfound celebrity to take on segregation. Despite some setbacks and with the help of some musical hijinks and a band of misfit friends — black and white, mousy and cool, skinny and fat — Tracy thwarts the show’s producers, integrates the show’s dance floor, and changes opinions throughout Baltimore.
Tracy’s triumph will swell the hearts of liberals everywhere, but she does it in a way that conservatives will recognize as uniquely their own.
The Left’s model for fixing society’s ills has always been top-down programs designed to bring apostates to heel. From affirmative action to school bussing to banning sodas, the defining characteristic of the liberal model is that people can’t be trusted to make the “right” decision, so it must be made for them.
“Hairspray” flies in the face of that model. Motormouth Maybelle (brilliantly played in the “Live” production by Jennifer Hudson) concisely brings the core issue into relief: when Tracy first suggests it would be great if the black kids and white kids could dance together on the same stage, Maybelle laments her failed attempts to achieve that goal: “We talked to the station, we pressured the mayor, we even petitioned the governor! And what did we get? Negro day.”
It’s a perfect allegory for the futility of relying on government to solve society’s ills. The government solution for any problem is always a distorted, bloated, bureaucratic compromise that may retain a kernel of the good it was intended to accomplish but is laden with so many opinions and concessions that the kernel is usually unrecognizable.
Fortunately, Tracy has the antidote for governmental poison: We’ll just do it ourselves! Tracy’s battle to integrate the Corky Collins Show is personal. She is not interested in re-shaping policy — her friends aren’t allowed to dance with her on stage, and she wants that to change. That’s it. She doesn’t need anyone’s permission or approval, and she has no interest in waiting for government sanction. She simply sees something that needs doing and decides to exercise her individual freedom to get it done.
We All Want What’s Right
For decades the political left has unfairly claimed a monopoly on the desire to make the world a better place. But conservatives are not all racist, homophobic, xenophobic misogynists hell-bent on turning back the clock a hundred years any more than liberals are all collectivist, atheist, thought-policing fear-mongers cowering in emotional safe spaces. There are extremist factions on each side of the political divide and responsible members of both parties are working to reduce the size and influence of those factions every day.
But with each side occupied in the fight to minimize the impact of its overly vocal and rarely rational flank — a task not unlike attempts to contain the damage wrought by the crazy uncle at Thanksgiving dinner — it’s easy to lose sight of the vast areas of agreement those nearer to the middle share.
Conservatives want racial harmony, and liberals want religious freedom. Conservatives want people to feel comfortable in their own skin, and liberals want to feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods. Conservatives and liberals both want to live their lives as they see fit without a person or institution telling them what they can and can’t do. We disagree on how to get there, but there is broad consensus on the goals.
This brings us back to Tracy Turnblad.
Run and Tell That
The creatives involved in “Hairspray Live” (and the press who idolize them) have been falling all over themselves recently talking about how “this is the show that America needs right now.” The implicit (and sometimes not so implicit) allegation is that the election of Donald Trump and the country’s general political tone represent a lurch backward in time, and a dose of good old-fashioned liberalism is just what we need to feel okay about ourselves.
But this argument misses the show’s most oft-recurring message: that the solution to our problems, whatever they are, is personal interaction, not big brother intervention. Although the actors that portray them might be horrified by the suggestion, Tracy and the Turnblad parents, Link Larkin, Maybelle, Seaweed, and Penny Pingleton are all exemplars of the conservative approach to achieving social justice: Do what you know is right, and let the government catch up later.
Part of the reason the Left is apoplectic over Trump’s election is because liberals place so much faith in government. If the institution you revere and idolize is handed over to a person you detest, it’s understandable that your world would be knocked off-kilter. But conservatives are skeptical of government largely because they know that governments come and go and that they are notoriously unreliable vehicles of enduring change.
Governments are at their best when they maximize personal freedom and allow individuals to break down barriers through personal interaction. Talking to people, realizing that everyone is more than the sum of her race, gender, or waistline, refusing to listen to the voices of cruelty and division — not because government tells them to, but because of the pangs of their own conscience — these are the animating principles of the political right, and they are the most dependable way to dissolve the silos of identity politics.
To affect lasting change, get to know your neighbor and make him your friend, then work together to accomplish what you both know is right. Do that and you’ll be a conservative agent of change, just like Tracy Turnblad.