“What do you want to listen to in the car today?”
I have asked this question to my almost-five-year-old son Milo every morning for the past two weeks. Going somewhere in the car every morning is new to us, since most of our lives take place within walking distance of our house. Musical Theatre Summer Camp, however, is at a community center in the suburbs.
The answer is always the same. Sometimes the song choice varies. For a few days “New Girl in Town” was first choice, then “You Can’t Stop the Beat” took over, and then “Ladies Choice.” But always, always, the soundtrack to the 2007 musical version of Hairspray is the prime choice for car music. We listen to it at home, too, where it’s easier to work on dances in front of the mirror. However, the lack of dance space in the car does not deter Milo’s passion.
Despite having to listen to these songs daily for this two week period, I don’t dislike them. I was the one who brought the movie to Milo’s attention in the first place and the one who downloaded the soundtrack. I’m no parenting rookie at this point. I knew what I was in for.
When I first suggested Milo watch Hairspray, he’d watched very few films that weren’t animated. I wasn’t sure if he’d like it. I just knew I liked it. I like both the original John Waters version, which I watched obsessively in high school, and the musical version which I saw on opening night in the theatre. Social justice, body positivity, rock’n’roll, perfect villains, teenage dance shows... all these things appeal to me.
If Milo had shrugged off Hairspray with disinterest after the opening scenes I would have just put the DVD away and pledged to show it to him again when he was a bit older. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Hairspray took over his imagination almost immediately, the way The Muppets did a few years ago and the way I’m sure many things will do as the years go on.
Hairspray, unlike The Muppets or Cinderella or Ratatouille or any of the other movies he’s watched, requires a great deal of parental scaffolding. In other movies, “Bigger Issues” may be hinted at in a way that allows parents the luxury of choosing to expand on those ideas or not. Hairspray offers no such luxury. The civil rights movement, segregation, and white supremacy are the major points on which the plot pivots. There is no way to understand the movie without understanding at least the basics of racism.
I don’t want to be the kind of white parent of white children who takes the easy out when it comes to discussing matters of race. I do not agree with parents who insist that their children “don’t see color.” Number one, I think that’s ridiculous. They may not know how to express what they’re seeing, but they can see color because most children have eyes and can see things. Number two, avoiding discussions with children about racial justice is a luxury that only white parents have. Parents of children of color don’t have the choice to ignore it. Their kids will eventually become aware that they are being treated differently because of their race. My own white male children could breeze through their lives unaware of how exactly racism affects people. But I think that would constitute a failure on my part.
That said, digging into a movie plot that, in between upbeat dance numbers, deals mainly with the fight to desegregate a local TV dance show in 1960s Baltimore, was not something that I was particularly ready for. The only thing I had on my side was that my husband David and I had both just finished reading March, John Lewis’s series of incredible graphic novels about the civil rights movement in the United States. So at least I was up on my facts about the movement and aware of some of the brutal stories of its participants.
So we sat there together and watched the movie. I asked him questions about what he understood. I gave him the most basic history lesson I could come up with and we cheered when The Corny Collins Show was desegregated. I told him a bit about other places that used to be segregated and how hard people fought to integrate them. He talked about how weird it would be if his friends with brown skin had to go to a different school than he did. And yes, he had noticed that some of his friends had different colors of skin than he does. I guess I didn’t birth one of those aforementioned miraculously colorblind children.
As the movie drew to a close, we talked about the kind of racism that used to exist in society and the kind of racism that exists today. This was the hardest part. Queen Latifah, as activist record spinner Motormouth Maybelle, may cap off the finale singing, “Yesterday is history/and it’s never coming back,” but I know I’m going to turn off the TV and it will be 2017 and human beings will still be getting treated like garbage because of their skin color.
As the Hairspray obsession gripped our household and Milo started requesting that we watch the movie every weekend, I sought out some critiques of the film online. The biggest criticism seems to be that the movie presents its struggle as a winnable war that was over as soon as lunch counters were integrated. It’s a fair point, though how to address that in a period piece would be tricky.
My friend Michael used to react to certain movie trailers by saying in a world-weary fake announcer voice, “It takes a white lady...” The trailers that got this treatment were movies with the unfortunate “white savior” plot device. There’s a little bit of that in Hairspray, when the (white) main character, Tracy, is congratulated for helping lead the fight for integration. On the flipside, there is also a bit of the “magical negro” trope, as Maybelle and her son Seaweed find themselves having to teach Tracy about racial inequality.
I know Hairspray is not perfect, but it’s not a bad thing for a kindergarten kid to be become obsessed with. When I was only a little bit older than Milo I watched Grease (a.k.a. Date Rape: The Musical) every day with my friends after school. I’d much rather my child watch 2007 John Travolta in drag canoodling with Christopher Walken than watch 1978 John Travolta singing about how he got to second base with Olivia Newton John. At this point I’m using Hairspray as a stepping stone and a teaching tool. For Milo, it’s an age-appropriate example of some of the cruel injustices present in the world and how people fought to change them. Hopefully he’s taking that in while perfecting his dance moves in front of the mirror.
The Punk Parenthood Questionnaire
Last month, when I was planning a family vacation, my friend Mona gave a bunch of tips on how to navigate the Toronto amusement park known as Canada’s Wonderland. “If you need a spot to sit and eat before you go in,” she suggested, “just hang out on that grassy hill where we sat and talked about our shoes after the Violent Femmes and B-52’s concert.” It struck me as immediately funny to be given very grown-up mom advice with one crucial element depending on an experience that we’d had in 1993, when we were both teenagers. “What shoes were we wearing?” I asked, since clearly her memory was better than mine. “You were wearing Converse. I was wearing Docs,” she replied.
After we graduated from high school and stopped going to rock shows at amusement parks together, Mona met her husband Mundeep through the music scene, and they’ve been together ever since. I admire them for becoming professionals and parents in a really competitive city while still keeping a firm grasp on the passion for music that brought them together as partners (and brought Mona and I together as teenage friends.) Mona is also always interested in checking out new music, which I’m sure makes her a great example for her kids.
Jennifer: Hi! Who are you?
Mona: I’m Mona, my husband is Mundeep, and we’re parents from Toronto. Our hands are full with parenting our kids. We are constantly trying to find a balance between things that are professionally and personally fulfilling. We are big music fans and will always try and find ways of seeing our favorite bands play, even if it means burning the candle at both ends and begging our family to babysit the kids on a whim so that we can go and see shows.
Jennifer: Who are your kids?
Mona: Our kiddies are Raiya, age ten (she would make us add “and a half” to that, for accuracy), and Suneil, age eight (he would make us add a “half” to that too, because his sister added it to hers). Raiya is an awesome, veering towards tweenhood, girl. Suneil is an amazing, car-obsessed little boy. They are also lovers of music, and especially enjoy being car DJs on their iPods. Suneil will make sure he plays a Morrissey or Libertines tune every now and then, to keep the driver happy! The best trait that they both share is their kindness. A lot of people describe them in that way, and we are really happy about that. However, they are still learning how to practice kindness towards one another during some of their brother-versus-sister, sometimes-epic, bickering.
Jennifer: What led to your decision to become a parent?
Mona: This is a big question, always. Truthfully, we never imagined ourselves as not being parents. The idea of sharing our ideas and values and helping grow good people who will do great things for the world is at the root of our decision. It’s definitely the hardest job we’ve ever had, and it’s an impossible one to prepare for. We’re constantly iterating and going through various stages of parenting bootcamp. As cliché as it sounds, it really is super fulfilling and an amazing journey. Having said that, coffee is fundamental to the job. Without coffee, we wouldn’t make it.
Jennifer: What is a recent parenting triumph you’ve experienced? A recent parenting setback?
Mona: A triumph was buying tickets for my daughter’s first concert! She really wants to go and see Katy Perry. Which was definitely not my first choice, but she is filled with sheer excitement to buy a concert T-shirt and stay out late and be in a big crowd. I figure that there is still a lot of time to help refine her musical tastes.
A setback was during a really busy, long weekend recently; my son ate three bowls of popcorn for dinner. Thankfully, this happens rarely. But yeah.
Jennifer: Describe a time when your kids made you laugh really hard.
Mona: A couple of weeks ago, we were playing some music in the kitchen and it was on a “shuffle” playlist. A Beatles tune came on, and so me and my husband were singing along and bopping our heads. My daughter, seemingly annoyed at the kitchen table was like, “Um, what kind of music is this?” So we explain that The Beatles were really popular in their time, and the foundation for a lot of music today. She then asks, “Are they still alive?” To which, we hesitantly explain that no, about half the band is dead now. She seemed pretty unimpressed by this point and asked sarcastically, “Wow. Does anyone else actually listen to the Beeeeatles anymore, or is it just you guys?”