The Importance of Being Uncomfortable: Hallmark or Hairspray?

Frank G. Karioris discusses the gender and race politics of comforting media in the festive season.

Each year the Hallmark Channel produces new movies, many of which seem almost redundant because they follow the same pattern year in and year out. It has become a running joke just how similar Hallmark movies are, yet this belies the fact that most of our media might be said to fit this same formulaic approach. It isn’t so much that Hallmark is different to other media or movies, but that it is used as a foil upon which to project this idiom of derivativeness to make other films and media seem by contrast to be unique and individual.

John Waters (link)

These movies, the thinking goes, are unoriginal and meant to inspire and conspire to create a sickening sense of stability and comfort. If the story is always the same, and the ending predetermined in advance, it is liable to induce tranquility, contentment, and – hopefully – equanimity.The other side of this assumption is that other forms of media are challenging and, by virtue of this, more intelligent in some fashion. Beyond the obvious complicity that this assumption has with a form of sexism and effeminophobia, it also belies a smaller but important matter: comfort is not objective or static. A key question for better understanding this situation might be: “Who feels comfortable where?” Through this question one can see the ideological foundations that are evident in suggesting Hallmark’s simplicity.

Hallmark Movie Endings

This goes beyond standpoint to address a “who” that is related to the intersubjective rather than a supposed individualized subject. The state of comfort/discomfort needs to be part of an analysis and understanding of our media.

In the last few weeks I’ve had the great pleasure and privilege to see the (in)famous John Waters – “King of Bad Taste” – presenting his ‘A John Waters’ Christmas: Holier & Dirtier’ in Pittsburgh. Every year John takes a small excursion through the East Coast of the US performing a sort of alternative Christmas show that turns the standard tropes on their head – or, more fittingly, on their ass.

The event – there is no distinct word to describe the occasion – is a mix of stand-up comedy, cultural commentary, and aphorisms. It brings together classic John Waters references – let’s just say dog shit was mentioned more than once – with extremely topical commentary on news items from 2018. Waters begins the show by saying that each year he changes the entire show to keep it up-to-date. Interspersed throughout are interesting stories from Waters’ life, one-liner jokes, and suggestions for new sexual acts. This year’s sexual act was “the snow man.” As he described it: you let someone cum on your face during the winter, go outside until the cum freezes, then come back inside the house looking like a snowman.

Two weeks later, now in Milwaukee, I saw Hairspray, the stage musical version of Waters’ examination of segregation in show business, with my mother and father. The musical is, as Waters said during his 2018 Christmas special, tame and ablandized compared with the original film. Even so, the production – with all its peppy musical numbers and colorful clothes – is not without a political edge. I was all too conscious during the performance that Milwaukee has previously ranked #1 in both socio-economic and racial segregation.

Hairspray Performance, Milwaukee, WI, USA (link)

Watching the talented cast singing bubbly songs interspersed with out of date word choices (‘negro’) while the main character goes to jail for trying to integrate and dance with members of a different race was extremely uncomfortable. It was particularly uncomfortable knowing just how serious Milwaukee’s segregation is, and knowing that the audience was primarily white.

It was striking just how uncomfortable it felt to be not only watching what amounted to a toned-down version of critique, but doing so in an audience that was nowhere near as receptive to these critiques as those who came to the Waters’ Christmas event. For all the bawdiness of Waters’ live show, the subtle indictment of middle-America’s continued segregation and quotidian indignities all minorities face of the musical was not less. Hairspray’saudience was like Mary Poppins’ song says, taking a spoon full of sugar with the medicine of critique.

Both events were enjoyable as performances, but the nature of this enjoyment demands consideration. Waters has lost none of his brusqueness with age, yet watching him in person was comfortable. There was already an assumed agreement among most of the audience that their views would cohere with much of what Waters was going to say. They knew where he generally stood in advance, and they came there to stand with him. The audience for Hairspray, on the other hand, had no such shared understanding of the critiques the musical was making – and they may not have, even having watched it, understood all of the critiques that were implied.

Comfort and agreement are not always the aims to be achieved. As Hungarian expat author Stephen Vizinczey once said, it is not the ideas that people disagree upon which are most dangerous, but the ones that they all agree on. So while Hallmark movies might share plot points, the level of comfort induced is not necessarily that different from the way that some of Waters’ work works. This point might also apply to the British comedian Johnathan Pie– discussed last week in Everyday Analysis – whose comedy is based on assuming a common sense position that is impossible to contest.

Recognizing this danger of comfortable enjoyment reveals the importance of being uncomfortable. This isn’t to advocate that we must always be uncomfortable, or that those most marginalized must take on further discomfort. We all need to be able to find comfort in our world and life, and this is far more difficult for marginalized communities. What I am suggesting is that comfort is too often given priority over challenge. While Waters’ Christmas performance was hilarious and insightful, it wasn’t challenging. What would it look like to challenge ourselves to be uncomfortable? To do this would be to remember just how much is still required of us, how difficult change is, and how dependent upon us resisting the lures of comfortable agreement, even in environments that present themselves as ‘edgy’ or ‘radical’, is. These are (some of) the challenges that we need; ones that require all of us – no matter how ‘progressive’, ‘leftist’, or ‘queer’ – to confront our own sense of comfort.

Frank G. Karioris is Visiting Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and writes on issues of gender, sexuality, and masculinities. He has published in the Hong Kong Review of Book, Berlin Review of Books, and Salon.

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