“Divine is as unstoppable as nature, destined to repeatedly transgress, destroy, and create.”
It goes without saying that John Waters has made a career out of breaking taboos, especially those to do with gender, sexuality, and the notion of the body as clean and pure. What is both surprising and refreshing about Waters’ films, though, is that these transgressions are not presented as a descent into evil and isolation, as seen in serial killer films such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, nor are they dour intellectual exercises, like those seen in the works of Catherine Breillat. Instead, Waters portrays the transgressions of his characters as joyful celebrations of childlike revelry.
The funny and filthy offences perpetrated in Waters’ films were most famously performed, and embodied, by his muse, Divine. Divine, whose real name was Harris Glenn Milstead, was a 300-pound drag queen, a monstrous yet awe-inspiring figure who starred in Waters’ early shorts and feature films. Their most famous collaboration was Pink Flamingos, a film that transgresses all boundaries of good taste. Yet, upon further examination, the character of Divine becomes a veritable force of nature, forever in flux and motion. Through the repetition of transgressive acts, Divine’s body becomes monstrous, but this process, as previously noted, is shown in Waters’ film to be both positive and creative.
Pink Flamingos is an underground film that shatters all mainstream taboos about gender and sexuality. After proclaiming herself “The Filthiest Person Alive,” Divine adopts the name Babs Johnson and goes to live in a trailer with her mother Edie, her son Crackers, and her travelling companion, Cotton, in order to avoid the constant media attention that comes with such notoriety. When a jealous couple, Raymond and Connie Marble, decide that they are more deserving of the title, a battle between the two factions begins, with both sides trying to “out-filth” the other. This loose storyline provides an opportunity for Waters to present a series of shocking scenes in which the violation of societal taboos is not only displayed but celebrated. Through this absurd premise, Waters conveys a commentary on society’s unspoken fascination with taboo and transgression. Moreover, this fascination may explain why the characters achieve fame in the tabloid press whilst embodying everything that society opposes.
The 1950s feminine ideal is satirised in a famous scene in one of Mansfield’s films, The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), whose transgressiveness is radicalised by Waters in Pink Flamingos. As Mansfield walks down the street, her presence creates a sexual fervour. Men pant and drool and, in visual representations of erection and ejaculation, wilting flowers spring to attention and milk explodes from its bottle. One scene in Pink Flamingos pays direct homage to this Mansfield scene, with the camera tracking along with Divine as she walks down the street. At one point the Mansfield film’s song, also titled “The Girl Can’t Help It,” plays on the soundtrack. As Pink Flamingos is shot in real locations rather than a studio, instead of the stylised reactions seen in the Mansfield film, Waters shows the real reactions of passersby who gape and gawk at Divine. What is apparent is that these people gaze not with sexual desire, but with total disbelief and horror.
As Divine continues her outing, she is seen buying meat and placing it under her dress, and later defecating in the street in front of an opulent house. Rather than simply satirising the image of ultimate femininity that Mansfield represented, Waters and Divine instead take this ideal and, literally, shit on it. In the scene from The Girl Can’t Help It, Mansfield is immaculately coiffed and dressed, more like a Barbie doll than a flesh-and-blood woman. She presents an untouchable perfection, symbolised by how she physically affects people and objects through her presence alone. Divine, by contrast, is a radically transgressive figure, leaking and awash with bodily fluids, in such a sexual frenzy that she constantly needs the touch of flesh, even if it is meat from a dead animal.
For although Divine plays a female character, modelled on Jayne Mansfield, she is a character intended to arouse fear and disgust rather than desire. In other words, Divine is a vivid representation of the grotesque body, theorised by Mikhail Bakhtin:
[T]he grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world. This means that the emphasis is on the apertures or the convexities, or on various ramifications and offshoots: the open mouth, the genital organs, the breasts, the phallus, the potbelly, the nose.2
In the figure of Divine the mouth, genitals, breasts, and potbelly are most definitely highlighted. Divine’s wardrobe is made up of tight 1950s-style clothes that emphasise rather than hide her folds of fat, large breasts, and curved belly. The makeup is thick and colourful, more like that of a clown than of a beautiful woman, emphasising and exaggerating the facial features. Divine’s hairline was even shaved back to create more space for eye makeup. As Waters asserts in the documentary Divine Trash (1998): “The human head didn’t have enough room for the eyebrows that we had in mind.”3
It is the continuous cycle of transgression that propels the narrative forward as it follows the characters’ escalating attempts to attain the title of “The Filthiest Person Alive.” Having the narrative hinge on what is clearly an absurd concept demonstrates that the film is essentially a comedy, which, like the carnival, is “organised on the basis of laughter.”4 According to Bakhtin, the carnivalesque is expressed in three forms: ritual spectacle, comic verbal compositions, and various forms of “billingsgate,” that is, obscene and abusive language.5 All of these forms are utilised for comical purposes in Pink Flamingos. As will be discussed below, the characters transgress through actions (“ritual spectacles”) and speech (“comic verbal compositions” and “billingsgate”) in order to achieve a comical affect.
Pink Flamingos is similar to the carnival in that the acts displayed in the film are real and not simulated. Just as the carnival freak show presented acts simply for shock value, so too does Pink Flamingos, with its shots of striptease, its showcasing of acts such as the Singing Asshole, and Divine’s eating of dog feces (which harks back to the days of the carnival geek who would bite off animals’ heads and drink the blood). These groups of freaks gather together to create their own counter-society, in order to live in the manner that they desire, in complete opposition to mainstream society’s ideals of an appropriate lifestyle. This opposition is demonstrated through the participation in acts that are transgressive and shocking, as well as the celebration of bodily mutations.
Thus, being designated a freak was an active choice for the Dreamlanders. This contrasts with the freak shows of the nineteenth century, which displayed people because they were supposedly born with freak attributes, such as physical disabilities or racial differences. Their mere exhibition in the freak show served to define them as transgressors of cultural norms. For example, dwarfs and giants transgressed size norms (with the dwarf busting the boundary between child and adult); Siamese twins transgressed the boundaries separating one human from another; overly hirsute people transgressed boundaries between animal and human; amputees and bodily deformity transgressed boundaries between the human and the monstrous; so-called “savages” from other continents transgressed the boundary between the primitive and the civilized; and bearded ladies and hermaphrodites transgressed gender norms.
Recent studies, however, have demonstrated that these “freaks” were social constructions, as Robert Bogdan observes in Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit: “A freak was defined not by the possession of any particular quality but by a set of practices, a way of thinking about and presenting people with major, minor and fabricated physical, mental, and behavioural differences.”6
The performers in freak shows of the past had labels imposed upon them; it was not until the 1960s that the term was appropriated by youth culture, a signal of their defiance of cultural norms and constraints. Having been teased mercilessly throughout his youth because of his effeminate behaviour, Harris Glenn Milstead transformed himself from a victim to a globally renowned superstar, Divine, by trading on his effeminate nature and outsider status. While society imposes rigid separations between the genders, Milstead was acting out what was in fact a natural tendency within him.
Thus, through her appearance and philosophy, Divine consciously and actively alienates herself from societal and cultural norms. For example, in Pink Flamingso, when the media gathers to see her execution of Raymond and Connie, Divine and her companions state beliefs that represent the total negation of all of Western society’s foundations. Divine is asked, “Can you give us some of your political beliefs?” In reply, she exclaims: “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth are my politics, filth is my life!” Similarly, Cotton talks about how murder “relieves tension,” while Divine claims that the sight and taste of blood turns her on. Thus, while society tries to banish filth, whether it be bodily filth or filthy-mindedness, Divine and her cohorts revel in it, in both their actions and their speech.
The ideals of a clean mind and body are cultural constructs, meant to separate and protect the socialised human from base urges. Unlike standard novels and films, in Pink Flamingos the protagonists seek out rather than eradicate filth. This obsession with filth is expressed by Waters through sequences in which different perversions are enacted in detail. In Pink Flamingos, filth is represented as a sexual stimulant, with a corresponding shift from the dominant fixation on the vagina as the organ of reproduction. This shift is reflected partly by the fact that, although the main character is presented as female, the part is played by an anatomically male actor. Due to Divine’s lack of vagina, the focus shifts to the anus (while the penis is similarly marginalised in the film as an object of ridicule). Consequently, as the main narrative drive of the film is the competition to become “the filthiest person alive,” there is an obsession throughout the film to perform acts that are not only filthy but mainly anal in nature. Furthermore, this anal obsession is coupled with an oral fixation, so that the characters not only wallow in filth: they actually ingest it into their bodies. Divine’s body, with its indeterminate gender, is thus in a constant state of change and transgression, both making and consuming waste.7
This conjunction of the oral and the anal climaxes in the film’s most infamous scene, when Divine actually eats dog shit. As the voiceover states: “Watch as Divine proves that not only is she the filthiest person in the world, she is also the filthiest actress in the world. What you are about to see is the real thing.” Thus, this actual performance is transgressive not only in its violation of food taboos but also in its violation of the line between the screen and the viewer. Indeed, not only is Divine’s stomach turned (illustrated by her gagging after she first puts the stool in her mouth), but so is the audience’s. The impact of this scene on the viewer is attested by the movie’s trailer which contains, rather than images from the film, interviews with stunned audience members. As the final scene in the film, this act is designed as a shock to top all that had come before it, in order to ensure that the film survives forever in the memory of those who watch it. The scene is shot utilising the film’s trademark long takes, with no edits at all, techniques that prove the act truly is “the real thing”: the dog defecates, whereupon Divine swiftly scoops up the droppings and ingests them. Furthermore, the camera zooms in as Divine’s opens her mouth slightly to show the feces in her mouth, grinning directly at the camera. Whilst the drama of standard fiction film presents a pre-written narrative, this scene directly addresses the audience, and in doing so crosses over into documentary. As a result, the film’s transgressions are not only real: they disrupt the very boundaries separating fiction from reality.
It is pertinent to note that this obsession with the anal and the revelling in acts that are dirty constructs the characters as inherently infantile. As Waters himself asserts, shit-eating is something that “only babies and monkeys will do . . . It’s innocent . . . the movie Pink Flamingos is a kindergarten movie, really. People doing babyish things.”8 The revelling in the body’s own filth and waste is a trait linked to infantile sexuality in Freudian psychoanalysis. The child who has not yet gone through puberty is termed “polymorphously perverse”; that is, he/she feels pleasure throughout his/her body. It is only in puberty that sexual pleasure becomes centred on the genitals. As Freud writes in Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, children are known to withhold defecation, so that its eventual release will bring pleasure to the anal region: “[I]ts accumulation brings about violent muscular contractions and, as it passes through the anus, is able to produce powerful stimulation of the mucous membrane. In so doing it must no doubt cause not only painful but also highly pleasurable sensations.”9
As well as the pleasurable sensations, this withholding of the stool can be an expression of disobedience, the child emptying his/her bowels when it is pleasurable for him/her, rather than when the parent requires it. This expression of pleasure is thus also an expression of defiance.
While this psychoanalytical explanation of anality – that it is a source of both pleasure and defiance, is certainly in keeping with the perspective that Waters presents in Pink Flamingos – there are also fundamental differences. Applying the Freudian diagnosis that the characters in Pink Flamingos are infantile implies that their behaviour is an ailment that requires correction. This cancels out the transgressive aspect of the characters’ actions, and ignores the fact that the characters are aware of what they are doing. In opposition to this, one must recognise the inherent transgressiveness of the characters, and realise that the acts performed are designed to destroy the normalised order and to produce, in its place, a new, utterly free existence that is no longer constrained by taboo (or good taste, or indeed anything resembling common sense or decency!).
This interpretation helps explain the prevalence of anal eroticism in Waters’ films. In Pink Flamingos the Marbles take great delight in sending Divine one of their stools, as a way of showing that now they are the filthiest people alive. It is an act of defiance that brings them pleasure (the Marbles are later accused of “assholism,” for which Divine sentences them to death). Moreover, at Divine’s birthday party the guests are entertained by a man known as the “Singing Asshole,” who brings his legs over his head and manipulates his anus so that it closes and dilates (all of which is depicted in close-up). Reverse shots show the partygoers watching and laughing at the display, rather than disgusted. This sense of humour is reminiscent of the toilet humour enjoyed by children.
One scene of impregnation in the film also lacks any representation of sexual intercourse. The Marbles’ butler, Channing, is forced to impregnate kidnapped girls, so that the babies can then be sold to lesbian couples. Instead of having sex with the kidnapped girl, Channing stands over her and masturbates. Meanwhile, another captive girl shouts and insults Channing by exclaiming, “How vile can you be? . . . I’ m gonna puke if you don’t stop!” As Channing ejaculates, there is an edit from a close-up of Channing’s buttocks to a close-up of the other girl, who vomits, and then a close-up of the unconscious kidnapped girl’s vagina as Channing uses a hypodermic needle to inject semen from his hand into the girl. These three close-ups represent a complete perversion of the process of conception, with the emphasis being on Channing’s buttocks. This image confirms the film’s motif of a shift from reproductive sexuality to anality, which represents the opposite of reproduction. This emphasis on the anal also denotes a fixation on dirt and filth, illustrated by the shot of the other girl vomiting as the insemination takes place. That the scene ends with semen being injected into the vagina makes the process of conception seem clinical and, above all, unnatural. What was once the epitome of natural human behaviour has now become completely perverse.
Furthermore, the film contains a number of instances in which characters play with gender. Again, this is presented as an expression of infantile sexuality. One of Raymond’s “exercises in filth” is to go up to women and flash his penis at them, usually with a piece of meat tied to it with string. Early in the film Raymond flashes two young girls, who react with the appropriate horror. Later in the film, however, Raymond scouts for potential victims in the park and sees a lone young woman looking in a compact mirror. The camera tracks up her body as she sits in a gazebo. The next shot shows Raymond looking at her through binoculars. The girl becomes an object of a three-fold gaze: not only does the camera gaze at her, but Raymond also spies on her, and the girl admires her own beauty in the mirror. She is the looked-at female, an object of desire. As Raymond approaches her with his genitals exposed, the woman laughs at him, and flashes one of her breasts. After a cut to Raymond making obscene gestures, we see the woman opening her dress to show that she, too, has a penis. Commenting on this scene in Divine Trash, Alison Gartner, a clinical psychologist, remarks: “It’s the kind of thing that would be concocted out of the mind of a twelve year old boy. It’s normal – for a twelve year old.”10 The good-looking female with a penis harks back to a childlike state, before the male child learns of the sexual differences between the genders.
When one person has both genders, there are more possibilities not only for pleasure but also for terror. Conceived as a monster, this “Godzilla of drag queens” breaks all taboos. Divine’s monstrously diverse identity was demonstrated later in other Waters’ films, such as Female Trouble (1974) and Hairspray (1988), in which she plays both male and female roles. For example, in Female Trouble, Divine, playing both a young girl and a macho redneck, actually succeeds in getting herself pregnant. In the film, a sex scene is edited in order to show the two Divine characters having sex with each other, an encounter that leads to the conception of a child. The irony of this scene is later commented on when the two characters have a phone conversation, during which Divine’s male alter ego shouts to the female character to “go fuck yourself!”
These multiple transgressions of cultural taboos concerning sexuality are presented in a style that breaks certain rules about what constitutes “good” and professional filmmaking. The way that Pink Flamingos and other early Waters films are shot reflects the fact that they are low-budget, underground films. Their transgressive content is presented in a rough, almost amateurish style. Pink Flamingos is shot mostly in long takes, with the camera zooming in and out during the scene. The use of the zoom is frowned upon in mainstream film, being a technique that calls attention to itself. Instead, most scenes are filmed in varying shot distances and then edited together seamlessly, so audiences are unaware of the camera’s presence. However, when shooting on a low budget, the zoom is a technique that saves both time and money.
Another way Waters saves money is to have friends, instead of professional actors, play the roles, so performances vary in quality. Most of Pink Flamingos was shot on the streets of Baltimore (without any of the appropriate permits or clearance), or in Waters’ own home. The only set that was created for the film is Divine’s trailer, a set that is burned to the ground in one of the film’s final scenes. Therefore, Pink Flamingos has an aesthetic that complements its transgressive narrative and is for this reason strikingly different from mainstream cinema. The film is trashy; but for the makers of underground film this is not a derogatory term. Thus deliberately trashy, the film’s aesthetic is a demonstration that these films are not, and do not want to be, part of the studio-based mainstream. Instead, they comment on and ridicule it from the fringes, revelling in their outsider status.
- Pela, Robrt L. Filthy: The Weird World of John Waters (Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, 2002), 77. [↩]
- Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 26. [↩]
- John Waters quote from the documentary Divine Trash (1998), directed by Steven Yeager, released on DVD in 2003 through Shout Factory, Region 1. [↩]
- Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 8. [↩]
- Ibid, 5. [↩]
- Bogdan, Robert. Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 267. [↩]
- Bakhtin observes how the genitals, anus, and mouth are all connected in the grotesque, leading to a transgression of the boundary demarcating the inside and the outside of the body: “Next to the bowels and the genital organs is the mouth, through which enters the world to be swallowed up. And next is the anus. All these convexities and orifices have a common characteristic; it is within them that the confines between bodies and between the body and the world are overcome: there is an interchange and an interorientation.” Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, 317. [↩]
- John Waters quote from the documentary Divine Trash. [↩]
- Freud, Sigmund. “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.” The Freud Reader (London: Vintage Books, 1995), 265. [↩]
- Alison Gartner, quoted in the documentary Divine Trash. [↩]