How Did John Waters’ Challenge Heteronormative Politics through Film?

3284 words (13 pages) Essay in Film Studies

08/02/20 Film Studies Reference this

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How did John Waters’ films challenge the heteronormative politics of post-classical Hollywood?

During the 1970s, American independent film was largely dominated by the “three Johns”; John Cassavetes, John Sayles and John Waters. Famously labelled the “Pope of Trash”, Waters was arguably the most consistently entertaining and influential out of the three, which was largely evident through his celebrity ‘cult-status’ and large following within and outside of the LGBTQ community. As a result, Waters holds a special place in American Independent film as one of the most celebrated openly-gay directors of the 20th Century, and is famous for capturing the hearts of many audiences through his films’ “unapologetic celebration of all things queer”. Through his enjoyment of ironic pleasures, Waters strikes his viewers through mocking many of the most treasured institutions of societal life, and honouring marginalised characters who usually engage in a range of bizarre and perverted activities on screen. The ironic registers of his films are largely expressed through his “trash aesthetic”, in which he purposely seeks to confuse customary notions of good and bad taste. His films follow strong story lines and feature distinct characters, which sought to hallmark the dominant practices of mainstream studio productions. He expects the spectator to possess a knowledge of popular mainstream culture and politics, which he demands in order for the viewer to understand the allusive and intertextual references he deploys throughout his films. He further appropriates conventions of mainstream cinema in his texts that are loaded with critical commentary and largely unexpected by his audiences. In films Pink Flamingos (1966) and Polyester (1981), Waters marks his fascination with the scorned and the perverse through embracing a wide variety of marginal subjects, and celebrating their eccentricities through sharing the delights of ‘bad taste’ with them, and disregarding normative notions of sexuality and racial identity. These characters, whether they be sexual “perverts”, transvestites or just plain mad, embrace all areas of the ironic through presenting a counterknowledge to the value codings within popular cinema in post classical Hollywood. In Waters’ films, the average sexuality goes so far beyond any concern of gender or politics, and through this, we witness the movement of camp intellectual labour make its debut into the scene of post-classical Hollywood.

As part of the “Trash Trilogy”, Waters made his first big debut into the industry with his release and national distribution of Pink Flamingos (1966), which quickly earned a reputation as his most notoriously outrageous film. An underground sensation, it is often discussed by critics as a ‘quintessential Waters experience’, the likes of which promises to deliver a dose of hilariously anarchic fun. It features Waters’ famous muse and boyhood friend, drag queen actor “Divine” (Harris Glenn Milstead), as an infamous criminal living in a trailer under the pseudonym “Babs Johnson”, whilst caught in a rivalry with baby-trafficking couple ‘The Marbles’, each with a bid to prove themselves as the “filthiest people alive”. Despite the film’s inherently silly premise, it has proved its worth outside of the conventional boundaries of mainstream American cinema through its enticing commentary on celebrity culture, bourgeois values and unconventional take on gender identity. For example, throughout the film, the cast engage in scenes of outrageous sexual and social behaviour, the likes of which include, public masturbation, sodomy, rape, incest, exhibitionism, and voyeurism. These scenes are completely real and uncensored, with the most famously ‘filthy’ being of Divine eating a dog’s faeces on the side of the road. Through presenting these outrageously queer inversions, one could argue Waters sought to dramatize attitudes towards and desires around queer culture, through simultaneously mocking and subverting traditional representations of sexuality in mainstream Hollywood cinema, in which homosexuals were either portrayed as tragic or comedic “pansies”, lesbian vampires or sexual degenerates. For example, during the 1950s’, homosexuals were frequently referred to as “fags”, “perverts” or “child molesters” on live news. Following the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the Stonewall Riot in 1969, they were portrayed as a ‘militant’ gay minority who opposed a threat to society’s social order. For example, in Pink Flamingos, the characters regularly refer to each other as “perverts” and “whores”, and at Bab’s birthday, individuals dressed as Nazis attend, brandishing swastika armbands, machetes, and gifting her a severed pig’s head with an envelope containing vomit. The whole film is based on the premise that the characters are “sexual degenerates”, and therefore they are absurd, ridiculous and idiotic. With Divine famously exclaiming “Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!” before murdering the Marbles on live television in front of an array of news reporters, Waters seems to directly reference America’s historical backlash against “sexual deviants”, in which homosexuals were demonised to the public on live media coverage. Furthermore, the fact that Babs and her delinquent family live in an unmarked area that has no address or postcode (this fact is confirmed by the postman when he tries to deliver a letter) further emphasises the fact that homosexuals and members of the LGBTQ were largely ostracised from their communities, some even finding themselves banished from their own hometowns by their families and neighbours. Divine’s competition with the Marbles to achieve the status of the “filthiest person alive” translates to a desire to take pride in being the lowest of the low, and represents Waters’ desire for members of the LGBTQ community to be proud of who they are, despite wider society’s oppositional views on their sexual orientation or gender identification. Even though Pink Flamingos was banned in many countries, it still managed to achieve a widespread cult status throughout the Western world and inspired formations of subcultures throughout the gay community. This was largely due to the fact that the LGBTQ community had been rarely addressed directly as an audience before. Through focusing on marginal characters in his films, one could argue that Waters demands an analysis of America’s historical relationship to the LGBTQ community, subsequently providing a commentary its attitudes surrounding gender, homosexuality and queer culture, and as a result, giving liberation to the social outcasts and so called “degenerates” of his generation. Through his exploitative aesthetic, Pink Flamingos created a critical backlash against mainstream Hollywood’s avoidance of representing queer characters in the industry, and as a result, Waters’ films created a counter cultural influence that not only changed the heteronormative media landscape, but also the homonormative relationship to mainstream culture.

With the mainstream cinema landscape dominated by heterosexual and Christian identities in the 1950s and 60s, members of the LGBTQ community and people of other minorities and religious groups were rarely represented, and typically rendered as Others. If they were portrayed in popular culture, they were usually attributed to a single set of stereotypes that were usually derogatory and degrading. The relationship between alternative sexualities and mainstream culture shared an ideology that promoted a shame and stigma surrounding ‘non-gender conformists’, with monogamous heterosexual couples in the suburbs considered more likely to be contributory members of society. Through his camp aesthetic, Waters actively seeks to disrupt hegemonic order and challenge conceptions of the ‘respectable’ homosexual through his grotesque and camp nature, creating a new orientation of homonormative politics. Emmanuel Levy reads the camp aesthetic in Waters’ films as a countercultural violation of mainstream pop cultures’ codes and conventions, drawing on Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” to define Waters’ use of camp “trash” aestheticism, he states, ‘Gay camp usually relies on (or imitates) hyperbole of movies and pop culture through overstated décor, fashion, and cross-dressing. In verbal terms it’s reflected in quotations, mimicry, lip-synching, gender inversion, put-downs, and witty puns. Gay camp is of real value to its practitioners because it enables them to demonstrate their insider status, their very cultural existence, and often their superiority over straight outsiders, who don’t dig what they dig when they experience the same movie or TV show.’[1] According to Waters in his documentary Divine Trash (1998), Divine was his “Elizabeth Taylor”, and “an inflated and insane Jane Mansfield”, with her look further curated through drawing inspiration from 1960s high fashion, where models regularly wore excessive makeup. “Divine was a drag terrorist” he explains, “she was neither male nor female, she offended other drag queens because they wanted to be Miss Maryland.” “Divine wasn’t trying to pass for a real pretty girl, she created the in-your-face drag that meant you weren’t trying to be anyone else but yourself. We all considered her beautiful.”[2] Through the role of camp humour, Waters realigns the norm with marginalised characters, creating a new social order. Dividing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ taste as a metaphor for what’s is permissible in society and what is forbidden, Pink Flamingos embraces ‘bad’ taste as what is beautiful, but also as what is also seemingly not understood in society. The characters themselves exist beyond the mainstream binary of the victim and villain, with Divine herself exemplifying there is no ‘correct’ or normative assumption of heterosexuality and homosexuality.

A 300 hundred pound man, Divine’s camp persona “shattered the mould” of drag, and promoted a level of body positivity that had never been embodied before by any character on screen. In Pink Flamingos, Divine’s character satirically mocks the promotion of female celebrity culture in Hollywood. For example, throughout the film, she dresses in tightly fitted gowns and fishtail dresses, paired with high heels and excessive jewelry. Through her performative excess of costume, speech, and gesture, Divine satirically embodies the image of a classical Hollywood actress, who were selected by studios and glamorised with new personas, often inventing new names and even new backgrounds. The star system had a huge cultural influence on America, instilling new superficial notions of beauty and femininity that were promoted to the female population in order to make more money on the attainment of goods and services. It marked the beginning of celebrity culture, mainstream culture and popular culture, and Waters seemingly references this throughout his work, with Divine famously exclaiming in Pink Flamingos after sentencing the Marbles to death, “I will be queen one day, and my coronation will be celebrated all over the world. Do not forget – I am Divine!” Even Cuddles, Divine’s travelling companion, mocks the stereotypical artifice of the classical Hollywood actress, where female performers would always ‘tread lightly’ over topics of conflict, always maintaining an unrealistic level of poise and composition on screen. For example, at the trail of the Marbles, a reporter asks Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), “I have a question for you miss, there is a smile on your lips. Does murder make you happy?” To which Cotton replies charmingly, “Why, murder merely relieves tension Mr Curzan, for murder to bring happiness, one must already be happy, and I am, completely at peace with myself, totally happy.” Through classical Hollywood directors’ female-as-object-obsession, women rarely gained agency within a narrative, normally performing alongside their male co-stars as accessories to the plot, with their purpose being to assist the male lead in achieving his desires and therefore driving the narrative. Therefore, one could argue that through ironically attributing traits of typecast Hollywood actresses to his own characters in Pink Flamingos, Waters points to the homologies and conciliatory femininity that mainstream Hollywood cinema has promoted throughout the ages, and highlights the minimal degree to which feminine commodity culture had changed between the classical and post-classical periods.

Comparatively, Waters’ Polyester (1981) is another film that sought to stage outdated stereotypes of gender, demonstrated through his fascination with the Hollywood melodrama or “woman’s picture”. According to Matthew Tinkcom, Polyester offers a “feminist camp” commentary on the ideological functions of the melodrama, through identifying with the long-suffering female lead in her struggles. For example, in the film, Divine plays Francine Fishpaw, an overweight housewife who lives in suburban Baltimore with her upper-middle class family that is quickly falling apart. Being one of Waters’ more tame productions, it signifies his shift to mainstream cinema, however it does not lack the ironic features of his previous films. For example, Tinkcom argues, ‘through centring on women characters and redeploying the generic features of the melodrama in innovative ways, Polyester (1981) attempts to recognize the history of film melodrama heroines as they have been situated in camp readings for their performative excess…whilst simultaneously taking seriously the demonization of femininity in the patriarchal and homophobic society.[3] As seen in Polyester and many of his other films, such as, Female Trouble (1974), Hairspray (1988) and Serial Mom (1994), it seems that Waters has long identified with the female condition and the oppression of women in patriarchal society, the likes of which he clearly deems similar to the prejudice that homosexuals would be subjected to, both being seemingly at the hands of straight men. According to Tinkcom, the performances by the female characters in Waters’ films ‘pay tribute to the teary-eyed efforts of Hollywood icons such as Bette Davis and Joan Crawford…while demanding that we recognize the pleasures of suffering as they are sustained by both audience and performer.’[4] Similarly to the female characters Pink Flamingos, Polyester diverges with their classical Hollywood progenitors in order to challenge the patriarchal structures of mainstream Hollywood culture. Through recognising melodramatic heroines in Polyester, Waters provides a satire of domestic duty and femininity and its customary bourgeoise associations, and as a result, we see here the ideological function of his irony transform into a political one. According to Tinkcom, ‘Divine’s “rude drag” catches us in different spectorial positions as we are positioned throughout the narrative to pitch our sympathies to a figure who might otherwise be named an outlaw.’[5] In this way, Waters creates an environment in which he can challenge both heteronormative and homonormative politics, through linking oppressive Hollywood female star images to serving the desires of the heteronormative male spectator. Similarly to Pink Flamingos, another layer to add to the complexities of Divine’s star image is her questions of class distinction and its relation to femininity. In a more conventional domestic setting such as in Polyester, Divine is consumed with her characters’ wild fluctuations of feminine affect, attaching the melodrama to a distinct depiction of women that emerges from a crisis of the domestic sphere, in which she serves to offer her service to those who demand her labour, for example her husband and her children. In Pink Flamingos, Divine characterisation draws on conventions of the 1950s “bad girl”, through her skimpy mini skirts, tight fitted clothing and colourful high heels, seemingly marking her descent into “flithiness” as an exile of the bourgeoisie domestic sphere. Speaking on Divine’s limited means as “trailer trash” in Pink Flamingos, Tinkcom states, ‘her image (Divine) of non-privileged femininity suggests a strong affinity between discriminations of high and low evaluations and the problem of consolidating femininity as necessarily one set of gendered performances. Divine’s drag offended as it took on the signs of femininity but did not consolidate them to their more usual bourgeois infection via Hollywood female star image.’[6] Through Divine, Waters exemplifies how women’s image in Hollywood must be attended to in terms of her position in bourgeois patriarchal society, subsequently dividing between the glamorous domestic feminine spectacle of the melodrama, and perverted “trailer trash” who has been exiled from serving phallic privilege. Furthermore, through Francine’s preoccupation with hygiene in Polyester, more specifically her obsession with smelling out particular aromas of dirt and odours, Waters provides a further critique of what he has deemed a seemingly pointless existence of housewifely duty. One could further argue through these performances, he further emphasises around the idea that the melodrama genre is characterized not through sincerity but through being grounded in the management of the household. By the end of the film, Francine’s attempts to consolidate her family have failed, and through this, Waters marks the abandonment of ‘the fantasies of suburban wholesomeness’ that we see promoted in melodramatic mainstream cinema, subsequently revealing it as a world of simultaneous banality and utter ludicracy.

To conclude, Waters’ films recognise the history of classical and post-classical in order to consider the demonisation of femininity in a patriarchal and homophobic society Hollywood. Through his performances of both male and female characters, Waters sought to subvert stereotypes surrounding sex and sexual orientation, through celebrating the eccentricities and sharing the delights of camp performative excess with a wide variety of marginal characters. Through these subjects, Waters achieves the representation of every demographic within the LGBTQ community, subsequently creating a new queer cinema celebrating queerness and gay and lesbian identities as a new subject. The ironic features of his film, though seemingly just there to be hilarious, infact mark a counterknowledge, one shared between the producer and consumer in opposition to the value codings of popular cinema itself, and further representing the movement of the pleasures of camp into the arena of mainstream Hollywood cinema. Waters’ creative and cultural influence is seemingly immeasurable, and his legacy today stretches to reach all areas of Hollywood and beyond. He has however, admitted in an interview in 1998, that his success was, and is still, largely owed to his friend and muse Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead 1945-1988). Even years after Milstead’s passing, Divine is remembered as a symbol of liberation for queer, gay and lesbian identities, and as a sex symbol and cultural icon for the gay community, representing a level of self-acceptance and body positivity that didn’t exist in mainstream American cinema during the 1970s. Through her character, Waters could stage the pleasures of camp to an audience that had never felt represented before onscreen, and also simultaneously sympathise with women who were misrepresented. Whether they be the perverse, the bizarre, or simply an outsider in their community, Waters sought to embrace all marginalised subjects through mocking what he deemed the oppressive institutions of contemporary life, and debasing the political and economic order of modern society. For Waters, beauty went so far beyond any concern of gender, sexuality or racial identity, and in this way, we should celebrate him as not just a supporter of gay rights, but all for all.

Works cited

  1. Emanuel Levy, ‘Waters, John: Pink Flamingos-Cult Midnight Movie’, Emanuel Levy: Cinema 24/7 June 13 2014. http://emanuellevy.com/review/featured-review/john-waters-revisited-pink-flamingos-cult-midnight-movie/
  2. Divine Trash (1998) John Waters Documentary, YouTube, Dec 17 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYXMeV7XWEM
  3. Matthew Tinkcom, “Beyond the Critics Reach: John Waters and the Trash Aesthetic,” in Working Like a Homosexual: Camp Capital Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002). 155-88.

[1] Emanuel Levy, ‘Waters, John: Pink Flamingos-Cult Midnight Movie’, Emanuel Levy: Cinema 24/7.

[2] Divine Trash (1998) John Waters Documentary, 42:25 – 48:50.

[3] Matthew Tinkcom, “Beyond the Critics Reach: John Waters and the Trash Aesthetic,” p.158.

[4] Ibid., 158.

[5] Ibid.,168.

[6] Ibid.,169.

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