On Sunday nights – every Sunday night, in fact – my mum used to draw the curtains, flick over to ITV, make a cup of Earl Grey and settle into an episode of Heartbeat. I love my mother, but I'm pretty sure there was one evening, looking over at her on the sofa, when I narrowed my seven-year-old eyes and thought, 'Eugh – if I'm ever like you SO HELP ME GOD.'
There comes a moment like this in most young adolescent lives: when the burning realisation hits that you're far more fabulous than everyone else – more talented and better looking than all the nauseating kids in your class, and destined to leave the drudgery of your suburban existence behind. Problem is, your glamour is smothered. By your parents, by your teachers and by anyone else who thinks they can stick their nose in. These people try to impress upon you their arbitrary rules: "Sit with your legs together, you're a young lady," "What have I said about stealing?" "Will you at least try to be heterosexual?"
They condition you while you're young. Socialise you. Deny you your egomania. They want you to grow up to be a nice, well-meaning person, living a quiet life in a four bed semi, where you die in your sleep, a speck of dust in the ether of existence.
What John Waters is interested in, I think, is the moment when you break free from these rules and constraints, and burst out glittering and ugly from the realm of right into wrong. Everyone in Waters' world deserves a life of notoriety, and nowhere is this sentiment better expressed than in his film Pink Flamingos, an exercise in what happens when you allow that tiny glimmer of "fuck you" in the corner of your eye to blossom into a maniacal, shit-smeared grin.
It's Waters' 1974 film Female Trouble, though, that is – to me – the single most fabulous and anarchic film ever made. It's often cited as Waters' own favourite from his five-decade career, and is basically a faux biopic of a Baltimore high school dropout named Dawn Davenport. Dawn is played by Harris Glenn Milstead – AKA drag legend Divine – and to say she's a female in a spot of trouble is to put it lightly: Dawn is pretty much the pinnacle of rebellion.
It all starts at Christmas, when Dawn's parents fail to buy her the one single thing she requested – a pair of "cha cha heels". The scene is exactly how you'd imagine: a grown, overweight man in drag, in her dressing gown, attacking two old people. Dawn crushes her mother with the Christmas tree and runs away from home. Before long, she's picked up by an anonymous motorist (also played by Divine) and they fuck on a mattress by the side of the road.
Skip forward nine months from the mattress incident and Dawn gives birth to a daughter, Taffy, while wearing Jackie O glasses and lying on a couch in a stairwell. Dawn/Divine tears the umbilical chord loose with her teeth in what is probably my favourite moment in cinema history. Then, in a plot that eerily foreshadowed Anna Nicole Smith's life, Dawn becomes a burger flipper, a stripper and a two-bit celebrity hungry for fame.
The rest of the plot plays out (albeit loosely) like any conventional melodrama – domestic quarrels, highs and lows, a bid for escape. As in his later film Polyester, by taking the family drama as a genre, Waters affords himself a structure against which his carefully orchestrated ironies unfold. Take, most glaringly, the fact that his female protagonist is played by a man in drag. Like all good DIY/punk/trash cinema, the cast is droll and deadpan, but Dawn/Divine's gestures are completely theatrical and her delivery Joan Crawfordesque – it's the ultimate parody of femininity and stardom: a total coup.
Similarly, Waters toys with the notion of normative sexuality as though it were absurd. When Dawn meets Gator – a hippy hairdresser – his aunt, Ida, complains she'd much sooner have a gay son: "I'd be so proud if you were a fag and had a nice beautician boyfriend," she says, like no parent ever. But Gator marries Dawn and they settle into a sex life that sees him hammer her with a literal hammer while Taffy walks in on them. It basically nukes the idea of the nuclear family.
Waters also debunks "the beauty myth" roughly a thousand times better than Naomi Wolf ever could. When Dawn suffers an acid attack at the hands of Gator's mother, her face bubbles up into a scarred mulch of skin and elaborate drag makeup. Enter Donald and Donna Dasher, owners of the local beauty salon. They find Dawn's new appearance – along with her job as a stripper and butt-tight blue leopard-print dress – inspired. So, obviously, they turn her into a model. The conventional mould of beauty is flipped on its head – completely undermined, even – and suddenly, watching this film, it hits you how ludicrous the idea of "good taste" is to begin with.
Probably the clearest example of this is the fact that Waters' prison visits to Manson Family member Charles "Tex" Watson inspired the film's key mantra: "Crime is beauty."
That's surely John Waters' love letter to Jean Genet, whose novels subvert traditional moral values and bring to light the beauty in evil. Only, Female Trouble makes it funny – achingly funny. In a scene based on Divine's real-life performances, she bathes in a cot of mackerel in front of a live audience while screaming declarations of all the terrible, ungodly things she's done: "I blew Richard Speck and I'm so fucking beautiful I can't stand it myself!"
The message is clear: it's fabulous to be hideous.
"To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about," says John Waters in his book Shock Value. "If someone vomits watching one of my films, it's like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good-bad taste and bad-bad taste. It's easy to disgust someone; I could make a 90-minute film of someone getting their limbs hacked off, but this would only be bad-bad taste and not very stylish or original. To understand bad taste, one must have very good taste. Good-bad taste can be creatively nauseating but must, at the same time, appeal to the especially twisted sense of humour, which is anything but universal."
And that's just the thing about Female Trouble: its unique brand of trashy camp is – as with all camp – in the eye of the beholder. If you watch a drag-queen-cum-acid-burn-victim strangling her own daughter and smile, you're depraved enough to be welcomed into the John Waters following. If you're offended by his aesthetic or moral sensibilities – well, his job is done; the boundaries of taste have been pushed.
There's no social ideology that Female Trouble doesn't take aim at – the beauty myth, the nuclear family, the cult of celebrity. And that's why, for me, it was cinema at its most violently challenging. Obviously I was never going to rip the curtains off the wall, kick over the TV set, throw Earl Grey in my mother's face and flee the building, but Female Trouble is a fun glimpse into what life might have been like if I had. It shows you the possibilities of living a life less ordinary, if simply by asking, "What's ordinary, anyway?"
For me, it made it OK not to be all the things I was supposed to be, namely: ladylike, virtuous and heterosexual. By obliterating the very idea of "good taste", the foul but inexorable Dawn Davenport left me free to be as depraved as I like, and proved that anyone – literally anyone – can be beautiful.
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