Filth, Fame, and Divine

I really really love John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972). It’s one of the most infamous cult movies of all time; it’s also hilarious, unrelentingly in-your-face, and endlessly enjoyable in the most tasteless ways. Hell, I love it so much that I wrote a 12-page paper on it a week ago called “Divine, Pink Flamingos, and the Politicized Body.” Therefore, I’d love to share with you what I learned from this paper. The fruits of my intellectual labor, if you will! And better yet, I’ll present them via a bulleted list, as my gift to you.

  • The mother: Within the film, Divine’s body is squeezed into a lot of roles. She’s a loving mother, a sexy starlet, and a mass murderer. The conflation of these gendered identities subverts them all, making for some pretty acrid social commentary. Babs Johnson’s brood is the American family run amok (complete with incest and chicken-fucking), and she’s an exaggerated, parodic portrayal of the ideal suburban homemaker – June Cleaver as a fat, foul-mouthed drag queen.
  • Sexualization: Divine (the character) isn’t just a mother; she’s also a horny gal raring for some action. Or as she puts it: “Why, I’m all dressed up and ready to fall in love!” She embraces a clichéd 1950s image of what attractive women are, and how they act, even if that image is self-evidently ridiculous. Like the film as a whole, she undercuts social norms by claiming as her own the lowest, tackiest, most degraded forms of cultural discourse.
  • The transgressive body: Early in Pink Flamingos, Divine buys a slab of meat and warms it up “in [her] own little oven” by holding it between her legs. Later, she barbecues the meat and serves it to her family for dinner. She’s the homemaking matriarch, but she also rubs food against her genitalia, licks furniture, and eats shit. The actions don’t suit the role, but Divine does them anyway.

  • Violence: As Michael Tinkcom points out in Working Like a Homosexual, John Waters totally anticipated the tabloid glamorization of criminals, and did it better than Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). Divine and her family are a pack of fugitives, “the filthiest people alive,” and this only compounds her sex appeal. As Pink Flamingos sees it, there’s no difference between pin-up and wanted posters. (Female Trouble delves even deeper into this – “I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself!”)
  • Celebrity: Pink Flamingos is really about the cult of celebrity. In Divine, his cinematic muse, John Waters blends Jayne Mansfield with the Manson Family. (The film quotes a scene from the Mansfield vehicle The Girl Can’t Help It [1956], and it’s dedicated to “Sadie, Katie, and Les,” three of the Manson girls.) By mixing sex, violence, and press coverage, Waters is essentially writing a love (or poison pen?) letter to postwar mass culture. (Also, for what it’s worth, I think Divine might be the Lady Gaga of the 1970s.)

So there you have it! It’s my reading of Pink Flamingos in just a few bite-sized pieces. It was a little more complicated than that, but you get the general idea. I talked about Rachel Adams’ Sideshow U.S.A., especially her take on Zoe Leonard’s photographs of bearded lady Jennifer Miller; also, I included this very vital quote from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble:

The replication of heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly constructed status of the so-called heterosexual original. Thus, gay is to straight not as copy is to original, but, rather, as copy is to copy. The parodic repetition of ‘the original,’… reveals the original to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of the natural and the original.

So remember that the next time you have to write an academic essay about drag! Finally, I noticed a great visual tidbit in the entryway to the Marbles’ house in Pink Flamingos.

Yes, that’s right: next to that poster for Joseph Losey’s campfest Boom! (1968) is an Andy Warhol print of Elizabeth Taylor. Since I had recently written a paper on Sixteen Jackies (1964), I was very cued into Warhol and his ties to celebrity culture, mass production, and drag. Like Pink Flamingos, Warhol’s work frequently links consumer culture with death, albeit in subtler, less over-the-top ways. More importantly, the grids of near-identical faces in his many series of celebrity prints (like those of Liz, Jackie, and Marilyn) resonate with the ways that Divine imperfectly embodies the personas June Cleaver, Jayne Mansfield, and Charlie Manson.

My ideas about Waters vis-à-vis Warhol aren’t fully fleshed out quite yet, but there’s a start. After finishing this project, I adore Pink Flamingos more than ever, from Ms. Edie’s demented, egg-centric babbling to Connie Marble’s intense bitchiness (“my kind of people, and assholes!”) to, of course, the divine Divine. A final note: If you want to learn more about drag, Divine, Warhol, and everything else, I highly recommend Marjorie Garber’s indispensable and entertaining Vested Interests. It’s a fantastic book.

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Filed under Body, Cinema, Sexuality

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