Female Trouble (1974)
Written & Directed by John Waters
Divine was a god damn movie star. Annoyingly he was born Harris Milstead to conservative middle-class parents in the 1940s. The indoctrination into their mundane cult of straight boringness didn’t take, and after being introduced to drag while working as a hairdresser, destiny called. Watching Divine perform feels like an assault and a command performance wrapped up in one. He is so abrasive and confident that I understand why most people were turned off. They aren’t used to experiencing that much glory in a single person. Here we get a mash-up of Divine’s own backstory and a narrative inspired by John Waters’ friendship with incarcerated Manson family member “Tex” Watson. In the world of Waters, things get really wild real fast.
Dawn Davenport (Divine) wants her goddamn cha cha heels, but those asshole parents just don’t get it. So after ruining Christmas by toppling over the tree, she hitches a ride with a lecherous driver (also Divine) and gets pregnant at a dump. Her daughter Taffy is born, and Dawn promises to give her child whatever she wants. Then the little bitch gets older (played magnificently by Mink Stole) and becomes a real brat. Our protagonist’s life is mainly concerned with two things. First, she engages in criminal activities with her high school pals, Chiclette and Conchetta. Second is canoodling with exclusive hairdresser Gater, whose aunt Ida (Edith Massey) is heartbroken the lad isn’t gay. As with most John Waters films, this one goes in some bizarrely funny directions.
Female Trouble glories in its celebration of crimes and murder, an intentional decision to challenge social norms of the time. The film is dedicated to a member of the Manson Family whose murders were fresh in the cultural zeitgeist. While he’d made many beloved and hated movies up to this point, I think Female Trouble is his best of this early era. It’s still very messy and bloated with scenes, but it’s also his most coherent in terms of theme. Not every moment is dark comedy; there’s some genuine pathos here. In one scene, Taffy runs away to meet her biological father, Earl, the skeevy driver played by Divine. Even after learning this is his own child, he attempts to drunkenly rape her. Taffy responds by stabbing him to death in an extremely bloody scene. There was some camp, but Mink Stole’s performance had so much pain that it caused me to really think about the ideas Waters was exploring.
The story here is like a remake of Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, except ending on the moral of a woman returning to a traditional role; Waters is making a statement that we should tear down the structures that damned women to such mundane, pointless lives. He plays with expectations, for example, Edith Massey as the doting aunt who sets her straight nephew up on dates with flaming homosexuals with the hopes it’ll take and he’ll become gay. These were flipped recreations of experiences people like Waters and Divine had to go through during their youth. The forces of “decent” society were always at work to try and violently remove their sexuality and expression of it.
There’s this refrain amongst conservatives to lament the “political correctness” present in contemporary media. Yet, these exact “edgy” figures would tell us that John Waters and his work are abhorrent and unacceptable. I can’t think of many filmmakers who put the first amendment to the test better than the Baltimore native and his cast & crew. This is a militantly gay film that doesn’t want its views accepted by a mainstream it abhors. These are not the well-manicured and camera-friendly Pete Buttigieg queers. These are people playing with gender and sex and bodies and comedy.
Yet, even in this celebration of queerness, Waters points out how counter-culture is exploited by the powerful. Donald & Donna Dasher, the owners of an exclusive hair salon, eventually coerce Dawn into committing crimes and exhibiting her body for their photographing hobby; they want to turn her into art. The result is that Dawn begins destroying her body to appease them. By the end of the film, she’s had her face scarred from acid and is brought up on stage as an act to enrich the Dashers. Dawn clearly loves being in the spotlight and soaks up the attention. Two things are happening here. On the one hand, Waters wants us to look at people society has labeled as ugly and hideous and see them as beautiful, not despite those things, but directly because of them. Disfigurement makes a person unique in a world of carefully curated and brutally enforced beauty standards.
However, Dawn is also a victim because she is poor and a woman, and fat. She’s someone that this awful, homogenous, cruel world will ultimately destroy. Waters finds a beautiful tragedy in that fact. Waters has admitted in recent years that he was insensitive towards the families of Manson’s victims by trying to make something utterly irreverent about it. But given the context and the country he made this picture in, it is a rebellious cry out of a dark and ignored corner from people sick of having to conform or be ashamed of themselves.
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