A movie like Female Trouble (1974) could be most easily classified as a comedy, but that is selling it short. “Comedy” doesn’t capture the specific satiric edge, the desperate shout, the exaggerated depravity of this film. It’s a loud, abject, offensive, and joyful declaration of self-determination and identity in the face of a world that has no use for anyone outside the norm.
Characters like Dawn Davenport and company are so far outside of the realm of acceptability that they can only exist in response to such a restrictive, repressed society. Dawn is a violent, abusive, dangerously self absorbed wannabe celebrity, and she is enabled in her depravity and her penchant for crime and murder by other outcasts. This community of rejects comes together to celebrate her because she is so defiantly herself in the face of a culture that doesn’t want to pay attention to people like her. So she and those around her force people to pay attention and Dawn is the only one who is able to make it through without sacrificing who she is, whatever the results.
And the results are hilarious. Dawn, like the rest of the movie, is gaudy to a hysterical extreme, and much of that is owed to Divine’s central performance. Divine’s greatness cannot be overstated. The sneering smile, hoarse voice, and imposing figure of Divine have such a strong onscreen presence that Waters’ camera cannot look away. All these elements coalesce into an outrageous manifesto against the very concept of good taste.
Coming out shortly after the Stonewall Riots and the birth of the modern queer liberation movement, the early films of John Waters are shocking in their total rejection of the straight world. Rather than make respectable films about the noble struggles of being queer, John Waters seems more interested in marking out his own territory. The film is dirty in every way, from the sets to the content. No part of it fits what might conventionally be called beautiful. It’s a declaration of queer separatism. Waters is not interested in making movies that can be bought and sold and admired by his oppressors. Instead, he is shouting that they can keep their polite society because queers don’t want any part of it. We’re having too much fun being beautiful and depraved.
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