For most viewers, cult director John Waters’ movies are synonymous with transvestism, “bad taste” humor, and toxic American kitsch. But the Baltimore auteur has explored various political, sociological, and psychological themes in his movies over the course of his half-century career (his first feature, Mondo Trasho, was released in 1969). Perhaps the most intriguing motif in Waters’ filmography is his singular, unmistakable take on female sexuality.
American comedies tend to focus on the carnal desires of men, but Waters’ movies are consistently populated by sexually assertive female characters. Along the way, a distinctive archetype has recurred in nearly every Waters film: the boy-crazy, hormone-driven young woman, often with horrified parents who attempt unsuccessfully to keep their daughter under wraps. Many of these characters even have a similar look, sporting bleached blond hair and fire engine red lipstick.
This motif developed directly from events in the director’s own early life. Born into a well-to-do Baltimore family in 1946, Waters always chafed at the stuffy formality of his social standing and yearned instead for scandal, sleaze, and debauchery. As he explains in his commentary tracks for Polyester (1981) and Cry-Baby (1992), his unflattering jokes about country clubs, debutante balls, and charm schools represent everything he wanted to escape as a child. His partner in mischief was Mary Vivian “Bonnie” Pearce, a peer whose family life was equally stodgy. As John and Bonnie reached adolescence in the 1960s, they began to run with a crowd of bohemians, cross-dressers, shoplifters, and pot smokers, including Pat Moran, David Lochary, and the plus-sized cross-dresser Divine. This was the beginning of John’s repertory company, the Dreamlanders, with whom he’d make all his early films in the ’60s and ’70s.
Pearce’s parents disapproved of her friendship with Waters and tried to keep the two apart. But the two were well-versed in trickery and would come up with various schemes to sneak her out of the house, including making phony dates with “straight”-looking boys. As told by Waters in interviews and commentaries, this story bears a striking resemblance to the Rapunzel myth, with Pearce as the damsel locked in a tower. Fairy tales are a touchstone for Waters throughout his career. He often cites Walt Disney as an influence and even includes a lengthy Cinderella fantasy sequence in his debut feature Mondo Trasho (1969). Fairy tales frequently have their young female protagonists in conflict with either jealous older females (evil witches, queens, and stepmothers) or predatory males (the Big Bad Wolf). Waters’ onscreen heroines routinely face both of these threats.
In Mondo Trasho, for instance, an unnamed blonde bombshell (Pearce) travels by bus to Baltimore’s Wyman Park, where she is stalked by a lecherous, wolf-like stranger who lures her into the woods so that he can lick her feet and suck on her toes, thus provoking the aforementioned Cinderella daydream. In her woozy, post-coital state, the blonde staggers out of the woods and is promptly run over by Divine, who in turn has been distracted by an attractive male hitchhiker (Mark Isherwood) she imagines is nude. It is important to note that, although Divine is biologically male, his characters in Waters’ films are meant to be sexually confident women, not drag queens.
Divine takes the lead in Waters’ next film project, an improvised short called The Diane Linkletter Story (1969). Based on the real-life death of the daughter of a prominent TV host, the film pits hard-partying youngster Diane (Divine) against her strict, morally upright parents (Lochary and Pearce). They worry about the “fast crowd” she’s been running around with, and they specifically forbid her from seeing her current boyfriend, Jim. In a pattern that will be repeated through the Waters filmography, Mr. and Mrs. Linkletter send Diane to her room, figuratively locking her in the tower. Diane responds by tearfully throwing herself out the window, and the film ends abruptly. This is a brief film but it sets up so much about Waters’ later movies, as Diane is his first “wayward daughter” character.
The next hot-to-trot daughter in the Waters canon is Cookie (newcomer Cookie Mueller) in Multiple Maniacs (1970). This one is different from most in that her carnival performer mother (Divine) thoroughly approves of her wild child’s lifestyle. Cookie receives an extremely memorable introduction, gyrating topless to Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock.” Her stoned-out boyfriend, Steve (Paul Swift) is a political radical she met at a riot in Washington. (“We ran down to this clump of bushes next to the Justice Department and made love.”) Another model for female sexual aggression in the film is a randy religious pervert (Mink Stole) who blatantly approaches Divine in a church and inserts some rosary beads into “one of [her] most private parts.” Divine’s narration states, pointedly: “She seemed so sure of herself, something I naturally admire since I possess this same strong characteristic myself.”
Waters’ next film, his breakthrough Divine vehicle Pink Flamingos (1972), presents yet another twist on female sexual desire in the character of Cotton (Pearce). While not exactly a daughter – she is vaguely described as Divine’s “traveling companion” – Cotton does fit the Waters mold of unabashed young women with strong libidos. What makes this one interesting is that Cotton’s personal kink is voyeurism. Current psychological literature suggests that paraphilia is more common in men than women. Cotton would dispute that, since she enjoys nothing more than watching Divine’s hillbilly son Crackers (Danny Mills) perform acts of bestiality with his various short-term girlfriends. In the 1998 intro to his book Trash Trio, Waters lists Cotton’s outstanding traits: “female horniness, vacant beauty and murderous loyalty.” A planned sequel, Trash Trio, would have had Cotton do her spying from a specially built “voyeur booth.”
The follow-up film, Female Trouble (1974), returns to the daughter-versus-parents theme of Diane Linkletter. The plot centers around juvenile delinquent Dawn Davenport (Divine). While Dawn attends an all-girls public school, she still manages to shock and offend her parents and teachers on a daily basis. After a huge blowout on Christmas morning – Dawn doesn’t get the “cha cha heels” she requested – the rampaging teenager runs away from home and is immediately picked up by a classic Big Bad Wolf type: loutish Earl Peterson (also Divine, in male clothing). The fairy tale parallels continue here. A deleted scene has Dawn being banished to her room (again!), and in the fight scene, the girl refers to her mother as an “ugly witch.”
Waters’ last film made directly for the midnight/cult movie circuit was 1977’s Desperate Living, the first of his feature-length projects not to feature Divine. Instead, the film is the director’s own twisted bedtime story. High society murderess Peggy Gravel (Stole) takes refuge, along with her hefty maid Grizelda (Jean Hill), in the mythical kingdom of Mortville, a grotesque shanty town populated by fugitives and bums and presided over by the cruel Queen Carlotta (Edith Massey), who lives in a tacky plywood castle with her leather-clad soldiers/sex slaves.
Desperate Living is rife with references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes – Peggy and Grizelda even meet a pieman in their journey – and contains Waters’ most obvious Rapunzel yet in the form of Princess Coo Coo (Pearce), Carlotta’s rebellious daughter. The queen objects to her daughter’s amorous relationship with a commoner, a “nudist janitor” named Herbert (George Figgs), and tries to keep her locked in her royal bedroom. Unlike Diane Linkletter, Coo Coo finds a better way of escaping from her tower. She shinnies down a rope of sheets to see Herbert. Overcome with lust, the princess tells her paramour: “Oh, Herbert! I masturbated 14 times last night just thinking of you, and when I finally did fall asleep, my dreams were not exactly dry!” (The queen retaliates by having Herbert assassinated and Coo Coo injected with rabies. Touché.)
Filmed in 35mm and featuring Tab Hunter, the R-rated Polyester (1981) was Waters’ first real bid for crossover success. Yet he had clearly not abandoned his career-long obsessions, as evidenced by the character of Lulu Fishpaw (Mary Garlington), a bratty suburban teenager with a formidable appetite for sin. The middle class daughter of porno theater owner Elmer (David Samson) and harried housewife Francine (Divine), Lulu sports a Farrah Fawcett hairdo, dresses like a go-go girl, and delights in horrifying her parents with her brazen sexuality. Lulu brags about how she dances for quarters at the school cafeteria, talks about her cervix at the dinner table, and even boasts about the abortion she plans to get.
Lulu routinely makes dates with respectable boys just so she can sneak away with leather-clad lowlife Bo-Bo Belsinger (Stiv Bators). As Waters has revealed on the Polyester commentary track, this is a strategy Mary Vivian Pearce actually employed in real life to see him! Francine tries to keep Lulu away from temptation by banishing her to her room. Yet this Rapunzel comes prepared; she has a rope ladder by her bedroom window.
Waters took most of the 1980s off as a director, finally returning in 1988 with his most deceptively wholesome film yet, the nostalgia-driven Hairspray. Set in early 1960s Baltimore, the film deals with the issue of segregation and the desperate attempts by adults to keep white and black teenagers apart. Meanwhile, the kids just want to dance to Chubby Checker songs together on a local TV show. While most of the film centers around protagonist Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), Waters’ Rapunzel du jour is sidekick Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers). To her family’s horror, Penny begins dating a black teenager named Seaweed (Clayton Prince). And how does mom Prudence (Joann Havrila) react? By locking her daughter up in her room, naturally. Prudy even sics a sleazy psychiatrist (Waters himself) on her, before Seaweed rescues her.
Social divisions are also at the heart of Waters’ next film, Cry-Baby (1990), though this time it’s more class-based than race-based. In this lavish musical, set in 1954, there are two distinct peer groups for teenagers: “squares” (think: crew cuts, curfews, and milkshakes) and “drapes” (think: leather jackets, cigarettes, and R&B records). A romance develops between drape gang leader Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker (Johnny Depp) and “square” debutante Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane). Allison’s old-money grandmother (Polly Bergen) tries to keep her granddaughter locked away but eventually relents.
An interesting parallel to Allison is Wanda Woodward (Traci Lords), a female member of Cry-Baby’s crew. Her ultra-square parents (David Nelson and Patricia Hearst) actually try to ship her off to Sweden after she has a run-in with the local law. She responds by leaving home, a la Dawn Davenport, and is predictably set upon by another Big Bad Wolf, sleazy pornographer Toe-Joe (Alan Wendl). She unwisely accepts a ride in his hot pink 1952 Kaiser Manhattan but fortunately does not fall permanently into his clutches. (Dawn is impregnated by her Big Bad Wolf, with disastrous consequences.) Cry-Baby is again full of fairy tale and nursery rhyme references; there’s even a pivotal sequence set at a theme park called the Enchanted Forest.
At first, Serial Mom (1994) may not seem to fit the typical Waters mold of female sexual aggression. It focuses on Baltimore homemaker Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner), a squeaky clean mother and wife who secretly murders just about anyone who gets on her nerves or who threatens her family in any way. But there is a libidinous undercurrent to the character as well. The night after committing her first murder, one of her son’s teachers, Beverly is seemingly aroused to new heights and has enthusiastic, almost gymnastic sex with her mild-mannered dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston). Meanwhile, the hormonal daughter role is filled by college student Misty Sutphin (Lake), who openly lusts after an insensitive football player named Carl (Lonnie Horsey). When Carl stands Misty up to attend a flea market with a blonde floozy (Lords), Beverly responds by stabbing him with a fire poker. Carl’s date doesn’t seem too upset; she flirts with the cops at the murder scene.
Pecker (1998), too, strays somewhat from the Waters template. Its title character is a slightly befuddled young photographer (Edward Furlong) who becomes an unlikely art world sensation with his blurry B&W snapshots of his lower middle class world, e.g. two rats fornicating in a trash can, a mannish stripper baring her pubic hair, etc. Pecker’s neat-freak girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci) displays not a trace of carnality until a late-in-the-game tryst with Pecker in a voting booth. It’s worth pointing out that Shelley has a rival for Pecker’s affections. Hip art dealer Rorey (Lili Taylor) nearly seduces the young shutterbug, and she clearly takes the dominant role in the relationship. But the most classically Waters-ian character in the entire film is Pecker’s proudly eccentric sister Tina (Martha Plimpton), who works as an emcee at a bar called the Fudge Palace where straight young men dance for an older gay clientele.
Waters gave his fans an extremely bizarre, unexpected twist on the “daughter gone wild” theme with Cecil B. Demented (2000). The film’s title character (Stephen Dorff) is the belligerent leader of the Sprocket Holes, a smallish militant cult dedicated to promoting “extreme” independent movies and sabotaging mainstream Hollywood-financed productions. Like many cult leaders, including Marshall Applewhite of Heaven’s Gate, ill-tempered Cecil demands that his followers – male and female alike – take a vow of celibacy. (“Celibate for celluloid!” is his credo.) They’re all clearly horny, though, and they feverishly ogle Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), a glamorous movie star Cecil has kidnapped. The no-sex rule seems to weigh most heavily on flirty porn star Cherish (Alicia Witt), who keeps rubbing against Cecil in a suggestive manner. The oddest facet of this character is that she has dubious “recovered memories” of being sexually violated by her entire family under the Christmas tree. Whether this led to her later career choices is unclear.
After two films in a row about male protagonists, Waters returned to a female-centric plot with his most recent film, A Dirty Shame (2004). Appropriately, this could be considered the director’s ultimate thesis statement on the female sex drive and what happens when it is unloosed. Our protagonist is Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a joyless suburban wife and mother with a humdrum job at the family-owned convenience store. Her lusty daughter Caprice (Selma Blair) has ridiculously oversized breasts and even strips under the name Ursula Udders. In one final variation on the Rapunzel story, Sylvia keeps Caprice under house arrest for her supposed benefit.
But then, Sylvia receives a blow to the head, instantly becomes a nymphomaniac, and joins up with a group of sex addicts led by the mysterious Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville). This, too, has a fairy tale element to it, as the head injury is analogous to the kiss that awakens Snow White, while Ray-Ray’s “apostles” are similar to the Seven Dwarfs, in that each person is defined by a particular trait. (Alan Wendl, for instance, portrays an adult baby.) A small-scale war breaks out between the sex addicts and the sex-hating “neuters,” led by the prudish Marge (Stole). Ultimately, Sylvia and Caprice learn to embrace their sexual addictions and become closer than ever before. A Dirty Shame is an often ugly, ungainly film with slapstick violence and childish humor, but it serves as a fine valedictory address by John Waters. This one movie, goofy as it is, synthesizes themes that the director had been exploring since at least the late 1960s. It shows that the Waters canon is, above all else, a sexual call to arms, especially for women.