‘I’M SO FUCKING BEAUTIFUL I CAN’T STAND IT MYSELF’: Female Trouble, Glamorous Abjection, and Divine’s Transgressive Performance
Paisley V. Sim
Emerging from the economically depressed and culturally barren suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland in the early 1960s, director John Waters realizes films that bridge a fascination with high and low culture – delving into the putrid realities of trash. Beginning with short experimental films Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964), Roman Candles (1966), and Eat Your Makeup (1968), the early films of John Waters showcase the licentious, violent, debased and erotic imagination of a small community of self-identified degenerates – the Dreamlanders. Working with a nominal budget and resources, Waters wrote, directed and produced films to expose the fetid underbelly of abject American identities. His style came into full force in the early 1970s with his ‘Trash Trio’: Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Female Trouble (1974). At the heart of Waters’ cinematic achievements was his creation, muse, and star: Divine.1
Divine was “’created’ in the late sixties – by the King of Sleaze John Waters and Ugly-Expert [makeup artist] Van Smith – as the epitome of excess and vulgarity”2. Early performances presented audiences with a “vividly intricate web of shame, defiance, abjection, trauma, glamour, and divinity that is responsible for the profoundly moving quality of Divine as a persona.”3 This persona and the garish aesthetic cultivated by Van Smith afforded Waters an ideal performative vehicle to explore a world of trash. Despite being met with a mix of critical condemnation and aversion which relegated these films to the extreme periphery of the art world, this trio of films laid the foundation for the cinematic body of work Waters went on to flesh out in the coming four decades.
Waters conceived gaudy and subversive works that extolled abject and marginalized identities, unconventional sexualities, the excesses of celebrity, and allure of crime with Divine at the helm as a pre-punk jezebel fueled by shock value. Divine’s artistic strategies of resistance lay in her energetic, transgressive performance, and a celebration of abjection.
THE DREAMLANDERS APPROACH ABJECTION
Bulgarian-French theorist Julia Kristeva’s post-Freudian theory of psychoanalysis “Approaching Abjection” is an onerous read. Kristeva presents a theory of the abject which stresses a prerequisite mastery of Freudian and Lacanian schools of thought and acknowledgement of the fluidity of the conceptual “I” and the “Other”.
“Approaching Abjection” describes a state of being cast off as the moment when a child’s indistinguishable relationship with its mother is terminated irreparably, the habitual expulsion of bodily substances such as menstrual blood and excrement evoke this separation. Simultaneously, this separation and cleansing – the experience of abjection – “establishes bodily boundaries by facilitating the introduction of a distinction between the inner and outer, and then between the ego and non-ego. It encapsulates the memory of the violence of separation from a level of existence prior to the establishment of object-relations, and that memory is reactivated by the expulsion from the body of abjected substances. The abject is also evoked by the ritual ceremonies of defilement and purification that repeat and re-inscribe the universal tendency to regress to the archaic level”.4
Bridging psychoanalysis, linguistics, and literature, Kristeva delves into the subjective relationship between object and non-object, ego and non-ego, also exploring one result of the experience of abjection – the stray. She proposes that once boundaries are established there is an implied threat that these partitions can be compromised. This would throw the subject into a realm devoid of reason or meaning with the potential to revert back to a stifling and bygone relationship with the image of one’s mother. There is an implied threat of a return to the chora – a motherly space, a receptacle, the natural mansion, the womb. The fear of being absorbed back into the chora relates to the mother being a potential cannibal who could devour one’s subjectivity.
Within the psychoanalytical context of Kristeva’s work, the abject also applies to the state of being cast off: grasping for a place within the symbolic order of the world while simultaneously inhabiting a space outside it. This interpretation of the stray or the abject, routinely relates to women, people of colour, those impoverished, the disabled, gays and lesbians, and trans-gendered people, et al. In being relegated to an abject space, an individual will experience the presence of “an Other […] in place and stead of what will be ‘me’.”5 The “Other”, established within a symbolic order, hinged on semantics, precedes and possesses the ability to identify an individual as abject. On account of the “Other”: “a space becomes demarcated, separating the abject from what will be a subject and its objects.”6 This effectively casts the individual outside of the structured symbolic world.
John Waters worked intimately with the Dreamlanders7 – a close-knit posse of disenfranchised barmaids, go-go dancers, porn stars, convicted criminals, out lesbians, beat poets, queer activists, under-class women, and HIV-positive outcast-turned film actors. The Dreamlanders collectively recognized that they have been placed outside of certain orders by virtue of their sexual orientation, histories, and beliefs. They were organized around a celebration of marginalization which relates to Kristeva’s statement about the space that engrosses “[…] the deject, the excluded, [which is] never one, nor homogenous, nor totatlizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic.”8 Together this group found a symbolic existence that thrust aside the norms and social graces of safe, suburban America. Waters is “fascinated by the abject, imagines its logic, projects himself [as author] into it, introjects it, and as a consequence perverts language – style and content.”9 The cinematic conventions, costuming, and ornamentation of the world created in these films generated a new visual language and physiognomy unique to the Dreamlanders. This afforded the group a means of expressing their shared abject desires and burgeoning culture.
The Dreamlanders included the renowned newspaper heiress and convicted bank robber Patti Hearst. Kidnapped and kept as a political prisoner by the extreme Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in 1974, Hearst was ‘brainwashed’ and helped the SLA rob a San Francisco bank.10 She was convicted of her crimes because she refused to testify against her fellow guerillas. Her transgressions have since been twisted into a public interest story. Heart was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001.
Haight-Ashbury run-away turned poet Cookie Mueller also appeared in many early films, before her untimely death from AIDS. Mueller’s memories recount tails of hitchhiking, LSD and ketamine binges, and unbridled sexual exploits in and around San Francisco in the late 1960s. She was unafraid to express her sexual desires and pleasures, to speak her mind, and bare her naked body on camera. Edith Massey11, a short, stout, 250-pound barmaid with terrific mangled teeth began acting in Waters’ films at the age of fifty-two. Framed by a mess of peroxide blonde hair, Massey paraded around triumphantly in skintight one-pieces with slits up both sides revealing her enormous chest and myriad of stretch marks. These women are uninhibited in their real lives and brought that energy and depth to their performance on screen.
Upon first viewing Waters’ work, it is apparent that traditional acting qualifications have been thrown out the window in favor of passionate and imperfect reflections of the abject. Though untrained, these performers brought raw energy and zeal to the screen, rather than verisimilitude or proper diction. Their leaky bodies seem unnatural and untamed because they defy standards of beauty and composure. The Dreamlanders were not practiced performers by any means; they were an organized band of social misfits that left film critic Rex Reed asking, “where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn’t there a law or something?”12
‘GO FUCK YOURSELF’
Art has always been a medium to explore the spirit and exploits of the abject. Kristeva refers to literature “from Dostoyevsky to Céline [which is] haunted by the threat of the extinction or collapse of meaning and is therefore characterized by its constant and horrified evocation of the abject.”13 John Waters was not haunted by this collapse. By every indication he aimed to devastate society through his art. Though met with aversion, Waters developed an audience base, due in large part to his position as the de facto leader of Baltimore’s underground. Waters’ following thrived because of their ability to identify with the abject personalities and trash presented on screen. The Dreamlandersprove that there is the potential for subversion in numbers. Waters created films for and by a specific crowd that were invigorated by their rejection by mainstream culture.
Waters consistently presented shocking, abhorrent scenarios on film. Most famously, he had Divine solidify her title as ‘The Most Beautiful Woman in the World’ in the film Pink Flamingos.14 Dressed up in a gold halter top with a full face of makeup, Divine waits for a miniature poodle to defecate on the sidewalk, at which point she picks up the shit and eats it, all while sporting a wide, self-satisfied, shit-eating grin.
Waters’ pre-eminent assault on society is his 1974 film Female Trouble, sets a glittering stage for Divine and her criminal exploits through juvenile pranks, motherhood, marriage, stardom, and criminal desertion. Viewers are thrown head-on into unruly hyperbolic teenage delinquency as they follow 300-pound “jezebel” Dawn Davenport,15 who, having not received the ‘cha-cha’ heels she expected for Christmas, upturns her family Christmas tree. This traps her underneath it, where then Dawn runs away from home never to return. She is picked up hitchhiking and hastily impregnated by Earl (played by Divine dressed as a greasier version of his male self) in a garbage dump by the side of the road.16 Ultimately, Earl refuses to support Dawn’s baby, telling her “go fuck yourself,” which, in effect, Divine has already done. Dawn gives birth to her daughter Taffy in the hallway of a dingy motel, biting the umbilical cord off with her teeth, and the audience is propelled into the next rapid fire saga.
Davenport’s life of petty crime affords her a spectacular wardrobe and regular trips to get her hair teased at the Lipstick Beauty Salon, which is where she meets Donald and Donna Dasher. The Dashers believe that crime is beauty and Davenport soon becomes their new modeling muse. Slumming, the Dashers fabricate a pseudo-anthropological study of Davenport’s lowbrow lifestyle, which is documented through fashion photography. Their adoration fuels Davenport’s thirst for celebrity life, even though she is unashamed of her huge, untamable body. Davenport believes that she is genuinely beautiful,17 and that her criminality and over-the-top appearance only enhance her celebrity status.
Mid-way through Female Trouble, Davenport’s face is permanently disfigured by acid burns, which, contrary to what the audience expects, only amplify her beauty in the eyes of admirers. Davenport’s cult propels her to stardom. Along the way, she tortures and severs her former in-law’s hand, mainlines liquid eyeliner (a sick commentary on the heroine use amongst some of the Dreamlanders), kills her young daughter Taffy after she becomes a Hare Krishna, and poses seductively in an endless stream of cheap flamboyant outfits. Divine’s performance reconstitutes trash as treasure by shocking and horrifying viewers in nearly every possible way.
‘I’M SO FUCKING BEAUTIFUL I CAN’T STAND IT MYSELF’
Waters shows that crime and acts of violence are beautiful in Dawn Davenports’ grand performance debut.18 Met by a roaring crowd of degenerates, junkies, prostitutes, and gay hairdressers from the beauty salon, the crowd appears to be climaxing in their seats as they smear red lipstick over their faces, grope each other, and physically ache for Divine. On stage she bounces and flips haphazardly on a trampoline, thrusts her white polyester clad thighs into the ground, and jumps into a crib full of dead fish which she fellates and rubs into her crotch. Divine expels any sense of shame, and in a fit of glamour exclaims “you’re looking at crime personified! I’m so fucking beautiful I can’t stand it myself! Now everybody freeze. Who wants to be famous? Who wants to die for art?!”19 At this point, she shoots and kills members of her audience, sending the room into a frenzy.
This killing spree demarcates her status as celebrity performer to that of a reified criminal. She attains a new level of stardom as a glamorous, overblown villain. Through the preceding trials20 and imprisonment, she is unable to acknowledge that her crimes are her own and not an act of celebrity. Clean faced with a shaved head, Davenport dedicates her last moment to her fans while strapped to an electric chair awaiting execution. In her final speech, delivered with an unparalleled narcissistic charm and maniacal laughter, Davenport says:
I’d like to thank all the wonderful people that made this great moment in my life come true. My daughter Taffy who died in order to further my career. My friends Chicklette and Concetta who should be here with me today. All the fans that died so fashionably and gallantly in my nightclub act. And especially all those wonderful people who were kind enough to read about me in the newspaper and watch me on the television new shows. Without all of you, my career could have never gotten this far. It is you that I murdered for, and it is you that I would die for. Please remember I love every fucking one of you!21
The screen freezes on Divine’s howling face as she’s being electrocuted and credits roll over this frame. This final scene is horrifying, and with her execution it is clear that the “desire for fame and shock transcend reason. Divine dramatizes how the obsessive intensity of affect make one a star and not what one does or how well one does it.”23
Waters celebrates the latent cruelty of crime as a source of beauty through subversive, shocking and appalling performance. Female Trouble radically departs from psychological realism in cinema and “speaks to the need to create a new language that is midway between gesture and thought.”24 His directorial style is spectacular, he assaults the audience with the language and customs of the Dreamlanders. The wholly shocking end of Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble breaches the audience’s notion of celebrity, respectability, and exposes her warped sense of repentance.
“Divine’s performance in Water’s films are profoundly moving to identifying spectators due to their powerful articulations of trash glamour based in shame and abjection”25 – some audience members were repulsed, while the cult of Divine was aroused. The audience at Davenport’s nightclub, as well as those watching the film Female Trouble, act as though they are assaulted by Divine’s yearnings for celebrity. This film is an attack on mainstream views and sexualities, commenting on the abject world of criminality, and degeneracy, seeking to prove that crime in the largest sense is universal.
THE RELIGIOSITY OF TRANSGRESSION
Waters audaciously evokes the abject and pits performers against their personal boundaries and sense of shame. Casting repressed people whose identities have been relegated to the fringes of everyday life, Waters “channels his hatred of society into film, and Divine was perhaps the supreme manifestation of his vengeance.”26 The constructed persona of Divine skirts the boundaries between pure and impure, evoking a performative energy and impact akin to preaching. “Instead of hiding her shame with saintly airs, Divine achieves divinity through making her shame as visible, audible and memorable as possible.”27 These films furnished a religion for degenerates with Waters acting as God, Divine acting as the sacred Mother, and the Dreamlanders as their children.
Née Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine grew up the only child of strict Baptist parents. Effeminate, overweight and bullied, he idolized stars like Elizabeth Taylor, and studied cosmetology after graduating from high school. Glenn’s cross-dressing childhood and latent homosexuality were honed in on by John Waters, who cultivated for him a persona unique to his huge body. Divine was Waters’ glamorous retaliation against a society that negated his abject impulses and homosexuality. In his graduate thesis author Jon Davies writes:
[Divine’s] glamour is rooted in a pervasive sense of shame originating in queer childhood, harnessed as a transformative force. This is the same of the gender deviant identification of a queer or proto-queer boy with the ‘effeminate’ glamour and pleasures of Hollywood and its actresses. This desperate adoration of Hollywood is trashed through its embodiment in a resolutely abject and obscene queer performance. By believing enough in their dreams of glamour that they become reality, the performances also challenge the distinction between artifice and authenticity, trash and truth.28
At the heart of Divine’s potent transgression against normalcy is an untamable body. Dressed in bright skin-tight mini-dresses, boas, sheer slips, and towering hair, Divine stood over 6’4” tall in heels. The sense of shame cultivated in his childhood is harnessed and amplified into a defiant fearless exterior. Kristeva writes that the abject finds “the impossible within; when it finds that the impossible constitutes its very being, that is none other than the abject.”29 The power of shame is harnessed from within; it forms the hard, glittery shell of the abject that loudly defies mainstream standards. Divine subverts a historically constructed body and beauty norms by outshining them. This glamour lies in Divine’s “desperate drive for visibility and value despite a body marked by shame and abjection.”30 The Dreamlanders devised a religiosity that promoted. Divine’s fabulous body giving it a value it could never have attained in the real world.
In Female Trouble, Dawn Davenport is unhindered by her disintegrating acid burnt face, massive body, or criminal history – she does not experience shame. On the contrary, her survival strategy is to consistently intensify her visibility through increasingly extreme gestures until she is deemed too grotesque to live within society. “Celebrity has a high status in the world created by Divine and Waters. It is a phenomenon that eclipses the specific roles of person, artist, fictional character, and commodity, thereby enabling the creation of new ‘impossible’ bodies like Divine’s.”31 Davenport attains her peak celebrity status when she is killed by the state.
Waters creates a persona that survives by feeding off her monstrosities. Divine marks the return to the “repressed ‘haunting abject’ of his effeminate boyhood. Divine’s performances are memorable because these visible and audible nuances of authentic trauma are palpable in a body defiantly marked as effeminate and trash. By effacing this body and its powers, Divine is put in the unenviable yet familiar position of identifying with his own erasure in order to survive in the world.”32 Faced with such realities, Divine confronts and re-appropriates this source of abjection that is channeled through performance. The boundaries between a repressed subject, potentially absorbed back into a state devoid of objectivity, and the acknowledgement of abjection, is attacked head on in Female Trouble. The fear of erasure relates to Divine’s built-up persona, as a survival tactic against societal repression. The creation of an unrelenting, monstrous exterior that was devised to revel in the abject effectively transgresses the mainstream, and relinquishes power from the “Other” – it is a celebration of the the Dreamlanders marginalized religion.
There is a marked separation between Divine on and off stage. Bernard Jay writes: “he hated the label ‘drag queen’ or ‘transvestite’ that seemed to accompany him everywhere. In his own mind, Divine was never anything but a man.”33 Divine embodied pure, oversexed womanhood on film but identified as a male character actor off camera. Divine was “forced to buy into the same value system that oppresses bodies and subjectivities like his by downplaying what makes his performances transformative and powerful,”34 in order to make a living, sanitize his star image and find more lucrative acting gigs. Off camera, Milstead was not eating shit or murdering fans. He considered his screen time as pure entertainment, calling himself a comedic actor.
The transformation of Harris Glenn Milstead into Divine highlights the powerful presence summoned on film. His “power originates in his critique of beauty norms and his skill and determination as a performer […] Divine’s power resides in his ability to upset, in his unbridled delirium, and hunger to be extraordinary.”35 Divine inflicts an assault on the audience by playing trash for trash. He performs the extreme abject by separating the inner and outer worlds, as outlined by Kristeva, effectively spurring an act of cleansing. Waters and Divine cleanse the shame of their queer boyhoods, by projecting a violent transgressive reality on screen. The repetition of subversive acts in Waters’ films undermines the grasp that the “Other” has on the cult of the Dreamlanders, and in effect marginalizes the “Other”. Waters and Divine reinforce a world designed for trash which, for the audiences identifying with the abject, has the potential to enact a cathartic cleansing of their own. Kristeva writes:
The various means of purifying the abject – the various catharses – make up the history of religions, and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion. Seen from that standpoint, the artistic experience, which rooted in the abject it utters and by the same token purifies, appears as the essential component of religiosity.36
By extolling abject realities and celebrating the sacred medium of Divine, Waters produces profound effects on the viewer and incites similar transgressions. Exposing shame and lust for fame through her untamable body, Divine’s transgressive performance anchors a religiosity for the Dreamlanders. Dispelling social sanctions and taboos, this religion contests the reified status of beauty, sexuality, crime, and fame. John Waters’ art reconsiders the historically-constructed body and exposes an abject way of living brought on by the repetition of subversive acts. The exploration of the infectiousness of trash and abjection “and the corrupting power of glamorous fantasy made flesh through cinematic performance,”37 exposes the religion of abjection unique to the Dreamlanders and audiences that identified with the marginalized people on screen. Waters and Divine open up a shame-fueled, abject world imbued with the potential for subversion and cleansing. The garish realities of Female Trouble incite an evocative purging not everyone can withstand, for those that can there lies the potential to realize a beautiful catharsis longed for by the abject.
• Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Feminist Local and Global Theory Perspective Reader. Ed. Carole R. McCann and Seung-Kyung Kim. New York: Routledge, 2003. 415-427.
• Cooke, Jennifer. Legacies of Plague in Literature, Theory and Film. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
• Davies, Jon. Trash Is Truth: Performances of Transgressive Glamour. Toronto: York University Graduate Thesis, 2004.
• Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Random House Inc, 1978.
• Jay, Bernard. Not Simply Divine. London: Virgin Books, 1993.
• Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.
• Macey, David. Dictionary of Critical Theory. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.
• Mueller, Cookie. Fan Mail, Frank Letters, and Crank Calls. New York: Hanuman Books, 1989.
• -, -. Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990.
• Salih, Sara and Judith Butler. The Judith Butler Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
• Stevenson, Jack. Desperate Visions Camp America. London: Creation Books, 1996.
• Waters, John. Hairspray, Female Trouble, and Multiple Maniacs: Three More Screenplays by John Waters. New York: Avalon, 2005.
• -, -. Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. New York: Macmillan, 1983.
1 Please note: The pronoun ‘he’ refers to Divine the actor (Harris Glenn Milstead), while the pronoun ‘she’ refers to Divine’s performed persona and the female characters that Divine played in Waters’ films. This distinction comes from the book Not Simply Divine written by Divine’s long-time friend and manager Bernard Jay. See Appendix 1 – Divine.
2 Jay Bernard, Not Simply Divine, (London: Virgin Books, 1993), 2.
3 Jon Davies, “Trash Is Truth: Performances of Transgressive Glamour,” (MFA thesis, York University, 2004), 66.
4 David Macey, Dictionary of Critical Theory (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 1.
5 Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 10.
7 See Appendix 2 – the Dreamlanders.
8 Kristeva, Powers of Horror, 8.
9 Ibid., 16.
10 “Patty Hearst Kidnapping,” San Francisco Chronicle,
11 See Appendix 3 – Edith Massey.
12 Jay, Not Simply Divine, 36.
13 Macey, Dictionary of Critical Theory, 1.
14 See Appendix 4 – Divine in Pink Flamingos.
15 See Appendix 5 – Dawn Davenport.
16 See Appendix 6 – Dawn and Earl.
17 Please note: The doubt expressed here refers to a culturally constructed beauty ideal. I believe that Divine is beautiful.
18 See Appendix 7 – Dawn’s performance debut
19 Female Trouble, Dir. John Waters, Perf. Divine, Mink Stole, and Edith Massey (New Line Cinema, 1974) DVD.
20 See Appendix 8 – Dawn on Trial.
21 Female Trouble, Dir. John Waters, DVD.
22 See Appendix 9 – Dawn in the electric chair.
23 Davies, “Trash is Truth…,” 73.
24 Macey, Dictionary of Critical Theory, 378.
25 Ibid., 57.
26 Ibid., 82.
27 Ibid., 70.
29 Davies, “Trash is Truth…,” 3.
30 Ibid., 5.
31 Ibid., 74.
32 Ibid., 85.
33 Ibid., 91.
34 Jay, Not Simply Divine, 52.
35 Davies, “Trash is Truth…,” 88.
36 Ibid., 83.
37 Kristeva, Powers of Horror…, 17.
38 Davies, “Trash is Truth…,” 120.