“Sick Exhibitionism” in John Waters’ “Female Trouble”: I can take much more!

By Colleen Rowe

The first time I ever watched a John Waters film was when I was ten years old— it had been almost a decade since it had been released. Serial Mom (1994) was initially shocking for me, but even at that age I understood the humor of Kathleen Turner’s portrayal as Beverly Sutphin. I always made sure not to wear white after Labor Day after that, especially in areas where phone booths were prevalent.

Over the years, I watched a few of John Waters’ films here and there, but in my late teens, I was finally shown Pink Flamingos (1972) for the first time by a friend. I’m not sure what my friend was thinking, to be honest. Not because I felt overly disgusted by Pink Flamingos, which is the appropriate response, but because it was our first one-on-one interaction together. I didn’t see much of my friend after that.

IMG_6796John Waters post screening of Female Trouble at Lincoln Center Film Society’s “Fifty years of John Waters: How much can you take?”

After the initial horror of egg-eating, ass-dancing madness, I decided that Pink Flamingos was truly original. As Mink Stole said in a clip from AMC’s nine-part series, Movies that Shook the World: Pink Flamingos, “There’s barely a moment in it that could be shown to any God-fearing household.” If you can make audiences twist their faces in anguish as you present a larger, thought-provoking point, you have truly accomplished something great. Waters explained that when titling Pink Flamingos he wanted it to have a non-sensational name since the film was so shocking in itself. Waters did this by capturing the foul, puke-antagonist that is Pink Flamingos and its “poor step-sister,” as he termed it, Female Trouble./ Theme song./

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J. Hoberman and John Waters at the Walter Reade Theater during opening night of Lincoln Center Film Society’s Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take? Q & A post-screening of Female Trouble.

Dawn Davenport’s (played by Divine) psychotic behavior is partially foreshadowed in the infamous Christmas morning scene where she actually pushes her mother (her parents didn’t buy her Cha-cha heels!) and a Christmas tree falls on her. At the Walter Reade Theater at the opening night of Lincoln Center Film Society’s “Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?” Waters recounted to critic J. Hoberman and his audience that a Christmas tree had fallen on his grandmother when he was growing up and he exaggerated slightly. She was not hurt, as Davenport’s mother seemed to be. “Knocking over the Christmas tree has become a holiday favorite,” Waters remarked on Friday night, a comment that made the audience explode with laughter.

IMG_6775Outside of the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center

Waters educated the crowd on Cha-cha heels further, explaining that a lot of people didn’t know what real Cha-cha heels looked like (Apparently Cha-cha’s had smaller heels than most people thought). He added comically, “I had to teach drag queens about life.”

Dawn runs away after her dramatic outburst and crosses paths with Earl Peterson (also played by Divine). Earl literally screws himself for associating with a woman such as Dawn, and vice versa.

One of the greatest characters in Female Trouble is Taffy Davenport. Mink Stole portrays the older 14-year-old Taffy who interrupts Divine and her husband, Gater (Michael Potter), while they are having sex (take note that Mink Stole was in her late twenties when this film was made). Taffy’s responses to Gater are honestly appropriate. He’s a sick pervert and she knows it. Her infamous line: “I wouldn’t suck your dick unless I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!” will make audiences laugh out loud with the follow-up classic one-liner, in response to Gater’s questions: “Writing a book, hippy? Why don’t you go listen to some folk music and give me a break!?” Taffy is emotionally and mentally tortured throughout this film and she has every right to insult the “morally bankrupt,” as the only apparently logical character, Dawn’s doctor, calls them, adults who surround her.IMG_6809Initially, Dawn and Gater spend a lot of time at a local beauty salon where Gater works. Here, Dawn meets the bigot-yuppie couple, Donald (David Lochary) and Donna Dasher (Mary Vivian Pearce) who are absolutely obsessed with beauty. With her eyes perpetually rolling, Sally (Sally Albaugh), a customer at the salon, comments: “Well throw a goddamn penny in the fountain and make a goddamn wish and maybe it will come true.” Waters always found it hilarious that a lot of people had wishing wells on their front lawns. Along with other front lawn decorations, a lot of people also had pink flamingos. John Waters commented that he disapproved of the resurgence of pink flamingos that critic, J. Hoberman, spoke about during the Q & A at the retrospective’s screening of Female Trouble. Waters said, “‘I’m for them if you’re 75 years old and you have the plaster kind, the original since the 40s, I’m against it if you’re a yuppie with a plastic one on your front lawn meant to mock blue collar people.” He added: “Now they’ve become wearisome.”

Waters also expanded upon the act of “hitchhiking,” which Divine does in Female Trouble. Waters said, “Most people don’t know what hitchhiking is. I was hitchhiking once in Provincetown and a family picked me up. The little kid was staring at me like “’Dad, why is this man in the car?’”

Taffy is the only one who seems to realize how preposterous the idea of Dawn’s modeling career is. When Donald Dasher says that the camera he has is for taking pictures of Dawn, Taffy blatantly exclaims, “You must be cock-eyed!” and proceeds to annoy Donna Dasher with her drawn out “Hey, Laaady” as she drops chips all over Donna, who pretty much deserves it. One of the best lines in Female Trouble (keep in mind that almost every line is quotable in its entirety) is said by Donna Dasher after Dawn offers them dinner. With a long drawn out half-sigh, Donna says: “I couldn’t possibly eat spaghetti. Do I look Italian?” It isn’t so much the comment, which is in itself hilariously ridiculous, but the way Pearce says it.

This is not the only notable comment by Donna, who says to Dawn, dreamily, with the seduction of the movie-fame life overhanging, “We’ll give you a new look, an interest in life… and together, we could overcome… this boredom that imprisons us all.” Pearce’s drawl is the voice we hear when we read advertisements on highways, pushing without direct contact with the subject. Those sprawled out magazine famous models are the products that their industries make them become, and Pearce portrays this almost too perfectly with an eerily captivating tone. Her voice is the fine print that we did not care to read.

Dawn’s violent tendencies are finally captured! The Dashers start taking photographs after young Taffy throws a bowl of Dawn’s spaghetti at the wall. As Dawn is about to beat Taffy down with a chair, the Dashers excitedly ask her to pause for a great shot. Don’t worry, it doesn’t stop her from performing the act, and suddenly Taffy is Dawn’s trophy, messily sprawled across the floor like an overused prop. So Dawn begins to trade pain for fame, as many people do, and then a serious undertone takes its place beneath the blatant comedic obscenities that are performed. The Dashers are loving it: the exploitation, the opportunity to record shocking images. They are the show business industry.

While the Dashers embrace conforming behavior, or what they think is impressive, Gater’s Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) defames it. Aunt Ida states, “The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.” It sounds familiar, maybe it’s usually said a little differently. How many times have we heard it on the street, at work, in school, among colleagues, friends, acquaintances, and especially enemies?: “Homosexuality is sick”, but Aunt Ida turns around and points the finger at you, heterosexuals! Why are you the exception? Aunt Ida is an important metaphor for the ignorant phrases we hear of those who dwell too long in the realm of homophobia. The next time you’re about to express a phobia against someone’s sexuality, just think of Edith Massey, and how she looks better than you in that tight, black dress.

Female trouble escalates quickly. Dawn starts to completely lose her mind as The Dashers direct her like sideshow puppeteers. Behind the scenes of her first big performance, Dawn points a gun at The Dashers, shaking it playfully with big, wandering eyes. This scene is hilarious at first glance; the shot of her as the screen flicks back to the dressing room where her high school friends, Concetta (Cookie Mueller) and Chicklette (Susan Walsh), and The Dashers sigh happily with joy as Dawn forcefully dangles a lethal weapon.

Taffy shows up behind the scenes, dressed beautifully with a new light in her eyes. She has joined the Hare Krishnas, a decision that has seemed to affect her positively.Taffy speaks with Aunt Ida who tells her, “If you get tired of being a Harry Krishna, you come live with me and be a lesbian.” It’s a pretty great offer.

Dawn “embarrassed” and horrified that Taffy has chosen to associate herself with such a group, strangles Taffy within minutes and the witnesses squeal with happiness. Taffy had said to Dawn, before she had left to be a part of the Hare Krishnas,“You can’t kill Krishna because Krishna is consciousness.” If you beat it down or ignore it enough, I guess you really can kill something.

Why do onlookers and show business “professionals,” i.e, The Dashers, find the thrill of being killed so humorous? Why is Dawn being presented as a part of a show when she should really be getting some psychological help? Why is any of this okay in any film? Oh, you will make a lot of money. In fact, it’ll be a hit! You’re famous suddenly as the screen turns red.

Dawn’s speech during her show is most memorable:

“Thank you from the bottom of my black little heart! You came here for some excitement tonight and that’s just what you’re going to get! Take a good look at ME because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow! You’re looking at crime personified AND DON’T YOU FORGET IT! I framed Leslie Bacon! I called the heroin hot line on Abby Hoffman! I bought the gun that Bremmer used to shoot Wallace! I had an affair with Juan Corona! I blew Richard Speck! And 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?”

As Dawn says, “everybody freeze!” she reveals a gun, pointing it at the crowd. As she shows herself off, her trampoline routine is quite entertaining, but as soon as the weapon is revealed the situation changes from hilarious to truly terrifying in an instant.

In the final scene, Dawn is strapped to an electric chair. During his Q & A with Hoberman, Waters recounted that he and his crew, “Walked across the prison yard carrying the electric chair.” He continued, “Could you imagine that being allowed today?” The prisoners, probably horrified, were onlookers right before this scene was shot.

After laughing so hard throughout the film, it’s shocking how calm you’ll suddenly become as Dawn is finally reprimanded for the seriousness of her “sick exhibitionism”, as Donna Dasher calls it. Dawn states in her testimony during the trial that produces the result of her landing in that death chair, “How can they not want to die if they want to become famous for it?” and “Without all of this, my career couldn’t have gotten this far.” Here, the timeless question is asked through dialogue: How far will a person go for money and fame? Dawn is proud of the offenses she has committed against others. She demands to be on television.

The most horrific stories are always highlighted in the news, movies, books. People like to talk about murder or any terrible crimes because it makes their content in its entirety more interesting. Forget about morals, it is all about the special recognition. If you’re watching a film made by John Waters, the violence isn’t overtly gruesome like many films today exhibit. The dialogue is the key factor while watching Female Trouble. There are countless subtle meanings behind almost every sentence that reflect a critical idea. Through the dialogue that runs smoothly alongside the situations portrayed, homophobia, religious persecution, child neglect and abuse, sexual exploitation, snooty upper-class norms, glamorizing drug use, and many other social issues, are portrayed obscenely but correctly.

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On opening night, a few of the Dreamlanders were present at Lincoln Center Film Society’s John Waters Retrospective, including Mink Stole. Kathleen Turner (Serial Mom) was also present. He described the Dreamlanders who were present, and also those who have passed on, as “my friends, my colleagues, my gang,” some of them for over 50 years.

Prior to the screening, Waters said, somewhat apologetically, that he is sorry that everyone in this movie seems to be screaming constantly. It’s a very “loud” film. Overall, Waters said that this film, after its initial release got good reviews, “but people didn’t know what to make of it at the time.”

Today, John Waters, remains a huge part of pop-culture, influencing other filmmakers and social commentators.

There’s one great lesson to learn from Female Trouble: Remember to never mention a sex act in front of anyone respectable and rich because it is vile and crude!

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