Cult filmmaker John Waters created some truly iconic femme characters. We look back at how Waters’s heroines – in all their filthy, rotten, deviant, chain-smoking, cussing, chicken-fucking glory – are both important representations and a thrill to watch. By Annie Fell.
Every bad girl needs a pair of cha cha heels. Like nearly every other important thing I know, I learned this from John Waters. The reigning Prince of Puke made his career championing bad girls, writing skanky, scheming characters like Dawn Davenport and Wanda Woodward. He employed them in the cast and crew of his Dreamland Productions team, many his friends from when he was a teen delinquent in Baltimore. Movies like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble are celluloid shrines to his scummy femme muses. His characters were women who scammed, who stole, and sometimes killed, and his friends were the ones who relished in bringing them to life. To be a Dreamland girl was to be the ultimate Bad Girl.
Among Waters’s earliest muses were Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pierce, and Cookie Mueller. Thin and druggy, their characters embodied a body-horror version of traditional femininity, spewing obscenities with their thick Baltimore accents. They pioneered a look that can only be described as “The Shangri-Las on junk,” fetishized crime, and, in Mueller’s case, fucked a live chicken for the sake of cinéma. Their ethics often murky, they launched themselves full-throttle into breaking any rule that could possibly have been imposed on women.
But few managed to steal a scene like Dreamland’s Mother Supreme, Edith Massey. She made her debut as the Egg Lady in Pink Flamingos, spending almost the entirety of the film sitting in a playpen, eating eggs in her underwear. Massey plunged herself so deeply into the role that it caused audiences to question the ethicality of Waters employing a woman so seemingly mentally unstable. Although she was a barmaid with no acting experience to speak of when she met Waters, Massey knew exactly what she was doing. This was never more apparent than in her portrayal of the horned-up hag Aunt Ida in Female Trouble; in a lace-up catsuit, Ida proclaims to her straight nephew, “The world of heterosexuals is a sick and boring life!”
Of course, the name on everybody’s lips was Divine. Waters’s drag queen muse, Divine challenged contemporary notions of drag and femininity. His character was not that of the pristine Drag Ball queens popular in Baltimore’s underground gay scene. No, Divine portrayed the skankiest, filthiest, most hubristic woman imaginable—quoth Female Trouble, “I’m a thief and a shit-kicker, and I’d like to be famous.” Waters often described her as “the most beautiful woman in the world, almost.” Divine wore hot pants and bodycon dresses several sizes too small for her 300 pound body, but her appearance was rarely—if ever—the joke. Waters let his heftier muses dress as sluttily as his more traditionally attractive actresses, and the joke was always on the prudish audience member squirming in his seat. If it offends you, you’re square.
There have always been filthy, funny men in pop culture—men who are objectively bad and never morally redeem themselves in the third act, but whom we still consider lovable losers. They’re the men in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, thieving, scheming, narcissistic, and wholly selfish. In all its splendid filth, Always Sunny is essentially a hetero broad comedy version of Waters’s earliest work. Men, especially white men, have always been afforded more leniency toward their rule-breaking, obviously. It’s obscene and usually makes for good comedy, but it isn’t particularly transgressive; It’s hard to claim that you’re breaking the rules when those rules were never fully enforced for you to begin with.
I am obsessed with femme scammers. Divine hiding a slice of roast beef up her dress, Cookie Mueller threatening to cut a girl who ratted on her for eating a meatball sub in class, and Kathleen Turner’s Betty Sutphin making crank calls are all sources of filthy aesthetic, subversive inspiration. I have a friend who shoplifts literally all of her groceries from Whole Foods (it is a grotesque privilege to be a white woman with a New Yorker tote bag). Capitalism has stolen so much from women so it’s only fair that we take something back, even if it’s just a bunch of fair trade bananas.
Joanne the Scammer aside, American pop culture is rife with (often condemnatory) tropes of women plotting and stealing. The figure of the Gold Digger is particularly ubiquitous. In an Artforum diary, Rhonda Lieberman discusses Anna Nicole Smith: “Smith is every couch potato’s dream: a total vegetable with an unlimited budget. Her lawyer spoke for her. Bobby Trendy shopped for her. She did absolutely nothing but consume. Like Edith Massey […] the ‘egg lady’ in Waters’s legendary Pink Flamingos, but with money.” Women like Anna Nicole—a former stripper who unabashedly married a decrepit millionaire for the inheritance and let her lethargic, gluttonous life play out on the E! Network until her prescription drug-induced death—are Waters’s muses, not out of mockery, but of curiosity for their brazen transgressions. It feels natural to imagine Divine, stuffed into the tightest mini dress science could engineer, hawking Trimspa.
In the words of the Frankie Lymon song that soundtracks Divine’s shoplifting spree in Pink Flamingos, “It’s easy to be good, it’s hard to be bad.” Being the Filthiest Woman Alive has a strangely glamorous ring to it, similar to being “the girl with the most cake” like Courtney Love (who often seems to be straight out of Dreamland herself). It’s a hard-won badge of honor in a—ugh—Society that requires anyone who’s not a straight white man to be on their best behavior at all times. Though morally reprehensible, Waters’s muses are undeniably liberated; it’s cathartic to live vicariously through their deviancy. I hope that someday soon, every bad girl will finally get the cha cha heels she rightfully deserves.