CW Content Warning: Sex, Profanity, and Overtly Disturbing Content
This film is the definition is X/NC-17 Rated. I mention several of its disturbing scenes in my analysis. Viewer discretion advised
Our culture loves to be disgusted. We seek out grotesque things and bodies just to be shocked and alarmed. I don’t think there is a specific reason for it, perhaps we want to feel superior or we like having strong reactions. But what happens when we embrace bad taste without trying to redeem or justify it? I would argue that John Waters’ films are a perfect example of this, as even he refers to his catalogue as a celluloid atrocity (Waters 5). That is especially true of his most recognizable work, Pink Flamingos. It’s known today as the pinnacle of cult and camp cinema, mainly as it takes what we associate with conventional cinema and distorts it. Pink Flamingos is like rotting meat; it’s a putrid and deteriorating corpse of ‘good’ or ‘normative’ cinema. I should mention, I love Waters’ films, including this one, so when I refer to it as filthy or terrible, I mean it in a praiseworthy way. More on that later.
Why Are These People Laughing?
The trailer for Pink Flamingos asks us “What are these people laughing at?”. It’s an excellent question given that the film is absolutely repulsive, provocative, and disturbing. Note that it asks ‘what’ not ‘why’ people are laughing. This phrasing suggests that Waters’ film is an experience which you cannot explain. It’s simpler to ask ‘what’ instead of ‘why’ because people can only look and laugh at the film. It also leads us to another question; why are we watching? Why watch filth? What can be gained from bad taste, and how can we define such a term?
These were the questions that executives at New Line cinema faced when they picked up John Waters’ low budget picture. How could they market filth? Simple, by not showing it. The trailer doesn’t include any footage from the movie, just audience reactions. This implies two things. First, it makes the film seem more mysterious, as though its subject is too taboo for casual viewing. It’s an experience that you must mentally and physically prepare yourself for. Second, it suggests that the audience is the most important thing about the film and that their reactions are enough of a reason to see it. Without an audience, the film’s shocking material has no shock value. It’s sort of like the age-old question ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?’, but instead, ‘if something filthy happens and no one is there to judge, is it still filthy?’
“My First Wanted Poster and I Look Just Awful”
If you feel offended watching a Waters’ film, please note, that is intentional. Being disgusted is an important part of the viewing experience. One audience member summarizes this nicely in the Pink Flamingos trailer, noting, “’I enjoy dirty things as much as everyone else does, but this isn’t even dirty. It’s disgusting’”, and that extreme is why people continue to watch the film. I hate to speculate on Waters’ intention with the film, as he is firmly apolitical with it, but I will say that Waters wanted people to feel sick, he even provided barf bags at screenings. The bags had the film’s logo on it; just in case you forgot what was making you sick. I note this because the way the film was marketed and sensationalized is as noteworthy as its subject.
There are two ways to watch a Waters’ film, you either witness it or you participate. The first group tries to attach meaning to the film so they can distance themselves from the depravity it depicts. The second group comes together at midnight screenings to participate (laugh, judge, be disgusted) with Waters’ filthy display. Both categories are driven by Waters’ apolitical stance on the film, as he generally argues that the film is more style than content. It’s more ironic than a genuine critique of something. What unites these audiences is that both dig through Waters’ filthy style, either looking for something redemptive/significant or to just wade through for fun.
“Now we Must Outfilth”
Pink Flamingos uses the term filth constantly, it has even been referred to as the moral of the film. According to Merriam Webster, filth refers to both an action and a state. It is either “foul or putrid matter”, or “moral corruption or defilement” (MW). By using the word ‘filth’ instead of trash, the film implies that its subjects and elements have no value. Unlike trash or waste, which had a use or could be recycled somehow, filth is repulsive because of its deteriorated and unrepairable state.
Filth also represents the ‘so-called’ divide between good and bad taste. There can be no good taste without bad, the two must always be contrasted against one another, their definitions depend on it. This also means that for something to be conventional or normative, there must be an alternate. Waters’ film takes pleasure in disregarding good taste, but to do so, he still refers to good taste. Good and bad taste thus co-exist in Waters’ film, just so audiences are shocked when something filthy happens.
When I say good and bad taste, I am not only referring to morals, I am also talking about celebrated film versus castigated. If the worst film had never been created, then the Academy Awards would never have power. Films like Waters test our expectations on how cinema should appear and behave by contrasting it. It forces the viewer to reconsider their expectations and morals, making it as the tagline suggests, “An exercise in bad taste”. Like any other exercise, watching the film can be laborious and challenging, but- if you have practiced with other ‘bad’ films- it is not as difficult. Simply put, the film gestures to what good taste should be by showing us the epitome of bad.
“Filth is My Life”
What makes Pink Flamingos particularly uncomfortable is that, after awhile, it begins to say something about the viewer. What does it mean if you enjoy watching Pink Flamingos? Does that make you complicit with what happens in the film? Barry Grant once summarized this phenomenon in his work on cult cinema. He describes it as the realization that “good taste is not simply good taste; [because]…there exists a good taste of bad taste” (83) in camp film. This suggests that camp cinema, in all its bizarre qualities, moves between good and bad taste, which dirties both terms. Waters stated as much, noting “There is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste”, which means that consuming something in bad taste can be good for you.
Take the scene where Divine eats dog shit. Divine does something that is perhaps the epitome of bad taste but enjoys it, sort of. It’s a mixed enjoyment, which overlaps the terms good and bad. That also plays into the audience’s reaction, as they are watching something bad, but they can’t stop watching. The bad tastes good. This challenges a note Susan Sontag makes in her famous work on camp: that “the connoisseur of Camp sniffs the stink and prides himself on his strong nerves” (289). Walters’ film suggests that one sniffs the stink because one enjoys it, not to find out if one can endure it.
“Filth Is My Politics”
Waters’ discusses this issue at length in his autobiography- Shock Value– where he details how one London censor summarized his film; “’we do not know how to deal with the subject of intentional bad taste’” (177). This quote addresses two prominent issues, intention and how the viewer can deal with it. Despite Waters’ reluctance to give the film any specific meaning, Waters has been called the “most devoted interpreter of bad taste” (Ross 59). The word “interpreter” suggests that Waters’ carefully picks which aspects of bad taste to emphasize and implies that the film has an intention or logic. This ignores Waters’ perspective, and in doing so, refuses to accept that Waters’ work has no social or artistic value.
Because Waters’ perspective is that the film is unapologetically amoral, it suggests that the film has no redeeming status, and that its existence is as useless/filthy as the subject it depicts. If Pink Flamingos is not a scathing commentary, then it has no value or artistic merit. This means that the viewer is participating with the film’s filth as they are wasting their time on something without value. Watching the film is thus an extension of the film’s fetishized voyeurism and exhibitionism.
One way that many have dealt with this problem is by politicizing Waters’ film without him. If the movie is a scathing commentary, then it has some value. If it has a message, then its okay to enjoy it because you are getting something which is artistically important. For instance, as Breckon notes, there is a tendency to market the film as having “progressive values of the gay liberation movement, including its affirmation of gay identity and its demand for a more equitable social order” (514). Waters supports these politics but doesn’t support this reading in his film, as he consistently promotes the film’s lack of meaning and legitimate social value (Breckon 514). However, this need for a critical and political reading suggests that the film has surpassed its creator. Waters’ experienced this at a Berlin Film Festival, later noting that “the buffs are unbelievably serious and went crazy when I told them my films aren’t political. ‘Yes they ARE!!’ they screamed, and I backed off a little; I guess you can read anything you want into a screenplay” (in Koob 3).
Waters has a complex relationship with his audience because of this apolitical assertion. If we follow his logic, then the film is as Divine notes, “Filth is my politics. Filth is my life”. This is a ridiculous statement, but it refers to a serious idea; politics. Divine makes the word ‘politic’ dirty, or rather, reminds us that politics are dirty. But Divine isn’t talking about corruption or politicians, just literal filth. This contaminates the word and deteriorates its meaning. I would say this reflects Waters as well, as I am not sure I really believe his apolitical stance. It sounds rather ironic considering he has also noted that his films deal with “very American subjects-[like] competitiveness and war” (2). Those sound pretty political to me, so I think there’s a great deal of irony when it comes to Waters’ persona or his films.
I would argue that films like Pink Flamingos pervert valued subjects rather than destroying them, again that mix of good and bad taste. For example, there is a moment in Pink Flamingos where Divine and others dance around while chanting “E-way are-ay e-they illthiest-fay Eople-pay in-ay e-they ole-hay ide-way orld-way”, which means something, but only if you remove certain letters. Words which once carried meaning are now cluttered. The content is still there, underneath the style. It has been buried but not suffocated.
“Is There No Shame?”
The most traumatic moment in the film is when you realize that people actually did the filthy things it depicts, like Divine eating dog feces and Crackers killing a chicken. Reality intrudes on these moments, and the movie suddenly becomes too realistic, like it’s invading our world. It’s filmmaking style also relates to this issue of proximity. According to film theorists Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton, the film’s blocky script, editing, and low budget (106) elicit connotative realism. This explains why Waters’ once described his camera work as documentary-like (106), as the viewer can not distinguish their reality from Waters’ stylized version. Specifically, Waters exaggerates his film using the same logic as a freakshow, an attraction which balances what William Cohen, in his work on filth and modernity, calls “repulsion and attraction…[where] the filth of the object defiles the subject who, identifying it as such, has had to rub up against it” (x). Freak shows are a way to confront uncertain categories (xi) which are beyond our control, such as good and bad taste. These attractions are complicated because they show “filth as a human subject, not an object” (xxv), which both humanizes filth and horrifies the viewer. Waters’ relies on freak show convention by characterizing his movie screenings as an exhibition circuit (Mathijs and Mendik 167). His depiction of grotesque bodies relies on this exhibition setting to move between definitions like reality and film, actor and character, content and style. Pink Flamingos lives between definitions like these. For instance, its characters become too real, and you can’t distance the actions of the character from those of the actor.
“The Girl Can’t Help It”
In addition to this political and cultural filth, Waters’ aestheticizes the filth in his movie. Pink Flamingos characterizes filth and beauty using the same language, or as Waters’ notes, “beauty is looks you can never forget” (128), even if you try. It even privileges filth by making it something the characters must compete for.
What I find interesting about filth is that it is a by-product of us, and so our disgust with it suggests that we are disgusted by ourselves. It is also a by-product of our culture, not just our bodies. Filth thus relates to the thing which expels it, and the two are always connected.
Filth also represents things spilling over, which makes sense, as we often respond to it with involuntary reactions like vomit and laughter. We are not expecting them to emerge, but when they do, it is a sudden confrontation. Filth and laughter thereby work in similar ways as they come from inside us.
Pink Flamingos uses spillage to confront the viewer with their interior state. It forces them to externalize their sense of humor, taste, and even their lunch. Waters’ encouraged these reactions, once stating “if someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation” (2) because it resonated so strongly with them. If a person vomits, it means the film got inside them, tossed things around, and brought back a souvenir. This explains why “Good bad taste can be creatively nauseating” (2), because it disrupts internal beliefs and forces us to regurgitate them. By illustrating that humor and disgust use the same systems, Waters’ film also suggests that laughing is as instinctive as vomit. All this to say that Waters’ films confront us with an unapologetic filth, the kind which is both repulsive and involuntarily revealing.
“I Guess There’s Just Two Kinds of People”
Likewise, the film creates two different types of filth: social and personal. Divine and her troupe perform personal filth, which they inflict to either themselves or to those around them. Connie and Raymond are socially filthy, as their enterprise is what makes them filthy. This represents the debate between style and content; Divine’s side represents style, while Connie and Raymond are content. For example, Divine’s group is disgusting because of their actions, which are spontaneous and stylized, like stuffing meat up a skirt. In the chicken rape scene, Crackers’ actions are about immediate pleasure and torment to those around him. Connie and Raymond oppose this because their baby dungeon has long lasting social consequences. It takes nine months for any product to be made. Their actions are not immediate but take time, like sending a turd in the mail. Because Connie and Raymond’s profits “fund a few pornography shops and front money to a chain of heroin pushers in inner-city elementary schools” (Breckon 521), their action are exaggerated, but not entirely unbelievable. They are not as unexpected and insane as Divine, who has no plan or purpose other than instant gratification. Divine’s filth is ultimately greater than Connie and Raymond, who do filthy things for profit, not love. This also ties to their class status, as Connie and Raymond are threatened by Divine’s low brow filth, a type which they cannot reciprocate because of their higher monetary status. This is content over style, with Connie and Raymond representing drawn out filth in opposition to Divine’s unreadable and apolitical filth. Therefore, Divine’s line, “Filth is my politics. Filth is my life”, summarizes Waters’ film. It is nothing more than filth and meaninglessness, or as this exchange notes- “Could you give us some of your political beliefs?” “Kill everyone now”.
“I AM GOD”
One notable and disturbing reference in Pink Flamingos is the Manson family cult. Waters has argued that the Hollywoodized trial of the Manson murders triggered his imagination about dysfunctional families. Pink Flamingos is dedicated to the Manson girls, as one credit reads, “For Sadie, Katie, and Les- February 1972” which according to IMDB and Waters’ book, “was the month when the California State Supreme Court abolished the death penalty in California” and reduced the women’s sentences (IMDB). Waters is particularly interested in the way people obsess about the Manson case, even today. The serial killer fandom is purely bad and inappropriate, which is exactly what Waters is most intrigued by. These killers are our filth, as no matter how hard we try to distance ourselves from them, they remain tied to our culture and our notion of human nature.
If we consider Pink Flamingos as a cult film, then the term ‘cult’ further relates to the Manson fascination. As Grant details, “the term cult itself…by the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] is ‘worship, reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings” (79), with emphasis on the word divine. Grant also suggests that cult film represent a kind of worship, or in Waters’ case, a bad taste church. The fandom around Pink Flamingos represents this cult, one which worships a divine being. This connects to Sontag’s note that “Camp is the glorification of ‘character’” (285), and Waters certainly focuses on one divine character. Waters’ described his fascination by suggesting that “Divine, in those days, was really my Godzilla…to scare normal people” and to “frighten other drag queens, who were very straight at the time, and wanted to be their mothers” (Movies That Shook the World). The term Godzilla, this cult following, and glorification all suggests that Divine is a God, one with a worshipping fan base. The lines “This is a direct attack on my divinity” and “I am God” emphasize this reading. In fact, the word God appears 47 times in the film, while filth appears 54 times.
Most of the time the term ‘God’ is used in a blasphemous way, like “Oh my god” or “God dammit it” but there are more direct instances. These moments suggest that God and religion are as recognizable to the characters as filth. When Channing gets caught trying on Connie’s clothes he notes, “Oh, God, nothing! I wasn’t saying anything”. Earlier, when Cotton reads Divine’s birthday note, she says “Oh, God, Babs”. Both scenes summon God and then displace it. The characters try to fill God’s void by stuffing and clogging it with filth. Everyone seems to be looking for God in the film, with Eddie noting “Oh, help! God! God!” when she is waiting to see the Eggman. As such, the displacement of God, and by extension morality, is one of the funny things about Waters’ film. God has not entirely vanished; it has just deteriorated into filth.
Because Waters’ fandom watches the film multiple times, its viewers can be read as a worshipping cult body. Take how Waters’ describes the Elgin Theater. He calls it the Mecca of midnight movies (Movies That Shook the World), which suggests that Pink Flamingos’ screenings are a type of pilgrimage. It also implies that going to the movies is like going to church.
Because it takes filth and makes it holy, Pink Flamingos’ fandom can thus be read as a bad taste church. There is no redemption in this church, as the fandom emphasizes the film’s disgusting nature. This makes their worship more blasphemous and filthier as they are worshiping something without value. As such, this type of viewership does not recover Waters’ filth, but revels at its apolitical status. While this is technically still a way of recovering filth, it is a different version than trying to attach specific politics to the film. I realize I have done some of that here as well, but all the same. The bad taste church distorts the secular and rewrites faith, but with bad taste prophets. It attaches a warped version of content by continuing secular conventions while challenging their authority or making a new God. Grant describes this as cult divinity, which “is the shimmering series of images, cast on the silver screen which our devoted attention lifts above the realm of the merely representational and the secular” (79). This reading suggests that the characters in Waters’ film are more than representational, as they blur the distinctions between actor, prophet, and person.
Divine thus has an iconographic status, one which resonates in drag and film culture. Our fascination with Divine comes from duality, or this blurring of definitions. Divine is an actor and character, man and woman, human and God. Divine curates this persona by always appearing as Divine in Waters’ films, and although Divine plays different characters, each figure is just a different iteration of the same persona. However, because Divine is also a person and actor, she is from the real world, and therefore her filth is simply a magnification of ours.
“Something’s Wrong, Raymond. Something’s Terribly Wrong”
And so, I return to the most problematic aspect of Pink Flamingos; why are we watching? Not what, why. I think it is because, like any filth, this depravity reflects our culture. The film knows too much about some dark underbelly of reality. It lures us into its freak show and challenges us to leave. It causes us to laugh, vomit, and judge, all involuntarily. Yet, we continue to watch and remember the traumatic things that it shows us. This is because many of us are both disgusted and intrigued by bad taste. There is something undeniably fascinating about being outraged. It gets inside and shouts until we realize our level of tolerance. Unlike horror porn, like Saw, which fixates on the moment of torture, the film takes pleasure in quickly shocking the viewer before moving on to a different terrible act. This indifferent attitude is what makes the film both funny and confusing.
Waters’ film traumatized the cinematic world, a trauma which we are still dealing with. Michael Musto describes this impact through trauma theory, noting “Thanks to John Waters, America can’t be shocked anymore”. Although Hollywood continues to develop disturbing subjects, as Musto also suggests “We are riveted, but not shocked anymore” because we have been oversaturated by Waters’ traumatic material.
“It’ll Strengthen our Filthiness”
This tolerance relates to Waters’ use of artificiality. Each character exhibits what Sontag calls “Being-as-Playing-a-Role” (280), as they are too real to be fictional characters, but too bizarre to be purely normative. Their acting and pacing is so off-putting that the viewer can not forget that this is a film. But they also don’t get to relax into a narrative, as the film’s content and form forces them to be alert. For example, in the scene where Edie and Divine talk about eggs, “Edie’s absurd appearance distracts us from…[their] casual, commonplace dialogue” (Richards). The traumatic core of the film is realizing that people had to do these things (Breckon 529). Yes, Divine ate dog shit. Yes, they just killed a chicken in a sex act. The confrontation of these things is horrifying, but as I have already suggested, horror and comedy are not so separate. While I can’t speak for everyone, I find the film hilarious. I can’t help but laugh at the horrible and bizarre things which happen. But without politics or meaning, this humor is highly problematic. By laughing, the audience becomes involved with the film. They participate in its filth and come out feeling wrong or confused. The film is filthy, and so are you for enjoying it. Its disgusting, horrific, and hilarious, and all you can do is watch.
Want to read more? Check out my earlier post on John Waters “The Unread Library: John Waters and the Art of Reference”
Breckon, Anna. “The Erotic Politics of Disgust: Pink Flamingos as Queer Political Cinema.” Screen, vol. 54, no. 4, 2013, pp. 514-533.
Cohen, William. “Introduction: Locating Filth.” Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life, University of Minnesota Press, 2005, pp. vii-xxxviii.
Grant, Barry. “Science Fiction Double Feature: Ideology in Cult Film.” The Cult Film Reader, edited by Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, Open University Press, 2008, pp. 76-87.
Koob, Nathan. “The Gentrification of John Waters.” Film Criticism, vol. 43, no. 1, 2019, pp. 57-73.
Mathijs, Ernest, and Jamie Sexton. Cult Cinema. Blackwell Publishing, 2011.
Mathijs, Ernest, and Xavier Mendik. “Introduction to Cult Case Studies.” The Cult Film Reader, Open University Press, 2008, pp. 163-172.
“Pink Flamingos.” Movies That Shook the World, produced by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, narrated by Jeff Goldblum, AMC, 2005.
“Pink Flamingos Trailer.” YouTube, upload by Gay Movie Reviews, 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUd_6FF4AtM
Richards, Stuart. “Divine Dog Shit: John Waters and Disruptive Queer Humour in Film.” Sense of Cinema, no. 80, 2016.
Ross, Andrew. “Uses of Camp.” The Cult Film Reader, edited by Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, Open University Press, 2008, pp. 53-66.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” Against Interpretation, 1978, pp. 275-292.
Waters, John. Shock Value: A Tasteful Book about Bad Taste. Dell Publishing, 1981.