Female Trouble: One of John Waters Best Films

After “Pink Flamingos,” John Waters’ next two features, “Female Trouble” (1974) and “Desperate Living” (1977), reinforced his outlaw reputation with their satiric skewering of middle-class suburbanism, as dominant mode of American life and basic tenet of the American Dream. These films reflect Waters’ worldview whose elements would recur in many future ones.

Waters’ original idea for a title was “Rotten Face, Rotten Mind,” though “Female Trouble” is a more apt and catchy one. Like “Pink Flamingos,” the affront to bourgeois morality relies on gross-out effects, but the film also displays sharper ideas and characters resulting in a more biting satire.

It’s a stretch to use the word epic in describing any of Waters’ features, but due to its time span, two-generational plot, and character evolution from youth to middle-age, “Female Trouble” represents an epic of sorts. “Female Trouble” follows the foibles and fables of one woman from juvenile delinquency to early motherhood to dubious arts career to outright criminal. It spotlights Divine in a dual role, as the headline-seeking outlaw, and as her illicit welder-lover, Earl Peterson.

Over the years, Waters has created screen characters with alliterated names, including Corny Collins, Donald and Donna Dasher, Fat Fuck Frank, Francine Fishpaw, Link Larkin, Motormouth Maybelle, Mole McHenry, Penny and Prudy Pingleton, Ramona Rickettes, Sylvia Stickles, Todd Tomorrow, Tracy Turnblad, Ursula Udders, Wade Walker, and Wanda Woodward. It has become a popular trivia-pursuit to guess the origins of his characters’ names–Ursula Udders may be the easiest of the bunch.

In “Female Trouble,” the heroine is DD, Dawn Davenport. Holding up better than other films, “Female Trouble” claims a shapelier narrative and linear plot, attributes that are missing from most of his pictures. After the bold Main Titles, the text is divided into 23 segments, Youth, Cha Cha Heels, Dawn Meets Earl, Pregnant, Career Girl, Early Criminal, Aunt Ida, Lipstick Beauty Salon, Married Life, 5 Years Later, Dawn’s Big Break, Gator’s Goodbye, A Smashing Dinner Party, New Look for Dawn, Model of the Year, Taffy’s Daddy, Show Business, A Painful Homelife, Superstar Nightclub, Dawn’s Act, The Trial, Dawn’s Big Day, and Final Curtain Call.

Set in 1960 Baltimore, the tale begins with Dawn as a juvenile troublemaker in an all-girls school. In the first reel, the rebellious teenager receives a failing grade and a sentence of essay-writing for fighting, cheating, and eating in class. On Christmas Day, when Dawn does not get the cha-cha heel shoes she had expected, she breaks into a violent rage and pushes her mother into the Christmas tree. “I hate you! I hate this house! I hate Christmas!” the surly teenager screams before leaving her home in storm.

Hitchhiking, Dawn is picked up by Earl (also played by Divine), a chubby man in an Edsel Station Wagon, who drives her to a dump, where they have sex on a dirty mattress by the roadside. Sex in Waters films is never depicted appealingly, because in most cases it does not express love, passion, or desire—in sharp contrast to sexual acts in Almodovar’s oeuvre.

Realizing she’s pregnant, Dawn demands money, but Earl tells her, “Go fuck yourself.” Waters later joked that Divine had indeed done that, because he had played both roles. In 1983, another midnight cult flick, “Liquid Sky,” got attention by depicting the model Anne Carlisle playing a sex scene with herself, but Waters always claimed to be the first! To give it a semblance of realism, Dawn’s birth-giving was done at the very end of the shoot to take advantage of actress Susan Lowe’s actual birth-giving. The umbilical cord that Dawn cuts with her teeth was fashioned out of prophylactics filled with liver, showing the baby doused in fake blood.

A title card announces, Dawn as career girl, 1961-1967. And we observe Dawn taking various jobs to make ends meet, as waitress, dancer, hooker, and petty thief, but she is not good in any of them. Cut to 1968, when Taffy (Hilary Taylor), now age eight and already difficult, drives her mother to violence; Dawn beats her with a car antenna.

When Dawn complains about the exhausting maternal duties to her deviant mates, Chicklette (Susan Walsh) and Concetta (Cookie Mueller), they suggest a new hairdo from the stylist Gator (Michael Potter). Occupying a prominent place in most of Waters’ movies, hair-style would become the very subject of his likable picture, “Hairspray.” The particular hairdo chosen always signals an ideological statement, not just a fashion trend.

Dawn becomes a client at the Lipstick Beauty Salon, owned by Donald (David Lochary) and Donna (Mary Vivian Pearce) Dasher. A brief courtship by Gator leads to marriage, but five years later, the bliss is strained due to Taffy’s (now played by Mink Stole) hatred of Gator. When Taffy catches her parents in bed, Gator invites her to join them, which gives Taffy the occasion to deliver the movie’s most-quoted line by fans: “I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls!” It is addressed to a hairdresser (a typically gay profession in movies), who even lacks the style to be gay. Gator’s obese Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) bemoans: “Honey, I wish you was queer, heterosexuality is a sick and boring lifestyle.”

The movie displays shock for shock’s sake—Waters was only 27 when he made the picture, and the success of “Pink Flamingos” encouraged him to break other taboos. Upping the ante, “Female Trouble” contains frontal nudity with shots of Gator’s penis in flaccid form, but the images are deliberately non-erotic. Fed up with Gator’s cheating, and bored by their sex–he penetrates her with hammers and pliers–Dawn leaves him.

Seeking solace at the Lipstick Beauty Salon, Dawn is told by the diabolical Dashers ask to become a “glamorous guinea pig,” in an experiment aiming to test Jean Genet’s theory that “crime equals beauty.” It is noteworthy, that in one way or another, Genet has inspired all five directors in the book—each has made explicit or implicit references to the writer’s oeuvre or his criminal career. Obedient Dawn begins to perform criminal acts in public, such as knocking her daughter unconscious with a chair, while flashing a big smile and posing for photo shoots by the Dashers. Ida bursts into Dawn’s house and disfigures Dawn’s face with acid, but at the hospital, the hideously-looking Dawn is reassured by the Dashers that she is still pretty and need not have plastic surgery.

Piling one contrived sequence after another, Waters then shows Dawn’s discovery that her home had been redecorated by the Dashers, and that Ida had been confined to a bird cage. Encouraged by the Dashers, Dawn cuts off Ida’s hand. Taffy then pleads with her mother to disclose her father’s identity and she reluctantly does. (It’s probably a coincidence that this is the central premise of Almodovar’s “All About My Mother”). The drunkard father, who lives in a dilapidated house, sexually assaults Taffy, and she stabs him with a butcher knife. (This scene might have been inspired by “Peyton Place,” in which Selena Cross stabs kills her brutish stepfather after repeated rapes).

Unfazed, Dawn creates a nightclub act that includes jumping on a trampoline and wallowing in a playpen with dead fish. Waters was proud that Divine performed all the stunts, the most difficult of which was doing flips on a trampoline, accomplished through extensive lessons and training at the YMCA. When Taffy joins the Hare Krishna movement, sporting grotesque hair and outlandish outfits, Dawn strangles her to death. Convinced that she had fully embracing Genet’s philosophy, Dawn sees beauty as an art form intricately born out of crime. The usual Waters’ exclamatory statement follows: “I framed Leslie Bacon! I called the heroin hot line on Abbie Hoffman! I bought the gun that Bremer used to shoot Wallace! I had an affair with Juan Corona! I blew Richard Speck, and I’m so fuckin’ beautiful.”

Screaming, “Who wants to be famous? Who wants to die for art?” Dawn shoots into the crowds wounding innocent bystanders. Arrested by the police, Dawn is put on trial, and the Dashers are granted “total immunity” in exchange for their testimony. The phonies claim to be shocked by Dawn’s crimes, even though they had engineered it. Ida testifies against Dawn for kidnapping and amputating her hand, even though it’s the Dashers who had provided the axe. Found guilty, Dawn gets the electric chair, but not wasting time, in jail, she has a casual lesbian affair with another prisoner (Elizabeth Coffey).

True to her nature–and to Waters’ worldview–Dawn perceives the execution akin to “Winning an Academy Award,” an act that will finally immortalize. Strapped to the electric chair, Dawn deliriously renders her Oscar acceptance-speech: “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 who died so fashionably and gallantly at my nightclub act. And especially all those wonderful people who were kind enough to read about me in the newspapers and watch me on the TV news. Without all of you, my career could never have gotten this far. It was you that I burn for, and it is you that I will die for! Please remember, I love every fucking one of you!“

Dawn’s fantasy is fulfilled when her distorted face is shown in a freeze frame as the end credits roll over. Waters may have been paying tribute to Francois Truffaut’s legendary freeze-frame of his alter-ego as a boy, at the end of “The 400 Blows.” Waters seems to relish that final shot of Divine the same way he did the infamous doggie shot in “Pink Flamingos.”
In “Female Trouble,” Waters shows concern with the mass media morbid fascination with lurid crimes, exploiting the criminals for commercial (TV ratings) reasons by turning them into instant celebs. Never mind that be charged with perpetuating this trend in his films.

Waters was disappointed that most critics dwelled on the film’s gross-out effects and grotesque characters. After seeing “Female Trouble,” the critic Rex Reed, representing other mainstream peers, is reported to have groaned: “Where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn’t there a law or something?”

Waters said that he wanted to caress with both needles and thorns the “Uptown” viewers with his “Downtown” underground sensibility. He knew that curious art-house denizens, wishing to demonstrate open-mindedness, considered it cool to watch “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble,” without walking out during the screenings. The hipsters have always considered Waters’ movies as must-see events. But there were also spectators, known pejoratively as “the Bridge and Tunnel Crowd,” who bothered to take the time and the train to see the movie. No doubt, in the 1970s and early 1980s, before the “VCR Revolution,” attending a Waters picture was a cultural event imbued with ideological statement, way beyond the set of images and words that defined “Female Trouble.”