A fifty-year anniversary is an illustrious milestone for any film. It’s a weighty figure that suggests gravitas, import and respectability. Yet, despite celebrating its fiftieth birthday this month, John Waters’ exploitation opus Pink Flamingos remains every bit as disgusting, disreputable and shocking as it was in 1972. Telling the story of Babs Johnson (a pseudonym adopted by notorious criminal Divine*) as she vies with rivals Raymond (David Lochary) and Connie Marbles (Mink Stole) for the coveted title of “filthiest person alive”, Pink Flamingos is a cavalcade of filth and debauchery set to an incongruously perky fifties soundtrack. Pink Flamingos is punk before punk, a nihilistic repudiation of the optimism and innocence of the 1960s hippie movement. Although the film has since received both cult and mainstream recognition – it was added to Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2021 – age has not blunted the impact of Pink Flamingos. It remains a profoundly confrontational, uncompromising film, as Waters’ single camera lingers lovingly on scenes of incestuous fellatio, the ingestion of feces and an exposed, musical anus.
Pink Flamingos is, at its core, a comedy, a satire of mid-century bourgeois values and an indictment of the naivety of the peace-and-love generation. Yet, for all its humour, Waters’ film is couched in the iconography of horror. Violence, terror and transgression permeate the film. Characters are imprisoned, tortured, dismembered and even eaten. Indeed, in interviews and commentaries, John Waters has admitted that the scene in which Divine and her friends murder and cannibalise a group of police officers was inspired by either Night of the Living Dead or Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast (he can’t remember which). Horror and comedy are deeply intertwined throughout Pink Flamingos, with scatological humour and extreme gore regularly sharing the same scene. Moreover, Waters employs the central tropes of the horror genre – monstrosity, transgression and violence – in order to celebrate, even deify, the cast of monsters, queers and freaks that populates his film.
Monsters, whether human or otherworldly, are the essence of horror. Critic Robin Wood has famously asserted that Otherness, as it manifests in the form of the horror movie monster, “represents all that bourgeois ideology cannot recognize or accept but must deal with […] in one of two ways: either by rejecting and if possible, annihilating it, or by rendering it safe and assimilating it”.
While this category of “Otherness” can encompass various markers of difference, such as gender, race and class, for much of the twentieth century the monstrous Other has stood in for sexual difference. In his massively influential study Monsters in the Closet, Harry M. Benshoff explains that, “many monster movies […] might be understood as being ‘about’ the eruption of queer sexuality into the midst of a resolutely heterosexual milieu.”
Thus, monsters – whether vampires or alien invaders – are creatures that pose a threat to heteronormative values. They refuse to respect gender norms (think Norman Bates or Buffalo Bill), they promiscuously penetrate the bodies of both men and women (Dracula and his vampiric ilk), they threaten heterosexual unions (Frankenstein’s monster disrupting his maker’s wedding night), or they reproduce asexually (like pod people). Often these monsters are destroyed by the film’s explicitly heterosexual heroes, and if they are not, their survival is framed as a tragedy for humanity (picture Kevin McCarthy’s hopeless, deranged screaming in the original ending of Invasion of the Body Snatchers). According to Benshoff, “monster is to ‘normality’ as homosexual is to heterosexual”. The monster run amuck is queer sexuality liberated from the bonds of secrecy, and the monster’s eventual destruction enacts society’s need to contain or disavow queerness.
In Pink Flamingos, as in many of his other films, John Waters gives us queer monsters who break free and (often) escape punishment or containment. They are frequently allowed to revel in their “deviance”, transgress social norms and get away with it. In numerous interviews, Waters has framed his star and muse Divine as a beautiful, alluring monster. He claims that he wanted Divine to be the “Godzilla of drag queens”, glamorous yet horrifying. In Multiple Maniacs, Divine – following an assault by a B-movie style giant lobster – goes on a destructive rampage across Baltimore before she is finally (like Godzilla or King Kong) taken out by the National Guard. In Pink Flamingos, however, Divine’s monstrosity goes unpunished. She ends the film by triumphantly executing her enemies and proclaiming that she will soon be crowned queen of filth.
Alongside Van Smith (who was responsible for makeup and costuming), Waters worked to accentuate Divine’s monstrosity. His head was shaved so that his hairline appeared unnaturally high because “the human head did not have enough room for the eyebrows we had in mind”. Divine’s makeup was equally dramatic. Inspired by Clarabell the Clown from the 1950s kids show Howdy Doody, Divine sports prominently arched eyebrows, heavy eyeshadow and conspicuously lined lips. Her costumes consist of figure-hugging cocktail dresses and tight trousers (the kind favoured by fifties juvenile delinquents). These outfits were intended, Waters claimed, to accentuate rather than conceal Divine’s fat. Where other drag queens, or female impersonators, aspired to authenticity and beauty pageant glamour, Divine’s persona was intentionally excessive, a repulsive combination of glitz and trash. As Lindsay Hallam explains, “While most transvestites strive to pass as female, and drag queens to embody the most glamorous and beautiful aspects of femininity, Divine instead exaggerates feminine traits to the point of becoming grotesque”.
Unlike other drag performers of the era, Divine does not strive for assimilation. He refuses to pass as a woman, instead opting for a monstrous parody of femininity. As the character of Divine, or Babs Johnson, in Pink Flamingos, she revels in the disgust she provokes in others. Whether stopping to urinate in front of an imposing mansion, licking a rival’s furniture or eating freshly excreted dog shit, she takes pleasure in her monstrosity. Pink Flamingos is a film that rejects respectability politics and conformity. Rather, it advocates violence, confrontation and perversion. As Babs/Divine famously explains when a journalist asks for her political views, “Kill everyone now! Condone first degree murder! Advocate cannibalism! Eat shit! Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!“
The queer outsiders and freaks of Pink Flamingos do not seek acceptance in a rigidly heteronormative, bourgeois society. They enjoy their difference, their status as freaks and weirdos.
Alongside the figure of the monster, another convention Pink Flamingos borrows from the horror genre is its foregrounding of the abject. A philosophical concept first explored by Julia Kristeva in the 1980s, the abject has since become central to critical conversations about the nature of horror. According to Kristeva, the abject refers to all those things that disturb “system, identity, order”. The abject is ambiguous, in-between and ultimately threatening to our sense of subjectivity. In this context, bodily fluids such as excrement, urine, blood and pus disturb us not because they possess any kind of inherently distressing essence but because of how they undermine the integrity of the body. These fluids, flowing from inside to outside, draw attention to the permeability of the body and suggest an unsettling continuity between the body’s interior and the world beyond. They indicate that all binary divisions that we employ to make sense of the world around us are arbitrary, vulnerable or unstable. Abject fluids and entities therefore unsettle the boundary between inside and outside, self and Other, human and animal, male and female.
Pink Flamingos abounds in abject imagery. The gender presentation of numerous characters unsettles the divide between male and female, while scenes of violence and gore vividly portray the transgression of bodily boundaries. Likewise, sequences involving excrement – when Divine opens a parcel to discover that someone has sent her a “bowel movement” or the infamous dog shit scene – indicate a blurring of the line between inside and outside, public and private, food and waste, human and animal. In horror cinema, such abject imagery is designed to temporarily force the viewer out of their comfort zone. They are made to confront threatening images and scenarios so that when the film ends and the monster is vanquished, the viewer will come away with a stronger sense of their own humanity. As the scholar and critic Barbara Creed observes, “In this way, the horror film brings about a confrontation with the abject [i.e., blood and waste] in order, finally, to eject the abject and re-draw the boundaries between the human and non-human.“
Pink Flamingos refuses to re-draw these boundaries. It does not confront us with horrific images, bodily waste and taboo behaviours so that it can vanquish its monsters and reaffirm the distinction between normal and abnormal, or human and monster. In fact, Pink Flamingos ends, defiantly, with the ultimately scene of abjection, the ingestion of excrement. As Divine, along with her son Crackers (Danny Mills) and friend Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce), prepare to depart for Boise, Idaho, the narrator (voiced by Waters) announces that Divine will prove that not only is she the filthiest person alive, but also the filthiest actress. In this profoundly meta-moment, as the narrator conflates performer and character, Divine bends down and scoops up a recently deposited dog turd. Relishing her close-up like Norma Desmond in drag, she pops the shit into her mouth and grins for the camera. The abnormal, the abject and the monstrous have not been purged; they are triumphant!
John Waters has described Pink Flamingos as an act of terrorism against the hippie utopianism of the previous decade, while also noting that because the cast and crew did not have permission to film on the streets of Baltimore, each scene was like a little crime. Similarly. casting director and long-time Waters collaborator Pat Moran has characterised Divine as a “drag terrorist”. Monstrosity, violence and horror permeate the film. From its opening credits (dedicating the film to Manson girls “Sadie, Katie and Les”) to Divine’s final shit-eating grin, Pink Flamingos refuses to kowtow to mainstream, bourgeois values.
Released just three years after the Stonewall riots and only a year prior to the American Psychiatric Association’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness, Pink Flamingos isn’t content to seek acceptance or tolerance for its queer characters. It doesn’t try to teach its audience to treat LGBTQ+ individuals as human beings, nor does it try to show them that queer people are as a “normal” and unthreatening as their straight counterparts. Instead, Pink Flamingos draws on more than a half century of horror cinema in which the monstrous was regularly equated with queerness in order to find queer liberation in monstrosity. Waters, who claims to have been influenced by radical political groups like the Weather Underground and the Yippies, suggests that if American society views queer identities as monstrous, then the queers might as well enjoy that monstrosity by delighting in their capacity to shock and unsettle.
In some ways, it’s possible that Pink Flamingos is even more shocking in 2022 than it was 1972. After decades of gay rights activism and the legalisation of same-sex marriage in many parts of the world, Waters’ oppositional, confrontational depiction of queerness seems scandalous. After all, so much recent activism has centred around presenting the LGBTQ+ community as non-threatening and “just like us”. Yet, Waters’ queer characters are not only threatening, they are downright terrifying, casually committing murder, cannibalism and incest. This, however, is what makes Pink Flamingos so important. It is not a plea for tolerance. Instead’ it acts as a violent rejection of both heteronormative, middle-class American values and the pacificist utopianism of the hippie movement. It takes the horror movie rhetoric of the monster as queer – and the real-world political rhetoric of the queer as monster – and amplifies it to an absurd degree. Pink Flamingos has fun with its queer monster, allowing them to run wild, cause chaos and upend social norms.
*I’m using female pronouns to describe Divine the character and male pronouns to describe Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead) the performer.
- Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. Manchester University Press, 1997.
- Barbara Creed, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge, 1993.
- Lindsay Hallam, “Monster Queen: The Transgressive Body of Divine in Pink Flamingos”, Brightlights Film Journal.
- Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Léon S. Roudiez. Columbia University Press, 1982.
- Nancy Tartaglione, “National Film Registry Adds ‘Return Of The Jedi’, ‘Fellowship Of The Ring’, ‘Strangers On A Train’, ’Sounder’, ‘WALL-E’ & More”, Deadline.
- John Waters, “Director’s Commentary”, Pink Flamingos, 25th anniversary edition.
- Robin Wood, On the Horror Film: Collected Essays and Reviews. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Wayne State University Press, 2018.Steve Yeager, Divine Trash. Fox Lorber, 1998.