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Postmodern Village
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Functional Dysfunction: Family Values and John Waters
by C.S. Denton

"This is my grandma Eddie."
"What...what's the matter with her?"
"What's the matter with her? Ain't nothing the matter with her!"

-Cookie (Cookie Mueller) and Crackers (Danny Mills),
Pink Flamingos (1972)

"Groups of people that become dysfunctional families in a militant way together has always been what my movies are about."
-John Waters, director's commentary to Female Trouble (1974)


If one lesson can be culled from dissecting Golden Girls and Friends reruns, it's that a definition of family that only includes people with the same last name has been mostly scrubbed from our national consciousness. With the usual American flair for mixing pop culture sentimentality with idealized individualism, families have been scraped together from friends, relatives other than our parents and siblings, lovers (and, of course, the relatives and friends of lovers), religious fellow-travelers, communes, and even from, thanks to technology finally serving the cause of introverts, Facebook networks and World of Warcraft guilds. It will always be true that we cannot choose our family once we start out, but in the modern world the sufficiently independent have access to an entire marketplace of mix-and-match identities, ranging from the time-honored to the pleasantly ludicrous.

So it's a cold irony that the word “family,” especially when used as an adjective with the noun “values” to form what might very well be the most notorious catchphrase in the recent history of the United States, has been reprogrammed by politicians and pundits to signify the politics of exclusion. Even they practically admit that “family values” really means “the preservation of the Protestant Anglo-American nuclear family,” but that doesn’t make for a pleasantly innocuous sound byte. The “family” that spokespeople who clutch to phrases like “family values” without the trace of irony would not only slam the door to lesbian and gay couples and their children, but also frown heroically or chuckle condescendingly at sprawling Mediterranean or East Asian households, single and working mothers, stay-at-home fathers, couples who decide not to have kids, and the rest of the list might as well be infinite. And if you've agreed with me so far, Vegas odds say that you are probably on it somewhere too.

Because of "family values" being the rallying cry of the body snatchers, I have always found it inspirational and downright revolutionary when in their work a writer or filmmaker taps into true family values, which hold out the noble promise that anyone can find love and support from others if they look hard enough. The one name I would throw into this category without any hesitation is Baltimore’s very own John Waters. Now I cannot blame anyone who assumes that I'm just being provocative; after all, I am writing flat-out that the director who became a subculture idol by having a 300-pound transvestite, Waters' star Divine, eat dog feces on film brings to life family values in a way unknown to the dark, narrow minds of Pat Robertson and James Dobson. But is it really so shocking that an uplifting view of modern life and human relationships is far more likely to be found from someone who gave legions of viewers their first interracial lesbian love scene (in Desperate Living) than people who make a living from preaching that large swaths of the population are destroying Western civilization by simply existing?

Appropriately enough, the film that steered me toward this line of thinking is Pink Flamingos, the one film of Waters' that inevitably became so infamous it is no longer notorious. Families are what Pink Flamingos is all about from the first several scenes on; in fact, boiled down to the bone the plot is about a family feud. Whereas the Hatfields and the McCoys killed each other over property lines and the Houses of Lancaster and York warred for the throne of England, the family of Divine (who plays herself and throughout the film operates under the alias “Babs Johnson”) are battling for the tabloid title of “Filthiest People Alive” after a declaration of war from two "jealous perverts," a middle-class married couple, Connie and Raymond Marble (Mink Stole and David Lochary).

Waters in his own commentary christened Pink Flamingos (1972) a full-on assault against the naïve idealism of the free love movement, an "anti-hippie movie for hippies." So the protagonists rail and rave against the mantra of peace, love, and understanding. Yet the blissfully biased narrator (voiced by Waters himself) and Divine's incendiary performance demand that we root for Babs' clan, even though they cheerfully cannibalize cops who bust in on a wedding party they're throwing and, in a cut scene, take bloody reprisal against one of the Marbles' informants, Cookie (Cookie Mueller). To be fair, Babs is not really aggressively, destructively criminal, unlike the Marbles, who personally abduct female hitchhikers and have them imprisoned, raped, and impregnated by their butler, all just to sell the resultant babies to lesbian couples, in turn funding, as Raymond Marble casually explains, an operation selling drugs to inner city elementary school children.

There is something else that marks Babs out as the glamorous outlaw and Raymond and Connie Marble as the unlikable black hats: how they act as family units. The Marbles, who act out their lust for filthiness against a stale "respectable" backdrop, are definitely in need of emergency marriage counseling. Without Connie's knowledge, Raymond sets out in disguise to flash women in a park. Not only that, but he does so while leaving his wife waiting in the car, a doubly nasty breach of spousal etiquette. The third member of the Marble family, their butler Channing (Channing Wilroy), is treated more like an abused child than a paid servant. Once Connie makes the appalling discovery that Channing has secretly been dressing himself in her clothes as part of an elaborate private performance where he stars as Connie Marble herself, Channing is, in a Mommie Dearest-esque twist, locked in his “room,” a closet barely big enough for him alone.

Babs and her family, on the other hand, not only live far outside the Marbles' cushy suburban home, they scorn the modern bourgeois lifestyle altogether, showing righteous contempt for mailing addresses and centralized heating (as Babs herself exclaims in a cut scene where she infiltrates the Marbles' cushy lair, “Central heating! How repellent!”) as well as the concept of the nuclear family. Babs is accompanied by her son Crackers and her mother Edie (Edith Massey), but the family is also joined by a “companion,” Cotton (Mary Vivian Pierce), who is Babs' accomplice-in-everything and carries on a non-sexual sexual relationship with Crackers (Danny Mills), thanks to the miracle of voyeurism.

Grandma Edie's fixation on eggs and the Egg-Man (Paul Swift) and her stationary lifestyle in a baby crib are treated with aplomb (although also the occasional impatient outburst from Babs) and motherly care from Cotton, who treats Edie's egg obsession in the same way a mother would feed a child's fascination with wicked witches. Whether or not Waters intended a contrast between the violent and repulsed way the Marbles react to Chandler's role playing and the unconditional acceptance of Eddie's egg-centric universe in Babs' isolated trailer home, it is there, exposing the Marbles as a snobby rich couple (and, for people involved in abduction, rape, forced impregnation, and in one scene foot fetish-heavy intercourse a.k.a. "shrimping," surprisingly prudish) and Babs' family as united in the most sincere sense of the word.

The same theme of families piecing together a life on the fringes of society as well as law and order hits a crescendo in Desperate Living (1977). We open with another fundamentally unhappy upper middle-class family in the Baltimore suburbs that makes the Marbles look like the Cosbys: a wife Peggy (Mink Stole) who is so neurotic a telephone call from a wrong number makes her loudly bemoan the five seconds torn from her life, a husband Mr. Bosley Gravel (George Stover) who wants his spouse doped up or in an asylum, and a maid who drains the couple's liquor cabinet and toilet paper supplies. Fortunately, Peggy's liberation comes when Grizelda (Jean Hill), reacting ostensibly to Peggy's panicked tirade against her husband but probably also to Mr. Gravel firing her, beats her until-recently-boss with a broom and finishes him off by smothering him with her rear.

At the suggestion of a perverted cop (Turkey Joe) who forces them to hand over their underwear, Peggy and Grizelda abandon society altogether and flee to Mortville, a town of the mortified tucked away somewhere in a Maryland forest. Mortville is at the mercy of a militia of leather-wearing thugs totally loyal to their queen Carlotta (Edith Massey), an admirer of Fascism who decks her halls with portraits of famous dictators and keeps her subjects in a state of desperate poverty and perpetual humiliation. Her relationship with her daughter, Coo-Coo (Mary Vivian Pierce), is just as warped as her view of politics. Furious that Coo-Coo wants to marry a janitor (George Figgs) who works at a nudist colony (whose flaws as a royal consort are capped off by his name, Herbert) and that she ran away from home to do it, Carlotta has Herbert shot to death and punishes Coo-Coo by having her infected with rabies, gang-raped by her shock troops, and left on the muddy streets of Mortville to die. Quickly Carlotta takes in a substitute heir, a Peggy pushed over the edge by her maid-turned-lover Grizelda's death, who nonetheless renounces her surrogate mother (to no avail) once the inevitable revolution hits shore.

At first the relationship of the film's real heroes, the lesbian couple Mole (Susan Lowe) and Muffy (Liz Renay), seems almost as tense as Carlotta and Coo-Coo's mother-daughter relationship, if not quite as much like something out of I, Claudius. After Muffy goes out of her way to make Mole feel like an inadequate lover because she lacks the “same big business” as men, Mole in a fit of jealousy stabs Muffy's hand. Yet, unlike Coo-Coo or Carlotta, this family gets the happy ending guaranteed by Waters' shantytown fairy tale theme. As soon as she wins the lottery, Mole uses her winnings to provide Muffy with a number of gifts, the most personal one being a new surgical penis. When Muffy's reaction isn't exactly what Mole hoped for, she slices off the appendage. Mole doubles over with pain, but Muffy is quick to assure her, in a scene that may very well be the chief reason why the film later became a hit with lesbian audiences as Waters notes in his commentary, that their sex life can continue happily penis-free.

Touching as the scene might be from a certain angle, it is still being played purely for shock, especially when a passing dog eats Mole's custom-order genitals once they are tossed out on the road. Still, Muffy and Mole do discover a love that transcends gender and anatomy. The contrast between a mother who psychotically makes her daughter suffer for her love life just because of her would-be son-in-law's name and profession and a gay couple that eventually overcome their own bedroom anxieties is a sharp one. At the least there is something moving about seeing Mole and Muffy, who embody to a fault the “butch” and “lipstick” lesbian stereotypes respectively, coming together and ironing out their love life in the end. Love and unity can triumph in the lesbian community.

So far Waters' villains have been marked by how they abuse and terrorize the people in their lives because of their choices or eccentricities. In Multiple Maniacs (1970), Waters' first feature-length film with dialogue, there is a different mold of antagonist, but one that still does go against the family. Mr. David (David Lochary) is the lover and criminal accomplice of Lady Divine (Divine), who runs the Cavalcade of Perversion, with offers such visual, exotic delights as a vomit-eater and two gay men kissing and then robs attendants as an encore. Lady Divine lives happily with her daughter Cookie (Cookie Mueller) and is proud of her for dating a Weatherman (not the kind who track cold fronts, of course, but the kind who would plan to blow up Fort Dix), but her relationship with Mr. David is turning sour. Thinking that Lady Divine is turning dangerously insane after she shoots and kills one of their victims, Mr. David and his secret lover Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pierce) put into motion a scheme to eliminate both Divine and Cookie.

The entire sordid affair ends like a Shakespearean tragedy, with almost everyone dying and Divine herself, at the peak of a Godzilla-esque rampage on the streets of Baltimore, gunned down by the National Guard. The trigger for the destruction is Mr. David's turning against his own family. Although he and Bonnie just wind up being killed by Divine, they do succeed in murdering Cookie, which pushes Divine over the edge of sanity (well, that and, in one of the film's most memorable scenes, Divine's sudden rape by a giant lobster). Without a doubt Divine is not a sympathetic lover; she mocks Mr. David by accusing him of killing Sharon Tate. Yet it is Mr. David who takes the deadly step and winds up provoking the wrath of Divine.

Female Trouble (1974), which Waters calls the strongest of his early films, is mainly an exploration of the overlapping of crime and celebrity, but here again thrown-together families play a part. The entire plot, which is modeled as a crime filmography, revolves around anti-heroine Dawn Davenport's (Divine) ricocheting disastrously from one family to another: first her parents, whom she angrily leaves after her parents failed to give her cha-cha heels on Christmas (spawning the line “Nice girls don't wear cha-cha heels!”); then her daughter Taffy (Hillary Taylor and Mink Stole) from a tryst with a sleazy mechanic (in a casting decision only a film critic could love, Dawn is played by Divine, while the mechanic is portrayed by Divine's male “birth persona,” Glen Millstead), who winds up despising her mother with the feeling as cheerfully mutual; followed by her husband Gator (Michael Potter), who swiftly goes from being a dream boyfriend to a nightmare husband, and aunt-in-law Ida (Edith Massey), who never forgives Dawn for ruining her one and only dream of having a gay nephew; and finally Donald and Donna Dasher (David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pierce), who seem to finally be ready and willing to give Dawn the acceptance and purpose, she craves, only to end up brainwashing her into their philosophy of "crime is beauty."

If only Dawn had seen Pink Flamingos, she might have recognized the rich, effete, and avant garde Dashers as the reincarnations of the Marbles. Instead she goes along headfirst as the Dashers, who are thrilled to learn that Dawn is a petty thief and used to work as a prostitute and a stripper, make Dawn their number one crime model. Dawn's metamorphosis into the Dashers' perfect anti-supermodel is complete after a deranged Ida scars her face with acid and the Dashers convince her that her beauty has only been enhanced to godlike levels.

Just like the Marbles, the Dashers dip their toes in a gutter Wonderland of criminal lifestyles and unrestrained anti-social behavior, but stay above water in a niche that mixes art world aristocracy with old-fashioned suburban snobbery. Dawn treats her benefactors like family, but unfortunately they are only interested in Dawn's penchant for unpredictable violence. This becomes all too clear after, hopped up on the Dashers’ encouragement and drugs, Dawn strangles her daughter for becoming a Hare Krishna (“The exact opposite of beauty!” Donald Dasher screams with righteous disgust) and fires on an audience that has come to watch her one-woman show in a friendly attempt to have the victims share in her fame. Taken to trial, the Donners, hysterical at the prospect of actually having to go to jail, testify against her. Dawn's would-be surrogate family team up with Ida, the abusive actual family, in a hellish alliance designed to take Dawn down in court and be shipped off to jail where Dawn would have an appointment with the electric chair.

By the time Polyester was released in 1981, it marked an awkward transitional phase for John Waters, from cultural terrorist to a somewhat mainstream director. It also represented a thematic shift, away from patchwork counterculture families and toward actual nuclear family dynamics. In fact, Polyester is, like a 1950s melodrama or a 1970s soap opera, all about such a “traditional” family, the Fishpaws, and the domestic crises threatening to devour them. Housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine) is becoming an alcoholic and is tortured every day by her emotionally abusive mother La Rue (Joni Ruth White), husband Elmer (David Samson), whose profession as a porno theater owner torments Francine with personal humiliation and media exposure, eventually leaves her for his secretary (Mink Stole), daughter Lulu (Mary Garlington) is knocked up by a juvenile delinquent, and son Dexter (Ken King) is arrested as a serial foot-stomper. With help from her best friend Cuddles (Edith Massey), Francine recovers from her alcoholism and, thanks to an accidental miscarriage caused by a nun-sponsored hayride and a prison therapist, Lulu and Dexter have found their calling: Lulu has become a hippie and an expert in macramé, Dexter an artist with a strong foot motif.

Francine, too, seems on the brink of finding real happiness with a new lover, Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter), but tragically it turns out he is working with La Rue to gaslight Francine, sell her children into sexual slavery, and claim her money. Thanks to Cuddles’ timely (if accidental) intervention, La Rue and Todd wind up dead and Francine is reunited with her children. The villains of the piece are not only marked out by their actions, but La Rue and Elmer revel in their cruelty to Francine, mocking her weight, pushing her toward alcoholism (and, in one scene, tricking her into drinking gasoline), and all in all showing venomous disgust toward her and her children.

John Waters shows up on the doorstep of the “average” nuclear family again in Serial Mom (1994), where the attributes of the ideal suburban housewife and the perfect serial killer are wrapped up in one person, Beverley Sutphin (Kathleen Turner). Although on the surface Beverley seems like an ideal scraped right out of a 1960s housekeeping magazine, she does not smother her own family with suburban Americana, supporting and even nurturing her son Chip’s (Matthew Lillard) fascination with vintage horror films and daughter Missy’s (Ricki Lake) career in selling obscure pop culture memorabilia at the flea market. In a realization of any red-blooded horror film buff’s family fantasy, Beverley enthusiastically joins Chip in watching the pivotal tongue-ripping scene from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ classic Blood Feast.

Not only is Beverly open-minded toward her children’s interests, but she has found a side hobby in killing people who harm or even just annoy her family [the two exceptions being Chip’s friend Scotty (Justin Whalin), who dies either because he witnesses one of Beverly’s kills, because he has a pathological refusal to buckle his seat belt when driving, or both, and a juror (Patty Hearst), who pays the ultimate price for wearing white after Labor Day]. The family returns the favor by backing Beverly, with a little fear, during her trial and acquittal. True, Chip might be seen as exploiting Beverly’s notoriety, selling merchandise outside the courthouse where his mother is being tried, but one might also say that he is merely supporting his mother’s newfound career as a crime celebrity.

Pecker (1998) runs with a less “conventional” and more blue-collar family, but one just as nurturing of eccentricities. Pecker’s (Edward Furlong) mother Joyce (Mary Kay Place) not only spends time with the homeless, but helps them make wise fashion choices; his grandmother Memama (Jean Schertler) believes that she is channeling the Virgin Mary through a wooden puppet; his older sister Tina (Martha Plimpton) works at a gay bar where she specializes in “trade”: heterosexual strippers who bare all for gay clientele; his younger sister Chrissie (Lauren Hulsey) has a full-blown sugar addiction; and his girlfriend Shelley (Christina Ricci) runs a Laundromat in the style of a Fascist. The father of the family, Jimmy (Mark Joy), is relatively closed-minded, obsessed with the evils of exposed pubic hair, but even this is shown to be an endearing neuroticism. Once Pecker achieves art world fame with his photography and the care of Rorey Wheeler (Lili Taylor), he and his family learn the hard way that quirks embraced within the family are disapproved of and even stamped out when exposed to the wider world. Only by confronting the outside world – or at least the microcosm of New York’s cultural elite – with its own foibles are matters adjusted.

The idea of a “constructed family,” however, never left Waters. Cry Baby (1990) is centered on the Drapes, a young gang united by their social outcast status and 1950s underground youth culture. The hero, Wade “Cry Baby” Walker (Johnny Depp), overcomes class and social prejudice to spark a relationship with an upper middle-class suburban “Square,” Alison (Amy Locane). Cecil B. Demented (2000), although a rather darker and more aggressive film than Cry Baby, has another piecemeal family, this time brought together by their powerful ideological hatred of mainstream cinema and the Hollywood machine. After star actress Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith) is violently enlisted and brainwashed, her programming is completed when she learns that her Hollywood family never even really liked her. Her new cult-family on the other hand appreciates her for the raw star power she brings to their message of celluloid radicalism.

The nuclear family and the militant cult-family collide in Waters’ latest (to date) film, A Dirty Shame (2004). After a car crash followed by a spiritual-sexual awakening at the hands of Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), a “sexual healer,” after a concussion convenience store worker Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) finds herself liberated from all sexual inhibitions and proudly discovers her identity and destiny as a “cunnilingus bottom.” Grateful to Ray-Ray, she joins his apostles on their holy mission to discover an utterly new sex act that will change Baltimore and then the world. In the course of her service, she liberates her daughter Caprice (Selma Blair), a big-breasted exhibitionist, from her court-mandated house arrest and rebuilds her and her husband Vaughn’s (Chris Isaak) sex life. Abolishing average American hang-ups make for a happier, closer family.

Essentially A Dirty Shame puts forward a utopian vision where not only are sexual hang-ups non-existent, but people will introduce themselves by their sexual obsessions rather than, say, by their jobs (“I’m a sex addict, I’m an exhibitionist, and I’m your daughter”). Of course, this paradise of kink is opposed by a group Ray-Ray deems the “Neuters,” who are led by Sylvia’s uptight mother, Big Ethel (Suzanne Shepherd), whose revulsion at Ray-Ray’s spiritual sexual revolution is powered by her disgust at her own family’s newfound freedom of sexual expression. Big Ethel dies, a casualty of sexual evolution, but is resurrected by Ray-Ray and finally finds her own special niche in the world of perversion.

That such a fixation should be a part of John Waters’ films is hardly surprising. After all, nothing makes you appreciate friendly support networks or the comfort of kindred spirits like growing up gay and Catholic in 1950s suburbia. Next to a society where the legal right of people of the same sex to marry and raise children is treated as much of a threat as terrorism or climate change, where even the gay rights movement has adjusted its image into that of a white, middle-class man with an MBA and a “respectable” job, where “liberal” voices obsess over misogyny in a Hägar the Horrible cartoon or an innocuous billboard advertisement, and where the strange, wide-eyed radicalism of the ‘60s and ‘70s is treated with disdain, John Waters is strangely out of step. And I could not possibly be more grateful.