The Cinema of Transgression movement was named in the mid-1980s by Nick Zedd, although independent filmmaker John Waters was doing the leg work in the mid-1970s. His irreverent and splendid films challenged accepted notions of normality with a truly free spirit, including the black comedy atrocity that is Female Trouble (1974), starring actor, singer and drag queen Divine as Dawn Davenport. Here, John Waters revels in a thorough stripping apart of a 1970s North American puritan, conservative moral code. He replaces it with as much grotesquerie you can fit into a 97-minute feature. Self-confessed ‘thief and shit kicker’ Dawn and her crew know no bounds as they trash conventional heterosexual family values, shove a stiletto heel into the ideal of passive femininity and spit in the face of the law. Dawn does not back down. This is a diva biopic that dispenses with sentimentality and spoons on the dirt.
Divine is unique as Dawn as we follow her on a journey from destitution to stardom. She starts as a teenage runaway when her parents don’t buy her the cha-cha heels she wants for Christmas. Then she moves quickly on to single motherhood, cat-burgling, stripping and finally extremist modelling. Other Waters favourites feature: Edith Massey plays the burlesque Aunt Ida and her hyper-tense daughter Mink Stole as Taffy. Both characters give the film some of its hilarious incisive lines, as when Taffy retorts to her step-father, ‘I wouldn’t suck your lousy dick if I was suffocating and there was oxygen in your balls,’ and Ida says to her nephew Gator: ‘I worry that you’ll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life.’
When Dawn is recruited by über-fashionista couple the Dashers, played by Mary Vivian Pearce and David Lochary, she embraces their mantra ‘Crime is beauty’. They teach Dawn how to jack up on liquid eyeliner and promise her fame in return for racy photographs of her involved in violent acts. Dawn becomes more and more drawn into the idea that violence and disfigurement are truly sublime. With this descent, or ascent, depending on how you want to look at it, Waters stretches the limits of taste even further. Many mainstream directors dip one toe into the mire of pevrersion, wave it about a bit and pull out before they do anything the censors or the imaginary, banality-loving audience might not like. Narratives are neatly tied up, the ‘immoral’ are punished. Waters doesn’t do this. Without giving too much away, Dawn does get stung in the end for her depravity in a Gun Crazy meets Sunset Boulevard face-off. Although I can hardly say that Waters’s ending conveys a sense of normality resuming. Waters and other transgressive filmmakers like him raised questions about what normal was in the first place. Once criticised for his ground-breaking work Waters is now a national treasure, but his work has a resounding message: ‘It’s normality that should keep you awake at night, not me.’