Figure i. Pink Flamingos (Waters 1972)
“To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste.”– John Waters (Harrington 1997)
As the director of a film that features incest, bestiality, topped off by a finale where the lead character eats dog excrement, it may seem strange that John Waters draws a distinction between good and bad taste. However, Pink Flamingos (Waters 1972) is a mediation on taste, class, and camp, and undoubtedly important in filmic history. The film was influential and impactful, not only for its content but for the way it was distributed. Ultimately, no one filmmaker has intentionally explored taste in a more prolific way than John Waters, and Pink Flamingos represents the apotheosis of his engagement of the subject through film.
The distinction Waters makes between good bad taste and bad bad taste surely relates to Pierre Bordieu’s (1979) concept of cultural capital, in that to identify the difference between good bad taste and bad bad taste you need to be engaged with the classification of good taste. Bad taste is essential in understanding good taste, as it represents the line, the demarcation point between good and bad taste.
Furthermore, Jeffrey Sconce discusses the idea of curated bad taste and ‘trash’ film, pointing to John Waters as someone whose films come under the category of ‘bad taste’ (Sconce 1995). Waters would wear this as a badge of honour, referring to his films as “joyously obscene” (Accomando 2012). The distinction between bad bad taste and good bad taste is closely related to Sconce’s evaluation of trash film, supposedly bad films reappraised by critics as possessing value beyond the immediately discernable. Both find value in what is derided as trash, and both find value in work situated outside the traditional concept of highbrow, worthy film.
Described as ‘The Pope of Trash’ (Goodman 2019), Pink Flamingos goes a long way towards earning the director this title. The film centres around a competition to win the title of ‘the filthiest person in Baltimore’, with two factions attempting to outdo each other, leading to more and more outrageous acts taking place. The characters are caricatures often played for laughs; Divine’s character, Babs Johnson, at one point proclaims to love filth, Divine’s mother, played by Edith Massey, is obsessed with eggs and introduced in the film sat in a playpen wearing lingerie. While the film is not incomprehensible, there is little narrative structure to Pink Flamingos. The film is an unrepentant celebration of all that is trash and challenges the audience with its escalating desire to elicit disgust from the audience.
Taking the film at face value, it may be difficult to understand why it is so influential. It’s a confrontational film, with the content at times at odds with what we now understand the spiritual oeuvre of John Waters to be. This was a formative film for Waters, and his subsequent work is not quite so aggressive in its attempt to disgust the audience. It did not need to be so confrontational precisely because Pink Flamingos paved the way for him to soften the presentation.
The critical reception of the film at the time very much positioned the film as trash. Variety’s 1973 review described the film as “one of the most vile, stupid and repulsive films ever made” (Variety 1973). Even divorced from the time of release, Roger Ebert’s 1997 review of the film emphasises the reality of film as contributing to his reaction, commenting that “If the events in this film were only simulated, it would merely be depraved and disgusting” (Ebert 1997).
Disgust was centred not only as a critical response but as a response from the audience. In fact, the films’ original trailer consisted of audience reactions, many of which emphasised the audience’s disgust (Breckon 2013). While it may seem counter-intuitive, disgust doesn’t necessarily drive viewers away. In fact, it has been suggested that there is pleasure in disgust, from a spectorial reaction, and Pink Flamingos is a work that allows us to enjoy the feeling of disgust rather than using the spectator’s disgust to further narrative aims (Breckon 2013). This is clearly an important aspect of the appeal of the film, and an element of its influence on film.
In fact, we can see the influence of Pink Flamingos in works like the Jackass television show and films, with John Waters even making an appearance in Jackass Number Two (Tremaine 2006). John Waters has spoken at length about the clear line drawn between Pink Flamingos and the Jackass franchise (Stuff 2011), further demonstrating how influential the film has been in popular culture. Jackass was a cultural phenomenon, its appeal centring around disgusting acts played for laughs. Another commonality between the two is the aspect of reality. Jackass was one of the first reality television shows. One of the most shocking elements of Pink Flamingos was that you are never sure what the actors actually had to do to make the vile acts appear realistic. The ambiguity intrigued audiences as much in 1972 with Pink Flamingos as it did in the early 2000s with Jackass.
The film was released in 1972, which was a time of significant change and upheaval not only for cinema but for America itself. The Manson family murders marked the cultural end of the 1960s, an omen for the hippy movement that once had believed so much in peace and free love. The end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s was a time of great turmoil for America. Not only was there political upheaval, but the traditional American family was in crisis. This period in history was mediated through film in various ways by various filmmakers. Specifically looking at Pink Flamingos, we can draw a link with the Dada movement that took place in the Europe of the early twentieth century, another time of turmoil. Dadaism mediated the changing and tumultuous world around the artists by producing work that at first appeared completely incomprehensible (Artland 2017). This link to highbrow art history further emphasises Pink Flamingos as belonging to ‘good’ bad taste.
The distribution of the film is also notable. There was no studio backing; Waters made the on a budget of around $12,000, and it was believed to go on to gross over 10 million (Levy 2006). Waters made the film totally independently, filming on weekends in Baltimore (Levy 2014). It was picked up by New Line Cinema, who eventually distributed the film. New Line Cinema would go on to have enormous success with franchises such as Lord of the Rings and A Nightmare on Elm Street, but Pink Flamingos was credited as launching New Line studio chief Bob Shaye’s career and in turn the studio (Gumbel and Walker 2008).
The film had a 95-week run in New York, and a ten-year run in Los Angeles (Van Sant 1997). Pink Flamingos is a midnight movie, believed to be one of the first films to make money through being exhibited on the midnight circuit (Liebensen 2017). Midnight movies were closely associated with the grindhouse scene, where the exploitation film was king. In fact, Pink Flamingos was often described as an exploitation movie – the exploited element being disgust. It was screened in the Elgin theatre in New York to great success (Levy 2014), and it was here the grindhouse audience intersected with another audience crucial to the success of the film – the LGBTQ audience.
As one of the first openly gay directors (Goodman 2019), Waters’ appeal to the LGBTQ community is not a surprise. Pink Flamingos is not only a trash film, but it’s also a film that is coded as distinctly LGBTQ, through elements such as casting a drag queen as its star. What the two cultures have in common is a distinct otherness, in that both are outside of the mainstream culture, particularly at the time. One of the ways Pink Flamingos achieves this commonality is through its use of camp.
Camp is a difficult thing to define. You know it when you see it, but being able to classify what exactly it is a bit more complicated. Susan Sontag’s 1964, 58-point essay, Notes on Camp (Sontag 1964), represents the most comprehensive definition, but there’s no way to identify it to the uninitiated easily. Perhaps this was the point; camp culture evolved from queer culture (Smith 2019), a culture that at various points in history has relied on insinuation and the unsaid as a point of necessity, as being outed would have led to severe consequences. Camp is having a moment. It was the theme of the 2019 Met Gala, one of the most exclusive events in the fashion world.
Of the definitions in Sontag’s essay, perhaps her description of camp as “artifice as an ideal, theatricality” (Sontag 1964), is the most concise. Camp is about revelling in the artifice, celebrating the stylised and the acceptance that absolutely nothing is to be taken seriously. Camp has traditionally found its home in the underground; mainstream culture has historically not been open to camp’s ironic look at the artifice so many of our societal structures rest on.
A prime example of camp is ball culture, emerging from the New York LGBTQ scene at a similar time to the release of Pink Flamingos. Ball culture is a collective experience where entrants to the ball are given a category which is judged on ‘realness’, closely linked with drag. It’s not hard to see where the comparisons can be drawn with the film; both use exaggeration to expose the artifice behind society. Pink Flamingos satirises the American family through the overblown ridiculousness of the families presented in the film. Ball culture satirises the roles people play in society by making them overt categories to be performed, the performance aspect showcasing the distance between mainstream culture and ball culture. Both ball culture and Pink Flamingos share a sense of otherness; in that they both stand outside mainstream society to critique, satirise and find humour in it.
This is even present in the title of Pink Flamingos. The titular pink flamingo refers to lawn ornaments outside Babs’ trailer. Where they were once lawn ornaments, placed outside houses for aesthetic reasons, Waters credits his film with their association with camp culture, changing their meaning from earnest to ironic (Levy 2014). Interestingly, after the lawn ornaments adoption as sardonic rather than sincere, Waters disavowed the symbol, commenting “after they became a hipster thing and people would put a hundred of them on their lawn, I gave mine away.” (Helmore 2015).
Waters disavowal of the symbol of the pink flamingo is particularly interesting in light of the legacy of Pink Flamingos and the broader work of Waters. Where queer culture was once counterculture, changing societal values has integrated queer culture further into mainstream culture. Where drag was once subversive and underground, you can now see a show devoted to drag queens on primetime television in the United States, which would have been unthinkable at the time Pink Flamingos was released. John Waters has explicitly pointed to Divine as the reason RuPaul’s drag race exists, asserting that “he made drag queens cool” (Ewens 2015).
The visibility of Divine, introduced to the world at large in Pink Flamingos, definitely had a part to play in the journey from counterculture to mainstream culture. After appearing in Pink Flamingos, Divine became a cultural phenomenon. Divine was cited as an inspiration for the character of Ursula (Dart 2016) in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (Clements and Musker 1989), which is about as mainstream as you can get. One of the most recent tributes to Divine is a make-up range, including an ostentatious eyeshadow palette (Carpluk 2018), further emphasising Divine’s journey from counterculture to the mainstream.
Divines transition to mainstream culture was helped along by that of John Waters. Pink Flamingos may have been his most confrontational and controversial work, but it was followed by more mainstream success. In the eyes of many, the work Waters will always be associated with is Hairspray (Waters 1988). Set in Baltimore, Hairspray follows the story of overweight Tracey Turnblad as she pursues her dream to become a dancer and fights racism. The film was an overwhelming success and was remade in 2007. John Waters journey to mainstream success not only points to the integration of queer culture and mainstream culture but also to the impact of Pink Flamingos.
Even with John Waters mainstream success, Pink Flamingos stands out as unique. The integration of trash, disgust, and queer culture culminates in a film unlike anything people had seen before, and in some respects, anything that has been seen in film since. The film still possesses the ability to shock and disgust, something scarce in 2019, and it’s even more impressive when you consider it was made almost fifty years ago. Pink Flamingos will live in infamy for many of its nearly unbelievable scenes, but the reason it has lived on in the public conscious isn’t pure shock value. It’s because John Waters is the master of good bad taste.
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