I am fat, queer, and transgender. In fact, I am an unrepentant fat slob. As I like to say, I always feed my clothes! I see beauty in fatness. I see beauty in ugliness. I see beauty in imperfection. I see beauty in doing things contrary to cultural norms. I refuse to kowtow to what is considered normal, regular and mundane. How did I reach this? Through many different channels. But one of the most important was through a 300-pound, dog-shit-eating drag queen named Divine.
I do not recall which movie I saw first. Time tends to run everything together. But it might have been Hairspray. I marveled at this larger-than-life figure. Where had she been all my life? I had watched The Ricki Lake Show and discovered that she was in a movie called Hairspray. While Rickie was fabulous in her role as Tracy Turnblad, Divine as her mother Edna really transfixed me. I was just coming out as queer and transgender. At the time, I was average-sized but I was always fascinated by fat people and on board with fat people’s rights. Divine’s comic timing was impeccable. Her expressions were unforgettable. I was in love right from the start.
Hairspray was the film that Divine could take her mother to see at the premiere. When I went back in time, my little small-town sensibilities were shocked! The early films of John Waters were low-budget, tacky, tasteless and trashy. And I loved every minute of them. Two of them are my favorites: Female Trouble and Polyester. In Female Trouble, John Waters creates a kind of Citizen Kane on acid and copious amounts of pot. It tells the story of a lifelong misfit and criminal named Dawn Davenport. Dawn is a “bad girl” in high school and hangs with a rough crowd. When she does not get her much wished-for cha-cha heels for Christmas, she has a complete melt-down and runs away from home. From there, many zany adventures begin that blow one’s mind upon a first viewing.
Polyester features a woman named Francine Fishpaw. Francine Fishpaw is an upper middle-class suburban housewife in Baltimore. Although she strives to be an upstanding Christian woman, the money to support her lifestyle comes from her husband’s pornography theater. The townspeople protest her house because she is the wife of a pornographer. Her son is the notorious “Baltimore Stomper” and has a severe fetish for women’s feet, her daughter is made pregnant by a local hoodlum, and her husband is having an affair with his secretary.
As you can see from the synopses, the stories are outrageous and infinitely interesting. Growing up in small-town, rural New Hampshire, I always felt a need for something that challenged this conservative up-bringing. John Waters’s films truly fit the bill. They actually made me feel less lonely and like there was a lifeline beyond conservative NH that I could very much relate to. It is not surprising that there is such a huge cult following to John Waters and Divine. I know that they fulfill the same longing that I have felt for so long. When I watch their films I am transported to a wacky world, but I am also transported to a brand of humor that I just adore. The films of John Waters make me laugh. I have had a life beset by a lot of prejudice, discrimination and oppression. Much of that oppression has been due to queer-phobia, transphobia and fatphobia. Seeing Diving up there on the screen has always given me hope. John Waters and Divine have a brilliant method of turning everything upside down. What is deemed inferior and ugly by mainstream culture is served up as beautiful and valuable by this duo. Their work together speaks volumes to the cultural need for something totally outside the Hollywood establishment.
In mainstream Hollywood, we see the “beautiful people” who are usually straight, cisgender, thin and conventionally attractive. Divine is queer, gender-variant, fat and unapologetic. Her larger-than-life drag performances challenge conventional gender norms and help to liberate the viewer from their preconceived notions. For me, the esitence of Divine has been life-changing. I have struggled with internalized queerphobia, transphobia, fatphobia and looksism. What is so great about Divine is that she is incredibly beautiful AND she entails all of these stigmatized identities. In addition, she is willing to be “ugly” for the sake of the movie. In Female Trouble her face is burned of by acid that is thrown at her and she wears a Mohawk haircut. At the end she wears no make-up as she excitedly awaits to be executed for a lifetime of crime. In Female Trouble, crime is beautiful and patriarchy is thoroughly upended. The “bad girl” comes to a bad end but she is excited by the fame that the execution is going to bring her.
When I turned 30, I started to gain weight. Over the span of about 8 years, my weight ballooned from 200 to 400 pounds, literally doubling myself. In a virulently fatphobic society, it is very difficult to have self-esteem. The cultural pressure to lose weight is ubiquitous. This is why Divine is so important. She inhabited her fat body with pride. In Female Trouble she does amazing things on a trampoline and reminds us how much the fat body can do. Divine made me feel better about being fat, just as she did about being queer and gender nonconforming.
It was a supreme tragedy when Divine died back in 1988 at the age of 42 due to an enlarged heart. But one of the great things is that her films live on. Her songs live on, as Divine also had a career as a Disco singer. These cultural artifacts will allow not only current fans to have access to her, but will also allow future fans to benefit from her brilliance, brashness and her utter unwillingness to conform to the mainstream. I feel such gratitude towards Divine, John Waters and the entire “Dreamland” crew for their contributions to our culture. I eagerly await the next batch of kids who will feel less alone, less different and less isolated because they discover the one-of-a-kind icon named Divine.