by Levi Dayan
art by Amelia Connolly
[originally published October 2021]
As someone who has struggled—and continues to struggle with—understanding my queer identity as the face of queer culture shifted further towards the Buttigiegs and Andrew Sullivans of the world, and further away its radical roots, John Waters has long been an important figure for me. In his films, I saw a full-throated rejection of the assimilationist tendencies that alienated me from the present-day queer community. The characters in his films were crude perverts and shameless bastards, surrounded by an even more disgusting and virtueless society that made said characters look like the sane and relatable ones, even as they literally ate dogshit off the ground. When watching his films, it sometimes feels as though Waters is envisioning the future world of Wells Fargo pride parade floats and giving in the finger. His films were crass, ugly, and often disturbing and violent, but they were also fun and colorful, balancing a whip-smart sense of humor and social commentary with a proclivity towards fart jokes in equal tow. And I also had a lot of respect for him as a spokesman of sorts for the city of Baltimore. Making weekend trips to Baltimore from DC was a highlight of many dismal years in high school, and it was on these trips I’d hear stories about how Waters would get his mail from independent bookseller Atomic Books, or how he apparently met Divine at a bus stop and immediately wanted to put him in his movies. Baltimore itself could be seen as sort of a “fuck you” to the respectability politics of the post-50s polite society that Waters came up in, and the fact that Waters never left the city even after decades of Hairspray royalties, and continues to champion its creative community, has always struck a chord with me.
The first time I saw Waters speak was during an interview / Q&A he did at the Politics and Prose bookstore in DC, in promotion of his new book Mr.-Know-It-All. It was pretty much everything you’d hope for, and Waters was endlessly sharp and funny. He talked about his bizarre journey from smut savant to beloved cultural icon, seeming as confused as anyone else would be by that sentence. He talked about being recognized for random cameos on the street, particularly his Lonely Island collaboration “The Creep”; Waters apparently didn’t know who they were when they asked to collaborate with him, and he recorded his part for the video while he was sick out of his mind from the flu. He shared crazy anecdotes from his filmmaking career and joked candidly about his drug use. His stories of various acid trips prompted a question from a completely spaced out hoodie-wearing stoner bro, who asked him if his experiences with drugs went any further than LSD. When Waters asked him what specifically he was alluding to, he mumbled “you know, like, psilocybin, DMT.” He then mentioned the aforementioned Lonely Island anecdote, connecting it to something he heard from Mike Tyson about being recognized for a cameo in The Hangover. The questioner made Waters look confused and awkward, which is a tremendous feat. Beyond that, he bantered with the questioners, many of whom were from Baltimore themselves, talking about his coming-of-age experiences in the city and why he’s stuck around for so long. He made a joke about poppers that got a big laugh. He also talked about political correctness.
That last part necessitates an understanding of what Waters has been up to in the past couple of decades. Waters hasn’t made a film in nearly twenty years, and yet he arguably has a larger presence in pop culture than ever before. As I mentioned before, he’s made cameos in everything from The Simpsons and Lonely Island videos to My Name is Earl, Law and Order SVU, and, of course, the blockbuster Hairspray remake, in which he cameoed as “the flasher that lives next door” in “Good Morning Baltimore.” As he was more than eager to mention during his monologue, he’s appeared in commercials for Nike and Yves Saint Laurent. And of course, he’s been doing public speaking, often in the form of some kind of one man show, for nearly twenty years. All of this speaks to the truly, and perhaps fittingly baffling career arc that Waters has experienced. The world has turned and left him in some strange places, and a man whose work could at points be described as cinematic terrorism against the notions of the 50s nuclear family became so accepted by the mainstream, seemingly overnight, that he could get invited to the White House. The Waters of the past twenty years reminds me of a trend that has become increasingly common in recent years, in which quirky old people ascend to a living meme status on the internet and subsequently become wholesome beloved icons. More than anyone else, Waters today reminds me of people such as Jeff Goldblum and David Byrne, both of whom have achieved a similar status, and also, like Waters, seem to mostly be focused on ventures outside of what they are famous for.
Perhaps the greatest testament to this long, strange trip is the commencement speeches Waters has given to a number of universities. One of these speeches, given to the RISD class of 2015, went viral, and was later published in book form. The what-the-fuck factor of Waters giving a speech at a prestigious university is likely a large part of why the speech went viral, as is the case with a lot of what Waters has gotten attention for in the past couple of decades. The speech is also a pitch-perfect document of what happens when a transgressive icon suddenly becomes lionized by mainstream society. The upshot is that it’s pretty fucking weird.
One of the more noticeable things about the RISD speech is how it pivots from sincere, often humorous pieces of advice to seemingly unrelated hot takes, often at the drop of a hat. Waters makes genuinely enlightening points encouraging his younger audience not to lionize the past and focus on forging a new future, but interspersed in the speech is a number of bafflingly out-of-touch takes. Following a cringe-inducing, deeply labored trigger warning joke, Waters states “Uh, don’t hate all rich people. They’re not all awful. Believe me, I know some evil poor people, too. We need some rich people: Who else is going to back our movies or buy our art?” In a true Jewish fashion, I’d answer that question with another question: who the fuck cares? Shouldn’t we be making art for ourselves anyways? Not to mention, though some rich people choose to fund pretty radical art, there are other ways to pay for it. Even within capitalism, you could have a government program that funds the arts. Hell, America used to do it too, but then we stopped, in part because that money funded “pornographic” projects by Black queer filmmakers such as Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied. It would be great to hear Riggs answer the question of who’s going to back our movies or buy our art today, but along with nearly a whole generation of great queer artists, AIDS cut his career short. One would expect Waters to know about these things, but I digress.
These kinds of takes are what made False Negative somewhat of a slog to get through, in spite of Waters’ charisma. Waters’ monologue included a similarly baffling take: not only should we not defund the police, but we should give them more money, so that they can hire more Black cops, women cops, gay cops and the like. It’s insane hearing this from Waters, as one would think that a filmmaker who had his work interfered with by the law on multiple occasions would be able to understand that the cops aren’t actually very dedicated to fighting crimes. But what’s worse is where Waters is coming from, in the literal sense. Baltimore has an infamously racist police department, one that stands out as excessively racist within a country that has no shortage of racist police departments. Of course, there’s an age-old saying that the more money you give something, the more Black and gay it becomes.
Getting angry about these statements feels somewhat reductive. Having read the RISD speech before, and having seen John Waters speak in person before, I knew what to respect. Of course if John Waters was coming to Oberlin, a college with a reputation as ground zero for the woke gestapo, he was going to have these kinds of polemics somewhere in the back of his mind. And just as he knew his audience wouldn’t love everything he had to say, I knew I wouldn’t love everything he had to say either. I believe without a shadow of a doubt that the police are completely beyond reform, but I’m not delusional: I know my opinions aren’t shared by everyone, and I’m not gonna shut anyone down for being pro-police without at least arguing about it first. But what makes these statements more difficult to grapple with is that they aren’t solely intended to shock: they reflect someone who genuinely and sincerely values the opinions of younger people, in a way deeper than the worn-out “the children will save us” take, though some of his statements had that air to it. In fact, said sincerity defines Waters’s art every bit as much Divine eating dogshit, and even at their absolute trashiest, his films are never truly unsympathetic to his characters. In this sense, Waters couldn’t be further removed from the profoundly banal irony-poisoned garbage found on Red Scare and the like.
So, with that sincerity in mind, I’ll take Waters’s urging for college students to embrace being challenged to heart, and give him my sincerest, most honest response: False Negative sucked. And it came dangerously, dangerously close to commiting the gravest crime that a John Waters performance could commit, which is being boring. The takes that Waters smarmingly prefaced as ones that would get him in trouble, such as the one about defunding the police, are in actuality indistinguishable from Joe Biden’s position on “police reform.” His monologues included a joke about renaming President’s Day “Obama Day,” a line that would have been rejected for Bradley Whitford’s character in Get Out for being too on the nose. In short: hardly transgressive stuff. Talking about the progress made by Black Lives Matter, he joked that “the Oscars are so diverse now we don’t need BAFTA.” That last joke made absolutely no fucking sense to me until a friend pointed out that he probably meant the BET Awards, a blunder that nonetheless does an excellent job of showing the level of transgressiveness we’re really dealing with here.
Beyond the bad takes—which Waters fortunately got out of the way early - there were also anecdotes about the aforementioned commercials, Waters’s interest in art collecting, and philanthropy, all of which, once again, begs the eternal question: who the fuck cares? It’s less that I only want to hear Waters talk about his movies (though that was definitely when the night felt the least like a slog) and more that I don’t want to hear anyone talk about their boring rich people hobbies, let along John Fucking Waters. But if there’s one thing that False Negative succeeded in doing - and, for that matter, his RISD speech as well—is putting forth an honest depiction of the particular condition of being a transgressor who inexplicably becomes accepted by the mainstream. When you’ve been that successful in poisoning so many minds through your films (and also have stopped making said films) what are you supposed to do? Waters’s answer has been to embrace said acceptance, stating in the RISD speech:
These days, everybody wants to be an outsider, politically correct to a fault. That’s good. I hope you are working to end racism, sexism, ageism, fatism. But is that enough? Isn’t being an outsider sooo 2014? I mean, maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind, really shake things up, and reinvent yourself as a new version of your most dreaded enemy – the insider. Like I am.
However, the great irony of this statement is that, while Waters claims that being an outsider is “sooo 2014,” the RISD speech for me is nailed to the time and place that it was given with an iron hammer. That time and place is the summer of 2015, when Donald Trump took a fated trip down the escalator, and when the signs of what would come next were everywhere in hindsight but completely ignored. The aloofness with which Waters addressed what would later become defining political issues is tied to this weird, brief window in time just as much as Space Jam is tied to the mid 90s. But six years down the road, his politics still seem to reflect the kind of misconceptions of a post-racial society that left so many white liberals caught off guard by Trump’s election. That complacency applied to how Waters approached other marginalized groups as well. His jokes about trans people went into deeply uncomfortable depth on reassignment surgery without ever landing on a punchline beyond, well, “the surgery.” Once again, getting “offended” feels like taking the bait in some ways. Waters has, of course, long worked with trans actors who, in the time in which he made many of his classic films, would not have found any work elsewhere - let alone a space in which they had that level of freedom of expression. That being said, his jokes felt less like poking fun at people he shared a sense of kinship with (not that, in this context, that wouldn’t also be uncomfortable) and more like they were coming from a sense of arrogance; “I’ve done enough for these people, what the fuck are you gonna do about it.”
But in turn, the great irony of False Negative, and perhaps the entire conundrum of post-2006 John Waters, is that Waters, who clearly sees much of the purpose in life residing in being as open and connected with people as possible, has also allowed his celebrity to separate himself from reality. After all, while he talks about how overly sensitive some college students are, he keeps speaking at colleges, and college students still come out, because they still respect his work even as the times have changed. Many of them may even agree with him! “The internet isn’t real life,” or some variation of that statement, is often thrown at people whose views on race, pronouns, or anything really deviate from the conventional boomer / yuppie wisdom. Yet, many of Waters’s statements, like implying in the RISD speech that heterosexual kids receive more prejudice in art schools that gay ones, could only be made by someone that spends way too much time online. Still, Waters continues to see society through a lens in which the most emotional people on the left are calling the shots, thus making his milquetoast liberalism feel radical.
In conclusion, something I alluded to earlier in this article from the first time I saw Waters speak was that, during the Q&A, a 20 or 30 something white woman asked him his opinions on political correctness. I don’t remember the exact question, but I remember it was critical of political correctness in a way that made me think she already knew what Waters’ answer would be. Waters answered by talking about how notions of decency and offensiveness were, in his time, used against gay people such as himself. This is a fair point that does reflect a level of nuance that can sometimes be missed in these discussions, but it’s also a misguided one. When Waters was coming of age, gay people were not shut down and barred from expressing themselves by college students, or whoever the equivalent of SJWs would be for the 60s and the 70s; they were shut down by the cops. But still, the audience at Politics and Prose—largely white, presumably pretty well-off, definitely pretty liberal—cheered for him. If this crowd were just ever so slightly younger, further to the left, and less of an embodiment of DC yuppiedom, they wouldn’t be too far off from the audience at False Negative. But in DC, the man whose films once raged against everything that would define 80s yuppiedom spoke to a crowd of yuppies, and they full-heartedly embraced him. Perhaps he’s even one of us.