John Waters: False Negative

John Waters, the legendary filmmaker and writer with a brilliantly twisted mind, presents a fast-moving, all-new, comic monologue covering his career, movies, fashion, art and the urge to startle.

The man the French press recently called the ‘Queer Confucius’ is eager to duct tape his artistically-infected fans to their seats and give them an antibody-shaking spectacle like no other. This torn-from-the-headlines spoken word show is a booster shot for Covid-paranoid lunatic audiences everywhere.

Celebrating almost 60 years in film, Waters is a cult figure known for his bold, brash and hilarious work – favouring the queer, the outcast and the ‘trashy’. In his early movies he collaborated with artists such as iconic drag queen Divine, and later achieved success with Hairspray both as a movie and an adapted stage musical.

Author of ten books, this one-night-only show coincides with the publication of his first novel, Liarmouth – a hilariously filthy tale of sex, crime and family dysfunction.

From the blurb on the Barbican Website

Man bites dog shit

I suspect I first heard about John Waters in 1984, when Divine had a hit record with You Think You’re a Man, meaning that, inevitably, Waters’ oeuvre would have been discussed in the pages of Smash Hits, or namely – that albatross around his neck – the moment Divine ate a real dog shit. Following his appearance on the Last Resort with Jonathan Ross (1988), (Ross is a big fan, see also this archived Guardian interview), and Saturday Night Clive (1990) we all talked at school about the gay guy with a weird pencil moustache who filmed the guy who ate a dog shit. I believe it was the yoof programme, Network 7, fronted by Magenta Devine, which was responsible for a broadcasting a clip of Divine being raped by a 15 foot lobster from Waters’ film Multiple Maniacs.

Aged fourteen I watched the uncut version of Pink Flamingos, in fact the British Board of Film Censors’ very own copy (don’t ask), the thrill significantly increased by a warning intermittently flashing up that unauthorised viewings were illegal. I saw quite a few of Waters’ uncut films. Frankly I was bored shitless watching them but on high alert for any moments in which I could let out a guffaw. So desperate was I to like them but too young to understand what ‘pretentious’ meant. About ten years ago I watched Pink Flamingos again, this time in the cinema, when I had to finally admit that I didn’t like it or find it funny, and that it is definitely not a it’s so bad, it’s good film after all. In my opinion, Serial Mom is his only good movie. On the other hand, his writing is something I have had a genuine appreciation of over the years.

When he did a talk at the BFI a few years ago, tickets sold out instantly, so in March 2022 when I saw he was doing stand up at the Barbican I booked the ticket there and then and was surprised to see few seats sold. On checking again weeks later it was much the same. ‘Odd,’ I thought, but then there was a pandemic. Checking again closer to the time it was still looking pretty morose. Waters began a flurry of interviews to promote his first novel Liarmouth, and whether it was the promotion that gave him or his change in tune around the trans agenda, signalled by a vociferous castigation of JK Rowling, the show did finally sell out.

Quotes in gallery above taken from the New York Times article John Waters Is Ready to Defend the Worst People in the World (subtitle should be: ‘but not JK Rowling’) published 18 March 2022.

The room

It was throbbing with an unsurprising number of badly dressed kooky types. There were several people in various stages of transition sat near me, a pattern I expect was replicated throughout the Hall.

The performance

Waters was very funny. I mean, he is a very funny guy and I’ve always found him so and I think I have read all his books (except Liarmouth, which sounds terrible). Talking at breakneck speed it was difficult to catch everything he said with my giant cloth ears from a cheap balcony seat, but what I did hear was clever and funny. Ever the iconoclast really.

This isn’t a review of Waters’ comic ability or his show but more an observation about how the fabled ‘Pope of Trash’ has had to position himself carefully in relation to gender identity politics, especially given previously expressed views have not been in line with the dogma of the transborg.

What Waters said about gender ideology in 2018/19

So let’s just wind back a moment and have a look at what Waters said about the ‘transitioning’ of children. In June 2019, in an interview with Vulture, Waters expressed skepticism about this, hinted that it was driven by parental desire and said that such children will end up in ‘mental institutions’.

Section from Vulture article ‘In Conversation: John Waters’, June 2019

Interestingly in the same interview, Waters also jokes that he wants to ‘push a new agenda on gay people: for gay men and gay women to have oral sex together for the first time. Which I don’t think anyone has ever advocated yet,’ which is funny, since this is exactly what trans activists have been advocating for and homosexual dating/hook-up apps now daren’t not allow opposite sex matches. So I suspect he gets it.

From same Vulture interview

He had previously expressed views on the issue of gender ideology and children in this interview in the Guardian from November 2018, but had also said:

One of the other Homotopia performers I’m looking forward to meeting is Travis Alabanza, a poet and performer who critiques parts of the feminist community for transphobia. 

From the Guardian interview ‘John Waters: why the auteur of outrage won’t joke about the Manson murders’

So it has to be said that Waters isn’t being entirely hypocritical in his current embrace of the transborg, however …

The difference a bit of push back can make?

Looking on Twitter, Waters got a bit of pushback for these views, however none of that would have landed because he doesn’t do any social media at all. In any case, who would seriously try to cancel the ‘Pope of Trash’? (Queer Confucius, Auteur of Outrage and the Prince of Puke are other honorifics.)

Something clearly happened though, because since that time I cannot find an interview in which he alludes to the issue of child transition again. I imagine him being besieged by late night phone calls, challenged at dinner parties, not to mention having to grapple with the likes of Mx Travis Alabanza at queer festivals. Or perhaps he just noticed that tickets weren’t selling that quickly for his tour and drew his own conclusions. Trashing JK Rowling has certainly pushed links to the naughty interviews way down the list on internet searches.

Although he is obviously onside of much of the trans agenda, given all his films have heavily featured crossdressing and other forms of public exhibitionism, in October 2021 he decided to generate fanfare around the ‘gender neutral loos’ he had named after himself in the Baltimore Museum of Art, early on in his tour for False Negative. This article explains how his long time friend Elizabeth Coffey, who appeared in Pink Flamingos as the ‘chick with a dick’ in the flasher scene, was the first to use the facility.

“When I heard the new restrooms could be remodeled for all genders, I was even more excited,” Waters said just before the unveiling. “I could be part of a much-needed public elimination upgrade. Finally, we could all go to the bathroom together in full privacy. That’s what I call progress!”

From the Baltimore Fishbowl article

In the show and in also in the article, Waters admits that he is, of course, fully aware that men often use toilets to perform sexual acts.

In the slew of interviews he has done in 2022 to promote his first novel Liarmouth, gone are any references to confused kids and in with criticism of JK Rowling, although he does acknowledge in the New York Times interview that lesbians are under pressure to ‘grow beards’. In his interview with The Times, however, he shows he is still prepared to challenge LGBT orthodoxy:

When bisexual people say they want to be on the rainbow flag I have to ask: what do they have to complain about?”

From the Times interview ‘John Waters: ‘It’s too easy to be gay’ – June 2022

In a Vice interview he bemoans the stifling nature of ‘political correctness’ (which now feels like a completely out of date term) and alludes to the ‘fight’ in the gay world. What fight might that be? Well, similar to the NYT interview he doesn’t really explain and the interviewer doesn’t ask.

For me, bad taste is peoples’ boring moral philosophies where they’re lecturing you about your political correctness. To me that is deadening. That’s the new bad taste, maybe. It’s not exciting. And I think everything’s right that they say, they just say it in a way that makes other people go the other way. It doesn’t get supporters or helpers. Why is the gay world fighting with each other? We all used to be one big perverted family. Now we’re fighting with each other; it’s a waste of energy. 

From Vice article ‘John Waters: Why is the Gay world fighting with each other? – June 2022

The material

Waters railed against ‘the self righteousness of the politically correct’, poking fun at all sorts, including Black Lives Matter, Greta Thunberg, autism, giving children ritalin, trans people and pronoun usage, it seemed no subject was off limit. However, I noted that he was careful to not attack the underlying political ideology of any of these targets, Black Lives Matter, for example, was praised as an effective movement and he stressed that he really did believe that trans people were at risk in bathrooms. His act exemplified where we are right now, we might not want to be politically correct, but you kind of have to be. Having said that, he covered a huge range of targets that the vast majority of comedians nowadays simply avoid.

And then asexuals, they call themselves ‘aces’. They hate sex. I thought they were Catholics?!

Waters joking about the Pride Progress Flag

On cancelling JK Rowling

Just after he talked about the mixed sex toilets which had been named after him, he began to list the people he would like to cancel. JK Rowling was nominally second on the list (the first really being a warm up line) and before the current Pope, such is the danger she poses. What he said about her was drowned out by audience cheers, but I believe a comparison to racial hatred may have been drawn.

Then you’ve got JK Rowling – what the fuck’s the matter with her? [several seconds inaudible due to clapping and whooping] What’s she- What’s her problem?!

Who Waters would like to cancel

Do we really believe that Waters, a voracious reader, who prides himself on reading writers he doesn’t agree with (e.g. Andrea Dworkin), has not read Rowling’s essay? Is he repeating, like so many others, what he has heard about Rowling’s views? It’s obviously impossible to know without the opportunity to ask, but I suspect he has read it and is simply protecting his brand.

Of course there is another option, that he read it and thought it transphobic. However, on re-reading Rowling’s essay again for this piece, there really is nothing in it that one could construe as hateful, much less joke she require haemorrhoid cream, as Waters has. In the essay Rowling says she believes that surgery is an answer for some ‘trans women’ and repeats trans activist tropes like ‘Trans people need and deserve protection’ and that ‘trans women of colour’ are at ‘particular risk’. So in fact, her stated views on transgenderism are in keeping with his. I guess it is possible that Waters might dislike women who set boundaries.

Personal connection

One of Waters’ friends, and star of his film Cry Baby, Amy Locane, has spoken out about being sexually harassed in prison by a man with a conviction for murder. In his NYT interview he says he speaks with her regularly. I wonder if he cares a friend is being sexually harassed by a potential murderous man? Though I note even Locane is supportive of the notion that men who have been castrated surgically and chemically could be housed in a female prison facility.

More on the trans issue

On the issue of trans casting, Waters believed parts should be open to everyone, and made the point that gay actors had been playing straight people ‘forever’. He ended his stand up show saying that he hated that gay people were ‘fighting each other’, the splintering of the community and joked that it was ‘weakening the brand of pervert’, a refrain repeated in interviews.

It’s fair to say that not everyone understands irony.

In the Q&A section, someone wanted to know if he had met a certain notable person (Quentin Crisp I believe was shouted out). He had. He’d sat in his apartment in New York but the man had had no idea who Waters was, which led to him reflecting that he had met April Ashley who had ‘given a new meaning to royalty’ and also Christine Jorgensen, the first man to become really famous following ‘sex change’ surgery. There’s nothing like a mention of a feminine gay man triggering recollections of other feminine gay men, is there?

We come full circle

Waters’ impact on popular culture has been vast. His films have been watched by only a minority of the general public but by probably every film director and film critic working in the West. I’m sure every person in a position of power in our cultural institutions will be aware of him to some degree. Waters, once considered transgressive, has now been celebrated by the mainstream media since at least the release of Hairspray in 1988 and the eulogising looks set to continue.

“Bad taste. I don’t even think there is such a thing anymore. I think what used to be called bad taste is now American humor,” he says. “When I started, it was sick jokes: ‘That’s about as funny as an iron lung.’ Now the kind of stuff I had in my early movies is normal. That’s why my movies are now playing on television, which I never thought would happen. Ever.”

The Marvelous Mr. John Waters – Town & Country article, September 2021

It’s interesting though that with regards to transgender ideology John Waters has chosen to come down firmly on one side and has effectively been able to communicate that with a single stroke, i.e. making a joke about JK Rowling based on a lie. No further discussion required! Now that really is a case of a false negative.

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