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25 May 2015

Divine Intervention

Beauty is restrictive. It manifests as people with symmetrical features, thin bodies, and appropriately gendered behavior. There is no room for ambiguity, no room for deviations. Beauty is unkind.

For a brief moment in time, beauty was liberating. It manifested as a person with grotesque makeup, rotund body, and queer behavior. Ambiguity and deviation were essential. Beauty was Divine.

In the 1960s, Harris Glenn Milstead was a shy, closeted teenager growing up in Baltimore, Maryland. He was bullied for being fat and effeminate. He compensated through kindness, an obligatory heterosexual fling, and the occasional impersonation of Elizabeth Taylor. Meeting John Waters changed all that. A fellow teenager and amateur filmmaker, Waters relished tapping into Glenn’s latent frustration and anger. He cast Glenn as bawdy, reckless women. He fashioned him into an “inflated Jayne Mansfield,” a living hyperbole in gold lame and cha-cha heels. Whether his characters were toting guns, hitting on men, or getting molested by giant lobsters, Glenn’s dedication to Waters’ twisted artistic vision earned him the name Divine. There was no looking back.

The 1970s brought two of the most (in)famous Waters and Divine collaborations: Pink Flamingos (1972) and Female Trouble (1974). In the former, Divine plays Babs Johnson, a trailer-park outlaw bent on earning the title of “the filthiest person alive.” She proves her worthiness by defecating on private property, stashing raw meat up her dress, performing fellatio on her son, and gnawing on the limbs of trespassing policemen. Of course, what truly marks Babs as filth—and Divine as a “cinematic terrorist”—is the consumption of actual dog feces. This stunt primed audiences for Divine’s subsequent turn as Dawn Davenport in Female Trouble.

From her beginning as a teen runaway to her end as a mentally unstable convict, Dawn considers herself a “thief and a shit-kicker” who will stop at nothing to be famous. She works her way up the social ladder by stealing, hustling, and conniving. Once equally corrupt modeling agents take a liking to her, Dawn caves to their every whim. At the height of her fame, she injects eyeliner like a drug, kills her own daughter, and turns facial disfigurement into high fashion. In a true testament to her delusions, Dawn’s final words from the electric chair mimic those of a Hollywood acceptance speech. She dies just as she lived: as a legend in her own mind.

These two films capture Divine at his most shocking and most infamous. As Babs and Dawn he debased what is pure and normative; he spat in the face of bodily, sexual, and gendered expectations through sheer militancy. Yet, to claim that Divine’s influence ends at this level would be a disservice to his memory. Though his reign as a so-called “drag terrorist” was certainly groundbreaking, his later roles were also revolutionary in their own right. As Francine Fishpaw in Polyester (1981) and Edna Turnblad in Hairspray (1988), Divine proved maternity was just as effective as militancy when it came to modes of subversion.

By wearing conservative clothes, matronly wigs, and minimal makeup, Divine showcased his dedication to acting as well as to challenging the precedents of drag. No longer were his characters flaunting risqué fashions and committing random acts of debauchery. Now they were vulnerable, loving matriarchs tending to their homes. Another actor in Divine’s position could have easily fallen back on misogynistic tropes. He could have handled this type of femininity with the same level of critique and dismissal as the rest of normative society. Instead, Divine imbued the women with pathos and believability. He made them seem every bit as important as the roles that came before.

Divine’s untimely death in 1988 put a stop to his groundbreaking roles. However, in his short lifetime, he managed to embody gender expressions that had never before been represented. He provided an unconventional model for queerness, one in which ugliness, fatness, and gender fluidity could shine, a model that has yet to be matched in terms of its audaciousness and influence. Most importantly, he encouraged viewers to live by their own rules and to embrace their identities, no matter how scandalous or subdued they may be. For all of these reasons, Divine was truly beautiful.

Author: Laura Pohlman



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