Divine, Icon of Feminism

Like many women of my generation, I tend to shy away from the moniker “feminist”. I think it has something to do do with the successful characterization (some would say smear) of feminists as man-hating, non-shaven pits having, too fat that no guy would date you, so you’re resentful and bitter because you sit at home with your cats while the hot chicks get dates, so you’re better off dating other women, but not the “lipstick” lesbians but the women who look like truck drivers just like you sort of ladies. By the way, I own a dog, not cats. Anyway, some women feel uncomfortable with the idea of calling themselves feminists because of the stygma associated with the title. It seems to, by it’s definition, radiate a certain hostility to men. I think it was Gloria Steinem who said that a woman needed a man like a fish needed a bicycle. But then, she was hot enough to be a Playboy bunny. Some women, on the other hand, feel that the so-called feminist “icons” don’t quite fit the type of woman that they feel represents them, either ideologically or physically. I must say that I (think I) fit in the latter. I’ve been watching the films of John Waters for some time now. Although John Waters is gay, and therefore assumed unable to understand the mindset of the typical heterosexual female, I think that he and the late Glen Milstead created the greatest feminist icon of all time — Divine. Not only is Divine an icon of feminism, but a sterling example of Existentialist feminism. Before I start my argument as to why I feel that Divine is an example of Existentialist feminism, I’d like to get this one thing straight: I’m not an expert on the history of John Waters’ Dreamland studios, nor on the evolution of the character Divine. Nor am I an expert on Existentialism ( This is strange, because I’d most likely say that I am an existentialist. I am an existentialist who hates reading existentialist philosophy. It’s boring). But, as a casual observer of popular culture and a part-time philosopher, from the point of view of my half-baked analysis, the persona created by Glen Milstead and feminism, in particular, the Existentialist feminism of Simone de Beauvior, seem to fit. Both challenged our perception femininity itself and demanded that we ask “what is a woman?” In her book The Second Sex, de Beauvior states that women needed to overcome the barriers inposed on women by society and psychology. Women, de Beauvior writes, have always been defined by the male-dominated society as “the other”, a role which women accepted, often against their own best interests.. Women were attached to men for their identity, and identified not with other women, but with the social class into which they were assigned by men. According to de Beauvior, our identity, who we are, is a manifestation of the role we are assigned by society. De Beauvior states that the tradtional or classic view of women gave women “no past, no history, no religion of our own”. De Beauvior insisted the the differences between men and women were rooted in our sociology, not in our biology. De Beauvior states that we must make a distincton between gender and sex (gender, according to de Beauvior, is a social convention. Sex, on the other hand, is biological), and that the social perception of “gender” dictated the role that women are assigned — wives, mothers, servants of men. De Beauvior held that the biological distinction between sex, was insignificant so far as our sex should dictate what social roles individuals should or can occupy. De Beauvior’s existentialist view held that individuals determine the meaning of their own lives and reality, and that our true potential can only be sought if we are free to choose for ourselves. Assigned social roles such as gender interfere with the individual’s ability to choose for their own lives. Because gender is a social construct, de Beauvior says, we are left to ponder the nature of feminity itself. Femininity, according to de Beauvior, is connected to a social construct of what it “means” to be a woman. De Beauvior asks, what, then does it mean to be a woman? If what is feminine is purely socially constructed, de Beauvior asserts, then some females are not women. I hold that, if womanhood is a social construct, then some males are or can be women. As the influence of Postmodernism on popular culture spread during the 1960s, the rise of feminism and growing gay rights movements challenged the conventional notions of gender and sexual identity. The Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Alice Cooper, and David Bowie all featured male frontmen wearing make-up or dressed completely in women’s clothing. Feminists burned their bras, demanded abortion rights and took the pill, thus allowing them the same sexual freedom previously (exclusively) enjoyed by men. As the 1960s came to a close, the lines between male and female social roles began to blur. By the 1980s, it was not uncommon to see moms at work and stay-at-home dads. Now, as the 21st century gets underway, we’ve seen the emergence of the female equivalents of the “dirty old man”, the MILF and the cougar, older women who actively pursue younger men. But what does this have to do with Divine? Divine, like de Beauvior, sought to deconstruct the traditional role (and expectation) of womanhood. Each suggests that we ask ourselves to challenge and abandon our own perceptions of femininity and womanhood. Like de Beauvior, Divine challenges what is socially, aesthetically ( and even biologically) acceptable of women, and once again leads us to ask, what is a woman? John Waters said that before Divine, drag queens were “squares” who were trying to imitate the “traditional” image of womanhood and femininity. “They were trying to be their mothers or Miss America”, Waters said. Waters stated that he wanted Divine to defy the notion of what a drag queen was supposed to look like. Waters stated that he wanted Divine to be the “Godzilla of drag queens” and that he wanted other drag queens to “run in tears”. Like the heterosexual community, the gay community, including drag queens, were suject to the same gender role expectations. Despite the fact that they were not women, drag queens, even as they defied what was expected of men, were still bound by what they believed was expected of women. They wanted to conform to what a “real” woman was supposed to look like — namely, that, despite the fact that they were men, they were expected to look like beauty queens and act with grace and femininity. Beauty queens , by convention, are not fat. The late Van Smith, who created the look for Divine most notably in the film Pink Flamingos, stated that the style he created for Divine was “aggressive, in your face” and that he was not interested in having Divine pass for a pretty girl. Just as feminists of the late 60s and early 70s were defying the tradtional perceptions of womanly beauty by refusing to shave their underarms and legs, taking on male-dominated occupations, and wearing unisex clothing, Divine not only challenged traditional heterosexual standards of beauty, but drag queen perceptions as well. What Smith created instead, was a woman who, despite her weight, despite the fact that she would never be mistaken for a real woman, flaunted her body with tight-fitting clothes, peek-a-boo dresses, and eventually, according to Waters, scars. “Rather than consealing fat, there it is”, Smith stated. According to Smith, Divine’s fat was sexy, “depending how you look at it”. In Waters’ movies, Divine is unapologetically sexual; she knows that she is sexy and is unhindered by either her non-feminine looks or her weight. Divine lives by her own rules on her own terms, whether she commits crime for beauty, lives in a trailer with her mentally infirm mother (proudly proclaiming that she is the filthiest person alive), or is sexually ravished by a giant lobster. Freud states that all women are motivated by a want to have a penis of their own. Freud’s theory of female “penis envy” creates a strange question when thinking about Divine. I feel that it through the removal of a penis (not Divine’s but another character), that Divine becomes de Beauvior’s vision of feminism. First, Divine is biologically male. But, the characters Divine plays in Waters’ films are undoubtedly female. His characters Babs Johnson, Dawn Davenport, Francine Fishpaw, and Edna Turnblad are all mothers (in fact, we see Dawn Davenport give birth to her daughter “Taffy” in Female Trouble). Yet, in Pink Flamingos, Divine participates in the castration of a male character, and gleefully laughs at his cries of pain when he is emasculated. I wonder, could this be interpreted as Divine’s total rejection of his own masculinity? (not Glen Milstead, mind you, but Divine). It seems to me that the emasculation scene in Pink Flamingos was, perhaps inintentionally, a declaration that Divine is female. No man in his right mind, would ever participate in the removal of another man’s sexual organs. As the butler, “Channing” pleads for mercy, Divine shows him no mercy. There is no sly wink at the camera. No suggestion that Divine is in reality a man. In the film, Divine sides with the two female prisoners in the pit, not with the butler. She allows the two prisoners to remove the butler’s penis as an act of solidarity with her fellow women. Through this act, I believe, Divine not only assumes the mantle of a full woman ( a truly existential act) but also commits an act of true feminist defiance, striking a man down at his source. She allows the emasculation not because she wants a penis of her own (and not because she already has one of her own), but because the butler deserved that particular punishment. Like many feminists, Divine has no need for a penis herself, she is completely at peace with herself and her womanhood ( that she defines on her own terms). She is a woman, criminal, a mother, and as Dawn Davenport describes herself, a “shitkicker”. Whether she is wearing a tight hot pink fishtail dress or mystic heel pumps, or scars on her face, Divine is a real woman, undefined by what is is expected to be. As she declares in Pink Flamingos, she will be queen one day, and her coronation will be celebrated all over the world. And that she is, in a single word, Divine. And that, is what every woman is.