The passions of John Waters

Role ModelsRole Models is possibly the John Waters book I had been waiting for.

I got sucked into Waters’ work and manifesto at the age of seventeen, and in his books Shock Value and Crackpot I first learned all the infamous anecdotes devoured by other Waters fans long before me, including the one Waters himself now is cheerfully weary of telling years later (you know the one), but which new generations of fans love him for as soon as they discover his world. He still tells it though, because he is just that gracious, along with all the other great stories about how Divine escaped arrest in a gold lamé toreador outfit, about Edith Massey’s thrift store, Elizabeth Coffey’s mid-gender-reassignment nude scene and the burning of the Pink Flamingos trailer. Oh, and how Divine ate dog feces on film under Waters’ direction (that’s the one!); something Waters says he could never live up to and Divine could never live down.

But you already know all those stories. The behind the scenes DIY-ness and mania of the 1970s and 80s Waters-filmmaking-family has been meticulously chronicled, re-chronicled, poured-over and revered. Nothing about those crazy, intoxicating, renegade years was left out. Except one thing—one noticeable, unshared topic-hole in the works written by and about the filmmaker.

John Waters never spoke much about his personal life. I don’t mean so much the absence of a bedpost-notch sort of laundry list, but while Waters has always been delightfully candid about how he views the world around him, he has said less regarding how he feels about how this world views him. And I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with that either. Waters is sharp, engaging, savvy—and private. I respected him for it; he clearly had great self-control to resist the celebrity urge-to-purge.

Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams

And Role Models is by no means a purge; it’s smart, savvy and tasteful. Restrained. It goes only inches into the director’s personal life, which is no doubt miles deep like anyone’s, but it’s inches more than he has shared before. The revelations are peppered sparingly throughout the volume, and perhaps none are more significant than those shared in the chapter about Tennessee Williams. Waters has professed his fandom of the iconic playwright before, but hearing a more in depth Waters-on-Williams (no pun intended) is a special treat, and more, when Waters talks about how Williams helped him feel less isolated in his own sexuality.

Waters first began reading Tennessee Williams at age twelve when he stole Williams’ short story collection One Arm from his local library, because the late-1950s ‘See librarian’ status of the book didn’t allow him access to checking it out. As an adolescent, Waters said Tennessee Williams ‘saved his life’, by being “joyous, alarming, sexually confusing and dangerously funny”. “Tennessee Williams let me know early… through reading,” Waters said on NPR, “… that there was another world.”

“Years later, Tennessee Williams saved my life again,” Waters says in Role Models.

The first time I went to a gay bar when I was seventeen years old. …it was filled with early-1960s gay men in fluffy sweaters who cruised one another by calling table-to-table on phones provided by the bar. “I may be queer but I ain’t this,” I remember thinking. Still reading everything Tennessee Williams wrote, I knew he would understand my dilemma. Tennessee never seemed to fit the gay stereotype even then… Tennessee Williams wasn’t a gay cliche, so I had the confidence to try not to be one myself.

Waters taught in prisons in the 80s, and Role Models also goes more in depth about his views on criminal rehabilitation, which are fascinating to read about whether you agree with him or not. Particularly interesting is his debate on the ethics of punishment vs. law, where he asks whether the justified passion of the public against a criminal should supersede the laws that dictate paroleability based on precedented incarceration caps of reformation, behavior and time. This idea of forgivable vs. unforgivable is also touched on as Waters shares his feelings about organized religion and his Catholic upbringing, as well as what it was like for him to learn more about the backgrounds of some of his own, unsung misfit heroes from the way-underground adult entertainment industry—especially when these backgrounds were less admirable than he would’ve hoped.

Role Models is a window into a current, more mature Waters. But unlike the retrospective attitudes of many iconoclastics who backpedal as soon as they hit 60 and are faced with their own mortality and accountability, Role Models is not repentative (anything but), and not latently whitewashed (anything but!), but contemplative. More complex, thoughtful and intro-and-extrospective, it shows Waters as as a wonderfully detailed, slow-cooked, more fully-realized version of himself.

John Waters

John Waters

John Waters is still the most vulgar polite person and the most polite vulgar person in the world; perhaps even moreso today. It’s amazing the balance he is able to maintain fostering unabashed, rebellious independence all while presenting an inviting, nurturing warmth that offers comfort to some of the most marginalized groups in society. Heavy or conventionally “unattractive” teens and adults, dissident gay men, soft straight men, ferocious and victimized women, racial minorities of all types, the pursued, the bullied, the abused, the extremely shy and the extremely awkward all have a place to thrive in his world. Waters inspires people to adapt the coping mechanisms he himself employed to survive, a “take-lemons-and-make-lemonade” approach to not only to the arts—whether through creative experimentation or by balking the conventions of perceived artistic legitimacy—but also to life and to self-esteem. He preaches that the very worst things about you, the things that make you feel ugly, disliked and alone, may be your best qualities, if you let them. Be proud of yourself, because there’s someone else out there feeling ugly, disliked and alone too. Maybe they wrote a book you can read.

Or maybe you can write a book to be read by them.

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  1. […] first column for The Idler was “The passions of John Waters”, about Waters’ 2010 memoir Role Models. The nice thing about writing nonfiction articles is that […]

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