John Waters is a globally acclaimed queer icon. His films have accentuated the meaning of queer cinema and helped create a space for queer media in mainstream show business. Often known as the “Pope of Trash” and “Prince of Puke”, Waters has successfully established his personal brand by making experimental black comedies with elements of post-modern humor and surrealism. He often worked with The Dreamlanders, a group of cast and crew who appeared regularly in his films. The group was named after Waters´ production company called Dreamlands production.
Polyester was released in 1981 starring Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey, and Mink Stole. The film is a parody of heteronormative women´s pictures and revolves around protagonist Francine Fishpaw, a Christian housewife living in the suburbs. It focuses on topics such as divorce, alcoholism, adultery, abortion, sexual fetishes, and religious morale. The film deconstructs the trope of classic melodrama by poking fun at the conservative and conventional society. It mocks the suburban Christian lifestyle and the extent to which these societies go to maintain the illusion of a “perfect American family”. Every single character of the film is in extreme pain and going through traumatic tragedies, except for the viewer who is laughing their head off. Polyester is not shy and goes to extreme lengths with its satire, mocking not only characters and cinematic elements but also tropes found in mainstream cinema.
One of the primary tropes it mocks is women´s pictures or women´s film, as mentioned before. Women´s film is a genre that features films made to appeal to a predominantly female audience with women-centered narratives and traditional female protagonists. Films in this genre typically revolve around women´s concerns regarding their domestic lives, marriage, motherhood, and so on. Unlike male-oriented films, which typically take place outdoors, involve a lot of action, and portray an emotionally repressed protagonist with a fear of intimacy, women´s film take place indoors, involve social events, and emphasize human emotions. The most frequent subgenres include maternal melodrama, career woman comedy, and female hysteria. These films were first produced during the 1920s, and the popularity of this genre peaked during World War II. Despite the name dying during the 60s, this genre can still be seen in contemporary cinema.
Polyester´s take on women´s pictures essentially mocks the sexist structure of the genre and the unrealistic traits of its characters by casting its “good woman” lead by a gay man in drag. This style of comedy is what defines high camp. The film is inherently trashy and possesses every element of queer humor. A lot of the comedy here is influenced by drag culture where the exaggerated mimicry is pushed to the point of hilarity. This film is a dark comedy that is fundamentally John Waters as it represents everything he is known for.
Nevertheless, it’s still one of the least controversial films by Waters. As a matter of fact, Polyester was what led the transition of Waters and The Dreamlanders to mainstream Hollywood. Previously, they were making low-budget black comedies shown in indie theaters, but Polyester was their first high-budget project. Over the years, The Dreamlanders have gained a cult following because of the unconventional and disturbing themes of their films. Despite Polyester being far from a conventional cinema, long-time fans can still easily tell it is not as transgressive as Waters´ previous films. Polyester contains a lot of lewd and raunchy subjects, but compared to the rest of Waters´ filmography, it is quite tame. The subjects here are safe enough for the average mainstream audience, making it more commercially successful and paving the path to Hollywood.
Since they had a high-budget production this time, Waters and his team went all in. Polyester introduced the Odorama card, a scratch-and-sniff card containing 12 different and unique scents. Known as “the most stinky film ever”, Polyester goes beyond traditional cinematic devices to claim this title. The film is driven by its stenches, and with the help of the Odorama card, Waters invents a whole new platform that the audience can be part of. If one buys the Blu-ray from the official Criterion collection, it comes with an Odorama card (the one I own) and it is truly an unforgettable experience. Each scent or odor is a unique swirl of memories. Specific ones even made me physically gag. It is also a fun way to watch a film with people, passing around the card and reacting together to what the film is offering. By providing a card that lets the audience smell the film, Waters successfully created a whole new dimension where the movie exists beyond our screen. It also elevated the role of cinema as an art form.
When it comes to queer representation in media it is more than just comedy that makes everyone laugh. Films like Polyester have played a vital role in changing the portrayal of queer characters on screen. During the 1950s gay characters in movies were exclusively shown as perverts and pedophiles. People like Waters have helped change this narrative by making films where minorities, who are stuck playing side characters or villains in the American social context, are the main characters. Films like this provided the main stage for people who were sidelined and discriminated against by the heteronormative predominantly Christian crowd. Instead of putting these characters in specific boxes based on their identities, Waters told the story from their perspective and embraced said identities.
Waters’ films don’t simply serve as queer films, which give heterosexual audiences a glimpse of queer humor and narratives, the films are designed for queer people. The LGBTQ+ community cherishes his films as they don´t follow and limit to mainstream tropes when it comes to the fates of its diverse characters. Despite society changing a lot since the 1950s, media still nurtures tropes like “all gay people are sex maniacs” and “bury the gay”. Bury the gay is a trope in which a gay character is killed off right after they have either confessed, gained satisfaction, or completed their task. The trope is designed to say that even if they have achieved love or closure, they still deserve to be punished. This trope is quite prevalent in television nowadays. For example, just a few months ago, the hit HBO series Killing Eve aired its final episode which ends with Villanelle dying right after she gets together with Eve after years of buildup. The media fetishizes the tragic lesbian fate. The fates of these characters indicate that film writers think these characters have less to offer than their straight counterparts, and therefore they kill them off. Another classic example is The Children´s Hour (1961). Shirley MacLaine´s character Martha kills herself after confessing her love to Audrey Hepburn´s Karen.
However, as sensitivity and tolerance towards the queer community grew in media, the trope turned into “too good for this bad world”. Media that includes that trope would often milk the AIDS crisis and depict exploitative misery porn. The audience, specifically queer audience, did not see the same in Waters´ films. Instead of using gay characters as mere plot devices who were bound to suffer a tragic fate, Waters’ characters are always shown living a happy queer life.
Polyester is a parody after all. It mocks everything society favors and finds attractive, beautiful, and moral. The tagline of Divine, who is the star of the film, is “the most beautiful woman in the world…almost”. It´s making fun of the concept of conventional beauty standards. This film challenges everything we know about society and shows them from a different lens. In a sense, it magnifies what lies underneath the picture. It shows us the dirty and filthy nature of humankind. Waters does a brilliant job of playing with both tragedy and comedy.
Divine´s acting in this movie is just sensational. His portrayal of the desperate Christian housewife hits all the right marks, leaving the viewers in hysteria. Divine is one of the most popular drag queens in the world. His works and vocal presence in media have helped to normalize and introduce drag culture to many. Nevertheless, Edith Massey as Cuddles steals the show. Every line delivered by Massey results in roars of laughter.
Polyester is a staple in queer cinema. It is a countercultural sensation. Films like this are the reason John Waters is celebrated so loudly by the LGBTQ+ community. Even today the ´Wateresque´ effect can be observed in queer film and television. His films have helped establish a place for queer humor on screen. Popular franchises such as RuPaul’s Drag Race share similar humor and personas. Alongside that, Polyester has given cinema new meaning with its innovative and new way to approach film. This film is beyond just a visual representation; it has texture and odors.
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