Culture House Daily

I Am Divine reminds me why I’ve always hated drag

25 April 2014

It was early evening and I had not yet eaten, so I took a glass of wine and a packet of Haribos into the private screening of I Am Divine: the story of Divine. I touched neither, because early on in the film I felt a little sick. I’m unsure as to whether that queasiness was a result of the mention of dog excrement (more anon) or the scale of misogyny contained within its 90 minutes.

Divine, aka Glenn Milstead, was an American actor, singer and drag queen who died in 1988 of a massive heart attack. Divine developed a name for himself as a female impersonator known for outrageous behaviour in John Waters counter-culture pre-punk films. Following his death, People magazine described Divine as the ‘Drag Queen of the Century’. Divine embraced the counterculture of the 1960s, in the 1970s moved to theatre, and in 1981  embarked on the disco industry, achieving global chart success with ‘You Think You’re a Man’.

The film is made up of archive footage and head-and-shoulder interviews with school friends, acolytes and colleagues of Divine. He played, according to his manager, female characters who were ‘trash’, ‘filth’ and ‘obscenity in bucket loads.’ But Divine was born into a conservative, middle-class family and played on nasty stereotypes of trailer trash women to get a laugh. In his films Divine called his female co-stars ‘sluts’. In his most notorious film Pink Flamingo, Divine screams, ‘I am the filthiest person alive’.


The documentary is amusing and fascinating in places – for example the way we are introduced via his friends to Glenn, a gay, bullied young man, who then morphs into Divine, so desperate is he for fame. But the film is a hagiography in which Divine comes across as hilarious, warm-hearted, bright and generous (albeit often with money he did not have or that belonged to someone else), but women come off badly. Yes, the drag shows and performances were supposedly a parody, but I tired of seeing this privileged male using his considerable talent to perpetuate the cheap myth that what women really want is to be debased and humiliated for laughs.

In one of his movies Divine is shown being ‘raped by a lobster’. Getting laughs out of a rape parody is pretty low, but cutting that scene with Divine’s sincere-sounding elderly mother telling the viewer that she warned her son not to ‘do anything that would embarrass us’ was a particularly cheap shot.

In the pastiche on women’s prison drama Female Trouble, one former co-star bragged (in character), ‘I was raped by Divine eight times a day for a year’. Then there was the scene with Divine on stage doing a stand-up session during which he points randomly to the audience and shouts, ‘Some woman here has the smelliest cunt I have ever known.’ By now my stomach was churning.

Footage from Divine’s one and only appearance on Top of the Pops (he was banned as a result of complaints about obscenity) in 1984 singing ‘You Think You’re a Man’ reminded me why I always hated drag. Feminists at the time of the TOTP atrocity labelled Divine ‘woman hating’.

So by the time, towards the end of the film, we were treated to footage of Divine in Pink Flamingos eating dog excrement, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to want dinner that evening. The fact that it was alluded to at the beginning of the film (it being the stuff of cinematic legend) made the rest of the film pretty unpalatable.

Julie Bindel, a freelance journalist and political activist, is a founder of Justice for Women. Her book on the state of the lesbian and gay nation, Straight Expectations, comes out in June

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  • Feministe

    I’m a woman and Divine makes me feel empowered. Also, saying that Divine represents all drag is uninformed––aren’t you supposed to be an art writer? Did you even watch the whole film?

    • TWBDB

      Thank you Feministe !

  • Conzuela Komatosa

    I am a Drag Performer because i love to use so called “female” attributes as a disguise. This allows me to do and say things in way i couldn´t do that easy in my so called ” male” role identity. (Its somehow comparable to the classic court jester /humorous critics).
    Or like Noxeema Jackson said it in Too Wong Foo :
    “….When a man has WAY too much fashion sense for one gender, he is a drag queen…”
    I am for sure not a women hater ! Its the total opposite to “gender racism” – wich in fact was a popular instrument use by radical Feminists. I remember statements like “every man is a rapist because he has a penis”
    (I even understand that acting this way was maybe necessary in the “fight” for womens liberation during the 60- and 70ties..)
    But we have 2014 now and its absurd to open an article “why i always hated drag” and answer it with “because they were called women haters”..
    Julie Bindel do you really have no better Idea as “i hate the haters because they hate ?”
    Divine was a maybe selfish Clown, a singer and actor, comedian, whitetrash lover..whatever..
    (oh remember?…in his first career he was a hair dresser and the girls worshiped him …)
    He outed himself as a gay person in an era when homosexuality was a crime and even perilous, and in my opinion he was a pioneer for all discriminated humans equal if female, male or trans.

    Divine in Female Trouble

  • Liz

    Drag: the sexist equivalent of blacking up.

    • Lamia

      That is a poor ‘parallel’. Clothing conventions are not an inseperable aspect of a person as skin colour is. Females are not born wearing dresses and make-up any more than males are born wearing trousers and beards.

      As for Divine, he was indeed abysmal and a misogynist, but that’s a seperate question from whether men have a right to wear frocks. They have as much right as women have to wear trousers.

      Bindel characteristically has short hair and wears trousers. So why isn’t she denounced for wearing ‘drag’ and ‘appropriating’ ‘male’ attire?

      • Liz

        Drag artists don’t just appropriate female clothing, they also wear fake breasts and padded bottoms, remove their facial hair, change their body language and raise their vocal range.

        Black face music hall performers exaggerated black people’s physical features and mannerisms and voices as well as their clothing in exactly the same way.

  • Al

    He was obviously an over-the-top and obscene stage act. Nothing else. You clearly got way to much time on your hands getting offended by this. And remember – not everything has got some hidden political message. Just take it for the silliness it is.

  • Jonathan Sidaway

    Good article. JW’s films dated, but sometimes amusing in the guilty way of such things. Would hate to see them banned. Was reminded by Bindel’s article of the annoying and occasionally poisonous way in which certain women talk about men nowadays.

  • La Fold

    John Waters, bloody awful films. Never seen the attraction.

  • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

    No doubt were I to say that all Afros were objectionable/hateful based on ,say Idi Amin or Bobbie Mugabe I would get arrested.
    So what I will do is adjust my bra strap instead.

    These shoes are killing me

  • Minnooli

    Bindel or Burchill, you’re both great. Reason enough to renew my Speccie subscription…

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