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The Art of Subversion

What transgressive tastemaker John Waters teaches the right.
john waters

John Waters was one of the leading underground filmmakers who mixed gender-bending, sex, and violence during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Waters and his counterparts Andy Warhol, Russ Meyer, and the Cockettes transformed radical culture. But Waters—perhaps because he and his career didn’t end as early as the others’—was also able to take his social anarchy to the American heartland, with the 2002 musical adaptation of his 1988 film “Hairspray.”

“You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. ‘Hairspray’ is the only really devious movie I ever made,” Waters boasted during his 2015 commencement speech at the Rhode Island School of Design. “The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America—and nobody seems to notice it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys. ‘Pink Flamingos’ was preaching to the converted. But ‘Hairspray’ is a Trojan horse: It snuck into Middle America and never got caught. You can do the same thing.”

“Hairspray” is the story of a heavy-set girl named Tracy fighting for integration on a local TV dance program, emboldening her mother—who is always played by a drag queen—to embrace being heavy, give up her lonely days spent ironing, and support her best friend’s decision to get involved in an interracial relationship. It was one of the most successful musicals in Broadway history because of its catchy tunes and friendly demeanor, and it continues to play in amateur theatre across red-state America. Tracy is a kid-friendly version of the Women & Gender Studies Departments in colleges nationwide, and the Christian heartland bought it.

Waters wasn’t always winning hearts and minds with his message. His early exploitation movies like “Female Troubles,” “Pink Flamingos,” “Mondo Trasho,” and “Multiple Maniacs” often nauseated audiences with their violence, sex, queer art, and nudity. Waters was at the forefront of mocking popular culture: he directed “Eat Your Makeup,” which recreated the Kennedy assassination using a drag queen to play Jackie, in 1968, just five years after the president’s death. But in his later films “Polyester,” “Cry Baby,” “Hairspray,” and “Serial Mom,” he started to blend his critique of the nuclear family into a PG-rated package. Although none of the films were blockbusters, they found a steady place as cable TV reruns.

His war against societal norms is mainstream today: the movement fighting against “manspreading,” the term “cisgendered,” and Rachel Dolezal’s claim of not needing to be born black to become black all reek of the filmmaker’s brand of social anarchy.

Conservatives, by contrast, never fought the culture war with the intention of winning converts. Instead, they simply watched their circles become smaller, older, and more exclusive. They reduced themselves to remnants of the Moral Majority and became more concerned with winning elections than winning the culture of the future.

They should have respected left-wing culture-makers for their abilities, learned from them, and started an alternative movement. Instead they let Waters and the counterculture surpass them.

thisarticleappears janfeb16“The final irony: A creatively crazy person who finally gets power. Think about it: I didn’t change. Society did,” Waters said at the RISD graduation. He was part of that change, helping to bring it about, but he did it without ever seeming like an angry ideologue. “I always used left-wing politics, I love the Yippies and the comic terrorism,” Waters told the British Film Institute. “I think it could be effective today, you humiliate your enemies by comic terrorism, by embarrassing them, and doing ridiculous stunts and hoaxes against them.”

Waters has never been afraid to challenge consensus, even among his crowd. “Get on the fashion nerves of your peers, not your parents—that is the key to fashion leadership,” he wrote in his book Role Models. What’s more, “I respect everything I make fun of,” the filmmaker wrote elsewhere.

Conservatives hardly ever take on their peers in fear that they will be considered unfashionable, be disinvited for radio and cable news show appearances, and lose the chance at becoming the next established figurehead. The right needs its own brand of radicalism if it’s going to fight the culture wars from its new place as the underdog, the new counterculture. It’s not enough to create an endless series of pie charts about how the wage gap is a myth; conservatives need to create a moment that people will grab onto because it is interesting, fun, and has a purpose. No one ever started a chant because they read a pie chart. 

Ryan James Girdusky is a contributing writer at Red Alert Politics.