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.