John Waters is a national treasure. The Pope of Trash who made Multiple Maniacs and Female Trouble has spent decades at the forefront of transgressive cinema that makes bad taste into fine art (and vice versa). With Pink Flamingos, his most famous film, now turning 50 and receiving a hallowed Criterion release, Waters’ work has been revisited by friends and skeptics alike. The man who made movies featuring rapist lobsters, glue sniffers and drag queens who eat literal shit has become almost respectable. Almost.
In the midst of the Waters renaissance, his most obsessed-over work remains the stuff released prior to 1990. Cry-Baby and Serial Mom have their fans, but the likes of Pecker and the sinfully overlooked Cecil B. Demented seldom get their dues and are written off as inessential Waters. This is also the fate that has befallen A Dirty Shame, the 2004 comedy that remains his last feature film. It’s frequently dismissed as his worst film, as watered-down Waters. Not only is it still underrated 18 years later, it feels as sharply relevant to our time as it did its own age.
Waters returns to the suburbs of his beloved Baltimore with the frigid Sylvia (a highly game Tracey Ullman) ready to experience a sexual crisis. A concussion leads to an insatiable sex addiction and introduces her to a not-so-secret world of fellow head injury sufferers in need of some good fucking, led by the randy preacher Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville). Sylvia goes from finding her dolt of a husband’s affections irritating to wanting every person in a ten-mile radius to go down on her. Opposing this rising tide of wildly varied fetishism are the “neuters,” the local puritans who want all forms of good clean filth to be eradicated.
Some critics felt that A Dirty Shame was dishearteningly tame by Waters’ standards. “Waters’ celebration of freakishness has never looked quite so square,” wrote EW Owen Gleiberman. You don’t see anything especially graphic. There’s one penis on show, which is practically PG for this director. Most of the weirder fetishes depicted don’t actually include sex, from sploshing to age play to licking dirt off the floor. The MPAA infamously slapped the movie with an NC-17 rating because such things proved too confusing to categorize as anything other than the nastiest of adult content. That these moments are shown as quaint is the point. There’s a sweetness to this community of oddballs who just want to have a good time with fellow consenting adults. Even when they’re feral with horniness, their goals are innocently simple. Is it so bad to want to feel good, particularly when everyone around you seems so miserable?
Seeking joy in the face of such harmful scorn has, alas, never stopped being relevant. It’s tough to ignore how hostile things have gotten in recent years for LGBTQ+ people. Nationwide attacks on queer and trans kids have led to right-wingers creating oppressive legislation and regurgitating decades’ old rhetoric of shame and danger. Callous claims that queer communities put children at risk, with drag queens and trans teachers being accused of sexualizing and grooming kids, echo the same hatred we experienced for decades. This is the conservative bastardizing of “family values” that has provided the backdrop to Waters’ work for close to 60 years. It’s the hysteria that he has always laughed in the face of.
A Dirty Shame, released in the middle of the Bush years and yet another cycle of renewed evangelical targeting of feminists and LGBTQ+ people, faced a culture that was the same as it ever was. Abstinence-only education dominated the discourse. As detailed in her book The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women, Jessica Valenti noted how state-funded propaganda taught adolescents that sex before marriage made them dirty, broken—even deranged.
Waters stares this nonsensical fury in its face with his usual eagerness and lack of subtlety. In one scene, a self-righteous neuter (Mink Stole at her most Karen-esque) suggests women get surgery to retighten their vaginas and become virgins once more, the ultimate opposition to the plague of sexing. Hearing the anti-sex protestors cry, “No more tolerance!” is deeply on-the-nose, but it doesn’t seem all that unlikely when, around this time, The Chicks were being censored for mildly anti-war comments and Janet Jackson’s nipple inspired a worldwide panic. The most minor displays of transgression (or not even that, so much as mild opposition to a stifling norm) were treated as a sickness to be stamped out. That trend has sadly never disappeared. Just switch out “no more tolerance” for some comment on wokeness or cancel culture and the intent stays the same.
A Dirty Shame takes the conservative rhetoric of the “others” being deranged, damaged and ready to engulf old-fashioned family values and says, “Yes, we are! Isn’t it great?” They’re everywhere and they’re relentless in their pursuit of pleasure in the most un-vanilla ways. And you too could become just like them if you don’t watch out. All it takes is a bop to the head and you’re on your way to a life of insatiable sensuality that gleefully deviates from 15 minutes in the missionary position. It’s transparently silly, but there is something nervy about Waters’ willingness to play around with this stereotype, this toxic idea that queer folks (or anyone who has faced the wrath of bad-faith conservative attacks) are out to get you. Sylvia and the sex gang of A Dirty Shame aren’t quite as forceful in their agenda, nor are they as concerned with repulsing the status quo. There’s something more welcoming to their philosophy. Waters wants everyone to be a freak for a change. Maybe, in the face of such fury, what the world needs is more fucking.
And the sex is good! Waters has never been so sex-positive. Here, every fetish is welcomed by someone, accepted as perfectly normal as long as it’s done consensually and with nobody getting hurt (unless that’s their thing, of course). Waters also stresses that none of these acts are new. Maybe you’ve never met someone who’s into frottage, but it’s as common as muck in reality. The characters’ bodies are never positioned as the subject of mockery, which makes Ullman’s performance as a wildly horny middle-aged woman all the more enjoyable. Made at a time when the gross-out sex comedy was at its peak in popularity, Waters easily exposes how that genre relies on re-establishing a conservative status quo while mocking sexual freedom. Waters’ ethos seems more along the lines of “What’s wrong with sticking your genitals in a pie once in a while?”
Waters’ place in cinematic history has long been secured. He’s now more seen as a public figure than a filmmaker, a Truman Capote for the 21st century who shares his love of underground porn, Salo and Manson family friendships on talk shows for the chipper masses. Progress may have been made for queer folks, but the kind of shameless outsider opposition that Waters’ work offers still feels painfully necessary. A Dirty Shame never inspired the same adoration as the director’s earlier work, but it’s just as much a force to be reckoned with. We’re bombarded with daily attacks on inclusive policy, diverse storytelling and the mere acknowledgement that queer people exist. Waters has always pushed the outsiders to the forefront, and A Dirty Shame offers them an earnest pulpit to preach their randy gospel. After all, isn’t this the future that liberals want?
Kayleigh Donaldson is a pop culture writer and critic. Her work can be found on Pajiba, What to Watch, Slashfilm, IGN, Uproxx, The Daily Beast, MUBI, and elsewhere. She lives in Dundee, Scotland.