THE PEOPLE’S PERVERT ON BEING AN INSIDER
Pink Flamingos. Those two words ought to bring to mind one of two images, the first being those god awful lawn ornaments that are prevalent in so many white trash neighborhoods, and the second being the perverted, yet groundbreaking film which was written, and directed by the legendary John Waters. Recently, John was invited to give the commencement speech for the Rhode Island School of Design’s 2015 Graduating Class, and in typical John Waters form, he gave a speech that was both intellectually challenging, emboldening, and debauched all at the same time.
Baltimore, Maryland, has had a dubious reputation as of late, but what many people may not be aware of is that it developed a separate dubious reputation in the late sixties, and seventies due to the antics, and films of Waters. Born on April 22nd, 1946, John Samuel Waters Junior slithered into the world, and brought with him, in his own words, “an inherent sense of filthiness” that would grow to become is hallmark in the world of cinema. (Waters 101) Although he enrolled, and briefly attended New York University, John Waters’ true calling was found in 1962 when he received an 8mm camera from his grandmother. Starting with Hag In a Black Leather Jacket, John progressively weaseled his way into the mainstream by ways of movies like Pink Flamingos, and Hairspray, and in doing so has continually pushed the envelope in regards to what is considered acceptable in what is more often than not, an utterly repressed society who’s scared, shocked, and offended by literally every little thing. (Editors)
It seems to be with startling frequency that there is a shocking amount of disingenuity in regards to speakers at commencement ceremonies. The Valedictorian is almost always “that” kind of man or woman, and the keynote speakers have a tendency of being totally unrelatable, even if they’re supposed to be. (I mean, come on, Matt Damon?) This is not the case with John Waters, and he makes that perfectly clear in the opening paragraphs of his impressive, yet wildly unheralded speech to the Rhode Island Grads. He says, and I quote:
I should say right off that I am really qualified to be your commencement speaker. I was suspended from high school, then kicked out of college for the first marijuana scandal ever on a university campus. I’ve been arrested several times. I’ve been known to dress in ludicrous fashions. I’ve also built a career out of negative reviews, and have been called “the prince of puke” by the press. And most recently a title I’m really proud of: “the People’s Pervert.” I am honored to be here today, with my people. (Graduation)
Of all the things John Waters would go on to say in his speech, this is the statement that ought to sell the reader or listener that John is in fact just one of us, albeit one of us who happens to be suitably, filthy rich, and in doing so he inherently validates the entire rest of the speech to every audience who listens to him whether they are aware of his work or not. He further bolsters this appeal to the every-man by admitting that the only reason he worked as hard as he did at what he loved is so that he wouldn’t have to “go work for somebody else”. (Graduation)
One of the things about this speech that ought to be noted is that there is a distinct lack of cognizance of statistical data, and imperial fact with the exception of the amount of money lent to Waters by his father to produce Pink Flamingos. While some may view this as a shortcoming, the fact that John relies entirely on his personal connectivity with the audience, coupled with resounding ideas, and concepts that tap into the spirit of the listeners, makes him and his speech an unmitigated success, numbers be damned.
After his initial reckoning with the listeners, Waters delves into the meat of his speech, which is meant to appeal to the deranged pervert in all of us, in whatever capacity that is. He makes it clear that you do not have to be the frat house jock, or the student body president to gain respect, power, and ultimately, ironically, acceptance. John says it best when he says, “Ha! The final irony: a creatively crazy person who finally gets power. Think about it: I didn’t change; society did. Who would have ever thought a top college like the Rhode Island School of Design would invite a filth elder like myself to set an example to its students? See? There’s hope for everybody.” (Graduation) This notion is furthered when he goes out of his way to imply that he, and his films were essential perverse Trojan Horses, sneaking their way into the fabric of everyday “normal” America, and that the students could do the same. There was no need to simply settle for preaching to the already converted.
John then goes on to touch on a red-button topic of mine that was just in its infancy at the time of the speech. He makes a point to talk about “trigger words”, and safe spaces. He goes on to say:
This might be time for a trigger warning. Ugh… the amazing concept I’ve heard about is where you’re supposed to warn students if you’re gonna talk about something that challenges their values? I thought that’s why you went to college. My whole life has been a trigger warning. But you have been warned. So the trigger warning is in effect, and now back to the prepared speech. (Graduation)
Just like when I speak to you all, there are going to be two groups of people who read this and feel a particular way about it. There will be people who get it, and don’t get all hot and bothered by it, and there will be people who will immediately take offense to it. If you’re of the latter group, congratulations, John is talking to you here. What’s going to really set you off is the fact that he’s right, and you know it.
Waters is appealing to the whole notion that we, as a country, have gone from trying to accept one another, and really live out the idea of a melting pot society (yes, including us perverts), and instead started leading towards a re-segregated society where we ghettoize ourselves by our thought processes as opposed to our skin tones. He pushes back on this concept, saying, “Separatism is for losers; Gay is not enough anymore. It’s a good start, but I don’t want my memoirs to be in the gay section near true crime section at the back of the bookstore. NO! I want it up front with the best sellers.”
I’m fully aware that I’ve beat the drum of victory for John Waters’ commencement speech throughout the length of this article, and I’m going to do it again now. If you haven’t seen it, go to Youtube and look it up; what’s the worst that will happen? Even if you’re a close-minded simpleton you’re bound to take something away from it, and if you’re open-minded you’re even more susceptible to the overarching good that the People’s Pervert has chosen to share with us.
Editors. “John Waters: Screenwriter.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, 2 Apr. 2014. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.
“Graduation Advice from John Waters.” Baltimore Brew. The Brew, 2 June 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.
Waters, John S. “How To Become Famous.” Crackpot: the Obsessions of John Waters. New York: Macmillan, 1986. 101. Print.