By Kat Shook
Studying John Waters’ films, I feel an urgency to laud and applaud the underappreciated, yet clear standout, recurring character-symbol de force that is—the mother. In most of Waters’ films there is an integral and influential mother figure who stands central to or just to the side of the center of the plot. Usually, but not always, those mothers are played by Divine. From the Virgin Mary depiction in Multiple Maniacs to Dawn Davenport and on to Edna Turnblad, Waters offers an array of mothers who carry the torch of motherhood for us all. Of course, Dawn uses that torch to burn down the world, while Edna uses it to light it. On occasion, Waters even employs mother-ception (a multi-generational alliance of mothers) to explore a symbolic rebellion against clichéd and overplayed maternal images. The point is, Waters shows us an assortment of crafty ways to be an altruistic and progressive mother. Spotlighting Edie “the Egg Lady” in Pink Flamingos, Francine Fishpaw in Polyester, and Beverly Sutphin in Serial Mom, there is an endearing outlandishness in their portrayals of mothers. The noble, loving, yet sometimes criminal actions of these mothers show their love, not as reactionary, but as selfless and kind-hearted. And the illuding anticlimactic conclusion here is that these multiple mothers, Edie, Beverly, and Francine, are a hug from Waters himself, Mr. Man-mom, the demented mother we share.
And I bet you thought I’d propose some lewd ancestral, incestual mother piece, but Babs Johnson already did that better than I ever could or would ever want to.
Edie is our kicker in this piece, a mother from another world (Eggland’s Best), and admittedly, the mother who reminds me the most of my own mother. She puts up with a lot from the comfort of her cold-ass crib bed. Imagine being the mother to notorious Babs Johnson, the filthiest human alive. During pregnancy, Edie must have endured sharp heel kicks, with Babs screeching from an embryonic microphone, “CLEAN-UP IN AISLE UTERUS, MOTHER.” Precious Edie carried that filthy monster Babs to term and probably birthed her in a playpen, which she promptly tossed Babs out of before establishing the pen as her own forever home. Baby Babs was then forced to take care of her mother, which was not her mother’s fault. Edie did not possess the wherewithal, but Babs did. That mother-child role reversal happens to the best of us in old age. With unchecked poor mental health, this reversal happens almost immediately.
Babs is obliged to take care of her mother, but it does not appear that she does so begrudgingly. She gives the impression that she is happy to wake up and serve her mother her favorite meal, eggs (sunny side up during sunny weather and hardboiled on tap). And when Edie has bouts of paranoia and fears that chickens are on the verge of extinction, Babs comforts her—the soothing actions of daughterly love to hallmark their copacetic coexistence.
Too, Edie provides support for her daughter as much as she can. When Babs receives a birthday turd from her archfoes, Edie is just as appalled and disgusted as Babs. Edie celebrates Babs’ birthday by getting engaged to the Egg Man and allowing Babs, with her own children, Cotton and Crackers, and their friends to host live cop piñatas and a cannibal-themed feast at their trailer. Edie never once interferes in their fun.
Seemingly, Edie always allows her child to be who she is—she lets Babs be Babs, which serves Babs’ ego and ambitions. Babs is their trailer queen, the Queen of Filth, and the sole matriarch of the Johnson clan.
Polyester’s Francine Fishpaw is the sort of self-loathing, therapy-inducing mother who desires respect but flounders when it comes to demanding it, mostly because she fails to respect herself. As she becomes more and more wrapped up in her own drama, delirium, and demise, which is further enhanced by her alcoholism, she learns to chart a different path for the sake of herself and for the sake of her children. She has only ever wanted what was best for them, which in her mind is a happy, healthy home. Post separation and humiliation, Francine hits rock bottom, but eventually seeks help (after encouragement from her friend Cuddles) to recover from her addiction. On her trek toward self-improvement, she meets Todd Tomorrow, a handsome and wily fast talker. Francine loves her children and is eager to show them off to Todd. She is also eager to entertain Todd to a rousing game of Mother May I? A family plan is back on her vision board.
Francine accepts her children and all their shortcomings. She guides her daughter, Lu-Lu, away from abortion calamity and supports her son, Dexter through his foot stomping fetish and prison stint. She is intuitive when it comes to what she deems best for her kids (reform by way of art—macramé, painting, and sculpting), and her bloodhound nose caps her mother’s intuition (which has ZERO to do with an interactive film gimmick called Odorama). Francine literally possesses the ability to sniff out trouble, and it is critical to her character and super-mom abilities.
When betrayed by her own conniving and cruel mother, La Rue, who had plotted with Todd Tomorrow to drain Francine’s bank account, Francine sniffs ’em out, and she handles the situation with the poise of a good old-fashioned mental breakdown. Meanwhile, Francine’s ex-husband and his lover are also there to kill Francine, but their plan is foiled when Lu-Lu and Dexter kill them instead. In that moment, her children solidify their loyalty to her and aid in her rescue, but ultimately, it is Francine who comes through the mental fog to save herself. She runs for help, and coincidentally, straight for a car that is pulling into her driveway. Cuddles, Francine’s best friend, enters the scene with her driver-lover Heintz in his luxury vehicle. The auto takes out Todd and La Rue in a roll-smash-reverse instant, which takes care of that Todd and mother problem (Todd gets the front end and mother takes it from the rear). Next to the car and the lifeless bodies of Todd and La Rue, Francine is reunited with her kids; they embrace. Cuddles offers Francine the consolation of an aerosol air freshener. Between intermittent tears and deep breaths, Francine declares that, “everything smells better,” and all is well.
Francine’s mother was cruel. She belittled, fat-shamed, friend-shamed, and pilfered from Francine in every interaction. Francine chooses to be different. She shatters the generational curse of poor mothering passed down by her own mother by being a loving and supportive mother to her children. She loves them with all she’s got.
‘Cause hugs are free.
John Waters’ own mother, Patricia Waters, was a nurturing, affectionate, elegant, supportive, and family-oriented woman. In her obituary writeup for the Baltimore Sun (February 10, 2014), Waters said of his mother, “She was our matriarch. She was an unusually strong and loving mother who was lovely and taught me the articles of good taste, which I turned into a career.” She also made him feel safe, which is the most important job of any parent. I think a lot of those qualities are exhibited in Serial Mom’s Beverly Sutphin, but those paths diverge on the sentiment of psychopathy and psychotic behavior. Beverly Sutphin took the road less travelled and that has made all the difference.
It’s the road lined with pussy willows and merry, singing birds.
Thematically speaking, with regards to traditional, conforming familial units, of the outwardly functioning sort, the mother is depicted as the glue that holds a family together. They may lecture. They may nag. They may give us swift lashes with a long, stiff hickory switch. But all is done in the name of protection and with love.
It’s not abuse if it’s love or some bullshit justification like that.
Information behind closed doors is ascertained through privilege (invitation only, generally in birthright invites or through marriage), and that’s where film and television provide an unmerited peek—a look inside—to satiate our curiosity at how others live. Many television and film families of the 1950s and 1960s were ironclad in an image of perfection, which more than likely, was riddled with inaccuracies. Those families had a stay-at-home mom who loved her family wholeheartedly and without it being a detriment to her own happiness. With honor and merriment, her happiness was hitched to theirs (husband and children), and everything was as it should be. Their homes were happy, flawless, and conundrum free. In appearance and love, Beverly is that mother. Beverly just adds spice to that tired aesthetic—a smear here, a splatter there. There is nothing like a little blood and murder to liven up a lackluster design.
Beverly Sutphin protects her kids and keeps them safe. She enforces seatbelt safety, provides healthy, hearty meals, discourages her kids from chewing gum, which is a nasty habit, and encourages their interests. She is involved in her community. She recycles. She attends school meetings. All-in-all, Beverly Sutphin is a top-notch, trophy mom.
Beverly appreciates the beauty in everyday life. In her perspective, “life doesn’t have to be ugly. Look at the birds out there; listen to their call—‘Hwee, hwee, hwee, hwee.’”
And Beverly has an even temperament for the most part, but there are some things which she cannot abide. Certain abominations and wayward approaches to social norms (such as stealing a parking spot, sloppy eating, a general rudeness and disregard for other people, refusal to sort garbage and recycle, etc.) irk her to murder. For Beverly, disobediences and irritations are easily resolved with air conditioning unit accidents or sharp pie knifes. Is it psychotic? Perhaps. But these are her triggers, and her triggers do not detract from her ability to be a stellar mom.
Even when Chip says, “shit” she does not kill him, and that is love. A neighbor could do less with sterner consequences. Instead, Beverly corrects Chip and reminds him how much she “hates the brown word.” It is a gentle, subtle, and harmless chastising.
As more revelations surface about Beverly Sutphin’s serial digressions, her family grows concerned and keen on stopping her, but that does not mean they love her less. Eugene, Beverly’s husband, comforts their children, Chip and Misty, “No matter what your mother is, we will love her anyway.”
Our mothers are our literal tethers to this earth. No matter how we shift culturally, the formula for creation and ability for a woman alone to house a baby remains the same. Although, exploring bone marrow, scientists have created a workaround for the male contribution, and beyond that, there is a growing expectation that men will carry in the future. Until that day comes, it is women (the mothers, surrogates, womb bearers) who carry us. They keep us grounded. They give us shelter. They provide sustenance and nutrition until we are ready to breach their cozy cubby. And even though our physical connection to our nurturer and carrier is literally severed at birth, a bond remains. Their blood will always be our blood. Does that equate and translate to an unyielding love and meaningful connection? Not always. Still, either in a biological way or, at the very least, via a shared experience, a connection remains.
Juxtaposing stereotypes of motherhood with Waters’ film mothers validates, with what some may perceive as an extremist approach, the complexities of being a mother and what it means to love and take care of a child. For many, I am certain that John Waters shifts and explodes all expectations and definitions of motherhood. What John Waters gives us is something more thirst quenching than mother’s milk. He gives us a good, wholesome sampling of mothers to survey, scrutinize, and celebrate.
From Waters’ womb to your living room—Edie, Francine, and Beverly are the mothers we never had, but wish…
* All photo artwork edited/created by Kat Shook. Original images under Fair Use.
Kat Shook is a wily writer from the enchanted hills of West Virginia. She has written for as long as she can remember—which is evidenced by the whirlwind trail of scattered and abandoned letters she has left behind. Many moons and gaffes ago, she received a degree in this stuff (B.A. in English/Literature from Concord University in Athens, WV). She has penned several stumbling lines of poetry, a trickle of short stories (non-fiction, horror, erotic, and bizarro), and a few provocative articles on politics and music. Also, she was the editor for My Shrinking Fat Belly: A Surrogate’s Side by Jana Jarrett.
Kat lives with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which thwarts her mind on occasion. Fortunately, therapy provides her with the tools she needs to stay balanced. Kat is also a social justice warrior who rails against poverty through activism. She volunteers as a mentor for children in her community and is a longtime advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights. She has been married to her darling wife, Elizabeth, for four years now. They live and thrive together by the Shenandoah River with their pups, Cassette and BMO, as well as their elderly cat, Autumn.
Visit Kat @ www.katshook.com.