Maggie McMuffin explores the funnier side of kink, but not without a handful of critiques, in John Waters’ A Dirty Shame.
Ten years ago I was only vaguely aware of John Waters. I had seen Hairspray and Cry-Babyon TV a couple of times and liked the aesthetic. I had caught the second half of Cecil B. DeMented at 7 a.m. during a sick day and watched Melanie Griffith’s hair catch fire while lying on a couch in a haze. I had been exposed to John Waters but I hadn’t really been aware of him or his movies.
Then A Dirty Shame came out. And I had no way of watching it, being 14 and in a small town. My only piracy experience had been with Limewire and while my mother did rent me movies every week of high school, the film never ended up in my possession.
But I watched that trailer every time it was on TV. A movie about sex, debauchery, and fighting repression. Huge-breasted women. Bright colors. I wanted it. I didn’t get it for another five years when, in the throes of some really heavy personal shit, my friend Karl took me out on a weird pseudo-date that featured gourmet pizza and viewings of some of the John Waters movies I had never seen, which were most of them. In the five years since I first sawA Dirty Shame advertised, I had developed quite the fondness for Mr. Waters but still hadn’t managed to watch a ton of stuff.
A Dirty Shame was worth the wait and I fell in love instantly.
I’ve seen it a couple of times since then, usually with other people. But I’ve never sat down and given it my full attention or put much thought into the film besides wondering about the mechanics of Selma Blair’s inflatable rack. And I haven’t seen it in at least a year and a half at this point so….let’s see if I still like it?
Oh, and this will be a review of the NC-17 version because who doesn’t love some extra penis in their reviews?
The movie opens sweetly with some lovely retro music playing. The soundtrack for this film is absolutely wonderful, with some actual vintage tunes and some retro-feel ones with dirty lyrics. The film also opens with suburban trees and shrubs doing their best impressions of human genitalia.
We are introduced to residents of Hartford Row. Sylvia Stickles, played by Tracey Ullman, is an uptight housewife with no time or interest in sex. I’d honestly be fine with that if she wasn’t so mean about it. There’s also her husband Vaughn (Chris Isaak), who masturbates because Sylvia won’t fulfill his “marital needs,” and their daughter Caprice, who prefers to go by her stage name of Ursula Udders. Caprisula (as I am going to refer to her) has had some major breast surgery and holy shit Selma Blair bouncing around in those inflatable tits is amazing. Also, Selma Blair really plays against her usual type here and it is doubly amazing. Caprisula is currently under house arrest for her continued indecent exposure arrests, including nude loitering and nude drunk driving. Caprisula insists, “I wasn’t drunk. I was on pills.” I don’t know much about drugs but I do know that’s an important distinction. Sylvia declares, “Something is the matter with your vagina” while delivering Caprisula’s breakfast and when she leaves for work runs into one of her daughter’s fans: Fat Fuck Frank. He’s in love.
We also meet the neighbors, transplants from D.C. who like how colorful Baltimore is. They like the crude people, the ability to restore houses with expensive vintage rocks, the debates about sex. They aren’t a big part of the film but I’m going to come back to them later so remember that they exist.
As Sylvia goes to work we meet other residents of Hartford Row. The three men who occupy the Bear House (they’re bears and they will constantly remind you of this), Sylvia’s mom Big Ethel (who is the leader of the neuters, people who hate sex and fight against indecency), swingers (I hate swingers btw), and some other neuters. And then suddenly, Sylvia suffers from a concussion, which transforms her from loud and proud neuter to ‘bonerfide’ sex addict.
And that’s when the plot kicks in. We follow Sylvia as she explores sexuality and sluts it up all throughout the neighborhood. She picks up a water bottle with her vagina during a dance at the old folks’ home. She steals leopard print clothing from a Goodwill drop box. She fucks indiscriminately and demands satisfaction, and she gets it with the help of Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville), leader of the 12 sex addict apostles who are on a mission to discover a brand new sex act.
The film covers a pretty wide range of fetishes and acts while building up to the discovery. None of the fetishes are in the scary/edgeplay camp either. It’s all things like adult babies, gangbangs, tickle-tops, and dirt. Sure, bodily fluids get covered, but even the ‘gross’ fetishes like Roman showers and scat are presented in a lighthearted and comical way because, remember kids, sex is supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun, don’t do it. And whenever a sex addict is introduced, there’s a smaller screen that shows how they got the concussion that led to their addiction. Most of them are somehow connected to the actual fetish the person had hiding within them, which is a nice touch.
While the apostles fight to find a new act, the neuters mobilize to strike down indecency where it lives by…having rallies. They never do much more than that. But man, are they hilarious. This is also where Mink Stole ends up in this film, and considering all the filthy shit she’s done in earlier John Waters’ films, it’s great to see her being the over-the-top voice of conservatism.
And both sides are over the top. There is very, very little middle ground on the issue of sexual liberty vs. conservative panic. Vaughn is the closest we get, expressing a want for sex and sympathy toward Caprisula’s love of performing nude while also wanting Sylvia to recover from her concussions and then taking her and his daughter to sexual addiction meetings after another concussion makes her a neuter again. During that time, Sylvia gets a few lines about how sex addicts are everywhere and maybe they should learn to live with them, but then she goes back to wanting to be clean and pure. The only other people to hit a compromise are the neighboring couple who are attacked by horny lesbians and Mink Stole during the chaos at the end of the film. While the lesbians try turning the wife, Mink Stole lectures about how one can have their hymen replaced, causing the couple to declare, “All of you are crazy.” Which is true. Everyone in this movie is so extreme with their views that none of the arguments can be taken seriously. And while the sex addicts are technically nicer than the neuters, I still have some issues with them. Mainly that, like a lot of sex positive people in the real world, they place sexual superiority over consent. Ray Ray tells Sylvia, “You’ll learn to accept anything sexual as long as it’s safe, consensual, and doesn’t harm others.”
But the thing is, some of the sex addicts are harmful. The bears have sex on their front lawn where children can and do see it. The scat guy likes to shit where people can find it and then laughs about it. One woman is into frottage, a fetish that by its very nature is non-consensual. The swinger couple (two of the apostles btw) answers their door nude and openly hits on a couple that they know to be monogamous. None of these things are consensual and some of them can harm others since frottage is sexual assault and not everyone wants to be exposed to the sex lives of others. It can be triggering. I mean, yes we should all have open discussions about sexuality so people can be educated, but people also have the right to say “sex makes me personally uncomfortable.” While Ray Ray does say that consent is big for the sex addicts, we never see him or any of the others call out the sex addicts who don’t follow that creed. And considering how many sex positive and kinky people I’ve met who act like this in real life, I had a harder time rooting for the sex addicts on this viewing. They all reminded me of people I’ve met who make their whole person about their sex life, forgetting that being kinky is not a substitute for having a personality. People who hide abusers in their communities because they don’t want their community to look bad. I’m going to stop talking about this before I go on my usual rant about fetlife and kink-shaming so I’ll just say that while the movie doesn’t ever dive deep into these issues, I am at least glad that it features someone calling people out.
Not that I think the neuters are better. They aren’t. They shove Prozac down Caprisula’s throat to kill her sex drive. They shame people for wanting sex at all. Big Ethel demands that people with harmless fetishes be arrested and seems to go to the sexual addiction meeting just so she can judge.
All of those serious things said, this movie is hilarious and stupid and wonderful. The extremes do lend themselves to comedy and there are some great one-liners from both sides as well as some stellar comedic performances. Tracey Ullman’s face is perfect in this. Like I could just watch her scenes with the sound off and laugh.
In the end, the sex addicts win out. All the neuters end up with concussions and are turned over to the side of sexual enlightenment. Big Ethel dies and is then brought back to life through Ray Ray’s sexual healing. And the new sex act is discovered! It’s just people head butting each other. But hey, it works. Everyone levitates from their ultimate orgasms while Ray Ray floats into the sky and ejaculates out of his head. When I first saw this movie I thought the head butting was sort of a cop out, but a running conversation in the film is that everything sexual has been done before so I could imagine that actually coming up with a new sex act would be nigh impossible. And people try to make sex needlessly complicated all the time just so they can say they did something new, which I suspect is the whole reason sex swings exist. Now watching the ending, it’s just ridiculous enough that I’ll buy it. I mean, the rest of the movie is penises and sex jokes and Tracey Ullman gyrating so why shouldn’t the last shot be a cumshot?
This isn’t Waters’ best film and it’s not my favorite film. But if you’ve got a night free and some filthy minded friends over, it’s a good thing to pop in. Just know that it’s not available on any streaming sites so you’ll have to get ahold of it some other way.
— There is a pretty touching scene after Sylvia becomes a sex addict where she reconnects with her daughter. Caprisula is reading a book and only jumps up to dance when she sees her mother coming, proving that while she is truly an exhibitionist she’s also acting out for attention because “You never listened.” Apparently, she tried talking about her concussion with Sylvia as a teenager but never got that conversation. They bond over sex and it’s vaguely uncomfortable before being really sweet.
— If you ever need new euphemisms for cunnilingus, this movie has them. Sneezing in the cabbage, whistling in the dark, and going way down south in Dixie are just a few that show up.
— Big Ethel gets several transmisogynist jokes thrown at her and that’s seriously not okay.
— Johnny Knoxville is in this and this is like the only thing I’ve seen him in. He’s good but I’m too in love with Ullman and Blair to really care about anyone else in this movie.
— Oh! There’s a David Hasselhoff cameo. It’s the sort of cameo you would expect someone to have in a John Waters movie.