The Picture of Dorian Gray, Female Trouble, and the Beautiful Monstrosity

Mr Oscar Wilde has again been writing stuff that were better unwritten; and while The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he contributes to Lippincott’s, is ingenious, interesting, full of cleverness, and plainly the work of a man of letters, it is false art—for its interest is medico-legal; it is false to human nature—for its hero is a devil, it is false to morality—for it is not made sufficiently clear that the writer does not prefer a course of unnatural iniquity to a life of cleanliness, health and sanity.
(The Scots Observer July 5, 1890)
You don’t want to sit too close to the screen for fear of being swept into the hideous narcissistic death trap they inhabit.
(Soho News, in regard to Female Trouble, quoted in Waters, 2005 [1985]: 110)

Degeneracy, which Benedict Morel describes as “a morbid deviation from an original type” (1857: 5, quoted in Nordau, 2016 [1895]: 16), threatens to “form a new sub-species, which, like all others, possesses the capacity of transmitting to its offspring, in a continuously increasing degree, its peculiarities” (Nordau, 2016 [1895]: 16). The degenerate, as presented by these doctors, suffers from a moral or physical deviation from the “healthy” or “normal” type, becoming “more and more incapable of fulfilling his functions in the world” (Morel, 1857: 5). Max Nordau’s work focuses specifically on degeneracy as seen in the life and works of fin-de-siècle artists. Offering case studies on Oscar Wilde, among others, he attempts to demonstrate how these artists lack “the sense of morality and of right and wrong. For them there exists no law, no decency, no modesty” (Ibid.). Reaffirming the link between beauty and morality, Nordau denounces fin-de-siècle degeneracy, explaining that “[a]n explicitly immoral work excites in healthy persons the same feelings of displeasure and disgust as the immoral act itself, and the form of the work can change nothing of this. Most assuredly morality alone does not give beauty to a work of art. But beauty without morality is impossible” (Ibid.: 18).

Nordau’s work participates in a crystallisation of “deviant” identities which took place during the latter part of the nineteenth century. As Jeffrey Weeks explains, over the course of the 19th century laws against buggery or sodomy, “a portmanteau term for any forms of sex that did not have contraception as their aim,” were replaced by laws against “all male homosexual acts short of buggery, whether committed in public or private” (Weeks, 1983 [1977]: 14). This legal shift was accompanied by scientific and moralistic discourses condemning same-sex desire as part of a new homosexual “type” (among other types) with its own deviant traits and identifiers. These new discourses did not result in a “repression” of sex or sexualities; rather, they produced “unnatural” identities to be considered against what is supposed to be seen as “natural” or “normal,” threats to the moral order of society: “The Gothic, in fact, like the vampire itself, creates a public who consumes monstrosity, who revels in it, and who then surveys its individual members for signs of deviance or monstrosity, excess or violence” (Halberstam, 1995: 121). As Jack Halberstam points out, the Gothic monster operated as a discursive strategy used as much in fiction as in scientific and moralistic discourses to allow one to look into themselves in order to identify their own “monstrosity,” to locate the signs of degeneration within their own bodies and in those of others, “producing monsters as a kind of temporary, but influential response to social, political, and sexual problems” (Ibid.: 95).

If these Gothic discourses seem to simultaneously shape and condemn certain “deviant” or “degenerate” identities, what applications could they have when deployed by the very deviants they describe? How could Gothic technologies of monstrosity be used by degenerates in the production of new identities and ideals? How do ugliness and monstrosity contribute to the self-affirmation of deviant identities and attitudes? Can the Gothic monster, rather than represent the dangers of corruption gone undisciplined, become the arena where so called “deviants” express their own ideals of otherness? This article shall contend that Gothic technologies of monstrosity, in the hands of deviants, allow the (de)generation of identities. That is to say that deviant reappropriations of the Gothic discourse make use of themes of degeneration (putrefaction and decay of bodies as well as dominant mores) in order to break down (or rot) strict identity categories and generate new visions of gender, race, class, and sexuality. To analyze these questions, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and John Waters’ Female Trouble will be read side-by-side. Each of these artists has, in their respective periods, produced works that earned them a status of outlaw, degenerate, and pervert (see, for example, Max Nordau’s chapter “Decadents and Aesthetes” in Nordau, 2016 [1895], especially pages 319-22; Waters, 2005 [1981]: 56-59; Kaltenbach, 2019: online). In exploiting “the comic and erotic potential of Gothic tropes”, such as excess, decay, and corruption, the two artists appear to participate in a parodic Gothic tradition “to express aesthetic and ideological criticism” (Neill, 2016: 189 and 185 respectively) of the technologies of monstrosity that would portray them as ugly and immoral. These narratives, which shall be read as parodies of the Gothic cautionary tale, trace the rise and fall of a degenerate protagonist. First, this article will demonstrate the characterization of both Dorian Gray and Dawn Davenport as degenerate “types” by locating their corruption as a source of beauty. The characters shall be studied through their narcissistic trajectories of self-identification, where the excessive layering of figurality allows the characters to develop a monstrous self that openly threatens established sexual, gender, and social norms. The monstrous characters will be read as masters of their own identity, manipulating their power of (self)affirmation to construct themselves and the worlds they inhabit as “other.” As these characters reach the summit of beautiful monstrosity, their inability to be contained or controlled will be studied as a threat to the very boundaries between life and art.

Beautiful Degenerates: Corruption Is Beauty

Jack Halberstam explains that Gothic technologies of monstrosity function in the identification of otherness in a process that “stabilizes sameness, a gothic body is one that disrupts the surface-depth relationship between the body and the mind. It is the body that must be spoken, identified, or eliminated” (1995: 17). In each of the narratives being studied, the protagonist simultaneously embodies monstrous deviancy and excessive beauty. In the present section Dorian Gray and Dawn Davenport will be read respectively as a dandy and a teenage delinquent. However, rather than view these types as dangerous, these monstrous traits will be identified and examined as sources of beauty for each character.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the reader first encounters Dorian “[in] the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel” as a “portrait of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty” (Wilde, 2001 [1891]: 52). Introducing Dorian not as a human being, but as an object of artistic creation puts him into a particular gendered position. His body as artwork represents both the “Victorian cult of Greece”, which “positioned male flesh and muscle as the indicative instances of ‘the’ body, of a body whose surfaces, features, and abilities might be the subject or object of unphobic enjoyment”, and the Christian tradition, which “had tended both to condense ‘the flesh’ (insofar as it represented or incorporated pleasure) as the female body” (Sedgwick, 2008 [1990]: 136). As Lord Henry Wotton examines Dorian in the portrait, he contrasts the beauty of this “young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose leaves” with Basil’s “rugged strong face” and “coal-black hair” (DG: 6), accentuating the delicate, feminine beauty of the male figure being represented. To position Dorian first as object of contemplation, as if to force their gaze on him, objectifies him as “some brainless, beautiful creature, who should be always here in winter when we have no flowers to look at, and always here in summer when we want something to chill our intelligence” (Ibid.: 6). This introduction to Dorian as a work of art typifies him as a dandy, uniting “the threat of idleness” and “a delinquent femininity in a male form that is marked by its desire to be noticed” (Halberstam, 1995: 62). Further, this representation accentuates the construction of this character as beautiful for, as the preface of the novel reminds us, “[t]he only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely” (DG: 2). Before appearing in the novel as himself, Dorian is presented as a beautiful delinquent, a portrait of male femininity and idleness which threatens the stability of masculine ruggedness and intelligence through his simple existence as a beautiful object.

Dorian’s beauty, as Harry discovers, stems from a lineage of deviance and scandal. Harry’s Uncle George, who “knew [Dorian’s] mother intimately”, reveals that “[she] was an extraordinarily beautiful girl, Margaret Devereux; and made all the men frantic by running away with a penniless young fellow; a mere nobody, sir, a subaltern in a foot regiment, or something of that kind” (DG: 29). Uncle George’s story identifies Dorian’s beauty as being like that of his mother, reaffirming its feminine nature as an inherited trait. More than just his beauty, though, Dorian inherits the non-conforming attitude that subjected her life to scandal, and ultimately, misery. As Uncle George explains, her marriage defied the barriers of class when she paired herself with a man of no title or status. The cross-class breeding that produces Dorian creates a monster who carries his father’s name and his mother’s aristocratic wealth and beauty, degenerating limits between classes and producing a character who refuses to fit nicely within any social or gender category. Demonstrating a matrilineal passage, not only of traits, but also of wealth (as Dorian inherits his home, Selby, as well as “a pot of money” from his mother [Ibid.: 29]), the narrative seems to racialize Dorian in a play on gothic anxieties of a Jewish national threat. As Jack Halberstam writes: “The monster Jew produced by nineteenth-century anti-Semitism represents fears about race, class, gender, sexuality, and empire – this figure is indeed gothicized or transformed into an all-purpose monster” (1995: 92). Dorian blends the English male figure with a (French) foreign beauty and wealth, destabilising identity categories of “sameness” and “otherness,” and evoking the parasitic threat of otherness contaminating the English body and mind. Dorian’s beauty is constructed, then, against the grain of Gothic discourses that produce otherness as monstrosity: his attractiveness emanating from his monstrosity, the layering of effeminate beauty and matrilineal aristocracy over-saturating his body with beautiful corruptions and threatening the established order of gender and class categories common to his period. The Gothic technologies of monstrosity that would construct the Jew as a monster are rehabilitated here in order to establish Dorian Gray’s deviant beauty and the threat that he represents to social mores of Victorian England. The purpose here is not to demonstrate that Dorian Gray was fashioned after Jewish people specifically; rather, it aims to show how the novel makes use of Gothic discourses that produce (racial, sexual, and gendered) otherness-as-monstrosity as the markers that signal Dorian Gray’s curious beauty.

Dawn Davenport, being a monster born in mid-nineteen seventies America, must be considered under a different lens than that which was used for Dorian Gray. Whereas Dorian’s monstrosity is closer linked to “Britain’s more elaborated and articulated class system” that constructs identity in “function of heredity, geography, and other immutable factors” (Katz, 2018: 71), Dawn Davenport’s monstrosity will be understood as “white trash,” an “other” that allows safe projection of social ills which are “no longer expressible in ethnic or racial terms” (Clover, 2015 [1992]: 135). Dawn Davenport’s monstrous beauty will therefore be located in her teenage delinquency, in the ways that her non-conformist body, looks, and attitude highlight her attractiveness and set her apart from the ‘square’ or ‘normal’ world. Dawn Davenport’s beauty is specifically other, recognizable in the way that it challenges the standard ideals of her time.

When we first see Dawn Davenport (played by Dreamlander and John Waters’ muse, Divine the drag queen), she is sporting a look inspired by the “trashy girls” that John Waters saw while in high school in Baltimore (Waters, 2018 [2004]: 00:03:04). With big hair, a yellow sweater, and a plaid skirt, Dawn is the picture of teen vogue3. Trendsetter and go-getter, she has not done her homework (“Fuck geography!”), being more worried for her hair: “you got any Spray Net? My hair is fallin’ down, right off my head” (Waters, 1974: 00:03:054). Although her friend Concetta reaffirms Dawn’s beauty, the following scene (in the classroom) shows their friend (Chicklette) being chastised for wearing “just a skirt and sweater” (Ibid: 00:03:40), the teacher reminding her that “this is a class, not a cocktail lounge” (Ibid.: 00:03:50). Contrasted with their preppy peers, Dawn and her friends stand out not only for their punk looks, but also for their bad attitudes, interrupting class by arriving late, passing notes, and “eating a meatball sandwich right out in class!” (Ibid.: 00:05:35). These “awful, cheap girls” (Ibid.: 00:05:50), as their classmate brands them, represent the threat of youth in rebellion, des enfants terribles who, by refusing to blend in, hold back all of their classmates who are “trying to get an education” so they can “get into a good college. It’s not fair!” (Ibid.: 00:06:00). But more than just a threat to their education, Dawn and her friends represent a physical danger to their peers, smuggling knives in their “pockies” (purses) (Ibid.: 00:05:45) and getting into fist-fights with other students. Dawn Davenport is contrasted with her teacher and classmates, accentuating and being punished for her radical difference. This is further exemplified as the teacher gives Dawn a month of detention for eating, telling her: “From your appearance, Miss Davenport, it looks like you never stopped eating” (Ibid.: 00:06:30), provoking a roar of laughter in the classroom. Shaming Dawn’s body reminds us that she truly is larger than life, stigmatized for her clothing, her eating, and longing for more than what the school could ever offer her. Afterwards, while cutting class in the bathroom, Dawn and her friends talk about how “it’d be fun to be expelled”, because the school is a “prison” (Ibid.: 00:07:35). The beauty of these girls emanates exactly from their inability to blend in, their monstrosity lending bland ugliness to the entire institution. What is particularly interesting about the presentation of these girls’ “trashy” beauty, is that it highlights the systemic failure that will later cause them to quit school altogether: as Jonathan D. Katz wrote, trash is a “stand-in for social class in America, though it unfairly carries the resonance of an individual failing or fault, rather than of systemic discrimination within a larger social system” (2018: 71). The classroom scene shows, on the contrary, that it is in fact the education system, which is portrayed more as a correctional or punitive system, that fails as it is incapable of seeing past these young girls’ appearance to do what it is supposed to do: teach. The teacher’s aggressive attitude and anti-pedagogic quiz (which is one pass or fail question) only further confirm this institutional failure.

Dawn’s beauty is further contrasted with the world that surrounds her on Christmas morning. Her family home, complete with eagle wallpaper and apples everywhere, informs the viewer that Dawn is living in an “early American house” (Holmlund, 2017: 77). As she sits with her parents, the ravishing Dawn in tight and bright green pyjamas is contrasted with how normal they look in their robe and pyjamas. The three sing an off-key version of Silent Night, because as her parents say, “it adds to the spirit!” (FT: 00:08:35). Dawn’s rage at not receiving “them cha-cha heels” she had asked for sparks a war with her parents. “Nice girls don’t wear cha-cha heels” (Ibid.: 00:09:25), Dawn’s father yells as she stomps on the Christmas gifts. The scene culminates when Dawn knocks the tree on her “ugly witch” (Ibid.: 00:09:40) of a mother, screaming “I hate you! Fuck you both, you awful people! You’re not my parents! I hate you, I hate this house, and I hate Christmas!” (Ibid.: 00:09:50). As Dawn walks away from her family, the difficult choices that a life of beauty demands become apparent: misunderstood by her parents who buy her “ugly shoes” and by her school who deems her fat and cheap, she has no choice but to start a new life where she can be herself. Dawn’s fashion sense, as demonstrated here, is about more than clothing. As she curses her parents and Christmas itself, it becomes apparent that her beauty is formed by a counter-cultural sensibility that rejects institution in all forms, represented here by Christmas morning. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes that “[they] all – religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy – line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes.” (1994 [1993]a: 6). As her parents attempt to use the holiday to “correct” her wardrobe, to offer her the sort of shoes that “nice girls” might wear, Dawn understands that the world of her school and family will always stand in her way on the road to beauty. Leaving it all behind, she becomes a symbol for a beautifully trashy counter-culture, rebelling against all of the institutions that stifle her blossoming.

Narcissistic Narratives and the Monstrous Aesthetic Negative

Shortly after Dawn’s departure from her family home, she encounters Earl, also played by Divine. This moment seems to be a trashy reproduction of the scene where Dorian beholds himself in portrait form for the first time: “When he saw it he drew back, and his cheeks flushed for a moment, as if he had recognised himself for the first time. He stood there, motionless and in wonder […] [.] The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation. He had never felt it before […] and now, as he stood gazing at the shadow of his own loveliness, the full reality of the description flashes across him” (DG: 23). If Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that a central trajectory in The Picture of Dorian Gray is “toward the establishment of men’s love for men, no longer as a classicizing pedagogic/pederastic relation structured, like Basil’s and Lord Henry’s relations to Dorian, by diacritical differences between lover and beloved, but instead in the relatively modern terms, as slim rose-gilt Dorian’s inescapably narcissistic mirror relation to his own figured body in the portrait” (1994 [1993]b: 151), this article shall exploit the narcissistic trajectories of both characters in order to develop a monstrous subjectivity. As Dorian’s gaze upon himself reveals same-sex desire through his narcissistic desire for himself, Dawn and Earl’s seduction and sex scenes use this narcissism, as well as same-sex desire, to taint the sanctity of heterosexual relations. Divine playing both male and female characters, the display of same-sex desire takes place through the narcissism of this teenage girl (played by a man in drag) for “herself” as a grown man. If it begins as an innocent game of seduction, with Dawn smiling and primping as she waits for him to pull his car around to her, it quickly devolves into a sex scene on a dirty mattress surrounded by garbage and debris. The scene, complete with slurping noises as Dawn tells Earl to “Eat it! Eat it!” (FT: 00:12:10) and brown skid-marks on Earl’s white underwear, denaturalizes heterosexuality by making it dirty, both through its placement in a trashy setting and for its “same-sex” participants. This scene emblematizes the transgressive degenerative potential of trash and exploitation aesthetics as the scene destabilizes heterosexuality as “normal,” forcing a queer viewpoint of otherness onto the spectator through the portrayal of heterosexual intercourse between a man and himself in drag. Dawn’s femininity is contrasted with Earl’s hyper-masculinity, showing that not only are their characters being performed, but also their gender and even the position of “penetrator” and “penetrated” as the same actor portrays all of these roles at once. The raunchy sex coupled with the (literal) trashy setting removes any erotic charge from the scene to replace it with disgust, or curiosity, at the strange coupling of man with his teenage girl self, and a reflection on the superficial idea of “normal” sexuality as opposed to “perverse” sexuality.

These scenes of self-recognition, of self-love, recall the aesthetic negative which, according to Dustin Friedman, “describes how consciousness, upon encountering an obstacle, destroys and subsequently rearrange [sic] itself to accommodate that obstacle. This process paradoxically encourages, rather than hinders, individual self-development. By causing one’s subjectivity to disintegrate, the negative does not destroy it entirely but instead allows it to be reworked into a more self-aware and sophisticated configuration” (2019: 4). Furthermore, the confrontation with the self represented in these instances, as each character meets a sort of mirror image of the self, places both Dawn and Dorian into an interesting position: the characters become both subject and object, contemplating themselves as if from outside of their body. Whereas the characters were the subject of other peoples’ gaze and discourse (which brands them as beautiful and/or monstrous), suddenly they can gaze upon themselves, becoming at the same time the beauty, and the eye of the beholder. Rather than adhering to the moralizing scientific and legal discourses that would take away Dorian and Dawn’s “ability to define themselves, delimiting them to the pathological, criminal body of the sexual pervert”, their double allows them “to transform their abject desires into a feeling of liberation that would be efficacious” (Ibid.: 14 and 21 respectively). The characters seem to depart for quests of monstrous self-discovery, embracing crime as beauty and revelling in the degeneration of their deviant bodies. This is first evidenced in Dorian Gray when the narrator affirms that “[there] would be a real pleasure in watching it. He [Dorian] would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul” (DG: 86). Covering the portrait with a “large purple satin coverlet heavily embroidered with gold”, entirely reminiscent of the “raiment of the Bride of Christ, who must wear purple and jewels and fine linen that she may hide the pallid macerated body that is worn by the suffering that she seeks for” (Ibid.: 95 and 111 respectively), Dorian locks the portrait away in an unused part of his home. He becomes, as he hides the portrait away, the sole protector of his secret and the only eyes that can judge or blackmail him, unlike the “rich men who had been blackmailed all their lives by some servant who had read a letter, or overheard a conversation, or picked up a card with an address, or found beneath a pillow a withered flower or a shred of crumpled lace” (DG: 99). The portrait hidden away, Dorian Gray may live his life as he pleases, without worry, for example, about the “Blackmailer’s Charter”, otherwise known as the Labouchère Amendment, which criminalized homosexuality (Weeks, 1983 [1973]: chapter 1, especially pages 21-22). He masters his secret, the secret of his monstrosity, to protect himself from the harsh judgment awaiting him if the world found him out.

With the secrets of his life and sins safeguarded by the portrait, under lock and key, Dorian can engage in every pleasure imaginable without damaging his beautiful exterior. The particularity of Dorian’s soul and body allows him to develop new ideologies in life: “To him, man was a being with myriad lives and myriad sensations, a complex multiform creature that bore within itself strange legacies of thought and passion, and whose very flesh was tainted with the monstrous maladies of the dead. He loved to stroll through the gaunt cold picture-gallery of his country house and look at all the various portraits of those whose blood flowed in his veins” (DG: 114). As he moves through the picture gallery, he seems to refract his own monstrosity, projecting it onto the pictures of his ancestors and creating a sort of demented family photo album. Examining the various portraits, he produces a monstrous lineage for himself, tracing the “strange poisonous germ” as it creeps from body to body as a sort of “inheritance of sin and shame”, wondering if his own actions were “merely the dreams that the dead man had not dared to realise?” (Ibid.). This narcissistic self-identification, beyond the portraits of his kin, reaches to his ancestors in literature, “nearer perhaps in type and temperament, many of them, and certainly with an influence of which one was more absolutely conscious. There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life, not as he had lived it in act and circumstance, but as his imagination had created it for him, as it had been in his brain and in his passions” (Ibid.: 115). Multiplying references to historical and literary figures like Tiberius, Caligula, Domitian, Ganymede and Hylas, known for their lives of debauchery and deviancy, Dorian Gray makes use of art, literature, and history in his conception of “evil simply as a mode through which he could realise his conception of the beautiful” (DG: 115-116). Jack Halberstam writes that “Gothic is a cross dressing, drag, a performance of textuality, an infinite readability and, indeed, these are themes that are readily accessible within Gothic fiction itself where the tropes of doubling and disguise tend to dominate” (1995: 60). Dorian Gray appears to capitalize on the infinite readability of Gothic technologies of monstrosity as it reproduces Dorian’s deviancy in the images of his monstrous kin. The layering of references and images that constitute Dorian’s deviance seem to make of the character, more than just a simple degenerate, the face of all degenerates. Much like Byrne Fone writes (though this article replaces “homosexual” from the original quote with “deviant”): “As individuals, [deviants] were disturbing but could be trivialized as objects of pity or contempt. In groups, however, they were a threat to morality, love, health, and the family” (2001: 277). The infinite readability and intertextuality that Dorian wields serves a threat, then, to the very fabric of his society. Instead of identifying and eradicating his corruption and monstrosity, Dorian seeks it out wherever he goes, embodying in his perfect, youthful form an entire history of degeneracy, including murderers, fornicators, sodomites, thieves, and other debauchees. Dorian generates an aesthetic appreciation for depictions of degenerates, strolling through the gallery and infecting art and history with his perverted vision. He becomes a new generation of a long line of deviance, a poisonous fruit from a forbidden tree.

Dawn Davenport, much like Dorian Gray, embodies many different images at the same time. This film, which Waters has indicated to be a “vehicle for Divine”, intentionally plays on the versatility of his body, allowing him to play a macho, piggish man alongside a teenage delinquent turned teenage mother turned server turned go-go dancer turned prostitute turned criminal in an oversaturation of gender and socio-economic signifiers that make Dawn “less female than frightful” (Holmlund, 2017: 101). Her outfits remind the audience of the multiple gender and social configurations which all lurk just beneath the surface of her skin throughout the remainder of the film. Wearing lace dresses that expose her nipples, pubic hair, or the crack of her rear end, Dawn seems to thematize (queer) otherness in her attire: “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent element of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (Sedgwick, 1994 [1993]a: 8). Wearing see-through clothing and tight garments that her body all but seeps through, Dawn embodies a monstrosity beyond the limits of gender, class, or even clothing. In the documentary Divine Trash, Van Smith, Dreamlander and costume designer for Female Trouble, explains, “She is a fat woman, so rather than covering up her fat we just throw it out, you know. Fat is sex, I mean it goes beyond gender or whatever” (Yeager, 1998: 00:41:35). Dawn’s fatness facilitates the saturation of identifiers and allows her to hurl “her great body across chasms of dividing classes, styles, and the ontological levels of privacy, culthood, fictional character, celebrity, and, of course, Godhead” (Moon, Sedgwick, 1994 [1993]: 225). Her outfits become a second skin, a “surface through which inner identities emerge and upon which external readings of identity leave their impression” (Halberstam, 1995: 141). As if the simple change of clothing suffices to reconfigure the identity of the wearer, Dawn’s body and its covering (or lack thereof) expose the threat of mutable gender expression, drawing to the surface an overwhelming assortment of sexual configurations. This goes so far as showing both Dawn’s vagina and Earl’s penis, producing unstable gender and sexual identifiers that resist classification. Further, the specifics of the figures that Dawn embodies emulate, but also beautify, the clichéd trajectory of juvenile delinquency: teenage pregnancy, pole-dancing and sex work being the fate of (or punishment for) those that fail to locate and eradicate their degeneracy. Dawn, then, becomes an inadequately gendered body by the multiplicity of sexual and erotic figures which “represent the limits of the human and they present a monstrous arrangement of skin, flesh, social mores, pleasures, dangers, and wounds” (Ibid.). She takes on not one, but many social positions stigmatized or vilified as deviant and wears them as fashion choices, adorning herself, as Dorian veils his portrait in ornamental purple, with the attire of outcasts, celebrating “crime as beauty.” Much like Aunt Ida, whose skin tight BDSM outfit can hardly hold back her beautifully excessive body or Taffy, whose short dresses just barely cover her underwear, Dawn belongs to a world of deviants that constantly threaten the boundaries between naked and clothed, beautiful and monstrous, moral and immoral.

Taffy and Aunt Ida, Dawn’s daughter and aunt-in-law/neighbour, represent just some of the outlaws that populate the criminal underworld of Female Trouble. Much like the “grey, monstrous London” of Dorian Gray, “with its myriads of people, its sordid sinners, and its splendid sins” (DG: 41), Dawn lives in a “sooty and damp” neighbourhood (FT: 00:45:05) where “crime breeds” (Ibid.: 00:44:47). Dorian adventures into the “labyrinth of grimy streets and black, grassless squares”, finding an “absurd little theatre” owned by Isaacs, a “hideous Jew, in the most amazing waistcoat [he] ever beheld” (DG: 41). The owner of that “wretched hole of a place” (Ibid.: 42), “a most offensive brute, though he had an extraordinary passion for Shakespeare” (Ibid.: 44), proudly announces “that his five bankruptcies were entirely due to ‘The Bard’” (Ibid.), thereby embodying, even lending to the theatre, a degenerate beauty. The figure of the monstrous Jew, as discussed in the last section, resurfaces here as if to establish a monstrous (under)world. Isaacs, for his likeness to Dorian (similar tastes in both attire, as evidenced by the waistcoat, and in art, through their mutual appreciation of Shakespeare, not to mention their “racial otherness” that threatens English nationalism), allows these characters to complement each other. Dorian’s deviant vision gives Isaacs a respectable, even an admirable quality despite his unsightly appearance, while Isaacs’ ugliness physically captures the degeneracy that Dorian’s body cannot demonstrate. Their passion for “The Bard” evokes a certain sexual otherness5 in his already “degenerate” Jewish body and passes the “germ” of degeneracy to this prestigious playwright of the English literary canon. Dorian’s love for Sibyl appears to be rooted in her ability to interpret Shakespeare’s plays, a detail that is particularly interesting when one recognizes that the roles that she plays were initially written for young male actors (as women were forbidden from acting in the theatre during Shakespeare’s time). The dirty theatre owned by the brutish Isaacs makes use of the Gothic technologies of monstrosity in order to identify deviance at a place of beauty, to reconsider the ties between morality and beauty by attaching beauty to immorality and immorality to beauty. The theatre, a place of beauty and art, becomes a Gothic space, frequented by monsters and helping the reader to locate degeneration in the work of Shakespeare.

In the same way that Dorian discovers the theatre, Dawn finds her way to The Lipstick Beauty Salon, “a private salon catering to ravishing beauties only” (FT: 00:24:20). With an odd-ball staff of fruity and deranged hairdressers as well as prestigious clients like Dawn’s “upper echelon cat burglar” (Ibid.: 00:35:10) friends Concetta and Chicklette, the beauty salon seems to perfectly condense crime with beauty. As Dreamlander Susan Lowe commented in an interview, “hairdressers was [sic] one of the careers that a gay guy could have and still be very gay and you know, very, flamboyant I guess you could call it” (Schwartz, 2018 [2013]: 00:04:37), highlighting the intersection of beauty and deviant identity that the hair salon demonstrates. This is only further solidified when salon owners Donna and Donald Dasher share their “theory that crime enhances one’s beauty. The worse the crime gets, the more ravishing one becomes” (FT: 00:38:26). Playing on the openness to difference that the hair salon represented at the time (even Aunt Ida hopes that her straight nephew Gater will find a beautician boyfriend), the salon stands in as the judge of beauty, its degenerate employees and clients forming a cult to Dawn. After her disfigurement, for example, Mr. Butterfly (one of the beauticians) tells her “you’ll be a goddess with this new face. A goddess of gore to protect all your children in crime” (Ibid.: 00:52:35). In both works the protagonists become a monster lurking in the shadows of degenerate underworlds populated by social outlaws and sexual deviants. As Dawn begins her journey for beauty and fame, just as Dorian seeks to live all of life’s pleasures, they uncover the underbellies of their societies, exposing and even representing the beautiful rejects that do not, or cannot, or will not, fit into the natural order of things. Not satisfied with the world, they find a new one, where they can be among the other degenerates.

Tidy Resolutions: Immoral Endings for Immoral Beauties

The Gothic monster, Jack Halberstam reiterates, “is precisely a disciplinary sign, a warning of what may happen if the body is imprisoned by its desires or if the subject is unable to discipline him – or herself fully and successfully. The failure to self-discipline, as exemplified by both Dr. Jekyll and Dorian Gray, results in social death, outcast and outlaw status, and ultimately physical demise” (1995: 72). As it has been demonstrated so far, Female Trouble and The Picture of Dorian Gray exhibit the degeneracy of their protagonists, not as a warning sign, but as a celebration of deviancy. Their trajectories, from the early signs of degeneracy to a place of gore divinity, highlight the beauty in not eradicating, but nurturing our inner deviant, their narcissistic paths to beauty each demonstrating the horrid and wonderful world of otherness. Linking criminality with beauty, these works rewrite the cautionary tale, showing the fabulously sordid lives of Dawn Davenport and Dorian Gray. As the narratives build toward the “demise” of these characters, they are seen at their most monstrously beautiful.

This section will discuss the glory that awaits them as a reward for a life of sin. If the first visible signs of Dorian’s monstrosity appear on his portrait after his cruel rupture with Sibyl, he shows no remorse for her death.

“So I have murdered Sibyl Vane,” said Dorian Gray, half to himself – “murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife. Yet the roses are not less lovely for all that. The birds sing just as happily in my garden. And tonight I am to dine with you, and then go on to the Opera, and sup somewhere, I suppose, afterwards. How extraordinarily dramatic life is! If I had read all this in a book, Harry, I think I would have wept over it. Somehow, now that is has happened actually, and to me, it seems far too wonderful for tears. Here is the first passionate love-letter I have ever written in my life. Strange, that my first passionate love-letter should have been addressed to a dead girl. Can they feel, or know, or listen? Oh Harry, how I loved her once! It seems years ago to me now. She was everything to me. Then came that dreadful night – was it really only last night? – when she played so badly, and my heart almost broke.”
(DG: 80)

This scene, which could be contrasted with Dawn’s announcement of her divorce6, parodies melodrama. However, despite the tragedy that Sibyl’s death is, or Gater’s fleeing to the “sick and boring life” (FT: 00:21:55) of heterosexuality that the Detroit auto industry offers, the characters are not sad. They appear almost incapable of remorse or regret, Dorian immediately planning a charming evening with Harry, while Dawn, without wanting “to seem overly bitter”, instructs Taffy to “destroy all of [Gater’s] belongings” before “going to go sink into a long, hot beauty bath and try to erase the stink of a five-year marriage” (Ibid.: 00:41:25).

As Sibyl’s brother James and Gater’s Aunt Ida seek justice, they only further trivialize the tragedy of death or heterosexuality in their failures. James Vane, who vowed to find the gentleman who wronged his sister, “track him down, and kill him like a dog” (DG: 58), lets Dorian escape from the opium den (Ibid.: 151) only to find him again at Selby Royal. Terror builds as the protagonist fears for his life, justice for his sins against Sibyl circling as a predator prowls around its prey. The scene is quickly reversed, however, the next day when Dorian hosts a hunting party in the woods by his manor. One of the guests, despite Dorian’s protest, shoots after a hare as it runs into the thicket: “There were two cries heard, the cry of a hare in pain, which is dreadful, the cry of a man in agony, which is worse” (Ibid.: 159). “A cry of joy broke from [Dorian’s] lips” as he discovers the accidently murdered body of his pursuer, and as “he rode home, his eyes were full of tears, for he knew he was safe” (Ibid.: 165). James’ accidental death dissolves the tension that had been building since his encounter with Dorian Gray, the comedic role reversal where hunter becomes hunted transforms him from bloodhound to hare, a hunting trophy like any other. The two characters “die for art”, to borrow the formulation from Dawn Davenport. As Henry explains, “you must think of [Sibyl’s] lonely death in the tawdry dressing-room simply as a strange lurid fragment from some Jacobean tragedy”, only confirming the mockery of melodrama which marks Dorian’s reaction (as quoted above). If he had read it in a book, he may have felt differently, yet the roses are not less lovely, the birds sing just as happily, life goes on, and Dorian has more important things to worry about, like where to sup after the opera that evening. Aunt Ida’s “punishment” for Dawn creates an artwork of its own: “You made Gater leave! I’ve got something for your face motherfucker!” (FT: 00:49:45) she cries as she throws acid on Dawn. But rather than mar her beauty, this punishment only accentuates it, as “Miss Davenport will now be more beautiful than if she had had a million dollar face lift” (Ibid.: 01:00:05). “Acid does what Eterna 27 cannot” (Ibid.: 00:53:43), beautifying Dawn with scars in a process through which “the outside becomes the inside and the hide no longer conceals or contains, it offers itself up as text, as body, as monster” (Halberstam, 1995: 7). As her body forces its way through her clothing, so her skin ceases to function as a covering for what is inside, dissolving away and leaving nothing behind but the devilishly divine Dawn Davenport in her disfigured glory. Her deviant monstrosity, much like Dorian’s, evades discipline, for any attempt to make them uglier only makes them more attractive. Dorian stands “with a mirror, in front of the portrait that Basil Hallward had painted of him, looking now at the evil and ageing face on the canvas, and now at the fair young face that laughed back at him from the polished glass”, the narrator explains, “[t]he very sharpness of the contrast used to quicken his sense of pleasure” (DG: 103). In a similar fashion, Dawn admires her own scars from the acid attack in a handheld mirror. Dawn’s disfigurement “makes the Mona Lisa look like a number painting” (FT: 00:53:58), one of her admirers comments, while the camera focuses on the image of Dawn contemplating herself in the mirror. When she arrives at home, the Dashers present her with a framed portrait taken of her as the acid was still corroding her face, a representation of her beautification as it happened. Much like Dorian’s portrait represents his body as disfigured and monstrous, so too does this photo capture the essence of Dawn as a monstrous starlet-in-the-making. She is now the proud owner of a prized portrait, more beautiful than the Mona Lisa and charged with a transgressive monstrosity that corrodes the ties between beauty, art, and morality. In each case beauty lends itself back and forth between life and art, and the immorality of the characters produces an ugly artwork that only augments their personal beauty.

Other attempts to moralize the protagonists are squashed, as seen in the demise of Basil and Taffy. As Dorian and Dawn’s monstrosity becomes more notorious, they are confronted by their loved ones to cease the madness, to repent and to find goodness. When Dorian shows Basil the degradation of his portrait, the latter responds by saying “Good God, Dorian, what a lesson! what an awful lesson! […] Pray, Dorian, pray […]. What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also” (DG: 125). Taffy’s confrontation echoes with a similar plea: “I thought I’d come and see you one last time before your karma caught up with you. Mother, it’s not too late. Come to the temple with me […]. All of you, can’t you see what you’re doing? Worshipping the flesh and ignoring the spiritual. Oh, if only you could see the light. Discovering my consciousness was like finding a million dollars in the street! I’m glowing with happiness!” (FT: 01:13:25). In each case, spirituality is thrust at the protagonists in a vain attempt to bring them back to the light, to show them the immorality of their ways, to repent for their degeneration and be born again through faith. One must have a heart of stone7 to witness the vain attempts at conversion without laughing, especially when their pleas are answered in the most hostile way: “I’m sick of listening to you babble commandments and spout gibberish. It’s turning my stomach! Do you hear? And in just a few seconds, I’m going to put you out of your happiness” (Ibid.: 01:14:00), Dawn yells before strangling Taffy to death. Dorian, on the other hand, digs a “knife into the great vein that is behind the ear, crushing the man’s head down on the table, and stabbing again and again” (DG: 126). Donald Dasher furiously photographs the murder and Taffy’s dead body, just as Dorian’s portrait is marked by a “loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening, on one of the hands” (Ibid.: 138), both murder victims have died for art, and nothing else. Dorian and Dawn are beyond discipline, beyond repentance, their monstrous selves are marked forever by their fabulous lives of crime.

These heartless murders of loved ones seem, moreover, to dissolve the boundaries of narrative to unleash Dorian and Dawn’s monstrosity on the real world. Dorian’s furious and repeated stabbings recall Jack the Ripper, a serial killer who was both active and widely discussed in the media at the time of Dorian Gray’s publication. In a similar way, Dawn traverses the boundaries of film during her night club act where she confesses her connections with multiple known criminals: “You’re looking at crime personified, and don’t you forget it! I framed Leslie Bacon! I called the heroine hotline on Abbie Hoffman! I bought the gun that Bremer used to shoot Wallace! I had an affair with Juan Corona! I blew Richard Speck!” (FT: 01:17:30). The topical references to prominent legal cases from the time of the film propel Dawn beyond the limits of the film8, absorbing the charge of their criminality and personifying it in her body that is “so fuckin’ beautiful [she] can’t stand it [herself]!” (Ibid.: 01:18:13). As she points a gun at the audience and yells “Who wants to be famous? Who wants to die for art?” (Ibid.: 01:18:30), her gaze reaches beyond the screen to threaten the viewer, staring intently at the camera while waving her gun at it. Alternating these shots with camera angles focalising the spectators’ vantage point of her performance, the film immerses the viewer in the crowd, the roaring applause of Dawn’s cult-like followers quickly becoming screams for help as she opens fire on them. The transposition of notable criminals into these works captures degenerate immorality in the frames of literature and cinema to give them artistic form. The works themselves act as corrupting forces, mocking morality and its so-called link to taste. More than just characterizing degeneration as beautiful, these works call their monsters forth from their forms of art to take revenge on the worlds who would shame them. Acting as a sort of “Fuck you very much!9” to moralizing discourses and viewpoints, these monsters will kill even close friends and relatives rather than be chastised for their exploits or have their radiance be challenged. The imminent threat of these degenerates is accentuated as they join the ranks of notable killers, creating yet another legion of monstrosity that instills the protagonist of each plot as a sort of mythical monster of depravity, as celebrity of violence. Much like the murderers who received fame in the media for their crimes, Dawn and Dorian achieve stardom (and posterity) through their own degeneration.

As these deviants arrive at the end of their trajectories (Dawn is in prison awaiting the death penalty and Dorian has lived every pleasure including, “for curiosity’s sake”, “the denial of self” [DG: 176]) they resist, even then, any sort of moralistic conclusion. Dorian, remorseless for his crimes, for the “death of Basil Hallward seemed very little to him” (Ibid.: 176), decides to “kill the painter’s work, and all that that meant. It would kill the past, and when that was dead he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace” (Ibid.: 177). Having declared, the day he first saw Basil’s portrait, “[when] I find that I am growing old, I shall kill myself” (Ibid.: 24), Dorian fulfills this desire as he takes the knife which killed Basil and approaches the portrait. A cry was heard, and a crash, and when access was finally gained to the room where he kept the portrait, “they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart” (Ibid.: 177). Dying for art, Dorian re-immortalizes himself in the portrait, where he shall be remembered forevermore as the beautiful image left behind on the canvas, contrasted now with his corpse, described as “withered, wrinkled and loathsome of visage” (Ibid.: 17). Dawn resists discipline in a similar movement. As she and her lesbian lover/fellow inmate prepare for Dawn’s “big day”, it is clear that she has completed her life mission: “I feel lucky to receive the death penalty. Why, it’s the biggest award I could get in my field” (FT: 01:29:50), she explains to her hysterical lover. Before the electric chair immortalizes her forever as the most beautiful criminal to ever live, Dawn delivers one last thank you speech:

I’d like to thank all the wonderful people that made this great moment in my life come true. My daughter, Taffy, who died in order to further my career. My friends Chicklette and Concetta, who should be here with me today. All the fans that died so fashionably and gallantly in my nightclub act. And especially all those wonderful people who were kind enough to read about me in the newspapers and watch me on the television news shows. Without all of you, my career could never have gotten this far. It is you that I murdered for, and it is you that I will die for. Please remember, I love every fuckin’ one of you!
(Ibid.: 01:35:25)

Her speech, like an acceptance for an award, is delivered directly to the camera. With a close up on her face, we are able to behold her in her most raw beauty (without any makeup) for the monster that she truly is. She has been “a thief, and a shit-kicker” (Ibid.: 00:24:54), and now it’s time for her to be famous. She thanks her audience, who by watching her performance as criminelle extraordinaire have participated in the making of a beautiful monster. Without her viewers, who watch her on TV, or read about her in the papers, her fame would never be possible. This line seems to reference not only Dawn’s fictional fans and spectators, but also those who watch Female Trouble, or discuss it on television and in the newspaper. This speech directs itself both at Divine’s (and John Waters’) fans and critics just as much as it is directed at the imaginary ones within the movie. Her speech ends with the zapping of the chair and her screaming, with the image of her face twisted from electrocution frozen on the screen while a ghostly reprise of the opening song Female Trouble echoes in the background and the films’ credits rise. Much like Dorian’s beauty is immortalized by his portrait, so too, is Dawn’s beauty while she continues to beam at the audience from beyond the grave. Though their last monstrous cry has been heard, their beauty shall live on forever in the artworks that depict them.

In conclusion, Gothic technologies of monstrosity serve more purposes than discipline. As seen in both Dorian Gray and Female Trouble, Gothic parodies of the cautionary tale seem to be able to rehabilitate degeneracy in order to break down identity categories and propose new gender and social configurations. Each work, in allying monstrous criminality with physical good looks, beautifies ugliness in a renegotiation of the moralistic values of art. Through themes of degeneration, such as the physical and moralistic decline of these characters, the narratives generate new gender and social ideologies. With corruption as a source of beauty, the characters are presented, even celebrated, for their deviancy from the beginning of their narratives. As they proceed on narcissistic trajectories of self-identification, the monsters confront, in different yet similar ways, the barriers of society that would classify them as degenerate and destroy them, using the pieces to reconstruct new configurations of beauty and ugliness. Reproducing multiple signs of deviancy among other gender and social signifiers within their bodies, the monsters destabilize identity norms and produce a new unorthodoxy that constantly threatens the order of society. Becoming monsters, but also building worlds and histories of degeneracy, Dawn and Dorian embody the idea that “crime is beauty.” Eluding discipline, their bodies cannot be controlled as they spin dangerously through the world, corrupting or killing everything they touch. Not at all repentant for their sins, the two personify crime as divinely gory monstrosities, transcending the sins of the flesh and even dissolving the boundaries between life and art. These monsters reach beyond the limits of their textual worlds, embodying historical and literary degenerates past and present. Recording their monstrosity in art, these characters redefine beauty and ugliness in art, celebrating monstrosity as beautiful and resisting shame or discipline for their non-conformance. By the end of the narratives, when the monsters are simultaneously at their most hideous and most wonderful, they are immortalized in art. By privileging the perspectives of queer artists and known degenerates, this article demonstrates how deviant perspectives attack moralistic discourses that would relegate them to simple monstrosity. Using the very discourses that make them monstrous, they produce degenerate champions to go forth in the world and spread the good word of deviancy. Finding “beautiful meanings in beautiful things” (DG: 3), the artists cultivate a degeneracy that rejects moralistic interpretations of beauty and art. In these works, immorality is the only moral and beautiful is they who embrace their monstrosity.

  1. 1Although this title appears in the bibliography under the author’s dead name, Judith Halberstam, this article will only use the author’s chosen name, Jack Halberstam, in the body of the text.
  2. 2Future references to The Picture of Dorian Gray will be cited directly in the text with the abbreviation (DG) followed by the page number.
  3. 3Her friend, Concetta, even compliments the skirt, adding that her “old lady’s supposed to get [her] one for Christmas, if she’s not too dumb to find it” (Waters, 1974: 00:02:50). This affirmation simultaneously draws attention to Dawn’s appearance (as the camera lingers on her, showing full length shots of her body as well as close-ups on her face), and remind the audience that the particular figure being celebrated in the movie is the “bad girl.” Dana Heller reminds us, in her monograph dedicated to John Waters’ Hairspray, that “the image of young people expressing defiance in the face of mainstream society, or declaring themselves the vanguard of culture, had attained currency as a Hollywood B-movie favourite” (2011: 32). Completing her look with a black leather jacket, the film seems to nod at James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, a film that “exposed the generational divide and the failure of spineless, bewildered post-war parents to understand, let alone guide, their lost, alienated children to healthy adulthood” (Ibid.: 33).
  4. 4Future references to Female Trouble will be cited directly in the text with the abbreviation (FT) followed by the time of the sequences analyzed.
  5. 5The debate about Shakespeare’s sexuality pre-dates The Picture of Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde, in The Portrait of Mr. W. H. (1889), transposes this debate in fiction, creating a male object for the controversial sonnets, reading into them same-sex desire. See Friedman, 2019: chapter 3, especially pages 101-102. See also Woods, 1998: chapter 8.
  6. 6“I’m afraid I’m going to have to be the one to break the news to you, Taffy. I’ve thrown Gater out and started divorce proceedings. I don’t want to seem overly bitter, but I’d appreciate it if you would destroy all of his belongings […]. I’m going to go sink into a long, hot beauty bath now and try to erase the stink of a five-year marriage. Someone at such a tender age as you, Taffy, might find it difficult to understand what a long, hard, painful decision this was on my part. I’m a free woman now, and my life is just ready to begin” (FT.: 00:41:05).
  7. 7“One must have a heart of stone” is a reference to a line from one of Oscar Wilde’s letters that mocks the sentimentality of Little Nell’s death in Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop (see Muelder Eaton, 1989: 269).
  8. 8The movie itself is dedicated to Charles Watson, a former member of Charles Manson’s family and friend of John Waters. The toy helicopter in the opening credits was made by Watson in prison, Waters comments in Shock Value (2005 [1981]: 94).
  9. 9A line that Divine screamed at his audiences, notably during promotional tours and disco performances. See, for example, Jay, 1993: chapter 7 (titled “Fuck You Very Much!”), especially page 85.