Waters, Knoxville, and the Beauty of Queer Filth

Veronica Phillips muses on her relationship with John Waters and Johnny Knoxville, as they form the three vertices of a filthy, queer love triangle within marvelously depraved cinematic world.


“We must warn others in the community that a head injury is not an excuse for debauchery!” the prudish, fear-mongering Big Ethel (Suzanne Sheperd) preaches to a terrified group of vanilla heterosexuals midway through the 2004 John Waters film A Dirty Shame. A group of concussed niche fetishists are beginning to edge a suburb of Baltimore toward a sexual revolution, and Big Ethel and her nervous friends — known dismissively by the fetishists and sexually liberated as “Neuters” — simply cannot stand for it. A Dirty Shame follows the descent of prudish working-class woman Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman) into the midst of a sexual revolution with a group of disciple-like niche fetishists, who all became sexually liberated following extreme concussions and chance encounters with the almost Jesus-like “sexual healer” Ray-Ray, played by none other than Jackass’s Johnny Knoxville. 

John Waters is a master of the disgusting; his films deal in the shocking, the unclean, the appalling. His protagonists are outsiders wanting to be freaky and make a mess — they’ll vomit on each other, eat dog shit, dress as adult babies. Waters often insists upon throwing his debauched and disgusting characters into your figurative backyard — what if sex freaks, fetishists, drag queens, porn theater owners, murderers, sickos (sometimes all of the above!) lived next door, or in the local trailer park, or in your auto repair shop? Would you be afraid? Would you gawk? Or… would you become like them? Do you maybe want to? 

While John Waters often works with a revolving door of the same cast — a collection of talent dubbed the “Dreamlanders,” actors known for helping continually bring Waters’s filth visions to life — it doesn’t feel like an accident that Johnny Knoxville was one of the later stars that Waters’s roped into his wild and dirty cinematic world.

In fact, Big Ethel’s description of head injuries as excuses for debauchery may as well be the slogan for Jackass. A film and television franchise now spanning twenty years, the Jackass series is the documentation of a collection of stunts and pranks enacted among a group of friends, with the premise of most bits being focused upon the highly painful and highly gross, and usually involving genitalia and any and all bodily fluids. Jackass is art loaded with concussions and the grotesque, head injuries and debauchery.

Waters is a long-time fan of Jackass (even making an appearance in Jackass Number Two), and believes wholeheartedly that Johnny Knoxville, as onscreen leader of the Jackass pack, is one of the few people continuing to contribute to filth cinema and artistic anarchy in a way equivalent to Waters. Like Waters’s body of work, the Jackass films hum with a sense of destruction within suburbia.  Your own backyard can be a space to push your sadomasochistic limits. Run of the mill shopping carts, cars, golf carts, and sleds are opportunities for destruction, an opportunity for one to be smashed about. Your previously unassuming human body is suddenly a powerful vessel for grotesque tricks. Your vomit, shit, and piss are tools for laughter and joy. 

In an interview about the longstanding cultural impact of Jackass, Waters bestows perhaps the highest praise possible from a filth king: “He’s doing the same kind of stuff I was doing. I always said to Johnny that if he had been around for Pink Flamingos, I would’ve had him eat shit instead of Divine.” 

That the king of concussions himself, Johnny Knoxville, thus plays the most wild of the sexually wild in A Dirty Shame feels delightful and purposeful. Ray-Ray was literally written for Knoxville, a sort of paying homage from Waters in respect of Jackass. A Dirty Shame is beautiful in that sense, entrenched in layers upon layers of filth cinema, loaded with self-aware winks that can only be understood by those entrenched in these specific subcultural texts. 

My taste places me in a filthy, queer love triangle that centers me in the perfect crosshairs to truly relish A Dirty Shame. At one corner, the self-proclaimed filth elder, John Waters; at the second, Waters’s handsome, grotesque successor, Johnny Knoxville; and at the third, myself, a distanced and ravenous voyeur, devouring any art the two of them are willing to offer in salivating, massive bites. 

I found John Waters and Johnny Knoxville around the same time, in the midst of getting my cinema studies degree. To seem hip, perhaps, professors offered us small doses of the cultish: a nibble of Jackass, an afternoon set aside for a screening of Pink Flamingos. At this point, I was solidly out of the closet, but with an ever-changing label. In fact, as I edged toward the precipice of embracing a lesbian label, Johnny Knoxville, of all people, yanked me away from it. I find him, for reasons beyond explanation, extremely attractive. My shifts in sexuality are often that small, that simple, visual, and inexplicable. A handsome man on television, a pretty person walking by me on the street, paired with a stirring inside that lets me know that my sexuality, my sense of desire, is ever shifting. 

The fetishists in A Dirty Shame range in severity of kinks, and the sexual lingo used makes even me, a gal admittedly well-versed in the Urban Dictionary, have to google some things. The film is a celebration of ultimate sexual freedom, a fantasy of knocking the shame and conventionality right out of your brains to better embrace your true self — even if that true self prominently features a fetish for eating dirt. Like all of Waters’s and Knoxville’s work, it offers me a message I repeatedly need to hear: that my understanding of my sexuality, my right to being out and proud, can look however it wants, as long as it is, as Ray-Ray puts it, “safe, consensual, and doesn’t harm others.” Being filthy, free, and joyous is well within that range. 

I occasionally fall victim to the need to make my queerness appear magical, floaty, etheral, sacred (though it is, at moments, undoubtedly all of these things) in a way that borders on the chaste. It is very easy to make straight people weep with stories of first crushes, of a forbidden kiss, of a beautiful coming out and a family that loved you and held you. It is easy for me to fall into that narrative, to keep it clean. But it is not my only experience, and I cannot say that is my total and truest self. 

Because my queerness is also hot, sexy, dirty, raunchy, physical, base. At times, I actually probably feel these emotions more than the romantic, swirly ones. It is less palatable to share this side with the well meaning straight ladies who weep along to the likes of Call Me By Your Name. But I would be lying if I didn’t say that my queerness is also the way I see a beautiful woman and tell my friends that I, like a Waters trailer park trash reject, would eat dirt just to have her kiss me. That I feel most serene in a tube top and a g-string, being looked at by a hot woman in a gay bar. 

Waters and Knoxville are filth kings. They are the portion of my queerness, of my sexuality, of my desire that cannot quite be found in Carol or A Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Only the dirty, raunchy, physical, and base are welcome in their filth spaces. When Knoxville says he loves his queer and trans fans and friends, he doesn’t mean the idea of them in a neat and tidy presence, he means the way they explicitly say they want to fuck him, the way he celebrates a queer community that professes excitement in seeing the jackasses touch each other, challenge each other sadomasochistically. 

In turn, Knoxville becomes a twisted version of a queer icon in my eyes (among many others). Knoxville is loved in many a queer circle, and has been for ages. One needs to look no further than Out magazine’s title of Knoxville’s 2006 profile: “Is Johnny Knoxville the Gayest Straight Guy Ever?” to see his long-standing positive perception in parts of the community. 

Johnny Knoxville moves with such grace in the queer community, so beyond the usual weak, empty, palatable “love is love” celebrity signaling, that what could be read as sneering behavior in any other instance instead comes off as self-aware playfulness from him. His graphic tees are emblazoned with cheeky phrases like “Totally straight” and “All deliveries in rear”, that could easily be read as mockery, yet somehow smoothly come as off good-natured, as in on the fact that the queer community loves him, wants him. He’s ever-prepared to say thank you and tell you he loves you for it in return. 

The artistic filth that Waters and Knoxville create is mostly made for cheap, relying on the power of some funny costumes, a filthy mind, and a willingness to be totally and fully yourself, even if that means being a debauched little gremlin. The likes of A Dirty Shame relieve the strain of trying to make sense of my experience with my body, with my queer desire, allow me to accept the ways my truth, my love, my desire can be both pretty and attractive and disgusting and fantastic. If I am fearless, and if I am feeling true down in the depths of myself, then I am just fine. 

For me, queerness is tied to mess. It’s tied to the fact that my sexual labels often feel bendy, open to change, in constant flux. It’s tied to the fact that my queerness is tied to sexuality — to longing, desire, to feelings and wants that cannot be explained, only felt. To be truly queer, to be my truest self, is to perform all of that at once, in contradictory and complex tandem. To push myself to learn from the politics and action of my queer elders, to build a queer community, but to also delight in simple and true pleasure — be it my pillow princess-signaling long acrylic nails and little pink outfits, or the joy of being touched, kissed, held, wanted. 

In a recent profile for his debut novel, Liarmouth, John Waters muses on the notion of death: 

“I’m not gonna die. I’m just going to get one bit of moisture from the earth when I’m buried and I’m going to suck it and claw my way up through the worms and burst out for the resurrection,” he said, slashing the air with his hand while cackling.

This shrugging off of death (in an extremely campy, deranged, Waters-esque way, no less), reminds me of Knoxville’s sometimes alarming ability to laugh off extreme pain, his withstanding of hits directly to the head and nuts, of slicing open his hand or breaking his bones and still limping off giddily. Perhaps this shrugging off of the laws of nature, even of mortality, is a power bestowed upon the truly free — living one’s truth, even (or perhaps, I dreamily hope, especially) if it is one of filth and fearsomeness — sucks fear right out of the room, leaves one only with the chance to thrive. 

I don’t want to have to behave well to be celebrated as a queer person, as a person who desires differently. I refuse to believe that. I don’t want to be the nice gay girl you know, a shining example (or worse, a monolithic one) of how we aren’t nasty, aren’t to be feared, will behave how you want. I’m a little freak, and I bite. And you can’t rid of me, just like you can’t rid of my glorious queer community, or my community that embraces filth and chaos. We’re next door, we’re in your backyard, we’re at the local auto shop, we’re in your house. We’re not leaving. We’re thinking big, beautiful, extreme gay thoughts. We’re making art, pushing limits of experiencing pleasure, demanding a freer, better world for all of us. Instead of cowering, instead of pushing back, I’d recommend taking a page from the book of Johnny Knoxville and saying thank you, diving right into the thick of it. 

As for my beautiful, amazing, perfect queer community, to those who push harder than I, to those who deserve so much, who have given their time, effort, and lives so that I had the privilege of loving my messy, filthy queer self so fast and so early: Thank you. At a time where even existing as queer or trans is to risk being accused of being a predator, a monster, a danger, embracing and uplifting filthy queerness feels increasingly important. It is your right and your duty to live exactly as feels best to you, to pursue pleasure and joy and expression that allows for you to shine. I thank the filth elders for laying a pathway for me to journey disgustingly upon. If it’s not hurting anyone, if it’s bringing you affirmation, joy, and pleasure, then it is good, pure, true, and right. I challenge you to live queerly exactly as it lights you up — total freak, totally vanilla, somewhere magically in between — if you’re doing it for you, you’re beloved in my eyes. 

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