Art Criticism / Cult Film / Desperate Living / Edith Massey / Film Criticism / Film Theory / Gay History / Gay Studies / Gender Studies / John Waters

Queer Wonderlands on Film: Desperate Living and The Wizard of Oz as LGBTQ Narrative


The Wizard of Oz is the story of a Kansas girl swept away to the magical Land of Oz filled with flying monkeys, talking lions and a Wicked Witch. Desperate Living is a film about a mentally insane housewife who murders her husband, ending up in the land of Mortville filled with criminals, lesbians, and a power hungry queen named Carlotta. The Wizard of Oz is perhaps, the most watched and beloved film ever made. Desperate Living remains one of John Waters’ most obscure gross-out comedies; a box office flop that left even its director uncomfortable with its uneasy legacy (Jackson; 1). More than once, Desperate Living has been called Water’s demented version of Oz, for its more fantastical aspects, but what both films have in common runs deeper if both are read with a queer subtext. Is Desperate Living an openly queer interpretation of Oz, mirroring the 1939 film’s inherent sexual codings? More than once, The Wizard of Oz has been cited as by intellectuals and critics as being possibly read as a gay, and sometimes specifically lesbian narrative, while Waters Desperate Living is often billed as a Lesbian soap opera. Here, I wish to compare, contrast and analyze both films as central Queer narratives, their importance to a 1970’s audience and how Oz‘s influence runs deeper than one might warrant at first glance.

    The Wizard of Oz, being one of the most culturally referenced and watched film of the 20th century, is like the Wicked Witch of the West’s crystal ball, where anyone and everyone has attempted to peer through the glass to find their own variation of the story. Queer theory has certainly not avoided its gaze; where wellsprings of interpretations have appeared. ‘The film version…serves as a pop-culture icon of twentieth-century Western Gay culture’ and its ‘Technicolor wonderland of vibrant colors and outlandish costumes displays a queer sensibility that countless viewers adore (Pugh; 1). One of the most powerful and evocative of queer readings is Alexander Doty’s lesbian reading of the film which focuses on the relationship Dorothy Gale has with The Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, explaining the duality of Glinda and the Wicked Witch as ‘two types of witches…wicked butch and good femme’ (Doty; 60), explaining that Dorothy’s journey into the Land of Oz is her own ‘sexual fantasyland’ (Ibid; 59) to channel through her own feelings of lesbian sexuality and desire. This theory is indeed, one of many, but one that works especially if taking the films of John Waters and other queer filmmakers in mind. Doty states that his theories of Oz’s sexual politics are possible through the films ‘visual and aural iconography’ (Ibid; 60), aspects that have fascinated Waters from his early viewing of the film, becoming a completely invaluable influence on his own work, which reveals a certain visual iconography contrived from gay and low-brow culture. Waters explains Oz‘s influence, stating the film ‘opened me up to villainy, to screenwriting, to costumes’ (Elder; 281). Desperate Living is fascinating because it takes the mythos of The Wizard of Oz and openly makes it into an outright queer narrative, making whatever heterosexual interpretations impossible. This is a queer fairy tale, in a world where there are none.


(Mole) is the epitome of every nightmare within the lesbian lexicon, equipped with everything but The Wicked Witches blotchy green skin…yet is one of the champions of the film.

Waters plays with whatever lesbian interpretations and iconography Oz could potentially present. ‘Good witches’ and ‘bad witches’ have warped themselves in Waters universe. Doty explains that The Wicked Witch is a ‘butch dyke…loud, aggressive, violent, and wears an obvious “uniform” while Glinda represents ‘images of femmes in popular culture that are coded to be able to pass as heterosexually feminine’ (Doty; 58). Waters toys with the ideas of iconography that we as a hetero-normative society have implicated as good and bad, within society or outside of society. Mole (Susan Lowe) has all the scowling hideousness of Margaret Hamilton, covered in various scars and moles, her hair filthy and unkempt. She is the epitome of every nightmare within the lesbian lexicon, equipped with everything but The Wicked Witches blotchy green skin. Yet Mole is one of the champions of the film, one of many plucky heroes of Mortville who try to make things right. Queen Carlotta, played by Edith Massey is much like Glinda the Good Witch, dressed regally like a Queen, her castle filled with prim, feminine comforts such as purple sashes, velvet cushions, glistening jewels and satin bows. However, she is all of Glinda’s femme-like charms gone horribly to seed. Among her frou-frou palace are portraits of fascist dictators, live bugs she feeds to new recruits and an imprisoned Princess. Instead of an entourage of adorable dancing munchkins, she is equipped with a fascist crew of Tom of Finland Leather-boy’s who ransack and murder at her bidding.


However, she is all of Glinda’s femme-like charms gone horribly to seed. Among her frou-frou palace are portraits of fascist dictators, live bugs she feeds to new recruits and an imprisoned Princess.

The film starts with Waters demonic rendering of Dorothy Gale, Peggy Gravel (Mink Stole), a mentally insane housewife with a neck and leg brace, our heroine of sorts of the film, initiating the murder of her concerned husband with the help of her overweight black maid, Grizelda Brown (Jean Hill). Peggy Gravel is Water’s Dorothy if channeled through the pathos of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1963), where we are fooled into believing Peggy is our hero through-out as we believe Marion Crane  in Psycho to be, but instead, changes her alliance to the evil Queen Carlotta, and is eventually murdered by gun shot up the ass by her former lesbian room-mates in the town of Mortville. Like Dorothy, Mink Stole goes on a journey of sexual discovery only the cruelest and hilarious way John Waters could possibly imagine. The narrative of The Wizard of Oz inherently becomes queer because it ultimately is a story of a girls spiritual acceptance of her circumstances. While she wishes to go back to Kansas and ultimately learns ‘there’s no place like home’, some interpret it as Dorothy being able to understand ‘by the end of her fantasy that her daring dyke dreams will really only “come true” when she returns to those two yards in Kansas and works out her feelings’ (Ibid; 69). Peggy Gravel is Dorothy hilariously inverted into a neurotic shrew, literally kicking and screaming to her death into a sadistic fantasy world, and into lesbian initiation. Eventually, Peggy works out her lesbian feelings for Grizelda, proclaiming ‘Well I suppose if it’s good enough for Gertrude Stein!’


While Dorothy and her companions struggle to fight the oppressive Wicked Witch of the West, the land of Mortville struggles against the tyrannical Queen Carlotta.

In the beginning of Desperate Living, Peggy and Grizelda make a clean sweep, meeting a perverted police man on the road who tells them of a place for uncaught criminals called the town of Mortville, guiding them only if he gets to wear their panties (perhaps this is Water’s variant of Dorothy’s Tornado; her rite of passage into Oz)? In Mortville, Peggy and Grizelda discover a diabolical wonderland where they eventually become bereaved lovers, ultimately living as a gang of four with two lesbians Muffy (Liz Renay) and her butch-girlfriend Mole (Susan Lowe), making a group much like Dorothy, The Scarecrow, Tin-Man and Cowardly Lion, all lacking something specific. But instead of a brain, heart or courage, Mole desperately wants a penis. Muffy wants her luxurious lifestyle, Peggy, her right to complain, and Grizelda, the affections of Peggy. What brings everyone together is not their journey to see The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but to survive off of morsels of food, garbage, rats, and a drive to fuck and commit crime. While Dorothy and her companions struggle to fight the oppressive Wicked Witch of the West, the land of Mortville struggles against the tyrannical Queen Carlotta.

What makes Water’s Desperate Living so unusual is not so much its being perhaps his highest concept film, a full fledged fantasy, but the films acknowledgement of an openly queer community. Homosexuality in Water’s early oeuvre is ambiguous to say the least, even voyeuristic in such films as Multiple Maniacs, (1970) where David Lochary plays carnival barker in a Cavalcade of Perversion, exclaiming the audience is about to see ‘Two actual queers kissing each other like lovers on the lips!’, much to the onlookers disgust. Sexuality, especially the juxtaposition of heterosexuality and homosexuality, are often reversed. Such as Aunt Ida (Edith Massey) desperately wishing her beloved Nephew Gator could realize the life of heterosexuals is a ‘sick’ and ‘boring’ one. Divine’s starring roles never address the fact that he is a man dressed as a woman, sometimes going as far as to confuse audiences into believing he isn’t a man at all. Desperate Living is equipped with Waters usual cast of characters harboring a sense of unity over their often-glaring differences to the outside conformist society of which they consciously live outside of.

Truly the only incidents of heterosexuality throughout the film are so inherently comical and disgusting, they come off as repulsive burlesque, just the same for whatever homosexual acts are depicted. In Water’s universe, all sex is inherently comical, even pointless, revealing to us the utter triviality of homo-phobic notions; reminding us that inherently, all sex is really the same in the course of modern society. One of several romances involves Queen Carlotta’s rebellious daughter Princess Coo Coo (Mary Vivian Pierce) and her lover the Garbage Man. Both are brutally murdered sadistically thanks to Queen Carlotta. The only union throughout the film that lasts is that of Muffy and Mole, the most violent and dysfunctional of all the couplings that appear throughout the script. For Waters to make such an unabashedly queer film is far from untimely. The seeds of queer theory, especially in the context of cinema, emerge in the mid seventies, when Vito Russo began his lectures on the representations of gays and lesbians in film history, the seed of his book The Celluloid Closet (1981) (Kebler; 1) A year after John Waters’s release of Desperate Living, Richard Dyer’s Gays and Film was published, compiling years of essays from various writers concerning films with gay subject matter, or films portraying gay characters.            

Screen shot 2013-03-27 at 3.12.57 PM

Peggy Gravel is Water’s Dorothy if channeled through the pathos of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1963)

The concept of community, shown consistently through The Wizard of Oz and Desperate Living, is central to both plots. In almost all queer readings of Oz, the concept of a ‘gay utopia’ is forever prevalent. Queer Americans before and after World War II as depicted in such films as Before Stonewall (1980), had ‘forced most…either into an imitation of straight life, into closeted homosexual furtiveness, or out into urban centers’ (Ibid; 59). Calling the Emerald City that Dorothy and her friends travel to ‘an urban paradise for queers’ (Ibid; 61). Many Americans who escaped their own Kansas farms, oppressive suburbs and conservative environments before and well after World War II, trying to find their Emerald City, a Mecca of sexual and psychological acceptance, evolving into what would become a ‘ghetto-ization’ of gay communities in urban and sometimes rural environments. Waters takes the iconic mythos of gay utopia in the Land of Oz and filters it through a comedic, though cruelly realistic lens. The town of Mortville is indeed a sexual Mecca of sorts, consisting of queers and misfits much like the Land of Oz, but equipped with all the realities of a thriving gay community throughout much of the 20th century.  Mortville, like many gay ghetto’s throughout major cities, were prone to homophobia, police brutality, hate crimes and cruel, oppressive local government. Queen Carlotta runs a police state using violence and fear as tactics of control. Water’s Mortville is for a gay audience who had survived the turmoil of the 1960’s and 70’s and would soon face the terror of the AIDS pandemic, that would devastate many gay urban communities into the 1990’s. Here, Waters shows us the comedic, almost nightmarish realities that sometimes rear themselves into a culture that is inherently hetero-centrist.

Gradually, the film becomes a call to arms, leaving us to another plot point found throughout Water’s oeuvre and a focal key point to the plot structure of The Wizard of Oz. Whether it means destroying The Wicked Witch of the West or revealing the utter weakness of the Wizard, Dorothy and her friends alliance allows it so that they can grapple or ultimate defeat whatever stands in the way of their journeys development. For Desperate Living, the only way Mortville’s queer community to survive, and perhaps ultimately become a queer-sexual paradise is to overthrow the powers of Queen Carlotta’s oppressive and sadistic law system. The lesbians, as led by Muffy and Mole, take over Queen Carlotta’s lair, ultimately murdering and roasting her, served on a silver platter among fruits and vegetables. Here Waters makes a powerful statement on the conclusion of The Wizard of Oz. In Water’s world, his wonderland is certainly no dream like Dorothy’s, but a real breathing place, perhaps channeling his own predicament, quoted as wondering ‘Why Dorothy wanted to go back to that smelly farm, with that badly dressed aunt and black and white, when she could live with gay lions…’ (Elder; 282). Even the royal march through the streets of Mortville resembles the show stopping number of Oz, ala the munchkins exclamations of ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead!’  While Dorothy goes home to work out her problems, the denizens of Water’s Wonderland is empowered, by the queers, criminals, ‘friends of Dorothy’ take on the streets of their wonderland for themselves, fighting oppression, bigotry and brutality. Certainly a message such as this was refreshing in 1977, when the birth of punk rock would replace the messages of free love and peace with annihilation and violence. Yet Desperate Living carries within its conclusion, a message that had infiltrated the gay community since the riots of Stonewall, even if it hides beneath a surface of gross out comedy and camp, to take back the streets, to fight for ones rights, to take whatever comes ones way with an attitude and a sense of identity.

In conclusion, Desperate Living is an underrated film; one misunderstood as just another gross out film from Waters early oeuvre. While the film is indeed, The Wizard of Oz as only John Waters could have made it. But what lies beneath the films surface is an unusual film designed not just for the midnight movie audience that would die quickly as the seventies carried on, but for a queer audience who had been raised on the dreams of The Wizard of Oz, enabling and empowering the 1939 versions queer subtext and potential reading. The visual and aural iconography of Oz that can be read as potentially queer, even lesbionic mirrors itself throughout Waters film, whether it be through the inversion of such symbols of sexual politics as ‘butch’ and ‘femme’, or loud, colorful camp sensibility of Mortville much like the Technicolor world of Oz, which entrances many queer audiences. But what makes Desperate Living so empowering is its message of vigilance and revolution, a powerful message for a queer audience in the 1970’s that would soon face years of worsening difficulty, charging onward into the twenty first century, perhaps like the people of Mortville.

Works Cited:

Fleming, Victor , dir. The Wizard of Oz . Prod. Mervyn LeRoy, Arthur Freed , Writ. Edgar Allan Woolf , and Florence Ryerson. 1939. DVD. 11 Feb 2013.

Waters, John , dir. Desperate Living . Dir. John Waters, and Prod. John Waters. 1977 . VHS. 11 Feb 2013.

Jackson , Jeff. “Desperate Living .” ., n. d. Web. Web. 15 Feb. 2013.

“By the time I made Desperate Living, the era of midnight movies was over, so at the time it was the least successful of all my films. Weirdly enough, it now does really well on video and college campuses. And I’m not quite sure why.” – John Waters

Pugh, Tison. “There lived in the Land of Oz two queerly made men” Queer Utopianism and Antisocial Eroticism in L. Frank Baum’s Oz Series.” Over the Rainbow: Queer Children’s and Young Adult Literature

University of Michigan Press, 2012, 87-110

K. Elder, Robert. The Film That Changed My Life:30 Directors on Their Epiphanies in the Dark. 1st . Chicago, IL : Chicago Review Press, 2011. 278-281. Print.

Doty , Alexander. “My Beautiful Wickedness.”  Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon. 1st . New York, NY: Routledge, 2000. 57-69. Print.

Hitchcock, Alfred, dir. Psycho. Prod. Alfred Hitchcock, and Writ. Joseph Stefano. 1960. Film. 11 Feb 2013.

Waters , John , dir. Multiple Maniacs . Dir. John Waters, Writ. John Waters. 1970 . VHS. 11 Feb 2013.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet . 1st . New York City : Harper & Row , 1981 . Print.

Dyer , Richard . Gays & Film . Revised . New York City : New York Zoetrope , 1984. Print.

Scagliotti, John , dir. Before Stonewall. Dir. Greta Schiller, and Robert Rosenberg. 1980. Film. 20 Feb 2013.

Kebler, Beth , ed. “Vito Russo Papers, 1969-1990.” . New York Public Library Archives , n.d. Web. 11 Feb 2013.






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