“You want a trigger warning? My whole life is a trigger warning,” John Waters said. He was preparing the audience for the next hour. On April 24th, one of the most notorious arts innovators of our time came to campus to kick off the first round of grantees of The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation. 

Waters came out dressed proudly in Comme des Garçons with his velvet black Maybelline–penciled–in mustache. After the formal introductions and grant announcements, he dove into an hour–long monologue. In his opening remarks, he gave his signature crass remarks and opinions that brought him to fame, despite the age diversity of the crowd (which ranged from teenagers to seniors)—hence the trigger warning.

But maybe understandably so. Given the recent news in the presidency and Waters’ own left leaning ideology, it was no surprise that a large portion of his talk was dedicated to politics. “Turd terrorism,” he suggested. Take over the presidency to install widespread youth education on how to properly use poppers. It’s an attitude captured in his own cult classics, encouraging rebellious action. At least for him, he adds, the rebelliousness worked as an easy way to get laid. 

His monologue jumps from a fascination with the Satanic Temple to a desire for Justin Bieber to end his “Jesus phase.” Trees are nature’s porn. There should be a clothing store with a trap door that activates on anyone who wears pleated khakis. 

After some (some, here, being an understatement), digression, he then focuses the conversation on a review of his work in cinema, from Pink Flamingos to Hairspray to Cry–Baby. His brief self–analysis reveal his personal insights (Serial Mom is the best movie he’s ever made), weaving in pop cultural references to the radical feminism of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2. 

In addition to his sometimes vulgar anecdotes, Waters’ stories imparted his tasteless charm. At 72 years old, his wit and vivacity exceeded that of most people in their twenties. Caroline Bourneuf (N ‘20), a student in attendance, said, “he says whatever he wants but at the same time is so smart and knows what he’s talking about, making him relevant and current in a way that transcends generational barriers.”

For all the laughter and the general diversity of the audience, there remained an uneven balance. Yes, there were college students, but given the fact that the event was both sponsored by Penn and hosted on its campus, they were grossly underrepresented. But college students were the people who probably needed to hear Waters’ message the most. As another audience member, Fern Gale Estrow, said after the show, “We need the arts to have a voice.” Who’s the next eccentric? Who’s the next John Waters? Is there one? 

But while Waters is indubitably louder and more unapologetically opinionated than most, a question at the end sheds some light on the method to his madness. He reads six full newspapers every morning, saying his full–time job is “consuming the trash in the first half of the day and re–selling it in the second.” 

Putting aside his vulgarity and his own habits, his message is participation and rebellion. “You have to participate in the world you’re trying to enter,” he said. And though no one may ever be like John Waters, the confidence and rebellion that his work and persona inspire were the perfect way to set off a program with a mission to support those who will change the world as beautifully as he has. And in perfect John Waters fashion, he ends the talk by throwing travel sized packets of anal bleach into the audience. 


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