The film is dedicated to Manson Family member Charles "Tex" Watson. Waters' prison visits to Watson inspired the "crime is beauty" theme of the film and in the film's opening credits, Waters includes a wooden toy helicopter that Watson made for him.
Dawn Davenport, a regular troublemaker at her all-girls school, receives a failing Geography grade and a sentence of writing lines for fighting, lying, cheating, and eating in class.
Dawn runs away from home in a rage after her parents didn't get her the "cha-cha heels" she wanted for Christmas. She hitches a ride with Earl, and they have sex. Dawn falls pregnant but Earl refuses to support her and she gives birth to Taffy alone. Dawn works various jobs including waitress and stripper to support herself and Taffy, whom she tortures and beats mercilessly through her childhood. Dawn continues to act as a thief and a fence, in league with school friends Chicklet and Concetta.
To raise her spirits, Dawn begins frequenting the Lipstick Beauty Salon to have her hair done by Gator Nelson, who is also her neighbor. The Lipstick Beauty Salon is an exclusive salon run by high fashion freaks Donna and Donald Dasher who believe that "crime and beauty are the same". Dawn marries Gator whose aunt Ida (Edith Massey) badly wishes that her nephew was gay (Gator is generally tolerant of homosexuality but is adamantly straight) and Ida therefore loathes Dawn. When the marriage fails Dawn has Gator fired and the Dashers enlist Dawn to model in their photographic exploration of "crime and beauty".
Gator leaves to work in the auto industry. Ida blames Dawn and exacts revenge by throwing acid in Dawn's face. The thrilled Dashers continue to court the scarred Dawn discouraging her to have corrective cosmetic surgery and continue to use her as a grotesquely made-up model. The Dashers kidnap Ida, keeping her caged in Dawn's home as a gift to Dawn, encourage Dawn to chop off Ida's hand, and get Dawn hooked on the drug Liquid Eyeliner. Taffy is distraught over these events and finally convinces Dawn to reveal the identity of Taffy's father.
Taffy finds her father living in a dilapidated house and drinking excessively. She stabs him to death with a butcher knife after he tries to sexually assault her. Taffy returns home and announces she is joining the Hare Krishna movement. Dawn warns her she will kill her if she does. Dawn, now with grotesque hair, make-up, and outfits provided by the Dashers, creates a nightclub act. Having fatally strangled Taffy back stage, Dawn pulls out a gun onstage during her act and begins firing into the crowd.
Police allow the Dashers to leave after Donald and Donna claim they are upright citizens caught in a bloody rampage. Dawn flees into a forest but is soon arrested by the police and put on trial for murder. Ida, who was previously freed by Taffy before she was killed, testifies against Dawn, while the Dashers lie about the whole situation. Dawn called them both liars. A defendant intended to just charge her for insanity, but in the end, the judge still sentences Dawn to death via Electric Chair.
Before Dawn is killed, she makes out with a female prisoner. She also ordered something for her last meal, but in the end she refused, claiming that she was more than ready to face death. As the priest says a prayer and Dawn is strapped to the electric chair, Dawn starts to break the fourth wall in some extent and thanks the fans [the audience] for everything right as she is electrocuted to death. Her corpse is seen as the credits roll.Divine as Dawn Davenport / Earl Peterson
David Lochary as Donald Dasher
Mary Vivian Pearce as Donna Dasher
Mink Stole as Taffy Davenport
Hilary Taylor as Young Taffy
Edith Massey as Ida Nelson
Cookie Mueller as Concetta
Susan Walsh as Chiclette Pryor
Michael Potter as Gator Nelson
Ed Peranio as Wink
Paul Swift as Butterfly
George Figgs as Dribbles
Susan Lowe as Vikki
Channing Wilroy as Prosecutor
Elizabeth Coffey as Ernestine
The lyrics to the title song of the same name, sung by Divine, were written by Waters and set to a pre-existing piece of music.
The film has a 79% "Fresh" rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
The initial 16mm release of the film which was shown at colleges ran 92 minutes. However, when the film was blown up to 35mm and shown theatrically, it was cut to 89 minutes. This version was the only version seen in the United States for many years. However, a recent restoration was done of the original cut, which runs 97 minutes; it has played at this 97-minute length in Europe, however, since its initial release.
The 97-minute version was shown only in select theaters and was included in an out-of-print DVD set paired with Pink Flamingos (Female Trouble is still available on DVD as a single disc and as part of a DVD box set, Very Crudely Yours, John Waters). This version also has a soundtrack remixed in stereo surround. The 97-minute version contains some additional scenes, including the chase through the woods, as well as an appearance by Sally Turner, the Elizabeth Taylor look-alike customer in the Lipstick Beauty Salon (Turner served as Divine's double in the junkyard sex scene between Dawn Davenport and Earl Peterson)
The film was shown in the 89-minute cut when re-released in 2002.
The 97-minute version is now available on DVD and includes an audio commentary by Waters.