The Rocky Horror Picture Show and four decades of queer sci fi punk
2015 was the fortieth consecutive year that The Rocky Horror Picture Show has played in theaters, luring out the misfits and punks and queers and oddballs. We’re now seeing the third generation of misfits coming up in the world and dancing in the aisles to “The Time Warp,” while Fox network readies to premier the made-for-TV remake on October 20th. Rocky Horror is more than a fan phenomenon; it’s a bizarre yet empowering film that shows us the intersection of queer, working class, and geek cultures, although you don’t have to be any of the previous to enjoy the hell out of it.
I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show when I rented it at the age of twelve, in the mid-1990s. My mother threw a fit, like she did when my dad let me rent Naked Lunch or Witches of Eastwick. In fact, I only saw half of it before she made me stop watching. I didn’t see it again until age fourteen, when it aired on Halloween on VH1 (albeit edited for television). I was hooked.
I watched the film obsessively. I went to Sam Goody and bought a VHS and forced friends to watch it with me and yell the call-back lines. Something about this film clicked in my head. I'd known since I the age of eleven that I was attracted to other guys, and by fourteen I’d stopped denying it to myself. It was more than that, though; I’m not just “gay,” I’m genderqueer, which makes me a bit of a misfit among misfits. At fourteen, part of me knew this, though not how to express it. Shortly after latching onto Rocky Horror, I also became enchanted with Marilyn Manson, then David Bowie and the films of John Waters. These outrageous pop icons served an essential role in my teens and early twenties, as they did for millions of others, helping me figure out what the hell kind of person I wanted to be: someone fearless and fabulous.
Funnily enough, I was a Rocky “virgin” until I was on cast during my junior year of college. I’d never seen it in the theater with audience participation until I was actually up there on the shadow cast. I blame my mother.
From there, the dam broke like an ankle in a platform heel. I had been going out in drag since I was seventeen, sneaking into gay clubs underage with the support of my very cool straight dad and the obliviousness of my mom. It intoxicated me to play Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Tim Curry’s “Sweet Transvestite” antihero, live in front of hundreds of people. Dr. Frank isn’t exclusively “gay” and he’s not even a standard drag queen—he doesn’t wear breasts or a wig, just bedazzled dime store lingerie. He’s genderfuck like Bowie, and in fact his makeup designer is also Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust-era makeup artist, Pierre La Roche.
I found something in myself during those years of playing Frank (and Janet and Rocky) that I still carry onto stage as a spoken word and performance artist, something that I keep in my heart as a journalist commenting on queer culture and its iconography. When I played Susan Sarandon’s Janet, I got to be a high soft femme, not the aggro-punk drag character Roxy Roadkill that I’d acted out in late high school and college. When I played Rocky himself, I got comfortable showing off my body, which was a little chubby and nowhere near Peter Hinwood’s buff bod on film. The film probably even shaped some of my sexual attractions—I melt a lot more than I’d like to for guys who look like Barry Bostwick’s Brad Majors, with the thick black-framed glasses, the awkward nerdiness and all.
Margaret Cho has pointed out the perhaps surprising connection between BDSM, Star Trek, and the Renaissance Festival. There’s a similar connection between kink culture, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and professional wrestling. Cho didn’t resolve the nature of these connections in her live show, but I can: “Don’t Dream It, Be It.”
This is the core mantra of RHPS, a lyric from the swimming pool segment of the “Floor Show” extravaganza. Like dressing up as the characters in Star Trek or pro-wrestling, like dressing up for the Ren Fair or for a night of kinky role play, dressing up to attend a showing of Rocky Horror is all about the empowerment of being an idealized persona for a night. Don’t merely dream it. Be it: fat girls are sex kittens, skinny gay dudes are heartthrobs, and trans folks’ genders are taken seriously, even when the point is to take nothing seriously. RHPS is essentially an Americanized British sex farce, bent for the sexually volatile ‘70s.
The punk aesthetic and shoestring budget of the film has a less obvious but equally empowering impact: it’s a film that’s incredibly friendly to working class viewers. If we take a careful look at the film’s plot, we first see the false protagonists Brad and Janet, a presumably middle class young couple. The film is styled to reflect a ‘50s aesthetic for Brad and Janet’s hometown of Denton, Ohio. These two conservative American dreamers then accidentally cross over, much like Dorothy or Alice, into the Other: a distinctly ‘70s post-glam rock, pre-disco environment of sexual excess and gender revolution. This is where we meet the true hero of the film: Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a bisexual alien mad scientist who traipses around in fishnets and heels.
Although Brad and Janet remain p.o.v. characters, Brad quickly stops acting as protagonist and becomes a lesser observer, while Janet continues to make decisions, take action, and become sexually empowered. Their White, straight, middle class comfort zone burns down around them, leaving Brad sexually dysphoric: “It’s beyond me/help me Mommy/I’ll be good, you’ll see/Take this dream away.”
Janet, on the other hand, becomes sexually euphoric: “I feel released/Bad times deceased/My confidence has increased/Reality is here.” Janet has been liberated. While some will only notice the audience shouting the word “slut” every time Janet’s name is said on screen, the character has had a full arc from prudish shrinking violet to va-va-voom burlesque star. But let’s be real: most don’t go to RHPS to see Janet. We go for Tim Curry in all his glory as Dr. Frank.
This transformation of Brad and Janet happens at the hands of outré characters who, despite living in a castle, wear threadbare costumes fit more for carnies than the silver screen. Frank-N-Furter is the queen of this castle, and yet his outfits are disintegrating before our eyes. The middle class goody-goodies are seduced and transformed into thrift store glamour bombs by a cadre of genderqueer sex punks, and this is how the class issues of the film really get worked out: visually.
To the past four decades of audiences, these cheaply made costumes have meant something vital. Near-exact copies of the costumes can be made at home and/or assembled from second hand finds. This DIY factor is hugely important to Rocky Horror fandom. On a tight budget, anyone can dress up as their favorite character, attend a midnight show, and receive praise (and perhaps even get laid) for their ability to cosplay on a dime. In fact, this enormous fan phenomenon expanded cosplay in America beyond science fiction conventions, decades before we adopted the Japanese-created English portmanteau term “cosplay.” It’s a glorious patchwork of language, gender, and class.
The film’s mantra of “Don’t Dream It, Be It!” distills the ideal of all costume emulation: no matter your race, gender, size, or physical ability, you can be one of these characters for a night, and you can do it affordably. I’ve seen black and Asian Frank-N-Furters, fat Franks, and so forth. Dori Hartley, a woman, was the original Frank-N-Furter impersonator at the original crowd participation shows in NYC. I am certain there are Franks and Janets in wheelchairs somewhere, as there absolutely should be.
RHPS fandom and fantasy is beyond gender, race, class, and other factors. It is accessible in ways that the recent explosion of pop culture cosplay has yet to catch up to. For more on that, check out black cosplayer and blogger Chaka Cumberbatch’s (@princessology) articles at XOJane, where she discusses how many people in geek culture vocalize surprise and even derision that a black woman would dare dress up as Wonder Woman or Sailor Venus. Rocky Horror fandom is a place where that sort of racial gatekeeping would not be tolerated.
There are no major POC characters in the original Rocky Horror Picture Show, but the fandom fills those gaps without stopping to question who “looks like” whom. Aside from race, the working class punk philosophy behind this film is inseparable from the queerness. It shouldn’t be separated at all—early punk often embraced queer sex and gender as yet another fuck-you to the snooty, classist status quo. William Burroughs, John Waters and Divine, and even Tom of Finland (thanks to Vivienne Westwood) became punk icons, just as BDSM gear was integrated into the punk dress code. Like Divine and Burroughs, Rocky Horror is what Waters would call “gayly incorrect”—it is not concerned with being sensitive or presenting queer people in an so-called admirable light. It’s concerned with shaking up the rigid mainstream and having a blast doing it.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show has even become a tradition for many families. When I was a producer and rotating Frank/Janet in Tallahassee’s Cheap Thrills cast, we received an email from the father of a transgender 13-year-old. He thanked us earnestly for creating a safe place for his queer kid to go and be their self, as well as a space where that whole family could have a good time together.
That is the lasting impact of The Rocky Horror Picture Show: a safe space for misfits and their families to go, feel normal, and have a damn good time. It’s been four decades, and many of us are still going to the movies at midnight, throwing rice at the screen, and shouting obscenities. Even more remarkable, the fan culture continues to draw in young people who are finding their confidence and their self-expression. RHPS serves many of the same cultural functions of the ball circuit of NYC and beyond; as a member of house Extravaganza states in Paris Is Burning, a ball (like a showing of Rocky Horror) is a place where you can feel 100% normal being gay. Further, you can feel 100% okay being bisexual and/or trans, identities often excluded from both gay and straight culture.
After decades of talk and limbo, a small-screen remake the film is on the horizon. Curry himself will be back, this time as the Narrator/Criminologist—a choice very satisfying to this fan, especially now that Cristopher Lee and David Bowie are no longer with us. Broadway veteran Ben Vereen will play Dr. Scott, Queen-frontman and American Idol Adam Lambert will be Eddie, and I’m particularly hot in the pants to see Penny Dreadful’s own Dorian Gray, Reeve Carney, as Riff Raff.
The most jaw-dropping and inspiring casting choice, of course, is the fierce-as-hell Laverne Cox as the new Dr. Frank. Can she live up to the role? Tim Curry sings like a fruit-roll-up of Little Richard and Mick Jagger, quite intentionally so. Let’s hope Cox has the pipes to do it justice, because she certainly has the stage presence. From her interviews, it sounds as though this versatile actress will play a male drag queen, layering the character as actress-assigned-male-at-birth-playing-non-trans-man-dressing-as-woman. Please give us that delicious genderfuck, Laverne. We’re counting on you.
If you’ve never seen the film or else never seen it live, you’re missing out on an amazing phenomenon of modern folk culture. This is living folklore, like Star Wars and Dracula. People who’ve never seen any of those films can still recognize Count Dracula and Princess Leia on sight, because they’re on boxes of cereal, television commercials, and everywhere else that urban folklore shows up.
After 40 years, The Rocky Horror Picture Show continues to make the world a safer space for oddballs and underdogs. It’s a gem of cultural history. May it last 400 years.
Dani Ochoa, a self-described " girl with too much time on her hands," writes, "I spent way too much time figuring this out."
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