Thoughts on Rocky Horror at 40

RHPS photomontage showing Frank N Furter on the lips.
Promotional image.

My second time to Rocky Horror I wore a polka-dot dress, borrowed from a friend in my dorm. I painted my nails, but didn’t feel confidant to do much else. It was the only place on campus where I felt comfortable to do so, in spite of the fact that the mixed-gender unit in my “hippy” dorm was home to an entire spectrum of genders.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been in and out of the closet for most of the last decade, but mass media has struck me to be both running forward in some ways and running backwards in others. We have more representation but the writers trip over themselves to specify which boxes the characters go into, make it clear that the character isn’t one of those bad queers who swish or are stone butch. It’s why Sense8 was such a drink of water to see bears kissing in the title sequence, and to see Dykes on Bikes and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in the opening episodes.

For people who have not been initiated into RHPS culture, (aka, “virgins”) the movie just isn’t that good. Spoken lines come out phrased weirdly and broken with awkward silences. Pacing between musical numbers drags. Apparently, much of this is unintentional, but the spaces became an opportunity for audience participation. We heckle the characters on-screen in a style later developed for Mystery Science Theater 3000. We throw rice for the wedding, and use water pistols for the rain scene. The iconic songs are transformed into call/response sequences. We show up in costumes. We do the time warp, again and again.

Beyond that, shows involve amateur performers in costume pantomiming the action on screen. We can not only watch the characters, we can become the characters as a form of roleplay. The live cast serve as MCs, opening the show with the traditional heckling of “virgins” (first-time participants) and costume contests.

The movie and musical itself is a parody of 1950s and 1960s science fiction and gay/lesbian menace b-movies. Wikipedia can give you all the details, so I’m not going to give a synopsis. Alternately character arcs are recapped in two of final scenes:

Rose Tints My World

Don’t Dream It, Be It

The plot plays on the older-than-Dracula idea of two “pure” souls seduced into different forms of sexual and gender “deviance” in the traditional family values sense of the word. Frank seduces nearly the entire cast in one way or another. As the movie makes clear, the moralistic frame demanded by censors around the sexual and gender subtexts of b-movies and pulp fiction often feels pretty thin. The monster ends up a tragic anti-hero, the priggish narrator with no neck is mocked.

I found Rocky Horror through friends, campus fliers, and a still-tiny internet in 1990, 15 years after the movie’s release. The fandom at the time encouraged participation and individualized interpretation rather than engaged in wars over whether a character was team gay, team bi, or team trans. It was a story about experimentation and discovery. It still remains one of the few films with an openly nonbinary and bisexual character, but Frank can be interpreted other ways as well.

Should it be remade? The original musical has been revived many times. The Producers and Young Frankenstein were revised and reworked. West Side Story was translated into a bilingual production. I don’t have serious objections to a new version, but the original was very much a protest against the celluloid closet of the era. The movie version of RHPS (1975) falls right in the middle of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) and the death and coming out of Rock Hudson (1985). Other points of reference that come to the top of my head are Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd of Diamonds are Forever (1971) and the lesbian Queen Gedren of Red Sonja (1985).

Video frame from Diamonds are Forever with Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd
Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from Diamonds are Forever (1971)

In a few decades, we’ve moved beyond LGBTQ person as freak through LGBTQ person as punchline, LGBTQ person as tragedy and slowly, character who just happens to be LGBTQ. The celluloid closet has arguably been replaced with a pink ceiling in entertainment, unless you happen to be Magneto. Shows like Elementary and Orphan Black just casually drop in same-sex relationship and transgender characters without much in the way of comment.

Also a factor is that political discussion has shifted from a gay liberation to a civil rights perspective. This likely blunts Frank’s manifesto that sexuality and gender are human liberties to be explored.

Still though, I think it’s becoming a rule in our culture that if it doesn’t get remade once a generation it’s forgotten. So there’s that. Maybe it can be revisioned around the current wave of bathroom bills and trans panic.