In 1973, the Rocky Horror Show opened in London. In 1975 it was adapted into The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Tim Curry in arguably his most iconic performance, and the fandom that grew up around that theatrical flop came to define the cultural reference of what a cult film following looks like. You can go to just about any city in America and find a midnight showing of the film, and the show is all but guaranteed to show up at Halloween (in America and its home country of England). And FOX, after hemming and hawing about it for years, is finally looking to cash in on that sweet, sweet remake money (or “reimagining,” but hold that thought). This is the worst idea, and not in the usual “worst idea” way in that remakes tend to be poorly thought out and offer little new interpretive value beyond “we cast younger actors and got better cameras, money please.”
The deeper trouble is that Rocky Horror is in the unenviable position of having become a cultural mainstay for long enough that it is really starting to show its age. The disparity between what queer culture was when the stage show and film were produced and what it is now are whole universes apart. And that has resulted in a gap of sorts: you have the predominately straight or mainstream audience who views the film as a fun exercise in camp and potentially takes the parody on display at face value (thus perpetuating harmful stereotypes), and you have a young queer audience who’ve grown up in a world where a spectrum of positive, diverse representation from Steven Universe to Orange is the New Black exists, and they dismiss the film as harmful trash with no redeeming value whatsoever. The truth, by my estimation, is somewhere between these extremes: Rocky Horror has certainly aged poorly in some regards, and to say that those outdated portions are more harmful than helpful is a perfectly valid position; at the same time, not only has the film been a respite for thousands of outcasts since its release (and the play before it), but it continues to be subversive in some interesting ways that I rarely see addressed.
The World That Birthed Rocky
Nothing has meaning without context, and the historical variant seems as good a place as any to start. Richard O’Brien’s play The Rocky Horror Show opened at Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs in 1973. That was the same year it was agreed that “homosexuality” should be removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) – which meant that medically inclined methods of “curing” homosexuality like shock therapy, nausea-inducing drugs, and lobotomy would largely fall out of favor…though conversion therapy would survive in the “pray the gay away” model up through the 21st century. The Stonewall Riots, a watershed moment for queer rights, had exploded in America in 1969; in England, Sodomy had been decriminalized in 1967…though the age of consent was higher for same sex couples than for heterosexual ones (21 versus 16), the law was worded so awkwardly that if a couple had sex in an apartment with a third person so much as in the same suite they could be prosecuted, Ireland and Scotland would retain their anti-Sodomy bills until the 80s, and O’Brien’s home country of New Zealand wouldn’t remove its equivalent law until 1986. Transgender rights were equally fraught – 1966 saw the first major textbook on the subject, Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon, but a widely available account written from a trans perspective (British journalist Jan Morris’ Conundrum) wouldn’t be published until 1974. At the same time, reassignment surgery was both relatively new and fairly dangerous, while gender experimentation and trans identity were heavily intertwined with the performative culture of drag.
Meanwhile, the counterculture of the 70s raged, creating a rather frustrating duality. Stars like David Bowie (may he rest in peace), whose Ziggy Stardust shares more than a few thematic ties to Rocky Horror, could be famous for their androgyny and for his scandalous rumored bisexuality; but performative gender or sexual freedom was still the land of outliers and rumors carefully couched in plausible deniability. When you did get open depictions of queer characters it was more likely to be in the form of something like 1970’s The Boys in the Band, in which a group of gay men get together for a birthday party and generally bemoan the awful, miserable state of their lives (you did get the occasional fairly nuanced portrayal of a Sunday, Bloody Sunday or Cabaret, which themselves were stories of failed relationships, but it was infinitely more likely for a gay man to commit suicide or a gay woman to realize she’d really loved the handsome hero all along). In tandem with the rise of the civil rights movement, the queer community lashed out against years of silencing by putting forth an image of hypersexuality that refused to be ignored – and not just sexuality, but all the unpleasant bodily realities of being human that polite society refused to acknowledge (this idea of celebrating “filth” in all its forms is perhaps most crystallized in the films of John Waters).
Into this world, where the queer community was beginning to demand public recognition with a long repressed scream, where apparent cultural permission for the strange masked a stricture of rules about just how different you could be, where queerness on screen was the stuff of misery or villainy, The Rocky Horror Show came into being, a 50s B-movie turned on its head: squeaky-clean couple Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, on their way to visit their old teacher, get a flat tire and wind up taking shelter from a storm in a mad scientist’s castle; that scientist, Dr. Frank N. Furter, is hosting a grand party to celebrate his new creation – an Adonis of a man made for sex rather than science.
The Community That Bears the Torch
To speak of Rocky Horror almost inevitably means telling a personal story about its place in your life, which speaks a great deal about how such an odd, old film continues on in the public consciousness. While the concept of the Midnight Movie was not unknown (John Waters’ 1972 film Pink Flamingos had quite the following), the ritualized audience participation was unique to Rocky Horror. What initially started as smart marketing by studio execs to salvage a few bucks from a colossal flop (building off of the repeat viewings they observed with the film’s LA audience) became a place where audience members could dress and act in a way that would be prohibited or even dangerous for them in their day to day lives. Particularly for fans from less cosmopolitan communities, the movie theater became a one-night safe space that offered a sense of belonging far outside the distant communities of San Francisco or Greenwich Village. Members of the culture talk about lifelong friendships and deeply relevant memories that affected the course of their entire lives.
Some go so far as to say that one cannot understand Rocky Horror at all unless one takes part in that active community – something I’m not entirely sure I buy into. For all the theater-goers who finally felt open and accepted, who found supportive communities that held one another up, there are others who felt alienated and even humiliated by the sometimes aggressive insistence on events of public spectacle like the “virgin initiation,” which involves hauling first timers up on the stage and having them go through a hazing event (which can range from something as gentle as taking a pledge to, often in college settings, anything up to miming sex for the audience). For that matter, there is always the chance that an event predicated on a small group of in-the-know individuals can grow clique-ish and backbiting. This by no means negates those who had positive experiences, but it’s worth remembering before making a blanket statement of how the show “should” be experienced or interpreted.
And between those two extremes there will be people like me (didn’t I tell you personal narrative is inescapable on this subject?). I had the opportunity to attend a single midnight showing while I was in college, to which I dragged along some considerably more straight-laced friends for support. It is rather fortunate that they had been indulging in cheap vodka beforehand, because otherwise I imagine having a big red V put on their forehead in lipstick and being hit on by heavily made-up individuals in fetish wear would’ve been an alarmingly discomfiting experience. I, having done my research and lied through my teeth to get out of the initiation, wound up in the strange position of being the Socially Confident Friend for the first time in my life. I got them out of the ritual, took the lead in more flirting than I have ever done before or since, and became a regular fountain of trivia and history. While I’d been in disguise as an ally since middle school, a lone voice reporting to my “normal” friends, there they were the odd ones out. I was the cultural norm for one night in one auditorium, and it was dizzying.
At the end of the night, with the writing on the wall from my bravado, I wound out coming out to my friend (the second person to receive confirmation of my still-in-progress self-revelation, the first having come a cautious five years before). She had been dropping questioning hints since high school, was a rock solid known variable, and still I shook with terrified tears. When it was over, I felt simultaneously as if a weight had been lifted and a guillotine was now hanging over my head. This was 2011. Marriage Equality was still labeled as “same-sex marriage,” but it was legal in several states. Will & Grace had begun humanizing queerness for people like my mother, the basically good but thoroughly sheltered. The future had come, in theory, but out in Wyoming I still needed that safe place.
Very momentous sounding, but it’s not the most important memory I associate with the film. That was a good deal earlier, when I was 15 and finally being worn down by my inner monologue (in which my brain would say “but you like this person” and I, thinking about being alone and afraid and maybe beaten to death in an icy parking lot someday, would reply “yes but I’ve also liked this other person and I’ve never kissed anyone, what do I know anyway, I might still be straight”). I’d heard Rocky Horror’s name in more than a few books of film history, and so I brought home the worn, scratched copy from the public library – no parental permission or funds required! – on a summer day when I was sure I would have the house to myself.
It was a rapturous 100 minutes. The music is memorable and distinct from my childhood of Rogers & Hammerstein. Tim Curry was both a familiar voice and a completely unknown magnetic presence. And I felt fiercely for Brad and Janet (sure they’re kind of tone deaf and jerkish, but they’re also nothing more than what they’ve been taught to be) – a fondness that’s only gotten stronger with time, and which I suspect contributes greatly to my disinclination toward future live show viewings. I was red from tip to toe as well, since the most sexually explicit film I’d seen to that point was Forrest Gump. Sitting alone at that age, it was a safe explosion of aggressive flamboyance, a glimpse of potential I could privately indulge in without giving anything away to the world at large. I was sick for days afterward, acutely panicked that someone would know what I’d done, at war with how thrilled I felt and how terrified I was that the world would find me disgusting.
There’s a famous sequence in the film where Brad and Janet are shown to separate bedrooms and Frank, initially pretending to be the other’s fiancé, seduces both of them in turn. It’s a pretty iffy pair of scenes, at the very best coercion and particularly with Brad playing into all sorts of unpleasant stereotypes about the predatory nature of queerness (let me tell you how many articles about the movie or its potential sequels that refer to Brad “turning” gay – and do make room so that I can beat my head against something). More than that, the underlying idea of “pressure someone, they’ll decide they like sexual attention” has probably had more than a bit of influence on those aggressive, unwelcoming midnight showings, and more than deserves to be condemned. But, sick with panic attacks and burning fascinations, those were the scenes that resonated most with my young self. Not just closeted but also repressed, the fantasy of someone attractive and charismatic “forcing” something you wanted to do, letting you live out a fantasy while also claiming it wasn’t your fault was a comfort I could let myself indulge in. It doesn’t, and should never, work that way in real life. But it was a fiction that I needed then, as someone who ran from real-life experience (and even as a comfortable adult, have ultimately only rarely felt real-world sexual attraction).
While the realness of midnight screenings presented the reality of sex, watching the movie alone was a place that felt safe while the world outside wasn’t. And that, too, is a valuable power even decades on. When the BBC put on a 40th anniversary production of The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show in September of 2015, complete with audience and crew interviews, author Richard O’Brien described the play as “juvenile.” And I think that’s at the heart of why it endures. It is the scream of someone knowing they are different but lacking the words to articulate what that means. It’s sharp edged and unpolished, but it’s a release of tension too – an excellent way to begin coming to terms with one’s underlying feelings of being mocked and rejected just for existing. None of us are born knowing all the correct up-to-the-minute terminology or the history of how gender, sexuality, and society interact. The trouble comes when one lets the film be the end of their journey, stagnating in that adolescent, giggling pool of shock-nudity and glamor without deeper thought. Which brings us around to those themes, thoughtful and troubling alike, and the dangers of that impending remake.
Queer Then and Queer Now
No one with a functional brain cell and a modicum of empathy would ever claim that the famous Dr. Frank N. Furter makes for good representation. The best one can say is that Tim Curry’s magnetic, alluring performance (originated on stage before being cemented on film) goes a long way to explaining the hypnotic spell Frank weaves over the course of the film, and even injects pathos and tragedy above and beyond the script when he’s eventually killed. But Frank the character, on paper? He’s an unstable murderer and serial manipulator who’s out to turn absolutely everyone within the confines of his castle into his playthings.
If the film as a whole is a loving sendup of B-movies, then Frank is all of the paranoias of those movies writ large: a scientist trying to create life from nothing, a queer hedonist out to corrupt innocent youths, and an alien hiding in plain sight with devious intent to undermine the good ol’ U-S-of-A. And yet Rocky is not a dangerous monster, Brad and Janet are not corrupted but freed from lives and social expectations that were strangling them, and the man the government sent to out Frank as a spy is apparently an ex-Nazi.
In the end, the couple is returned to the world of “normalcy,” with the threat put to death. But the narrative unsettles those expectations again: while Riff-Raff and Magenta are both a force of “order” and a heterosexual couple they’re also an incestuous heterosexual couple, and if the tear tracks on Riff’s face as he screams “He never liked me!” are any indication, Frank’s death had a lot more to do with jealous rage than it did upholding Righteous Virtue. But what matters is that they look the part of normalcy, keeping their Otherness safely out of sight. And the film ends with the mournful “Superheroes,” in which Brad and Janet can do little more than mourn the society they’re going to have to go back to (I’ve done a lot, God knows I’ve tried/To find the truth, I’ve even lied/But all I know is down inside I’m bleeding”). While Frank was undeniably an awful person, killing him was a pointless gesture, an attempt to smooth over the Otherness that Brad and Janet are now aware of. From this perspective, the film is downright brilliant and even poignant as a satire. It works well enough on that core level that, at least for me, the film retains a level of resonance even 40 years later… though with the caveat that the single most interesting part of the story (at least for our leads) is what happens to those two after the party ends and the curtain falls (and God knows Shock Treatment didn’t go on to explore any of those interesting ideas).
But the film is not just that satire or that screaming catharsis. Even as Frank-in-text is an awful but alluring person, he was adopted by many as a straightforward sex symbol. And if the character is taken at face value, that also means taking all of the baggage too. Many trans women in particular have felt wounded by the character and the film, seeing a community hold up a “man in drag” as a celebrated figure – it’s technically true but also quite disingenuous to argue that Frank is not trans but a cis man (“cis” being the opposite of trans – a person who’s comfortable not just with their physical body but the gender traits society assigns to that body) in women’s clothes, given the combined facts that “transvestite” did originate as an interchangeable term for a transgender person in the early 20th century, drag as a community was frequently an explorative ground for individuals who later came to think of themselves as trans or were trans in a way which was not yet defined by the culture (Richard O’Brien himself, once the terminology arose for it, came out as non-binary), and the idea that trans women are actually just “men in women’s clothing” was and is a widespread and harmful stereotype.
So Frank is and is not trans, but certainly he carries the negative associations assigned to being trans – and while he is drawn from and parodying negative queer coding in film, that didn’t stop films afterward from running with what they saw not as mockery but a simple example of a wicked queer seducer. The more the film became mainstream pop entertainment, the further it became divorced from its origins as anti-establishment satire. And given that very real stratification between gay men and women and “everybody else” (bisexuals, asexuals, trans and intersex individuals), it’s even worse to think of those concerns being brushed aside as unimportant. A trans person’s stance that Frank is harmful is valid, and is more than reason enough for them not to find the film valuable. By the same token, my experience as a nonbinary trans person, empowered by seeing male and female characters all transformed by equal costume and makeup, is also valid. That idea of multiple valid interpretations is what gets the movie into trouble in an age of polarized rhetoric. It’s at once a film that’s empowering and damaging, thoughtful and juvenile. It’s a work of its age that has also, because of the memories it engendered, been lovingly passed on by the community. It is wholly dependent in meaning and relative positivity on the context one experiences it in. It is, on the whole, quite singular.
There is no way that a remake can capture all of that. There is almost no way for a reimagining to be so completely transformed that it speaks to the voice of modern queer culture rather than that of the 1970s. Particularly not one directed by Kenny Ortega, whose previous films are all scrubbed, bloodless and safe on every level (by the same token, casting former Disney stars as the new Brad and Janet screams of a Harmony Korine-like level of desperation). The one factor that keeps a painful modicum of hope alive for the project is the casting (and by all appearances fairly involved creative input) of Laverne Cox, perhaps the most respected trans activist in America. To make Rocky Horror work from a modern perspective would involve radical changes in music and staging and performance, and would likely alienate the old guard bringing in that sweet cash for the risk of appealing to a new generation. While I fervently want to see what that Rocky Horror would look like, I have little to no hope that it will be born of a TV special that is so blatantly a cash grab. More likely the remake will be either a pointless shot-for-shot redundancy or emphasize certain aspects in a way that only sharpens what have become the offensive elements of the original, retroactively overshadowing the original’s clever virtues. Laverne Cox is a great performer and a thoughtful speaker, but she’s one person. One person cannot save a sinking ship. Let us instead prepare to cringe collectively, and hope that the damage can ultimately be ignored in the long haul.