The Groundbreaking Genderf*cking of 'Rocky Horror Picture Show'


For the 40 years of my own existence, I relegated “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to the same canny, cultish depths as the general public: a mysterious midnight phenomenon painted in lipstick-horror-red Halloween lettering alongside a disembodied mouth suspended in enigmatic darkness. I would hear kids cheer at college dance parties when the anthemic theme song came on, but I wasn’t part of the inside joke. I shrugged and gave it the same passing indifference as other 1970s trends that happened just before my pop consciousness came alive, like Captain & Tennille and the TV show "Taxi." But I’d actually been tricked by “Rocky Horror”’s coyness, its devilish nod to the shadows it gave birth to. “Rocky Horror” was not just a simple, antiquated cult fad. I finally saw it a few months ago, and my head exploded.

Sure, on the surface it had the creaky joints of a low-budget, B-grade horror flick combined with a high school musical. But the campiness was, like the cultish air around it, deceptively banal. This was a richer, deeper, pop-cultural masterpiece, bolder and braver than most anything of its decade and arguably for many thereafter; insightful and challenging in ways that have reverberated and resurfaced only today, four decades later. Dr. Frank N. Furter was the shrink for an entire nation’s repressed sexual psyche. He was ready to unleash the monster—the one we needed like Japan needed Godzilla. Somehow, even now, it's just too hard to recognize that gender is complex and fluid, and not as simple as black and white game. We need to stop being so afraid of that complexity.

In a Scottish fiction college class I took eons ago, we discussed the fascinating concept of using the Gothic as a way to render taboo topics more palatable to the general public, particularly when it came to issues of sexual, religious and culture clashes during the Victorian period. The state of “otherness” for the Scottish and the Irish in the United Kingdom gave their literary imaginations free rein when it came to exploring this genre in famous works like Dracula (by the Anglo-Irish writer Bram Stoker), Walter Scott’s romances, and in the lesbian vampire precursor tale to DraculaCarmilla, by the Irish writer Sheridan LeFanu. Here, the anxieties induced by issues of confused historical national identity, combined with general fears about sexuality and religious violation, could become fodder for tantalizing tales of rapturous horror, danger and fantasy. The Gothic was a unique “safe scary space” where the id became socially permissible and the illicit was not only condoned, it was relished as entertainment, the wilder the better.

The Gothic, to this day, remains a unique harbinger of social mores, a bellwether of brewing subcultures ready to burst to the surface and one day become mainstream, or even ho-hum. Before it reaches this boiling point, the taboo subjects the Gothic delectably explores achieve artistic grace, groundbreaking boldness and a sublimity that only art can free to the masses.

In a similar fashion, “Rocky Horror” dares to unlock and expose the racy underbelly of repressed Mad Men-style America. The “innocent” sweetheart couple, played by Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick, look like your stereotypical all-American ‘50s jock couple, a bland letterman prepster and his seemingly virginal poodle-skirted betrothed. They come to the classic Gothic mansion in the middle of a thunderstorm, ready to uncover their own budding sexuality, but in a more brazen fashion than they ever expected.

The moment of reckoning is the entrance of Tim Curry’s seminal character: the camera languorously showing his glamorous heels, bustier and Cheshire grin. Even as a straight female, I have to admit my breath was taken away at Dr. Frank N. Furter’s grand arrival. He oozes sensuality from every pore: raw, unadulterated, glitter-honey charisma. The teasing, rolling rhymes, the “an—ticipation” dragging you to the cliff’s edge. It’s one of those star-making movie moments where you know, as the viewer, that cinema won’t ever be quite the same.

Curry’s confidence riffs off similar gender-bending antics from that other fairly young, rebellious artistic arena, rock n’ roll, particularly the glam rock scene. David Bowie, Lou Reed & Velvet Underground, Mick Jagger: the rigidity of gender identities matter less than the braggadocio, the impertinence, the sass, the sexual chocolate. It is the power of the human artistic spirit: the inner fire is king and queen at once. There is power in both genders and their aesthetic wonderment to draw on, to create, to mix, to inspire.

Armed accordingly, it is no wonder that Frank N. Furter easily seduces both of the sweethearts (again, intrepid for its time). The movie progresses into a parade of Freudian and Jungian fantasies run amok, mixed into a technicolor ‘50s rockabilly stew (human bones included) that makes "Grease" seem like "Sesame Street" in comparison. Between lobotomized biker-dude Meat Loaf and the namesake Cupid-like golden-boy character Rocky Horror, the movie is a glorious decadent mess, a cornucopia of fetishes and flesh, yet curiously still as innocent as the deflowered couple, a wicked joy percolating beneath the demonic chaos. It is a celebration of “otherness,” the Gothic turned giddy, the glee of “Glee” meeting the blasphemy of Frankensteinian creation. The musicality and cartoonish sets help defang the intergender provocativeness of this universe, somehow melding both genuine sweetness and menace into an irresistible, acid-colored, sexy shock-soda fountain. The unflinching mishmash of earlier B-movie sci-fi and horror tropes recalls the whirring retro pop-culture savvy of Quentin Tarentino in “Kill Bill,” and later grind-house movements.

So out of this incendiary Gothic Eden, what does America learn? The aliens have been running the show all along and flee in disdain for America’s squareness and insignificance. The message is both disturbing and liberating: should we be paranoid and mistrustful of the aliens from Transsexual, Transylvania, lurking in our dark forests? Or should we have let them complete their mission, allowing us to revel in interstellar creativity and new forms of life, love and merriment? The Carnivale is the essence of true living; the seed of artistic genius, and therefore, human truth.

Decades later, we have come to view the prophecies of “Rocky Horror” with the maturity of greater mainstream acceptance for transgendered and LGBT lifestyles, for racial minorities, atheists and other souls who have all lived and loved in our midst as the secret “aliens”—the offbeat folks who don’t fit in and conform to blandly perfect middle America. With the rise of social media these cloistered voices are finally rising to be heard, finally shifting America’s tolerance toward the wider spectrum and diversity of human sexuality and identity.

The recent Golden Globe-winning show “Transparent” was groundbreaking for a totally different reason—by rendering the struggles of coming out as transgender in an open, honest, tenderhearted family drama. The tide of acceptance for gay marriage continues to dramatically shift toward inclusion and empathy (despite some stubborn barriers). There is still much work to be done (as evidenced by transgender teen Leelah Alcorn’s tragic suicide), but America’s psyche is moving in the right direction, one that was given a swift, high-heeled kick 40 years ago.

Given the recent news of a 40th-anniversary remake of “Rocky Horror,” one hopes people will recall and rewatch the psychedelic rock star beauty of the original cult classic; that they will relish the unstoppable sexiness of Dr. Frank N. Furter and his twisted castle of characters; that people will remember how art can turn fear and danger into understanding and joy. The groundbreaking Gothic of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” made today’s everyday gender-blended humanism possible. 

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