DIRECTOR: Jim Sharman
KEY ACTORS: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 80%
SEX SCORE: 3.5/5
✔️ So Rocky Horror passes the Bechdel Test, but this is another example where it can be argued that its passing is ‘dubious.’ It does literally pass the binary test, but all the qualifying conversations between named female characters are still about sex…just sex with a woman.
✔️ It is rewatchable. But I’d recommend watching it at the cinema if at all possible – it is so much more fun that way!
✔️ And I do want to fuck the cast. They’re all either very extreme or very normal, but the characters are so horny that they have an undeniable appeal. Also, I love a man in stockings…
❓ Unsure if this really count as inspiring a fantasy as it didn’t get quite as far as a full-blown fantasy, but this film is certainly the first time that I saw a man in heels and stockings look so good and, lets just say, it changed things!
❌ But considering how revolutionary it was at the time it was released and how important it has been to queer representation, I don’t think Rocky Horror is sex positive. Frank is too predatory; Rocky is too exploited; Janet is not a slut. It’s wonderful but its sexual politics haven’t aged so well.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much a movie as an experience. A phenomenon. First released to mixed reception in 1975, it has become the archetypal cult film. Regular midnight showings are congregated by hordes of fancy-dressed diehard fans who add their own lines between those on screen and bring props to interact with the story themselves. It’s like nothing else; Rocky Horror is an institution.
OK before we get into it, let’s try to summarise the plot! Average American couple, Brad (Bostwick) and Janet (Sarandon), have a puncture when driving through the woods in a storm and approach a strange castle to see if they have a telephone to call for help. The castle is the home of Dr Frank N Furter (Curry) and his servants who persuade Brad and Janet to stay the night by singing and dancing and, well, taking their clothes. Frank invites them up to his lab (to see what’s on the slab) where he has created a perfect man – the eponymous Rocky Horror – essentially as a sex toy. Later in the night, Frank tricks both Brad and Janet into sleeping with him and then, well, it becomes a bit chaotic! There’s a scientist in a wheelchair, cannibalism, turning people to stone, more stockings, more songs, a musical number/orgy in a swimming pool and eventually Frank’s servants, RiffRaff and Magenta, turn on him and reveal themselves to all be aliens from Transylvania. They kill Frank, release Brad and Janet, and take off in the castle-spaceship to return to Transylvania. Phew…
Now, Rocky Horror is a film whose legend is almost bigger than the film itself, and I knew all about it and its following long before I had ever seen it. My mother used to tell me stories of going to see it in the 1980s, singing and bringing along water pistols to create rain, and it sounded like the most incredible thing I had ever heard. I’m a huge fan of immersive cinema now but it was so new when I heard stories about these midnight showings that they sounded like magic and I was desperate to be a part of it. I wanted to see the movie so much – and I wanted to see it in the cinema, late at night, wearing fishnets and throwing pieces of toast into the air. Except that I was about 10 at the time my mother told me these stories and living in deepest darkest countryside so I couldn’t go even if I were allowed!
Sadly, years and years and years then passed and I still had not seen the film so when I spotted it on TV, I thought I’d give it a watch. And, honestly, I thought it was really weird. It was so bizarre and I didn’t get it. At all. I was so disappointed! But when I mentioned this to my mother, she wasn’t surprised – it is a strange film and it does make no sense, and that’s because it can’t easily be watched in isolation. As Roger Ebert wrote, Rocky Horror is a movie that ‘played as a backdrop to the stage show by the fans.’ It needs the fans and the interaction to make sense! So I tried again. I found a proper showing and, although I didn’t dress up as I was there by myself and wasn’t ready for that, it had everything else and it was in-credible. Over the top and immersive and hysterical, and I loved it. And now I won’t watch it any other way!
For me, this was the first introduction to how powerful community can be, particularly kink, queer and sex positive communities. Although Rocky Horror isn’t perfect, it was one of the earliest mainstream representations of queerness on screen and these midnight showings ‘provided a place where the socially and sexually marginalised could gather each week and rejoice in each other’s company.’ Even in otherwise pretty conservative cities, showings of Rocky Horror would allow people to gather together and express themselves in a way that would often be frankly dangerous in other circumstances: ‘It was a family. A loose, cliquish one divided into participants and gawkers, to be sure, but a community nonetheless.’
The importance of this community cannot be overstated. It was a safe space at a time when there weren’t enough of these available. Frank is a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania and he is awesome! He’s wearing make-up and stockings and heels and he is powerful. And within the hyperactive and bizarre context of the movie, he isn’t a joke; he makes sense. I cannot imagine how freeing it must have been to ‘see someone like Frank-N-Furter be the leader of a society and be unapologetically confident and sexually ambiguous.’ Not only him, there is gender queer representation all over the place with femme and masc presenting observers among the TimeWarp dancers. Alongside this, Brad and Janet represent the more vanilla, mainstream attitudes so everyone could feel welcome: ‘It is an opportunity to see oneself in a film, it provides a place for self-expression, and it gives meaning to peoples’ lives…Brad and Janet embody the more conservative audience of the film, while Frank-N-Furter and his servants give a voice to those who have never felt represented by characters in film or television.’
I am very fortunate because I have never needed a safe place like this as being myself has never carried the same risks as those faced by LGBT people in the 1970s and 1980s, but I still recognise how much having a community of like minded people has changed and supported me. Interacting with people who share my less mainstream values on sex, non-monogamy or kink has given me the confidence to accept those parts of me with less shame or concern than I would have if I’d faced them alone. So I can completely understand how watching Dr Frank N Furter up there on screen and then making friends with others in the audience who experienced the same challenges would have encouraged a sense of belonging and confidence that helped people accept themselves, and maybe accept themselves enough to come out.
But the world is different now and so is Rocky Horror’s place in it. In 1975, Rocky Horror was released into a pre-AIDS world where homosexuality had only been removed from the American Classification of Mental Disorders two years previously (something the WHO wouldn’t do until 1992!) and where Pride movements were still in their earliest stages – the rainbow Pride flag would only be adopted three years later. In 1975, queer communities needed this movie and this safe space as they had so little else.
Now, in 2019, while there is obviously still much work to be done, society is more accepting of queer and trans people, and so Rocky Horror has lost some of its power. You could say that it’s done its job! But now that it’s no longer a ‘boundary breaker,’ what is it?
Well, as dominant cultures tend to do, it’s been appropriated by the mainstream! Rocky Horror has been described as ‘LGBT cosplay for straight people’ and as a ‘chance for the comfortable to dip their toes in their perception of LGBT culture.’ It is no longer a groundbreaking safe place; Rocky Horror is a circus act.
And when viewed in this way, it starts to look much more problematic. Take Frank N Furter as an obvious example – he is extreme and over the top, but outside of the over the top context of the movie and the historical context of the time, he is just a predator. His aggressive form of sexuality can even make him look like ‘a caricature of the LGBT predator conservative lawmakers are so intent on convincing us is real.’ He manipulates Brad and Janet into sleeping with him by hiding his identity until the last minute, a clear consent violation; he builds Rocky to have sex with and literally chases him around the castle when Rocky tries to escape, suggesting Rocky doesn’t really consent to fucking Frank either. And don’t forget that Frank kills and then eats Eddie when he looks elsewhere. He is a monster! As the Houston Press so descriptively put it, ‘remove the singing and he is basically Buffalo Bill with better fashion sense.’
In fact, Jef Rouner, writing for the Houston Press in 2017, now has very strong views about the problematic nature of Rocky Horror in the modern world, describing how his relationship with the movie has changed. He went from regular performer and disciple to hesitating to share the movie that means so much to him with his daughter as he’s not certain it contains messages he wants her to hear. ‘Screaming “slut” whenever anyone says Janet’s name is arguably the single most basic call line in Rocky Horror history,’ he explains, and even though she has no more sex than the other main characters, she is the only one to get labeled.
When asked to justify the use of this sort of language, Rouner used to respond with ‘righteous indignation,’ citing tradition and the ‘unique cinematic experience’ of Rocky as reasons why the complaint held no merit. Now older, he has realised that he had been wrong to disregard their concerns: ‘Looking back at it now, I sounded like freakin’ GamerGate. I sounded like every other aggrieved son of privilege beating his chest because his toys made other people uncomfortable. It’s a weirdly conservative mind-set for something that was supposed to be about breaking boundaries.’
So what is Rocky Horror now?
Well, to me, it’s a testament to progress. It is dated and it is problematic – but as are so many other movies from the 1970s. The 1970s were a problematic time! We do live in a different time now, thank goodness, and we can’t expect media from the past to represent current attitudes. It can still be enjoyed if we look at it critically and understand what was important and what is important, and what we can and have learned from it.
And it is definitely ‘encouraging that the world no longer needs Rocky Horror the way it did in decades past.’ So maybe it is now just the ‘richest sources of holiday costume ideas’ to come out of the history of cinema. And maybe it is an excuse for the conservative and conventional to drag up and maybe it too problematic to be anything other than a bit of fun.
But, oh, what fun it is! I still love watching this film and still love to dress up and sing along. And maybe, just maybe, there are still people who will benefit from seeing ‘two conventional young sheeple having their eyes opened to all the possibilities of absolute pleasure’ by going to the movies and spending ‘two hours in the dark with a bunch of other weirdoes!’
Next week: Colette