Seeking a true Halloween experience this past weekend, I decided to go see The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Screening Room.
Knowing little about the actual content of the film prior to this Halloweekend, I was surprised by how blatantly Rocky Horror tackled issues like gender structures, sexual liberation and many aspects of the LGBT community were way before its time when released in 1975.
Sitting down before the movie began, I was told “regular theatre etiquette” didn’t apply — something which proved to be true. The traditions passed down by Rocky Horror fans everywhere are delightful and won’t be mentioned here — they should remain an enigma for those who want the full experience. Needless to say, it really puts the “cult” in cult movie.
Besides all of the physical shock my body went through during those extraordinary 90 minutes, I was also surprised to learn it came out in 1975. I knew it was an older film — although Susan Sarandon looks remarkably unchanged — but, considering its progressive characters and subject matter, it was surprising to learn it was barrelling towards its 50th anniversary.
I could only think of the experience its first young viewers would’ve had, especially those in the LGBT community. Before explicit LGBT representation was introduced in mass media, gay, lesbian and transgender youth were forced to seek validation in other places, often from ostensibly straight characters.
Judy Garland was a famous icon among gay men for her The Wizard of Oz character Dorothy’s accepting nature and desire to live in a better, more colourful world. As a result, homosexual men began cryptically describing themselves as “friends of Dorothy” in the 40s.
During this time, most characters were coded as queer or trans and became cautionary tales from morality plays. Their storylines often ended with their symbolic deaths or assimilation into heterosexual society. Early in the film, fear of homosexuality was wrapped up in a larger conservative fear of youth sexuality and changing gender roles.
But by the 70s, the tide was changing. The LGBT rights movement had been jump-started by the Stonewall riots, as well as second-wave feminism being in full force across college campuses.
The release of The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975 came at a watershed moment in the sexual liberation era. It became an instant cult classic, through word of mouth inspiring thousands of teens who might have previously felt alienated from their straight-laced, utilitarian peers.
Before watching the film, I had always felt uncomfortable with the little knowledge I had of the character Dr. Frank-n-Furter, the “transvestite from transsexual Transylvania.” I was always under the impression his character was a joke made at the expense of gay men and trans women — two groups whose identities were equated in the 70s.
After watching the movie, I realized he’s certainly not an unproblematic poster child for the LGBT movement — he’s, after all, a cannibal. But there was something electrifying in the way the movie straddled the line between subverting homophobic and transphobic stereotypes. By playing into them the film subverts and accepts tropes of all kinds.
The rest of the film is undoubtedly a celebration of fluidity in sexuality and gender, where the joke is on characters who are uncomfortable with these changing norms. The comically innocent Janet sings of how she “wants to be dirty,” while having sex with a buff monster literally covered in mud. The film revels in the hedonistic character of
Dr. Frank and satirizes the idea that all sex is equally corruptive. One of the final scenes depicts an orgy in Frank’s swimming pool, an aerial shot metaphorically showing the characters in pristine, pure waters.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is nothing if not a reminder that societal progress isn’t as
straight-forward and linear as we might imagine it to be. I’ve spoken to several older gay activists who admitted to feeling more comfortable being openly gay in the 70s than in the following decade, because the AIDS epidemic and the rise of conservatism in the UK and US spurred homophobia among the general public.
The 1975 classic has been touring the world as a musical for decades, but its most high-profile restaging was the Rocky Horror live television musical produced by FOX last year. This 2016 remade version reminded me of the lopsided ways society progresses.
Laverne Cox, probably the most notable trans actress today, played the role of Dr. Frank-n-Furter. Considering Cox’s lived experience, Frank’s lines about “not being much of a man” are imbued with increased sincerity and depth. But despite this progressive casting choice, reviewers were disappointed by the omissions of sex scenes and sexual innuendos from the original script.
Television has become light years ahead of Hollywood in its representation of LGBTQ, non-white and other minority characters; yet network television still can’t do justice to Rocky Horror’s message of sexual freedom — a message that’s now 42 years old.
I especially see the lopsided progress of society’s attitudes towards sexuality when I look at the policies of supposedly progressive first world countries like the United States. Australia, Canada’s upside-down commonwealth cousin, is currently debating the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Australian politicians’ arguments against same-sex marriage often dwell on the corrupting powers of homosexuality — something that Rocky Horror, as silly as the movie may seem, addressed so many years ago.
Additionally, the United States keeps edging closer and closer to a full-blown culture war between its majority of non-white, queer-friendly cities and its isolated rural areas. This distinction existed in the 70s, when the Rocky Horror Picture Show came out. At this time, there were only a few neighborhoods in a select number of cities in which LGBT people could be open and supported.
And while the time period is often associated with feminist victories such as the Roe v. Wade ruling, which occurred two years prior to Rocky Horror’s belief, the evangelical right was stealthily gaining more and more power throughout the decade.
In the 80s and 90s, the widespread moral frenzy known as the Satanic Panic would sweep suburbs across the nation leading to books being banned and subversive rap and metal music being censored. Rocky Horror represents everything that terrified those panicking — hedonism, gore, sexual fluidity and the sullying of 50s cultural touchstones they held dear.
In an increasingly uncertain present state of society, it’s important to look back to the markers of change in society’s collective thinking. Watching movies that were so ahead of their time, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, allows us to reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go as a society.
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