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Fright Fortnight: Queer Representation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

7 mins read

“Give yourself over to absolute pleasure”, croons Frank N’ Furter in the grand, sweeping floor show at the end of Richard O’Brien’s freaky, sexy, time-warping 1975 cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Certainly, that’s what audiences have done with Rocky, even since its initial inception as a stage musical at the Royal Court Theatre in London.

It’s easy to think of other cult classics; fellow horror-comedy musical Little Shop of Horrors & John Carpenter’s The Thing, but Rocky Horror is the king (or queen?) of them all.

Devoted audiences – whether it’s their first or fifth or fiftieth time attending – flock, in all sorts of wonderful and intriguing costumes, to sold-out “audience participation” cinema screenings.

Across the world, people gather to sing along, call-back oh-so-colourful dialogue in response to the film, and, most importantly of all, have a total blast.

(Left to Right) Actors Nell Campbell, Patricia Quinn, Tim Curry and Richard O’Brien (Image Credit: 20th Century Fox)

But what makes Rocky Horror such an enduring classic after 47 years of existence?

For those unfamiliar with the plot, there is no easy way to explain it, or lack of it, without sounding like you’ve just done a whole lot of recreational drugs.

Rocky Horror doesn’t really have a traditional narrative – it’s more like a series of wild sketches and surreal ideas stitched together.

It centres on Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, a young clean-cut recently engaged couple, and the antics that ensue when they find themselves in the mansion of mad transvestite scientist, Dr Frank N’ Furter.

At its core, Rocky Horror is a film of sexual exploration and open-mindedness. When introduced to Brad and Janet, they are as squeaky clean as they come. Straight, well-kept, both hopelessly romantic and hopelessly repressed.

But by the film’s end, they have undergone a transformation of character. Once Brad and Janet leave behind comfortability and their virginal lifestyles, they are forever changed.

It must be noted that the 70s saw a loosening of restrictions on sexuality in cinema, however, not to the extent we can see today.

As well as this, homosexual activity became legal throughout the United States and the world over. But queer communities were still heavily marginalized and without a voice in media, despite some improvement in those areas too.

Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon as Brad and Janet (Image Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Rocky Horror is a crazy, everything goes, celebration of queerness.

Brad may not be as straight as he thought; as Frank N’ Furter seduces him in bed, pretending to be Janet (more on that soon) and Janet finds herself in the same situation, while additionally falling for Frank’s ‘creature’ Rocky.

It’s a film that could not have come at a more necessary and important time. As the feature moved into its ‘midnight screening’ scene, and the audience participation aspect began, a whole culture developed around it.

Queer people had found a community to rejoice with and experiment/play with sexuality and homosexuality. Even straight people participated. Everyone was welcome and accepted.

The film is the longest-running release in film history proving that even in the digital age where conservatism is challenged and previously unheard communities have a voice in the media there is still a place for Rocky’s boundary-pushing display.

Stereotypes Galore

However, despite its cult classic reputation and influence on many queer folks all around the world, it has also faced numerous controversies.

The transgender community has spoken out against the character of Frankfurter.

As an anonymous poster on Reddit describes:

“I got uncomfortable watching it for the first time honestly. I liked how it started, and how the place was basically just a b-movie madhouse for repressed sexuality and everything society doesn’t accept, so I enjoyed that part. But the longer it goes on the more confusing it gets, with Tim Curry basically being revealed as a gay man who wants to have sex with teenagers, and a cannibal, and generally just crossing into being more of a villain + hinting at the stereotype of trans women being predators and creeps”.

– Anonymous Redditor

Members of the trans community have criticized Frank for pushing harmful stereotypes of trans people and for making him the villain of the piece.

In one scene Dr Frank-n-Furter even rapes both Brad and Janet, but it is played for laughs; something which hasn’t aged well at all and would surely be ‘cancelled’ if written nowadays.

However, others have voiced that while some aspects of the film can be seen as a product of its time, any representation back then was “a fumbling step in the right direction” and the film overall has done a lot better for queer representation than it has done bad.

Frankfurter is not villainized directly because of his transvestitism, but because he is a villainous figure in general.

Richard O’Brien, the show and film’s creator is also genderqueer in real life, therefore, the likelihood of sinister intentions in its representation of Frank is very low.

Despite some questionable material, Rocky Horror is one of the foundational queer films in American cinema and the definitive cult classic of the 70s and beyond.

Its legacy of queer representation and voice in a changing era will be remembered as a landmark moment in cinematic history and people should still be doing the time warp for a long while yet.

Featured Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

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