Wild and Untamed Things: Why a Cult Classic Still Resonates After All These Years
It's midnight somewhere.
And that means that somewhere there are a bunch of people, dressed in fishnets and garish makeup, sitting inside a movie theater shouting at and singing along with the actors onscreen. Because it's midnight, and that means it's time for The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with it, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (AKA Rocky Horror)is a campy Rock and Roll musical from the 1970s. It's structured like a classic horror movie, with the All American couple of Brad and Janet seeking help from the inhabitants of and old, decaying mansion called the Frankenstein Place. There, they fall under the spell of self-proclaimed "sweet transvestite," Dr. Frank N Furter. The plot escalates from there, with some sex, some murder, and a few musical numbers.
The aspect of Rocky Horror that cements its "cult" status is the culture of audience participation that's built up around the film. Theaters host midnight showings where audience members shout "call backs" at the screen and a costumed cast acts out the movie while it plays behind them. If you didn't go home with rice in your hair, you weren't at Rocky Horror.
There are many theories as to why something that is, arguably, a really bad movie has managed to stay so popular and be so well loved. My theory is that it has to with sex. Specifically, the way the movie portrays sexual desire and queer sexuality.
I, and many of the people I know who consider themselves Rocky Horror fans, encountered it when we were fairly young (as pre-teens and teens). When you're that age, you are generally getting the full brunt of the "sex is something that is inappropriate for people your age to be thinking about or doing but I know you're thinking about it anyway so I am going to shame you if there is even a hint that you might be thinking about or doing it" messages. And heaven help you if your sexuality or gender identity was something other than straight or cisgender. Then it was shameful AND it was weird, and you should not discuss it because it makes the grown-ups uncomfortable.
So, imagine being that age and suddenly watching a movie where those messages are turned on their heads. Frank's first song ("Sweet Transvestite")is the best demonstration of this. He enters, struts to his throne, and flips off his Dracula-esque cape, revealing one hell of an outfit. If you're not familiar with the number, I suggest watching it here so you'll have a better sense of what I'm talking about. Frank is completely unashamed of his identity and his desires. In fact, he's proud of them, and celebrates them. And, importantly, his gender non-conformity is coded as something sexy and appealing, rather than freaky and gross.
The theme that sexual desire is OK, and that being different is glorious was kind of a revelation in my young brain. I had already been working out my (still fairly new) sexual feelings, and was coming to the conclusion that those desires did not match the "good girl" identity that everyone assumed I would have until the end of time (I by no means think my situation was unique, and am willing to guess many people reading this felt/feel a similar way). And, even though my parents were good about teaching me that sex wasn't inherently shameful and was perfectly normal, I got the sense that being too overt about my desires was going to tip me into "bad girl" territory.
Plus, families are just one source of messages about sex that you get when you're young, and the social events in my life were restricted to middle school dances with rigid dress codes and a taboo on getting too close to a partner. So, watching the party unfold onscreen at the Frankenstein Place was like having an entirely new universe open up in front of me. People threw around double entendres and innuendos like candy at a parade, there's pelvic thrusting aplenty, and nobody's ashamed of their bodies or their desires. It was also the first piece of media I had seen that acknowledged that sex could be fun. When you're a teen, most people avoid mentioning that sex can be pleasurable because they're afraid that it will encourage you to be sexual (which I find, at best, disingenuous). But in Rocky Horror, pleasure was discussed and displayed openly, sex was lauded and embraced rather than hidden. I was hooked.
Having that world to immerse myself in didn't change the fact that my day to day existence involved keeping my bra strap concealed from view at all times (lest it slip off my shoulder, remind everyone that I had breasts and thus, I assume from the number of times I and others got scolded for it, create some kind of lust-based pandemonium). But, in retrospect, it was incredibly helpful to have a sexual narrative that wasn't based on shame to turn to. And, as I got older, Rocky Horror became a cultural touchstone that helped me identify the people I was likely to get along with. It wasn't a guarantee that we would be friends, but it was a good way to find people who shared my sense of humor, or had fringe tastes, or who had a more open mind when it came to things like gender and sexuality.
Which brings me to my next hypothesis. I think that Rocky Horror's longevity also has to do with the fact that, for some queer kids, it's one of the first movies they encounter where straight people aren't the ones with the power. In the Rockyverse, Brad and Janet, the "normal, healthy" characters (who are straight and sexually "vanilla") are treated as weird, and the power their normalcy would usually provide them totally disappears. There's an excellent moment in Frank's laboratory in which Brad and Janet are standing (in their underwear) in front of Frank's guests while he peppers them with personal questions and makes comments about their bodies. This exchange is a reversal of something that anyone whose identity falls outside of the norm has probably experienced. That is, "normal" people asking invasive, personal questions in a context in which that is completely inappropriate.
For instance, if you've been in a queer relationship, you have likely heard some variation of the "but how do you have sex" question. Which, I hope we can all agree, is not a polite question to ask someone. And yet, unwillingness to answer questions of that nature is seen as detrimental to the recipient's desire for acceptance and respect, because there's the sense that it is their job (in order to be accepted) to educate people. Just look at the recent interviews with Laverne Cox, Carmen Carrera, and Janet Mock (all trans women of color), in which all the host seems to be able to focus on is asking about their genitals and sex lives.
Or, to put it as someone I love did, there's a sense that queer folks have to allow their bodies to be on public display and open for scrutiny in order to be fully welcomed by a society. So, if you've gone through feeling that way, watching the scene in Frank's lab can very satisfying. And that sense of satisfaction carries through the movie, as again and again the queer characters get the upper hand and make the "normal" people answer to them.
Now, I want to emphasize that I don't think the movie is some miracle of subversive sexual ideas. It still has a lot of problematic stuff in it. Women actively pursuing sex is still looked down on, and Frank can also be read as a perfect example of the "villainous/predatory gay" trope (where non-heterosexual masculinity is seen as threatening and bad and in need of destruction). And, the film has a textbook example of the rape culture narrative that states that you should push past someone's "no" because, once they loosen up and stop resisting, they'll be super into it. And those criticisms are just the top of the list of flaws you could make about the film. So, as with any piece of media, the fact that I love it doesn't mean that I think it gets a pass on being critiqued.
Ultimately, I think the movie has lasted so long because the kind of space it creates is really valuable. I think it's important to have spaces where you can both explore AND express your sexuality and gender away from the myriad of everyday pressures and constraints. I like the thought that there's a space where a thirteen year old girl can realize that what she wants is to be like the rock and roll delivery boy Eddy, all slicked-back hair and leather jacket swing dancing with a sexy red-head. And that, in that same space, there's a kid who hasn't quite decided on their pronouns, but knows that they want to wear red platform heels and strut the way Frank does. And that there is a space where even the most geeky honors student can put on a corset and remind themselves that being smart and being sexual are not mutually exclusive categories.
Obviously, Rocky Horror isn't the only place where you can have those experiences, but it's definitely one with cultural prevalence, and one that is close to my heart.
So, if you'll excuse me, I have to go put on my fishnets.
Because it's midnight somewhere.