A week before the writing of this, FOX aired a remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, subtitled Let’s Do The Time Warp Again. I’m not averse to the idea of seeing it, but I’m not going to go out of my way either. Not for any particular reason politically, just simply because the original is so clearly and deeply rooted to a particular time period it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to update it. I’ll have more on that in a moment.
The main (and only) thing I need to know about the remake is that it showcased front and center a black trans woman, on the same channel FOX News is broadcast from, during a time when the right wing has dedicated themselves to a war against trans bodies. Regardless of any other merits or flaws in the project, I still find that deliciously subversive in a way the original never dared.
If you were hoping for more talk about the remake, I do apologize. There are plenty of other people talking about it, I swear. I’m not writing yet another thinkpiece about how problematic or transphobic or whatever the movie is. Plenty of other folks covering that ground. I’m not interested in RHPS creator Richard O’Brien’s bizarre and absurd notion that he can decide how much of a woman he is but nobody else can. Just yet another tired old has-been queen desperate for attention and latching onto trendy notions of “edginess” and “anti-political-correctness” as far as I’m concerned. The fact that he hates the remake makes me want to enjoy it out of spite tho.
What will I be talking about then?
Well lets start by talking about the Hays Code (and later rating systems) and the role of pulp sci-fi on queerness. Stories of alternate sexualities and gender explorations were all over the place in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, but due to publisher restrictions had to be formatted in a certain way. It was honestly surprising how far they were capable of going, as long as they didn’t directly show intimacy and all queer characters were punished at the end for their transgression from conservative mores. Here’s a sex-change sci-fi story from a 1953 comic book that covers the bases pretty well, with an exception I will elaborate on in a moment.
Rocky Horror Picture show even opens with the song “Science Fiction/Double Feature” which waxes nostalgic about shiny underwear and phallic Triffids, name-checking classic titles and names from films that would have been staples of a sci-fi obsessed 1975 audience’s childhood. Self-aware nods to these tropes echo throughout the film.
Lets line them up and see how the beats play out, shall we? We have aw shucks traditional protagonist(s), an audience insert for voyeuristic heterosexuals or questioning/curious queer folk:
The protagonists find themselves stranded from the values and culture they took for granted, in a lawless anything goes environment:
This leads to an awakening where deep, transgressive desires are brought to light and actualized… but at what cost?
And at the end all transgressions are punished and the moral is driven home that some doors should never be opened:
The spectre of conservative Americana glares disapprovingly at the dissolution of traditional values throughout the film. Not just figuratively, but directly and literally symbolized by multiple repeated vignettes evoking the sullen stoic gaze of the iconic Grant Wood painting American Gothic (a now campy and frequently satirized artwork that history forgets incited Rural Iowans to send the painter threats of violence).
However, you will note that there is something missing from this one-to-one comparison between the sex-change comic book and Rocky Horror Picture Show. This is because in sex-change stories, the antagonist is the clothes or the transformation itself. This is as true in Glen Or Glenda in the 1950s as it was in The Danish Girl in 2015. This story has an antagonist with a distinctly more visceral presence, a hyperqueered fantasy to Brokeback their mountains and tempt them away from their traditional lives.
Frank is a transgressive nightmare, a culmination of everything feared about the sexual awakenings of the late 1960s/early 1970s. It goes well beyond the crossdressing and sexualization; Frank was meticulously designed to provoke. He literally hunts down, murders and later cannibalistically devours Eddie, a symbol of naive notions of 1950s “safe rebellion”. Eddie’s entrance, to the song “Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul“, reflects an entirely different sort of nostalgia filled with sock hops instead of gruesome horror movies. Frank nonchalantly eulogizes Eddies murder by his hand as “a mercy killing! He had a certain naive charm, but no… muscle.”
When Frank displayed a pink triangle on his labcoat, the symbol was still viscerally shocking and radical. The book The Men With The Pink Triangle, documenting homosexual men’s experience in Nazi concentration camps, had only come out a couple years before. The infamous Paragraph 175 of German Law under which those men had been imprisoned was still on the books.
Frank also dons a Lewis Leathers Aviakit Plainsman biker jacket adorned with badges from the Hell’s Angels and other recognizable biker gangs (including patches with the distinct Nazi Deaths Head and Eagle iconography of the Angels). This wasn’t the “making toy runs for sick kids” Hell’s Angels, this was the “locked Hunter S Thompson in the trunk of a car for several days” Hells Angels. This also presents contrast to Eddie’s sanitized pompadour-and-motorcycle schtick as the corny posturing it was.
Frank’s fawning over his Frankenstein Atlas, Rocky, was another uncomfortable tribute/unmasking to the underlying homoeroticism in body-building culture, a subtext simultaneously acknowledged yet dismissed within said subculture. With Rocky as the dense and sweetly naive foil to Frank’s sexual innuendo, it’s presented as yet another affront to the values of yesteryear.
Enabled through Frank’s brazen transgressions, the protagonists find themselves freed from convention to explore their own desires. This is illustrated in the floor show scene where the players vocalize their inner conflicts onstage. Columbia is full of regret and heartbreak, Rocky and Brad have newfound sexual urges that neither can quite figure out, and Janet feels empowered by the whole experience. Shortly afterwards, Riff-Raff and Magenta stage a mutiny to topple Frank as leader. Riff-Raff’s accusation says it all:
Frank-N-Furter, it’s all over
your mission is a failure
your lifestyle’s too extreme
Ironically, after forty years of cultural advance, a film that sought to deconstruct stifling tropes and liberate expectations has for the most part been relegated to yet another formulaic exploitation. It has a historical place, as a love-letter to the queer-coded villains of Hollywood’s golden age, but at this point Frank has joined them. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still a fun ritual for voyeuristic straights, closeted drama club queers and assorted connoisseurs of camp and kitsch and likely will be for at long as movie theaters continue to exist. However, the cultural critique is a bit toothless and obvious now, the references collecting dust, and subtext lost under performative rote.
And maybe the ritual is the point now, a sort of mystery cult initiation for average folks looking for an excuse to buy a corset. But I believe an occasional reminder of what it all means couldn’t hurt either.