Where does one even begin with The Rocky Horror Picture Show?
My first memory associated with Rocky Horror is of the cover on the case of the movie at Hollywood Video when I was growing up. I wouldn’t actually see the movie until years later, towards the end of high school, but that image of Tim Curry in corset and fishnets reclining on those lips sure stood out.
The first time I saw the movie was, if I remember correctly, on someone else’s computer one night when a group of us were at the state science fair in eleventh grade. Having little to no idea what to expect while watching with someone else who’s already been to live showings is, from what I understand, one of the more common ways of being introduced to the movie. As a still fairly sheltered teen who’d spent most of my life in Catholic school before being exposed to all these wild public school kids, I didn’t quite know what to make of it all.
Something about the movie resonated. I wouldn’t have the experiences necessary to understand why until later, but there was definitely a quality to the thing that stuck with me.
Relatively early in college, I pulled together a few other acquaintances in my new dorm to go to my first live showing (and their first experience with the movie in any form). I wound up going a few more times in college, although I never became a devotee of the experience like some do.
To this day, The Rocky Horror Picture Show holds a certain attraction, even as many parts of it are intellectually problematic. In a way that is similar to the Universal monsters and the broader panoply of fringe-y “dark geekdom,” the movie continues to have an appeal that is part aesthetic and part something else. (Before I go any further, I strongly recommend reading this analysis by Vrai Kaiser, either before or after reading this post.)
So what’s up with Rocky Horror?
Belonging, Transgression, and Monsters
Let’s start by zooming way, way out.
Humans are a social species. The way we form and maintain groups has kept us from going extinct, and we’ve evolved to both seek community and, once we’ve found one, protect our community. Most humans, if deprived of community for too long, will collapse in on themselves.
At the same time, humans are a varied species. This, too, has been a benefit to us over time. Variety lends strength in a complex and sometimes unpredictable world. An excessively homogeneous community loses the ability to anticipate, adapt to, and overcome the full range of threats it will face.
For a community to exist, it must have discrete borders. Some people will be in the community and some will be out of it. Some may exist on the margins, at risk of being pushed out but still more likely to be recognized as part of the community than those entirely outside the community. When considering human variety, there’s a certain amount of deviation from the community’s norm that will be accepted, but too much deviation will lead to a person being expelled from the community.
When variety can be added to the community, the community can grow stronger. When those who were outside the community can display enough common ground to be welcomed, while still bringing new perspectives and knowledge, the community benefits.
One of the dimensions of human variation is openness to new experiences or perspectives. Some people are happiest when life follows stable, reliable routines and the amount of day-to-day unpredictability is kept to a minimum; this gives them a foundation for self-directed growth or change under their control rather than leaving them reactive to whatever new thing may be happening. These people play an important role in defining and protecting the borders of a community, which keeps it from dissolving.
Other people are happiest when life brings them a never-ending stream of new stimuli. New people, new activities, new foods, new art, it’s all part of what keeps life rich and exciting. Too much routine is stifling and inhibits progress. These people play an important role in seeking out and inviting new people and ideas into a community, which keeps it from stagnating.
As with nearly everything about people, this dimension exists as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. A given person can be anywhere along this spectrum, and a healthy mix is important to a balanced, functional, and thriving community.
A community’s social borders are its norms, which can be codified in law, religion, cultural taboos enforced by peer pressure, and other forms of social regulation. Violations of the norms are typically treated as threats to the community, and the violator may be removed from the community, isolated from others for a time, pressured into changing their behavior, killed, or otherwise punished or corrected. Sometimes, we describe the worst kinds of violators as monsters.
Some norms are common across most communities because the communities that follow them are more likely to survive and thrive. Punishing or isolating those who kill people within the community, for example, helps communities survive. Rules about disposing of the dead, cannibalism, incest, and food preparation all promote community health. Sometimes they come wrapped in scripture, and sometimes they come on the clipboard of your local health inspector.
Sometimes these norms grow disconnected from their origins, or they gain new features that are not actually necessary or beneficial to the community. Sometimes the desire to belong leads members of the community to go to extremes when defining and enforcing boundaries. Sometimes this leads to the development of norms in one community that appear odd, or even monstrous, to another.
In those times, it is more important than ever for people in those communities to challenge and invite change to those norms. It is important to transgress.
Determining which norms need to be transgressed, however, is a challenge and will always be a source of conflict.
Transgression and a Sweet Transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania
The Rocky Horror Picture Show revels in transgression. Pretty much no matter where your personal boundaries are, this movie will feature an element that is off-putting. Still stuck in square 1970’s U.S. norms around sex and gender presentation? There’s stuff here to make you uncomfortable. Down with any form of sexual orientation and gender identity but still squeamish about incest? Yep, the movie’s got that, too. OK with any form of sexual contact between consenting adults? Fine, you’re getting Meat Loaf for dinner.
As it does all this, the movie refuses to even be confined by a single genre, mashing up monster movies (both the Universal classics and their Hammer Horror successors) and sci-fi B-movies in a musical format that combines 1950’s-style early rock ‘n’ roll with glam rock. (For an interesting take on the movie as a metaphor for glam rock overthrowing older sock-hop style music before collapsing under its own excess, read this article by Emily Asher-Perrin.)
The movie’s ultimate avatar for all this is Tim Curry’s one-of-a-kind turn as Dr. Frank N. Furter, the master of ceremonies for a night of dancing, mad science, murder, and sex. He’s a magnetic presence, reveling in the experience of kicking through society’s walls with a stiletto heel on the end of a fishnet-clad leg. (Anything written about The Rocky Horror Picture Show must reference fishnets at least once; it’s a social norm.) He introduces our staid viewpoint characters Brad and Janet to a whole new world of sensation and experience, leaving them forever changed after just one night with him.
Frank is a murderer. He commits sexual assault. He tricks others into cannibalism and indulges in it himself. When people begin to question and disagree with him, he turns them to stone so he can remake them in his own image before turning them back into flesh. He goes from joyfully seductive ringleader to villain, and in doing so winds up reinforcing a long-standing storytelling trope of depicting transgender people – especially trans women – as villains.
Finding the Right Lines to Cross
There’s no question that the rigid sex and gender norms of the mid-20th-century United States needed to be changed. Open transgression against those boundaries was important for our progress as a society. Those norms, defined and enforced by religion, law, and social pressure, needed to be broken. So did earlier norms around race, sex, and religion.
To this day, in every society in the world that I know of, there are norms that need to be pushed and transgressed. Challenging the borders of those communities is necessary for the improvement of the human condition within them.
Frank is not a monster for wearing fishnets, heels, and a corset. When former straight arrow Brad performs in a similar outfit for the floor show, he does not become a monster. Neither Brad nor Janet become monsters by challenging their previous understandings of sex and attraction. Those acts of transgression – which, to my knowledge, are the parts of the movie that have proven most exciting and empowering for the people who love it – are good and helpful. Valorization of those transgressions makes society better.
Frank becomes a monster when he transgresses other norms, ones that violate the lives and bodies of others. If nothing else, his murder of Eddie crosses a line common to nearly all communities.
Interestingly, Eddie’s murder may be the first sign that Frank has transformed from a transgressor to an enforcer. Our first exposure to Frank is as a gleeful leader of his fellow Transsexuals (as in, other beings from the planet Transsexual). They have just enacted a ritual of their own – the Time Warp dance – and now look to him as their leader. This is in many ways a small community that exists outside the boundaries of the larger community to which Brad and Janet belong.
Frank, furthermore, has some of the same hubris that defines the original Dr. Frankenstein. Frank, too, is creating a man. Rather than resurrecting dead tissue, though, Frank has gone a step further. He has created a new Adam in the form of Rocky, who pointedly lacks a belly button. Frank has transformed himself into a god and, at least in his own head, redefined his fellow Transsexuals as followers or worshippers. The escaped Eddie represents a threat to Frank’s community, an invader who also begins to persuade Frank’s followers to join him in song and dance.
Invaders from outside the community are rarely subject to the same protections as those in the community. Killing Eddie is not a sin to Frank, as doing so protected the community.
Later, when Frank strips and redresses other characters for the floor show, he clothes them in his own image from his first appearance: corsets, fishnets, and heels. He has made what was transgressive into a uniform. Ultimately, Frank wants a community of people like him, just like everyone else.
When he’s confronted by Riff Raff and Magenta (in her gloriously Bride-of-Frankenstein-esque hair) at the end of the movie, Riff Raff says that Frank’s lifestyle has grown too extreme. This is most easily read as a condemnation of all of Frank’s behavior. It could also be read as Riff Raff attempting to enforce a different set of norms in his own quest for community. After all, he complains that, “They never liked me!” and is clearly not a moral paragon himself. His relationship with Magenta might be all right within the norms of their planet’s society, but his treatment of Rocky (which echoes Fritz’s treatment of the creature in Universal’s Frankenstein) reveals a cruel streak in Riff Raff’s personality and is an early indication of his jealousy.
In any event, a plausible reading of Riff Raff’s motivation is that the creation of Rocky and the final spectacle of the floor show were the final straws for a character who felt increasingly disconnected from what was supposed to be his community. It need not be read as a condemnation of all transgression, or even as a condemnation of excess in general.
For a campy pastiche musical with a cult following (the superficially silly norms and enforcement mechanisms of which warrant analysis of their own), The Rocky Horror Picture Show is nonetheless an important piece of work. By being so joyful about so much of its transgression, it invites its audience to reconsider which social norms and borders they actually want to stay within.
That invitation to transgress is what I continue to find so compelling about the movie, even as other parts don’t work. Few other works of art have done as much to let me know that even I – straight, cisgender, square-presenting good student and employee that I am – might just enjoy letting the less “acceptable” parts of myself come out for a while.