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Trans people, monsters and the Rocky Horror Picture Show

From the "Wild and Untamed Thing" number, Riff Raff and Magenta prepare to end Dr. Frank's mission

Several years ago I wrote about how I learned the word “transvestite” when my sister first went to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I also learned all the songs, because my sister bought the soundtrack, but I didn’t see the movie until I was in college.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, after all, a literal horror show, and I’ve never been able to enjoy horror, no matter how much of an ironic pastiche it is. From the weird photo book that I flipped through at our family friends’ house, I knew it contained murder and other violence. Because of that, I never tried to find a way to attend the local screenings.

In the middle of my second year of college, as a result of some poor decisions on my part, I found myself looking for a dorm room. There were only three rooms available, all with another person already living in them.

One of the rooms was occupied by a Rocky Horror fan, who played Brad in the local production. He had decorated the whole room with Rocky Horror posters and kink paraphernalia, including handcuffs hanging from the bedpost and a whip attached to the wall. I suspected he thought that would scare off any potential roommates. I was still in the closet, so I didn’t tell him that an actual transvestite was moving in with him.

As it turns out, we got along great. We didn’t become close friends or stay in touch, but we enjoyed the semester and watched Rocky Horror several times on his dorm VCR, and he eventually brought me to the midnight screening to have my cherry popped, and invited me to eat with the local cast at Denny’s afterwards. He even showed me the little-know, very 80s sequel, Shock Treatment, which he also had on tape.

Watching Rocky Horror and Shock Treatment multiple times, and listening to the soundtracks, and discussing them with my roommate, I came to realize that, even though it may have started as a throwaway gag, the movies are actually a pretty deep meditation on gender, glamour, clothing, sexuality, entertainment, fiction, science, medicine, mental health, predation, deception, power, violence and horror.

I was not terribly surprised to learn, several years later, that Richard O’Brien, the creator of Rocky Horror, is transgender. A number of other trans people have flagged him as problematic for, among other things, saying in 2016 that “You can’t be a woman. You can be an idea of a woman.” I agree that that statement is problematic, largely because, following Germaine Greer, he restricted his claim to people who were assigned male at birth. If he had made it about everyone, he would be in company with Judith Butler and maybe even Simone de Beauvoir.

O’Brien takes a much more compassionate and supportive position than Greer or any other TERF. I would even say that his character of Dr. Frank N. Furter is a direct challenge to the way that mainstream media (like Psycho), and even mainstream psychologists, characterized trans people at the time. Dr. Frank is a monster – an alien who uses gender, sex appeal and science to destroy individual humans and human culture, to feed his ravenous sexual appetite.

I’m guessing that O’Brien read these alarmist depictions of trans people and saw in them an echo of the monsters in the space operas he loved from the fifties, some of which were based on older works like Frankenstein and Dracula. He combined them into a parody where the monster was a transvestite who didn’t care much about world domination, only about sexual conquest.

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