Pop Culture

Al Franken and How Consent in Performance Works

Let's talk about touching people.
Let's talk about touching people. Screengrap from The Rocky Horror Picture Show
It came out recently that Senator Al Franken (D-MN) – a man I was honestly hoping would be Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential pick – had groped model and sports commentator Leeann Tweeden against her will on a USO tour, as well as forcibly kissing her. She broke the story herself in a piece for KABC.

The gist of it is this. Franken and Tweeden were on a tour to the Middle East in 2006. Tweeden, who had been on the covers of Playboy and Maxim, assumed her role was simply to emcee the event and charm the troops with her considerable beauty. Franken, the headliner, asked her if she would participate in a skit, and she agreed. The script involved a kiss, and in her own words Tweeden “suspected what he was after, but I figured I could turn my head at the last minute, or put my hand over his mouth, to get more laughs from the crowd.” Franken insisted on rehearsing the kiss, and when they did so he forcibly held her head and shoved his tongue in her mouth. Tweeden pushed him away and told him in no uncertain terms not to do that again.

The rest of the tour proceeded tersely. Tweeden still did the skit at every stop, but would turn her head to avoid Franken’s lips. Later, as they rode home on a cargo plane, Tweeden fell asleep. Franken decided it would be funny to take a picture of him groping the sleeping Tweeden’s breasts. It was not, in fact funny.

Franken himself has issued a pretty good apology, even encouraging an ethics investigation of himself. If we look at the sexual assault scandals of the last several years, you can see an evolution from denial to Louis C.K.’s confessional non-apology to Franken’s unabashed “I’m sorry.” Hopefully the final form will be just, you know, not doing these things.

Which brings me to a story about sexual touching in performance and how to do it correctly.

I did Rocky Horror in various Houston theaters for a decade, and ran the River Oaks Theatre cast for a few years. My main characters were Frank-n-Furter and Rocky Horror. The latter because I used to look like this…

Photo from the Beautiful Creatures archives

Now, Rocky has a scene with Janet that sets up the final action of the film. Both Rocky and Janet have just had sex with Frank, with the former having been tortured in the aftermath by Riff Raff and the latter being conflicted for cheating on her fiancé (not knowing Brad also slept with Frank… it was a busy night for genitals). Janet stumbles across an injured Rocky, binds his wounds, and the two have sex to the tune “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me.”

In the scene, Janet takes Rocky’s hands and places them on her breasts, and he happily fondles them while she sings the chorus. Some very pretty women – including one I later married - came through my cast playing Janet over the years, and I’m not going to lie to you and say that the possibility of touching their breasts wasn’t a perk of playing the role. You wouldn’t believe me if I said different nor should you. I got to grope titties every Saturday for a long time. Life is beautiful.

That said, every time we had a new Janet to my Rocky, we had a conversation before the start of the show. Rocky didn’t have rehearsals. You were expected to go home, watch the movie, and learn your part. Over time, various actors would develop their own routines and flourishes, but in general you were to ape the action on screen.

I would always seek out the actress playing Janet and ask about “Touch Me.” Do you want me to touch your breasts, or would you prefer I just held your shoulders? Most women were fine with playing the part as it appears on screen, but others asked me to just touch their shoulders. That was the end of the conversation. “No” is a complete sentence. I made sure every other Rocky under my direction understood this as well. Janet gets to decide who touches her and how. Anyone who couldn’t grasp that wasn’t playing Rocky again for a good long while.

Later in my Rocky career I started playing a joke where at the famous reveal scene where I would pop out from behind the box Janet and I were hiding behind naked with my hands over my crotch and then jog up the aisle at the end of the scene. The first time I did it on impulse, but that was okay because the woman playing Janet had already seen me naked. After that, though, I always made it a point to add this bit to my pre-show speech for Janets. We’re going to be in close quarters. I’m going to take my pants off. You might see my dick. This isn’t directed at you. Is that okay?

Again, most actresses liked the bit. My girlfriend-later-wife even got in on it by dropping her bra straps and pretending she was topless. I don’t remember anyone ever objecting, but if they had said no I would have played the scene with a red sheet as it is on-screen. I mean, it was funny, but it wasn’t expose-myself-to-a-person-who-that-makes-uncomfortable funny. This was largely before social media, but I already understood that there was enough unwanted dick sightings in the world as is.

I was the cast director. Theoretically I could have ordered any woman I liked to play Janet. Theoretically I could have told them we were going to be “screen accurate” and do “Touch Me” with the grope whether they liked it or not. Theoretically I could have rubbed an erection against them as we did the scene and made excuses and told them that if they didn’t like it they didn’t have to be in my cast. All of those things were options, and I was in contact with enough casts over the years to know that at least a few directors did just that. It was definitely Hollywood in microcosm.

I didn’t do those things. I let Janets set the boundaries because they were her breasts. There’s nothing wrong with intimate expressions in art. One of my best friends is a former pornstar, and another is a current one. If either of them ended up playing Janet to my Rocky tomorrow I would still do the speech, and I would abide by their answer.

Al Franken wrote himself an excuse to kiss a Playboy model. That’s pretty much undeniable. He should have at all times asked her exactly what they were going to do, how they were going to do it, and done it according to her boundaries. That’s how this works. And if some 18-year-old hick from Texas running a Rocky cast in Houston figured that out, then I would expect a damn SNL alumnus to know better.

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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner