Pop Culture

Looking Back, The Rocky Horror Picture Show Hasn't Aged That Well

The author (center), many moons ago
The author (center), many moons ago Photo from the Beautiful Creature archives

I performed in The Rocky Horror Picture Show here in Houston for more years than I care to admit. I met my wife there, and the friend I would eventually name my daughter after as well. I served as cast director at the River Oaks Theatre, and performed in a handful of other places around the city. I can’t stress enough how important the film was to me as a weirdo growing up in east Houston. It was a big part of what made me who I am.

And yet I’m not sure that I could ever be a part of that scene in this day and age.

Context: About twice a year, the wife and I drink too much and watch Rocky at home. We improvise new call lines with updated pop-culture references while still indulging in our favorite classics. It’s a way to relive something that used to mean a great deal to us without having to interact with people.

It’s not as fun as it used to be, honestly. Watching Rocky after years of being a media critic has definitely worn the shine off the film, and the cult experience that grew up around it isn’t really much better.

Take “slut.” Screaming “slut” whenever anyone says Janet’s name is arguably the single most basic call line in Rocky Horror history, alongside screaming “asshole” when anyone says Brad. It’s basically Rocky 101 for the virgins so they can get used to the whole talking-at-the-screen thing.

It’s only on the other side of a lot of reading and critical thinking that I've started to realize how bloody wrong that actually is, and the problematic aspects of society it reinforces. Why is Janet the slut? She has sex twice in the film, but so does Rocky, and Frank has it three times. In fact, the character that is literally created to be a sex toy somehow weirdly escapes any sort of repetitious audience comment on his promiscuity. Only the woman gets the label.
click to enlarge The author (center), many moons ago - PHOTO FROM THE BEAUTIFUL CREATURE ARCHIVES
The author (center), many moons ago
Photo from the Beautiful Creature archives
I remember when I was cast director, we got a complaint letter sent to the theater. The main gist was that having hundreds of people screaming "slut" at once was kind of f-ed up. I, with the righteous indignation only a 20-year-old white dude can muster, threw a fit. How dare they besmirch a traditional part of the experience! Had they no appreciation for the culture of the thing? Had they no respect for the unique cinematic experience that was Rocky?

Looking back at it now, I sounded like freakin’ GamerGate. I sounded like every other aggrieved son of privilege beating his chest because his toys made other people uncomfortable. It’s a weirdly conservative mind-set for something that was supposed to be about breaking boundaries. A lot of the people I ran with considered offense to be the whole point of the enterprise, which is kind of bizarre for a film whose main tagline is "don't dream it, be it."

And then there’s Frank. Dr. Frank-N-Furter, as he is properly known. Not to brag, but I was a hell of a Frank, and it was generally my regular character. Frank is the linchpin of the show. Everything important revolves around him.

Yet, Frank is a cartoonish monster rather than an expression of alternative sexuality. Remove the singing and he is basically Buffalo Bill with better fashion sense. He’s an unrepentant sexual predator who takes advantage of every position of power he has and eats people who piss him off.

I’ve read more dissections on the show than most people (I’m like one of only a hundred people in the world who have a copy of Cosmic Light, for example). I know that Frank is writer Richard O’Brien’s dissection on the concept of excess. I don’t have the exact quote in front of me, but O’Brien once said something like, “If you’re an extremist enough, another extremist will come along and kill you. And he’ll probably be singing.”

In that context, Frank makes sense. In the context of the real world, Frank looks like a caricature of the LGBT predator conservative lawmakers are so intent on convincing us is real. When that utterly forgettable remake came along and they cast Laverne Cox as Frank, it was heralded as a win for diversity. All I could think was, “Is this really the best time to cast the second-most prominent trans woman in America as the monster who destroys clean-cut American youth’s innocence?”

A friend of mine once said that Rocky was LGBT cosplay for straight people, and that is definitely a sentiment I understand now. It’s less of a boundary breaker and more of a chance for the comfortable to dip their toes in their perception of LGBT culture. Don’t get me wrong, I loved being there. Hell, the first LGBT people I ever met were there, which is not surprising since I got my start back in the days when Houston was still sporting antigay vice laws and there just weren’t a lot of places LGBT people could go and even be sort of themselves. If nothing else, it’s where I learned stagecraft.

That aside, it’s very hard not to see the warts on the film, especially if you’re like me and you’ve watched it literally hundreds of times. Looking back, there were a lot of things in the cult surrounding the movie that were not the best. Screaming “slut” at the screen was probably the least of them. I had always assumed that when my daughter was old enough, I would introduce her to the experience that shaped so much of her parents’ lives. Now…I dunno. It feels like an artifact to be appreciated for its historical value more than for its continued cultural relevance. It’s basically the South Park of cult films in that what it had to say has long since been said by better voices.

The songs are still great, though. And you really should check out the spiritual sequel Shock Treatment. It’s the best.

Rocky Horror returns to the River Oaks (2009 West Gray) Saturday, July 22. See the theater's website for details.
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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