Happy Halloween, everyone! I wish you all the spookiest of days! In honor of the hands-down awesomest holiday of the year, I figured I’d talk again about a true gem of musical theatre: the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’ve covered this in the past, but I’m gonna analyze it a little more deeply today. RHPS is both a cult classic and a personal favorite of mine, and to celebrate the spirit of the day, let’s look at some of the things it does both right and wrong from a feminist perspective.
From a storytelling perspective, the show does a great job of lampshading traditional horror tropes. We have the mostly non-vocal, physically powerful creation made by the mad scientist—but he was created not to prove a scientific point, but as a sexual companion for the good doctor. A dark house up on the hill, discovered by our heroes during a rainstorm, contains only a really wild party. The creepy butler and maid are actually wacky dancing aliens, and the horror tradition of crossdressing villains is lampooned by the crossdressing-est of them all, Dr. Frank-n-Furter.
On a deeper level, it also has an interesting message about sex positivity. At first it may seem that the show intends to shame people who don’t have sex or are more vanilla about sex. Brad and Janet are portrayed as somewhat of a punchline at first, always awkwardly virginal around the comfortably sexual Transylvanians. Later, as the plot picks up and the two become more and more involved in the sexy goings-on at Dr. Frank-n-Furter’s mansion, it seems like the message is that it’s better to live a wildly sexual life the way the doctor does. In the end, however, it’s shown that that isn’t necessarily right for him or them. Having sex isn’t bad, and neither is having lots of sex, but obsession and not respecting your sexual partners is not good or healthy. We are left with a few messages: that one’s involvement with sex should never go beyond your own and your partners’ comfort levels, and that it is not just acceptable but encouraged to experiment and find out what you like in bed.
In Janet’s character, the movie also shows a rare positive portrayal of a young woman discovering her own sexuality and what turns her on. This show was written decades ago, but that’s still rare enough in today’s media.
The one big thing about the show that frustrates me, however, is that it perpetuates an unpleasant stereotype about sexuality, basically, that all sexuality is fluid. Columbia was in love with Frank-n-Furter, but she also cared for Eddie, and we see her getting awfully close with Magenta as well. Brad doth protest when Frank-n-Furter sneaks into his bedroom, but only until Frank-n-Furter promises to keep their tryst secret from Janet. Rocky is created to be Frank-n-Furter’s sexual toy, but appears to have much more fun sleeping with Janet. The end of the show plays with gender presentation as well, throwing everyone from Columbia to Dr. Von Scott into bustiers, feather boas, and fishnets for the Floor Show. Everyone, regardless of how they’ve presented so far, seems to enjoy that as well. Frank-n-Furter is, of course, the most genderfuck-y of all of them; his presentation and sexuality refuses to conform to any particular signpost.
There’s nothing wrong with a diversely queer set of characters, but that’s not what this is. It’s less of a nuanced portrayal of people coming to terms with polysexuality and more a literal interpretation of the phrase “Spaghetti’s straight too, till you heat it up.”
All that said, Rocky Horror is still a hell of an entertaining show, whether you go to a live musical version, an interactive screening, or just toss in the DVD with some friends at home. If you’re still a Rocky virgin, I strongly recommend you check out this weird and wonderful movie. Happy Halloween, and remember: it’s just a jump to the left!