Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Virgin/Whore Dichotomy, & Christianity

One thing in our culture that has always bothered me was this idea that sexual repression and Christianity go hand in hand. This idea states that if you are a Christian, you aren’t allowed to express your sexuality in a healthy way. Typically this means that you can only be a married heterosexual couple who only have sex in the missionary position. So if someone ever convinces someone who was (or in some cases still is) a strong Christian to start having sex, they’ll unleash a wild, sexually deviant person because of all that desire the Christian had to repress for so long. There are so many problems with this notion. It simultaneously makes both people who want to stay virgins and people who enjoy certain fetishes into “weird unhealthy people”, neither of which is the case.

Rocky HorrrorYou can see a very clear example of this in one of my favorite musicals: Rocky Horror Picture Show. This movie certainly isn’t entirely bad or evil or anything; I love Rocky Horror Picture Show and I watch it all the time during Halloween. But it’s definitely highly problematic because the show really exemplifies the virgin-whore dichotomy.

Rocky Horror Picture Show starts things off by introducing us to Brad and Janet. While it is not explicitly stated in the movie that they are Christian, we begin the movie with a wedding in a Christian church. And while that might not mean that Brad and Janet are themselves Christians, their wedding and their assertions that they were “saving themselves” later on in the movie definitely paints them that way. Brad and Janet are portrayed as WASPs—white anglo-saxon Protestants—in other words, they are portrayed as members of the white, “normal”, Christian majority.

Brad &JanetBut when Brad and Janet enter the lair of Dr. Frank N. Furter, they are confronted with people who are very different from them, particularly in their gender presentation and expression of their sexuality. Dr. Frank N. Furter proclaims himself a transvestite and dresses in a corset, fishnets, and heels, along with a ton of make-up. His other compatriots are dressed similarly, and if they aren’t at first, they do dress provocatively at some point in the movie. The whole time Brad and Janet seem terrified and apprehensive, but a little enticed, by Dr. Frank N. Furter and his crew. They are eventually stripped of their clothes and taken to separate rooms, where Dr. Frank N. Furter sneaks into each of their rooms pretending to be the other and starts having sex with them. The scene goes the same each time, with Brad or Janet both enjoying it while wanting it to stop. When it’s revealed that they are actually with Dr. Frank N. Furter, both Brad and Janet panic and try to push him off. Dr. Frank N. Furter threatens both of them, telling them to be quiet or their partner will see them in a compromising position. He then proceeds to seduce them until they give in and actually willingly participate in sexual intercourse. There is obviously a lot that is problematic with this scene: it starts with Dr. Frank N. Furter raping Brad and Janet and progresses to it being “okay” because they actually liked it and wanted it, and finally to this being seen as Brad and Janet being in some ways liberated from their “previous sexual oppression”.

After this experience, Brad seems entirely comfortable with exploring his sexuality with Dr. Frank N. Furter and the two seem to spend more time together than Frank N. Furter and Janet did. Janet, however, is understandably distressed and goes looking for Brad, but when she sees via video camera that Brad also slept with Dr. Frank N. Furter, she basically decides to give up any of her previous beliefs about sex or morality. She finds Rocky, whom Dr. Frank N. Furter created to be his love slave, hiding an injury after being attacked by a member of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s group. She helps tend to his wounds and then proceeds to have sex with him while singing the song “Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me”, which basically details how Janet was sexually oppressed before, but is now liberated.

I was feeling done in, couldn’t win
I’d only ever kissed before.
I thought there’s no use getting into heavy petting
It only leads to trouble and seat wetting…

Now all I want to know is how to go
I’ve tasted blood and I want more
I’ll put up no resistance, I want to stay the distance
I’ve got an itch to scratch, I need assistance

At the end of the musical, Dr. Frank N. Furter forces everyone to help him create his floor show. Each member comes out and sings a particular part, and during the song “Rose Tints My World” Brad and Janet’s parts once again both detail apprehension and enjoyment over being “sexually liberated”. In the end they basically become just like Dr. Frank N. Furter by being just as kinky and sexual.

Brad:
It’s beyond me, help me Mommy
I’ll be good you’ll see, take this dream away
What’s this, let’s see
Oh I feel sexy
What’s come over me?
Oh here it comes again…

Janet:
Oh I feel released
Bad times deceased
My confidence has increased
Reality is here
The game has been disbanded, my mind has been expanded
It’s a gas that Frank has landed
His lust is so sincere.

There is this persistent idea that Brad and Janet are horribly sexually oppressed and then, when they finally give in, become “sexual deviants”, and the idea is extremely damaging and harmful. While there are Christians who don’t even want to kiss before they are married and think anything but the missionary position is wrong, it is their choice to express their sexuality that way. Yet one of the major issues with this kind of Christian sexuality is that it constantly belittles and looks down on people who express their sexuality differently (which again is basically anyone who isn’t a heterosexual married couple having sex in only approved ways). If anything, Brad and Janet are victims of being manipulated by someone like Dr. Frank N. Furter, but the movie also makes a point to show that Brad and Janet are getting over their “sexual hang ups”.

Janet & RockyBrad and Janet really exemplify the Virgin in the virgin/whore dichotomy. TV Tropes calls this the Madonna/Whore Complex (which is the same thing) and describes The Virgin as:

The virtuous Madonna figure, possessing and protecting social virtue (and deploring sexuality) is an object of worship and everything that all females should aspire to be. However, sex is not part of this.

Because this dichotomy is more often applied to women, it’s harder to place Brad in this category. He still fits the trope, but it is much more obvious with Janet, who more often expresses how she is “saving herself” and has only kissed before before meeting Dr. Frank N. Furter. Janet and Brad are meant to symbolize everything that is virtuous, wholesome, and good, but once they are “corrupted” they can’t stay in the category—or even find a middle ground—because as TV Tropes further describes:

Anyone who fails to live up to the Madonna standard is a Whore driven exclusively by sexual desire and (therefore) lacking in morality and humanity.

And that is exactly what we see from Dr. Frank N. Furter and the rest of his gang. Despite the fact that Brad and Janet are raped to initiate them into this “deviant” “liberated” lifestyle, they are still viewed as having lost their innocence and so are now whores. While as I mentioned earlier Brad and Janet have the right to live the sexual lifestyle they want, it’s true that this kind of rape culture and apologism is particularly present in many Christian groups today. You don’t have to go to far to find stories about Christian groups blaming women for tempting men into rape, arguing that women are not the victims because they tempted men and so women are either just as sinful or at least complicit in the sin. The fact that Brad and Janet eventually gave in would be seen as proof that they are sexual deviants because they had somehow “tempted” Dr. Frank N. Furter into it, which is why they gave in so easily—basically that they are whores. Never mind that both were put in extreme positions and adapting was perhaps the only way that they could survive.

Rose Tints My WorldFurthermore, the musical portrays anyone with a kinky sexuality as some sort of deviant. Dr. Frank N. Furter does not do anything that is safe, sane, or consensual. And the other members of his group don’t either. Magenta and Riff Raff are a brother and sister who are sleeping together, and Magenta, Riff Raff, and Columbia all watch gleefully while Dr. Frank N. Furter deceives Brad and Janet into having sex with him. Magenta and Columbia also later watch Janet have sex with Rocky without her knowledge. It basically portrays anyone who is involved any sort of sexual lifestyle outside of the more traditional as a sexual predator. In some ways you could argue that Rocky Horror Picture Show shows what some Christians fear about sexuality. It would be very easy for a Christian to show this movie to someone and talk about how Brad and Janet were led from the path of righteousness by “evil deviant people”.

Again, the whore in the virgin/whore dichotomy is “driven exclusively by sexual desire and (therefore) lacking in morality and humanity”. Dr. Frank N. Furter and the rest of his gang are exactly shown to be this. Yes, they have a lot of sex and have a “good time”, but they are all cold, uncaring, selfish people who are willing to harm others to get what they want, which shows that they lack in morality and humanity. Of course Dr. Frank N. Furter and his people are revealed later to be aliens, so I guess the humanity part makes sense. It’s a weird movie. But are they really sexually liberated? One of the issues with the virgin/whore dichotomy in our society is that people, particularly women, are expected to not be “prudish” but at the same time not be “sluts”. Dr. Frank N. Furter and his crew sure have a lot of sex but I would argue they aren’t sexually liberated, at least not really. None of them are happy with their lives or situation. Sex didn’t make things any better for them. But I feel ultimately the movie lifts up Dr. Frank N. Furter more than Brad and Janet. Though Frank N. Furter is killed at the end, one of the final songs, “Don’t Dream It Be It” seems to be the rallying cry of the movie. Don’t dream about what you want to do or just be. Just do it. This could potentially be a positive thing but because of how problematic Dr. Frank N. Furter is, it can be viewed as something much more creepy: you take what you want and become who you want to be without care or concern for the other people you step on to get there.

Really, the virgin/whore dichotomy is a fucked up double standard that both our secular and religious society upholds. Christians who want to live chastely are looked down on by society and viewed as too prudish and repressed, but at the same time Christians demonize everyone who, Christian or not, engages in really any kind of sexual activity (especially if the sex is on the kinkier side). While Rocky Horror Picture Show is hardly a movie with a point or any real lesson or moral to speak of, it seems to, unwittingly or not, give into the virgin/whore dichotomy. Brad and Janet are portrayed as silly and oppressed for wanting to remain virgins and so they are broken of their previous inhibitions, while Dr. Frank N. Furter (and the other characters to some extent) are portrayed as too deviant, wrong, and extreme. The movie places us in the impossible position that the virgin/whore dichotomy creates, where whether “virgin” or “whore”, everyone is wrong and awful. In both society or religion, we would be better off to abandon this bullshit dichotomy. If Brad and Janet want to remain virgins until they are married, who cares? If Dr. Frank N. Furter wants have crazy kinky orgies, as long as it’s safe, sane, and consensual, who cares? Judging and belittling people’s personal choices is not very progressive and frankly, not very Christian, either. I still love this movie for all of its ridiculous camp and schlock horror, but I have to recognize how problematic it still is. Doesn’t mean I won’t be watching it again this Halloween though.


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2 thoughts on “Oh, My Pop Culture Religion: Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Virgin/Whore Dichotomy, & Christianity

  1. I think it’s really sad how hypersexualized our socitey is. As a Christian asexual heteroromantic with Autism, it’s really hard for me to deal with how sexed up society is. I do want to get married, but I don’t want to have sex with my future husband. I just think it’s ridiculous how my mother tells me if I want to get married, I’ll be expected to have sex no matter what.

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