In 2009, in an interview with Dominic Wells, Richard O’Brien revealed undergoing an identity crisis within the last decade:
“I’ve been fighting never belonging, never being male or female, and it got to the stage where I couldn’t deal with it any longer. To feel you don’t belong . . . to feel insane . . . to feel perverted and disgusting . . . you go f***ing nuts. [sic]“
To many of the transsexual and genderqueer people I’ve known, this is woefully familiar ground. What’s shocking is that this is a 67-year-old Richard O’Brien speaking, the person who penned the definitive satire of Nuclear Age sexual anxiety three decades prior. Is it possible O’Brien’s gender angst is what shaped the story of Brad and Janet’s “corruption” at the hands of an evil transvestite? It sounds likely, but that feels like too much of a write-off, and I think anyone who can only look skin-deep at the film is doomed to sit in dark theaters throwing toast.
It’s a running gag among friends that I consider The Rocky Horror Picture Show to be the pinnacle of human artistic achievement – my tongue is firmly in-cheek, but my respect and admiration for the film (and the stage play that spawned it) are nearly that great. To me, Rocky Horror has always been a satire of “straight” society’s terrors concerning the culturally deviant. Occurring the night of Nixon’s resignation (you can hear him on the radio before Brad and Janet’s car breaks down) and set in only two locations – a church and the stereotypical dark castle in the woods – we’re told a story of American youth leaving dogmatic tradition behind only to be waylaid by decadence during the collapse of America’s moral authority.
But to get at the real meat of the film, I want to isolate a some of the characters for individual analysis.
JANET WEISS: Labeled “a heroine” in the credits, Janet assumes the role of virgin – and through her “corruption” she fulfills America’s greatest fear for its daughters – she enjoys exploring her new-found sexuality. We see both her repression and the foreshadow of it lifting in the “I Can Make You a Man” segment. When Frank-N-Furter asks her opinion of his beefcake creation, she demures: “I don’t like a man with too many muscles,” she says, looking to her fiancee Brad. But by the end of the song, she briefly takes over a line, suggesting her answer was only for Brad’s benefit. After her sexual awakening with Dr. Frank-N-Furter, she witnesses Brad also sleeping with their host. That this is what drives her to abandon her inhibitions is telling – seeing Brad’s infidelity after torturing herself with guilt for her own is akin to realizing America’s double-standard regarding sex and gender, wherein Janet would be labeled a “slut” while Brad (the queer aspect of his own encounter aside) would not.
Janet’s big moment is, of course, “Toucha-Toucha-Toucha Touch Me,” wherein she outlines a history of sexual repression and the confusion of feeling desires she’s told are wrong. Through intense innuendo, we discover Janet was never the innocent-minded maiden we thought she was. I find the ending segment of the song the most interesting, when from Janet’s point of view the thrusting Rocky becomes every inhabitant of the castle – almost as if she’s fantasizing about fucking them all.
The floor show Frank forces his perceived foes into at the end of the film is another telling moment for them all, and I’ll come back to it often. It’s my belief that their lines are their own, and Frank’s control is only that he makes them speak their minds. For Janet, the final revelation is that she is unrepentant:
“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 Frankie’s landed
His lust is so sincere”
ROCKY: Frank-N-Furter’s short-lived “monster” is surprising articulate about his situation – within minutes of “birth” he sings of pure existential angst and predicts his impending doom in “Sword of Damocles.” In “Rose Tint My World,” he sums up his brief life as an object of pure sexuality:
“I’m just seven hours old
Truly beautiful to behold
And somebody should be told
My libido hasn’t been controlled
Now the only thing I’ve come to trust
Is an orgasmic rush of lust
Rose tints my world keeps me
Safe from my trouble and pain.”
I almost had nothing to say about Rocky beyond this. Thankfully I’m in the process of reading John Preston’s collection of writing, My Life as a Pornographer and Other Indecent Acts. When discussing gay male pornography in the 50′s and early 60′s, Preston praises Sam Steward (who wrote as Phil Andros) for “reporting on [...] a sensual experience that contradicted the mass-market concepts of the unhappy, guilt-ridden, tragicomic homosexual.” In my mind, Rocky is a portrait of that early one-dimensional character, a man created for the sole purpose of getting off to, and yet containing all the shame and self-loathing of his author. In this case, that author may either be Frank-N-Furter or Richard O’Brien.
It must also be noted Rocky is technically the “monster” of the film, and therefore a spoof on all the cinematic terrors of Universal and RKO. The unique appeal of the classic movie monsters – the Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy – is that they were always sympathetic and occasionally even self-loathing (Lon Chaney’s Wolfman and Borris Karloff’s monster in Bride of Frankenstein especially). They were also doomed – the Motion Picture Production Code saw to it they had to meet an ill fate by the end of the film. It’s little wonder marginalized people often feel a closer kinship to these star-crossed creatures: They rarely chose to be what they were, they wished they were not, and yet couldn’t help but revel in what would become their downfall. Just like those early gay male protagonists, and just like Rocky.
MAGENTA AND RIFF RAFF: The “servants” are more difficult to pin down, but there are a few things worth noting. First, they both represent specific fetishes. Magenta is a voyeur – she states this explicitly in “Time Warp” and we witness it when she and Columbia spy on Janet and Rocky. Riff Raff, meanwhile, is a sadist – we witness him deriving pleasure from directly tormenting Rocky. He reveals a bit of his motivation in a hilarious and seemingly throw-away line after killing most of the cast: Magenta chides him by saying “You killed them? But I thought you liked them? They liked you.” He responses by screaming “They didn’t like me! They never liked me!” Suddenly Riff Raff’s need to exert power over others makes a lot more sense.
Together, the two represent that ultimate perversion: Incest. It’s interesting that this revelation is the final big shock of the film, and it comes from the characters that murder the other “deviants” of the film. After all, one of the claims of the homophobic is that acceptance of homosexuality will lead to greater and increasingly dangerous perversions, incest among them. These walking embodiments of extreme sexual deviance are the ultimate doom for Frank-N-Furter and those he’s sucked into his world – Brad, Janet and Dr. Scott are spared, just barely, but attest that they’re still scarred by the experience in “Superheroes.”
But in light of everything else we know about the film and who made it, it’s unlikely this sex-negative morality is to be taken at face value. For one thing, Magenta and Riff Raff’s justification for killing Frank is that his “lifestyle’s too extreme” and as Dr. Scott says, “society must be protected” from him. These are pretty strong statements coming from a pair of incestuous, sadistic voyeurs. Ultimately, it isn’t Frank-N-Furter’s “lifestyle” that dooms him – it is the hypocrisy of others.