LIVING YOUR TRUTH: Remaking ‘Rocky Horror’ and what this means to the LGBT community
To start, I should say that “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is somewhat… sacred to me. It’s a film that features ambiguous sexualities, gender bending, transvestism, and a really well-known dance routine that’s super simple to do (I mean, it’s just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right. Oh, but it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insane). It was one of the first movies many young gay, lesbian, transgender, questioning, and other queer folks saw that really gave them the empowerment they needed to embrace who they were and let it show. The powerful refrain of, “Don’t dream it, be it,” echoes within me to this day. More so, in fact.
However, I must concede that some of the themes – rape, primarily – are problematic. Toxic, even. There’s also murder and cannibalism, and I really can’t defend any of these themes and merely write it off as, “Well, it’s a horror film. What did you expect?” because it’s also a staple of Halloween-time celebrations. It’s almost a rite of passage into a world that many young LGBT individuals didn’t know – or were not permitted to know – existed. So, when I heard that Fox was going to do a TV movie remake, I wasn’t too thrilled about it.
I’m something of a purist at heart. I don’t want to see a remake of a beloved classic – even if it is a deeply problematic classic. I just don’t see how Fox is going to remake it without completely scrubbing it down and cleaning it up, especially if it’s going to be a TV movie. But there is one very interesting bit of news this week regarding the remake: it seems that Laverne Cox, best known for playing hairdresser Sophia Burset on “Orange Is the New Black,” has been cast as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the iconic lead role made famous by Tim Curry. Well, the question now is, “What do we do with this?”
From the very first introduction of the character, Dr. Frank-N-Furter establishes himself as a transvestite (a sweet transvestite, to be specific). A transvestite, in simplest terms, would be a man (or woman) who identifies as the gender they were designated at birth but dresses as the opposite gender. Some do it for kink or sexual gratification; others do it simply because, well, they can. They believe that clothing shouldn’t be limited or bound by gender. In fact, there’s a variety of reasons for it, and it’s a completely valid expression of gender identity. But any way you slice it, the character of Dr. Frank-N-Furter is a transvestite – a man who dresses as a woman. So why cast a woman in that role?
Let’s not mince words on this – Laverne Cox is a woman. She’s transgender, but she’s a woman. Casting her in a male role makes no sense to me without a complete rewrite of the character. Let’s not even get started on the fact that Frank-N-Furter is a villain, which I’ve expounded on at length as being problematic throughout film history. What I fear this could do is reestablish old ideas in the public eye and reinforce negative stereotypes that paint transgender women as “men in drag,” and that is really, really not what we need.
With movies such as “Stonewall” practically erasing us from history, while other movies fail to even cast actual transgender actors in roles that focus on transgender identity, what I don’t want to see is another movie featuring a transgender person in a negative, villainous role. My hope is that Laverne Cox has been given creative control and will see fit to change a few key lyrics here and there.
Then again, maybe she won’t? Perhaps the world is a different place, after all. Perhaps “Rocky Horror” has become so mainstream that audiences will see the campy humor and trope themes at work and understand that all of this is tongue-in-cheek, that no rewrite or edit will be necessary. Maybe she’ll decide to stay true to the original. Maybe she is an actress who sees no issue with playing the part of a male transvestite. Anything is possible. I’m actually very interested in seeing where they go with this.
As for the original film, it remains close to my heart. It represents a bygone era when LGBT actors, themes, and issues were rarely mentioned, and only in hushed tones. And it exists as a sendup of the stuffed-shirt, clean-cut era of the 1950s – a parody of the time and the corruptible influence of a more “decadent” society upon a more “innocent” one. It exists if only to demonstrate that LGBT people did, in fact, exist in that time period – but only in spaces where they were allowed to. If the writers and producers didn’t paint in broad strokes and rely on campy stereotypes, there’s probably no way “Rocky Horror” would have ever been accepted by the public at large. But, then, it wasn’t meant for the public at large – the message is clear, and the intended audience is clearer.
As an awkward teenager, I was often left alone with the black and white images of a late night B movie flickering on the screen. I found that the themes of science fiction and horror fit well with the feelings of someone who considered herself to be an “outsider,” a weirdo, a freak. It’s easy to identify with the monstrous and the absurd when that is, more or less, how you view yourself to be. Never really free to share my feelings or true, inner self, there was much to hide, and much of it was considered so bizarre and grotesque, how could I ever not feel shunned for admitting my truth? Even today, I find it hard to believe how much acceptance and love I’ve found in a world that demonizes, casts out, and murders the transgender community. Maybe that’s how Richard O’Brien felt when he wrote “Rocky Horror?”
As a man who considers himself gender fluid, it’s quite possible that Richard simply wanted to see more of himself, more of the kind of people he identified with, on stage and screen. With the openness and the suspension of disbelief that often accompanies science fiction and horror movies, it’s easier to lampoon the absurdity of the world around you without getting into too much trouble. There’s something that also bears scrutiny in the way the role O’Brien played in “Rocky Horror” was that of a kind of “hero” – Riff Raff ultimately destroys the villainous Dr. Frank-N-Furter, restoring peace, balance, and putting an end to decadence. I think there’s definitely something there worth investigating… at another time.
As for me, I just can’t wait to do “The Time Warp” again. And again, and again…
by Dee Culp
Dee Culp is a transgender woman, which means she often has to order herself to get in the kitchen to make her a sandwich. She enjoys long bike rides, smashing the patriarchy and breaking down gender barriers. She loves thinking about the big questions, such as, "Do I open this door for myself, or do I wait for a man to do it for me?"