*Warning, this article contains spoilers for The Rocky Horror Show and adult themes*
The Rocky Horror Show is a cult classic from the mid 70’s about aliens, sex, gender identity and of course, horror. It was groundbreaking at the time, a caricature of old sci-fi horror movies, with the most extravagant versions of the different character tropes.The show most notably features characters who aren’t straight and don’t conform to gender norms, which was very unheard of back in the 70’s and ultimately audiences instantly made a connection with it.
The show is about a ‘normal’ couple; Brad and Janet who get engaged after their friends wedding. On their way to visit the college professor who sat them together in class, they get a flat tyre and go to a nearby castle for help. Inside they meet a strange group of people, including scientist and self-proclaimed ‘sweet transvestite’ Frank ‘N’ Furter. Frank builds his vision of the perfect man, Rocky, for him to essentially keep as a sex slave. He then coerces Brad and Janet separately into having sex with him, before Janet has sex with Rocky (there are definitely issues with consent here). Then we find out through Brad and Janet’s old professor-turned-government-agent that the group of strangers are actually aliens who came to experiment on humans. The reveal of them being aliens is clearly included to facilitate the Sci-Fi theme, and it’s hilarious, especially with the ‘Transylvanian’ accents.
When I watched the show for the first time this summer, the problematic themes were all I could focus on. However, something kept telling me to watch the show again. So I did. Multiple times. Eventually I realised that whilst being very aware of the problems with the show, I couldn’t stop watching it. The songs are addictive, the characters are entertaining and it’s a lot of fun. It’s also a place of acceptance for a lot of people, especially some of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s a place where a lot of people can be themselves, despite their sexuality or gender identity.
That being said, I completely understand why some people may not enjoy the show. I couldn’t write an article praising a show for being a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community without acknowledging that for some people it has been harmful in the past. Dated terminology like ‘transvestite’ aside, a fair amount of the trans community have seen Frank as a harmful stereotype (essentially a predator to CIS-gendered people). Though I originally never thought of Frank as transgender and more on the cross-dressing side of things, the 2016 remake did have Frank played by a transgender woman. In an interview with The Cut, Laverne Cox, who played Frank, acknowledged that some of the terms used in the show (most notably, ‘transvestite’) are problematic now, but it’s a part of the history of the show. She stated ‘We don’t use that term anymore, but in the historical context of Rocky Horror it’s appropriate you don’t change the words to an iconic song.’
Another thing I have to mention is the bedroom scenes with Janet and Brad, where they are tricked into having sex with Frank. The scenes scream sexual assault to me and it’s very difficult to laugh along with the rest of the audience. Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with sex scenes in general, and if Frank had asked first rather than half way through then I’d be cool with it. Also, note to the audience: calling Janet a slut because she has sex with two people is some pretty dated misogyny right there, let’s be real.
On a more positive note, the show has helped a lot of people embrace their sexualities and ditch gender norms, becoming a safe space and a refuge for many closeted youth back in the 70’s and 80’s. The show has been a refuge for outcasts and those closeted and oppressed. There are definitely parts of the show that are dated, but it’s a part of the history and shouldn’t be forgotten. Like most older shows or movies, you can enjoy it whilst acknowledging that not all of it would translate into the modern era. The cast themselves are very supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, and even joined a counter-protest against a religious group that have recently been showing up outside of the shows by doing the Time Warp and flying the rainbow pride flag.
The show is full of sexy, quirky characters in wonderful costumes, played by extremely talented actors. My personal favourite is Magenta/The Usherette, mainly because I love their songs and solos, as well as their costumes. Because the costumes are so recognisable, many of the audience dress as the characters and bring props to join in with the show. It’s a very unique experience, with the audience shouting jokes and joining in with the dances. It’s uniting and a lot of fun whether you’re new to the show like me, or have been watching it for decades.
The characters themselves are very interesting because we’re given reason to both dislike and feel bad for Brad and Janet. They seem to not have a very strong relationship and are most likely getting married because it’s the social norm. Brad’s song ‘Once in a While’ gives us an insight into his feelings about Janet and garners a lot of sympathy from the audience. At the same time, Brad and Janet do come across very judgemental, based off their reactions to Frank and everyone else in the house. Janet also seems uninterested in her relationship and very materialistic, and all Brad can say about their friends getting engaged is that Betty is a ‘wonderful little cook’, so I guess calling him an asshole isn’t incorrect.
There’s also Frank ‘N’ Furter, who is well-loved by fans despite being one of the main antagonists of the show. Now I’d be lying if I said there aren’t fictional villains that I love, but those tend to be the villains with sad backstories so that you feel sympathy for them. Frank is the main character breaking gender norms, appearing both feminine and masculine and exuding sex appeal; of course he’s well-liked. If it wasn’t for the previously mentioned scenes with Brad and Janet, he’d be my favourite character. But he’s manipulative, selfish, cruel and has a very short temper, so why is it the bedroom scene that bothers me most about him? Because in a show based around sex and sexuality, having the only sex scenes in the show being so ambiguous about consent is troublesome.
I’m sure most people can admit to loving villains, and at the same time we’re well aware that killing people is wrong. However, understanding consent is an issue even in today’s society, so the fact that not everyone picks up on this when they watch the show is concerning. Loving a villain without knowing what they’re doing is wrong is a very scary concept (I know it’s just common sense, but there are definitely a few people out there who need reminding of this). I’m not saying you can’t be aware of his flaws and still cheer your heart out when he walks on the stage during Sweet Transvestite, as long as you don’t support that sort of behaviour in the real world.
For a lot of people, The Rocky Horror Show is a safe space and a generally thrilling experience. It’s a wacky parody of old Science Fiction movies that’s perfect for anyone who enjoys lewd humour and audience participation. The iconic songs have a very 60’s/70’s rock and roll vibe, which makes them perfect for experiencing them live. The show is just finishing up its UK leg of the 2019 world tour, I highly recommend going to watch it live for yourself while you have the chance, as it’s an experience you won’t forget (hopefully for good reasons).
Get tickets to see the show for yourself here: https://www.rockyhorror.co.uk/tour-dates