Being quite unsuccessful when it first hit theatres, The Rocky Horror Picture Show ended up having quite an impact on pop culture. Adapted from the rock musical The Rocky Horror Show, which was a bit more successful, the movie did not have that many fans at first, but those who liked it were pretty dedicated to it; and still are. You can still watch the movie in theatre (mostly during the Halloween season), and it has become a much bigger show through the years than it was back then. People act out the movie before your eyes, as the movie is casually playing in the background; most everybody in the crowd is either dressed up for Halloween, as their favourite character from the movie, or simply rocking their best lingerie; high-heels and fishnets are highly popular, extravagant make-ups are everywhere you look, and shyness is totally forgotten. There’s dancing, singing, screaming and laughing all through the night. It’s quite an intense night, but everybody ends up having a lot of fun. We can clearly say that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not simply a movie, but an experience, almost a sub-culture. For many, it represents freedom, a night where no one is being judged or judges others, a night where you can be true to your gender and your sexuality, but also experiment with them. Having attended a few of these representations myself, I can confirm that the people in the crowd are generally very confident, happy and, most of all, themselves. Of course, some aspects of the movie are good and some are bad, but generally speaking, it is often seen as one of the first steps towards a more diverse representation on screen. In the following text, I will analyse how the movie explores gender and sexuality, based on the bad parts of it, like the terribly wrong actions committed by Doctor Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry) and the fact that he is an extra-terrestrial; but also by looking at the better parts of it, like how the characters are not afraid to express their gender and sexuality, and the fact that the musical and the movie were both written by a person who also expresses his gender and sexuality freely. I will also quickly explain how The Rocky Horror Picture Show is quite a “sexual” movie, even though it never becomes really explicit.
Doctor Frank N. Furter’s Horrible Actions
I would like to start off by talking about one of the darkest aspects of the movie; the many criminal actions of Doctor Frank N. Furter. Even though many people love to think of this character as an example to follow, we have to admit that this sweet Transvestite is not always that sweet. First of all, Frank is not shy to admit, in the song “Sweet Transvestite” , that he only built Rocky (Peter Hinwood) for him (Rocky) to help him (Frank) “release [his] tension”. In other words, Rocky is Frank’s sex slave. At the end of the song “I Can Make You a Man (reprise)”, we see Frank guide Rocky towards a bed. Later in the movie, we can see Rocky, chained to this very bed by the foot. We can easily guess what happened. It is already totally wrong to have a sex slave, but we must also acknowledge that Rocky, even though he has the appearance of an adult, was just created; he is literally a “new-born”. He doesn’t understand anything of the world around him and reacts like a child would. He is happy to have Frank’s attention and actually loves him, but that does not make the Doctor’s actions towards his creation legal. Rocky succeeds to break the chains and to run away, but rapidly goes back to the castle, where he can hide and feels safe. At the end of the movie, when Frank dies, Rocky is clearly devastated, proof that he loved his creator. Nonetheless, Frank N. Furter’s attitude towards him is quite disgusting.
Having a sex slave is not the only horrible action committed by the Doctor; he actually rapes at least two other people during the night. Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), a newly engaged couple, are attributed to two separate rooms for the night. Frank will enter Janet’s room dressed as Brad, and Brad’s room dressed as Janet. He will also start kissing and undressing them, as Brad and Janet are still unaware of who they are actually engaging with. They don’t resist at first, thinking they are actually kissing their fiancé(e), but quickly realize that it is actually Frank in a wig. Brad and Janet obviously get mad and a little bit ashamed, but Frank has quite a way with words and ends up convincing them that what they’re doing is right, as long as the other doesn’t know. Ultimately, Brad and Janet both accept to sleep with him, but we can still wonder: do they do it because they actually want to, or because they were convinced to do so? It can be quite difficult to answer this question, but knowing what we know about Doctor Frank N. Furter, it is easy to assume that Brad and Janet were manipulated. Brad and Janet are rapidly introduced as pretty naive, and Frank as extremely charming and manipulative. It is then very easy to think that the young couple’s naiveté made Frank’s convincing pretty easy. In Postmodern Gay Dionysus: Dr. Frank N. Furter, Frank is described as “androgynous, seductive but tyrannical” (Aviram, 1992, p.183), which is one of the best ways to describe the character. He has a very in-your-face type of personality, and can be quite intimidating to some.
We must not forget that sexual crimes are not the only crimes of Doctor Frank N. Furter. “[T]hroughout the movie, the mad scientist seems animated by an explicit perversity” (Filaire, 2012, p.2, my translation), but his perverse attitude is not the only thing that makes him dangerous. First of all, Frank is not very nice to his servants, admirers and guests. He doesn’t treat others like people, but merely as things he can use as he wishes. He ignores the feelings and needs of his servants Riff Raff (Richard O’Brien) and Magenta (Patricia Quinn), to the point where he doesn’t even expect the mutiny they are organizing against him. Columbia (Little Nell Campbell), his number one fan, is quickly set aside and forgotten by him, even though we can understand they once had an affair together. Columbia actually mentions that when Frank got tired of her, he turned to Eddie (Meat Loaf), and finally created Rocky when he got bored of him. Frank clearly treats people like objects, using them as he wants, when he wants, and discarding them as soon as he feels he doesn’t need them anymore. They are all interchangeable to him. As for his guests, he openly laugh at them, doesn’t respect their simple demand to have access to a phone and, as we observed earlier, manipulates them until they accept to have sex with him. He also violently kills Eddie, but that’s not all; he also makes his guests eat him without their knowledge, waiting for them to take a bite to reveal the terrible truth. They obviously don’t want to believe it, until Frank removes the tablecloth and Eddie’s mutilated body is shown to all. Frank is not only a rapist, he is also a killer and a cannibal.
Frank N. Furter is obviously a demonic character. Since, in the movies, a community, race, or culture’s representation is often seen as a synecdoche of this community, race, or culture, it becomes too easy for some to associate Frank’s character and his actions to the whole of the LGBTQ+ community, especially trans* people. Because of the many criminal actions of the Doctor, many people don’t really like him, and we can easily understand why. It is actually pretty unfair that one of the main movie characters that we tend to associate with the LGBTQ+ community is actually a horrible person. Some homophobic and transphobic groups have actually used Frank as an “example” of what the community is like, to show the rest of the world how “dangerous” and “unstable”, according to them, the community is. Having exposed the terrible truth behind Frank’s actions, it is easy to understand why many people don’t like him and what he can represent. But I think it is important to say that Richard O’Brien, who wrote The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was highly inspired by B-series, horror and sci-fi movies of the 50s, and so, it is quite normal for one of the main characters of his story to be such a terrible person. Nevertheless, he could have chosen to make his meanest character not a part of such a targeted community, and have the good guys associated with it instead. Representation in the media is extremely important, and having LGBTQ+ characters or LGBTQ+ ambiguous characters being the bad guys all the time surely sends a bad message. Let’s not forget that Frank also dies at the end of the movie, which can be badly interpreted, for very obvious reasons; it could be seen as if the movie was telling LGBTQ+ people that the only way they’ll ever be considered “normal” by society was when they’d die. Many people seem to understand the movie that way, which is perfectly understandable, but I personally don’t think this was the intention of Richard O’Brien.
LGBTQ+ People Are from Outer Space…?
Another negative aspect of the movie is the fact that Doctor Frank N. Furter and his servants, Riff Raff and Magenta, are extra-terrestrials. It actually makes sense, since Richard O’Brien’s inspiration came from horror movies and science-fiction, but it also marginalizes the LGBTQ+ community even more. The community is already not seen as part of the “norm”, even less so at the time the movie was released, so having the most openly LGBTQ+ associated characters being extra-terrestrials and not humans can lead to the idea that the members of this community either think they’re “better” than everyone (since Frank possesses really advanced technology, for example), or are so “rare” that they obviously have to be from outer-space, or simply that they cannot be considered humans or equals at all. This can obviously lead to horrible interpretations from the public. These characters can almost be interpreted as a “proof” that the LGBTQ+ community is not actually human, which is highly problematic. Plus, let’s not forget that the majority of the showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show take place on Halloween, which can also lead to some problematic interpretations. Some people think that because of that, the LGBTQ+ community is not taken seriously, but merely as an excuse to put on a costume. As if being part of the community was a phase, a costume that you can put on and off as you like. According to me, the main reasons why these showings mainly take place on Halloween are because of the Halloween-esque vibe of the movie, but also because Halloween is probably the only night of the year where dressing up in a very marginal way is “socially acceptable”.
If the spectators don’t ask questions about the movie, or don’t try to understand it beneath the surface, many of them might think this movie to be a simple “parenthesis of freedom, which we close to go back to our gray and heteronormative reality.” (Filaire, 2012, p.3, my translation), as if it was entertainment for the sake of it, with no real message; something this movie clearly isn’t.
Although The Rocky Horror Picture Show has many problematic aspects to it, especially about the LGBTQ+ representation, it is important to know that the movie, and the musical before that, was written by Richard O’Brien, who is himself “about 70% male, 30% female” (quoted in Fidgen, 2013). Being himself part of the LGBTQ+ community, I think that he intentionally exaggerated his characters for his work to be noticed by others, kind of like what Laura Mulvey did when she wrote a very intense and radical text about feminism and cinema. Richard O’Brien radicalized his characters so that his work would pop out and be different from others, but also for the representation issue to be acknowledged. As O’Brien says: “I was six-and-a-half and I said to my big brother that I wanted to be the fairy princess when I grew up. The look of disdain on his face made me pull down the shutters. I knew that I should never ever say that out loud again.” (quoted in Fidgen, 2013). It becomes clear here that Richard O’Brien was not always comfortable with his identity and, on some level, was taught that being the way he was was a bad thing. I believe that this is the main reason why the LGBTQ+ associated characters of his work are so demonic and from outer space: it reflects what society thinks of LGBTQ+ people. By acknowledging society’s image of the LGBTQ+ community, O’Brien makes it obvious that this portrayal is but a critique of this extremely biased way of thinking. By making Frank dangerous and evil, he shows us how ridiculous it is to think that the whole of the LGBTQ+ community is just as evil as Frank. Frank is but a caricature of this way of thinking and therefore, becomes a stand against it. Because yes, Doctor Frank N. Furter is evil; but he knows it, owns it, and isn’t afraid to show it. With Richard O’Brien’s brother’s reaction, we can also understand how much some aspirations or activities are associated with masculine identities and feminine ones, and the inequalities that exist between them, but also the pressure we have to respect certain norms according to our gender. With The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Richard O’Brien wants to show us that gender roles and gender norms should not exist. In both the musical and the movie, the characters’ gender does not really matter; male or female, the characters will wear lingerie, make-up, high heels… and totally own it! “For 50 years, O’Brien repressed the feeling.” (Fidgen, 2013), but even though he personally repressed it, he was able to express it through his work. O’Brien even “started taking the female hormone oestrogen – and is happy with the results. […] He has also developed small breasts. But O’Brien is not intending to go further and have sex reassignment surgery.” (Fidgen, 2013). He also says: “Anton Rodgers, the actor, said ‘you’re the third sex’. And I thought that’s quite nice. I quite like that position.” (quoted in Fidgen, 2013). This comes to show that Richard O’Brien does not conform and probably never will and that he is doing whatever he can to be comfortable in his body. I strongly believe that this is what he was trying to achieve with The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show; he wanted to show the world that whoever we are, we have to do everything in our power to be comfortable in our own body and with our identity. It is a process that could happen over night or maybe over fifty years.
Accepting Who You Are and How to Abolish Gender Stereotypes
Another important element in The Rocky Horror Picture Show is just how confident the characters are to go against what is perceived “normal” in terms of gender and sexuality, just like Richard O’Brien himself. Doctor Frank N. Furter, Columbia, Riff Raff and Magenta, for example, are not afraid to be who they really are, no matter what society expects them to be. As for Brad and Janet, they enter this new way of thinking without being very experimented, and don’t quite know what to do at first. As the night goes on though, they realize that the most important step towards happiness is not to care what others think of you, but to simply be yourself. As for Rocky, he was born into this more open-minded world, but as it is clearly stated in the song «Rose Tint My World» : “My libido hasn’t been controlled/Now the only thing I’ve come to trust/Is an orgasmic rush of lust”. In the end, Rocky is not shy to admit that even though he is quite new to the world, he loves sex; it is the only thing he knows and trusts. There is also Eddie. Even though he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, we learn a bit more about him in the song «Eddie», in which his uncle, Doctor Everett Scott (Jonathan Adams), explains that “All he wanted/Was rock and roll, porn/And a motorbike”. In short, Eddie seems to be a rebel, living in the margins of society, but unafraid to accept himself the way he is. Doctor Scott, one of Doctor Frank N. Furter’s rivals, doesn’t have a lot of screen time either and seems pretty boring compared to the characters around him; he clearly doesn’t fit in within the castle. But during the final sequence of the movie (often referred to as The Floor Show), during which we can hear the songs «Rose Tint My World», «Fanfare/Don’t Dream It, Be It» and «Wild and Untamed Thing», even though he says that himself, alongside Brad and Janet, should leave the castle as fast as they can, we can actually see him abandoning himself to the freedom surrounding him. It only lasts a few moments, but it still tells us that appearances don’t necessarily determine a person’s lifestyle, gender or sexuality.
Speaking of The Floor Show, I would like to direct our attention to Frank, Brad and Janet during this sequence. In the song «Fanfare/Don’t Dream It, Be It», Frank sings a few verses that I find particularly interesting. He is speaking of the actrice Fay Wray when he sings: “how I started to cry/Cause I wanted to be dressed just the same”. I think that what Richard O’Brien actually expresses with this song is one of his childhood dreams, dream that he shares with Frank: the right to wear typically feminine clothes without being judged. Jim Sharman himself said: “When Richard O’Brien conceived Frank […] I’m sure he had in mind a lovely dress, an elegant staircase and probably himself.” (quoted in Thompson, 2016, p.64). As I’ve mentioned earlier, O’Brien does not identify as a hundred percent male or as a hundred percent female, but kind of in between. Those simple lyrics clearly reflect his feelings, his thoughts, even before he started acting upon them. With those lyrics, Richard O’Brien expresses himself, through Frank, and communicates to the spectators who might feel the same way that they are not alone. Plus, as it is said many times in the song: “Don’t dream it, be it”. As for Brad and Janet, they entered Doctor Frank N. Furter’s world by accident. They were totally uncomfortable upon their arrival, but slowly learn to love erotism, excitation and open-mindedness. In «Rose Tint My World», Brad seems to say that he feels uncomfortable towards the situation, but when he sees the fishnets, high heels and corset that he his wearing, he says he is feeling sexy. He then seems to feel bad to have been so confident, but ultimately lets himself go and enjoy the experience. As for Janet, she sings about liberation, freedom, and self confidence. She feels thankful towards Frank, since he is the one who made her appreciate her body for what it is and also to listen and accept her desires. As I mentioned earlier, Brad and Janet are kind of like prisoners in the castle (not as much as Rocky might be), “but this prison acts as the scene of their rebirth in a more open-minded body, appreciative of their pulsions until then frowned upon.” (Filaire, 2012, p.3, my translation). It shows us that everyone is capable of change and an open-mind, even thought they might not look like it at first.
During The Floor Show, every character is dressed in a similar, extravagant way, wearing corsets, fishnets and high heels, things that are often seen as “strongly erotic” (Filaire, 2012, p.11, my translation). They also are all wearing heavy make-up. There are no gender roles or gender norms to be seen. They all sing and dance, and everyone is wearing lingerie and make-up. They are all accepting of who they are, and they remain united, as if to show that no matter our differences, we have to stay united. The sequence ends in the pool, where all the characters kiss each other; man or woman, it doesn’t matter anymore.
Another important moment in the movie is the opening sequence, with the song «Science Fiction/Double Feature». The song in itself is very interesting, referencing to horror and sci-fi movies of the 50s, but that’s a subject for another time. The song, which is sung to us on screen by lips without a face, is actually sung by Richard O’Brien, but the lips are Patricia Quinn’s. Here, we mix up the genders to create this entity who could literally be whoever. Since we only see the lips and that the voice could honestly belong to a man or a woman, we deconstruct the male/female concepts that we all know. These lips could belong to a man or a woman, or anyone who identifies outside of the binary. The movie states that gender is a construct, created by society, and that we can literally interpret it however we want, explore it, deconstruct it, or even ignore it.
As written in Le genre dans The Rocky Horror Picture Show ou la liberté préservée par la perversion, “If Jim Sharman’s movie seems to go against the traditional ideas of gender, it is because it considers them to be dangerous for the self and the freedom of thought and expression.” (Filaire, 2012, p.5, my translation). In other words, the movie proudly goes against the gender roles created by society, wishing to destroy them once and for all, and for everyone to be truly equal. The Rocky Horror Picture Show tries to push us towards a more ideal world of equalities.
Making a Movie About Sex Without Sex
The Rocky Horror Picture Show does not only try to abolish gender roles and stereotypes; it is also a movie that is quite sex-oriented, whether it be sexual desire or the act itself. Even though the movie never becomes really explicit (the most we see are Little Nell’s nipples, very quickly during The Floor Show), it is still full of puns and innuendos, the most popular ones being “You’re wet.” said by Riff Raff to Brad and Janet as the couple is standing in the rain, and “Coming!” said by Frank as he and Brad’s intercourses are interrupted by Riff Raff. The puns and innuendos are quite easy to understand, but they are so obvious, in a way, that they could easily be missed. Plus, when Frank N. Furter tricks Brad and Janet into having sex with him, we can partially see the whole thing through a veil, a filter, almost as if the characters were shadow puppets. We don’t see anything explicit, but we are still shown. Finally, many characters are almost naked throughout the whole films, or are wearing pretty revealing outfits, illustrating once again the sexual desire and sexual confidence of the characters. The movie wants to normalize sex, make us understand that sex should not be as taboo as we make it to be, but instead explored, explained and celebrated.
In conclusion, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a movie that literally changed cinema, with its explicit and at times complicated exploration of gender and sexuality. Even though the movie has its fair share of negative elements, especially concerning Doctor Frank N. Furter’s character, the main message of the movie remains one of freedom of expression, self confidence, and equality. It is a movie we have to “read” and analyse a bit deeper before we decide to judge it. It is important to understand that the movie is not the perfect example of gender and sexuality representation and equality in the medias, but when it first came out in 1975, it was still a big step forward. When analyzing this movie, we must obviously keep in mind the release year, otherwise it could loose a lot of its meaning. Of course, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a movie that would be very interesting to analyze from different perspective and different subjects. For example, an analysis of its relation with 50s horror and sci-fi movies would be fascinating. From sex to B series, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the world’s most renowned cult film, encapsulates many different subjects, all amazingly interesting; it is definitely a movie have to take a bit more seriously and it is not ready to be forgotten.
- Aviram, Amittai F. 1992. «Postmodern Gay Dionysus : Dr. Frank N. Furter». The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 26, n°3 (winter), p.183-192.
- Fidgen, Jo. 2013. «Richard O’Brien : ‘I’m 70% man’». Online. BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-21788238
- Filaire, Marc-Jean. 2012. «Le genre dans The Rocky Horror Picture Show ou la liberté préservée par la perversion». Online. Entrelacs. https://entrelacs.revues.org/363
- Sharman, Jim (dir.). 1975. The Rocky Horror Picture Show. United States et Great Britain. 20th Century Fox.
- Thompson, Dave. 2016. «The Rocky Horror Picture Show FAQ : Everything Left to Know about the Campy Cult Classic». Coll. «FAQ». Milwaukee : Applause Theatre and Cinema Books.
 Song written by Richard O’Brien, interpreted by Tim Curry
 Song written by Richard O’Brien, interpreted by Tim Curry
 Song written by Richard O’Brien, interpreted by Little Nell, Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon and Peter Hinwood
 Song written by Richard O’Brien, interpreted by Jonathan Adams, Charles Gray, Tim Curry, Richard O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Little Nell, Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon and Peter Hinwood
 Song written byRichard O’Brien, interpreted by Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon, Peter Hinwood and Little Nell
 Song written by Richard O’Brien, interpreted by Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, Susan Sarandon, Little Nell, Peter Hinwood and Richard O’Brien
 Song written and interpreted by Richard O’Brien