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A Jump to the Left, A Step to the Right

Trans Representation and Respectability in Rocky Horror

 

How D’You Do

Rocky Horror is messy. Always has been. Some people love it, some people hate it. Some see it as liberating. Some see it as insulting and misleading. For transparency’s sake, I’ll state at the outset that I’m a lover. It was and is a positive celebratory thing in my life as a queer, AMAB transfemme kinky person. But I also have queer, AMAB transfemme kinky friends who loathe Rocky Horror as a degrading, damaging stereotype of our existence. And that’s fine. I get it. We can all have different feelings and experiential lenses that inform our view of it and they can all be true. There’s good reasons on all sides. And these multiplicities hold true down the demographic line — there are other people under the queer and trans umbrellas who hate it and some who love it, and there are some square cishet people who hate it and some who love it as well.

The recent remake starring Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter is fomenting these arguments again, particularly in the public realm of social media. So let’s take the opportunity to examine the value and drawbacks of the late night double feature picture show. What makes Rocky, well … Rocky? What makes Frank, for better or worse, one of the most enduring trans characters in media? What distinctions can we make between the two characterizations, and what are their implications?

Refresher Course

Before we get into it, there are a couple things that beg attention. Rocky Horror writer, creator, and Riff-Raff actor Richard O’Brien, an AMAB nonbinary transfemme person himself, has expressed some unfortunate prescriptivist views about gender in more recent years. Namely, that trans women aren’t really women. Shitty as this is, we cannot view Rocky Horror and Frank as creations intended to represent these views, however. How we receive, interpret, and are inspired by a piece of art is not tied to singular isolated aspects of its creator’s personality or views, problematic or not. But neither does this mean we should let the creator as a person off the hook for harmful behavior. For our purposes here, I will do the only thing we can do and take just the film itself as our text, and not try to extrapolate or map any of the author’s possible intentions or personal beliefs onto an interpretation of it.

Also, on the subject of problematic things, both remake and original walk a fine line in regard to their attempts to depict bold bedroom seductions of Brad and Janet, as opposed to outright consent violations. The remake probably does a slightly better job here, having the benefit of 40 extra years of education and awareness efforts, but neither really succeed. And I’d be remiss to elide these scenes. Even with the camp stylization deployed to mitigate the myriad crimes of the films, I cannot and will not defend rapey overtones in a film whose central thesis is sex and gender liberation. While the movie presents other crimes of murder and cannibalism to the viewer with airs of shock or horror (though still in camp manner), the “seduction” scenes are presented as straightforward rape culture tropes — Brad and Janet really wanted it after all, so it’s OK to deceive them or ignore when they repeatedly say no. This isn’t subversive or punk or a deconstruction, it’s just plain rape culture. It exists here just as it does in countless other films and TV. But this also does not categorically void everything else about the movie and the character. They are complex, as all things are. Nothing is unproblematic. Rocky is messy. Everything is messy. If people want to reject the character and the movie for this, that’s entirely justified. If people want to love something or someone for the things they do well and achieve, and simultaneously call attention to and not tolerate their harmful aspects in hopes of future improvement, that’s justified too. These are both important forms that love can take.

 

When It All Began

Now, let’s begin analyzing the original 1975 version of Rocky with Tim Curry’s Frank. The reason some trans people hate Frank so much is that he is the distillation of every single exaggeration, vilification, and stereotype of a trans person. Hypersexualized. Crazy and temperamental. Ill-intentioned and predatory. Harsh makeup. Man in a dress. Man in lingerie. Man in lingerie who tricks cishet people into being attracted to and having sex with him. Trans person whose transness is contagious. Hell, he’s even named after a phallic sausage. Frank is every damaging characterization that is used by the ignorant to justify oppression of trans people. He even graces scaremongering conservative memes trying to incite trans bathroom panic. Particularly for trans women and transfemme people who are seeking security, respect, stability, and understanding from the general population, it can be frustrating when this is the character that springs to people’s mind when they countenance trans femininity. This is all valid and to be taken seriously.

Of course, all of these reasons why so many trans people do not find Frank respectable are why so many trans people adore him. There are those who find respectability and assimilation to be contemptible pursuits that only serve to erase uniqueness, stifle diversity, prude-up behavioral norms, and set back sex and gender liberation. Frank’s purpose as a character is to reject respectability. And he does, to hyperbolic lengths. He murders people. He cannibalizes an ex lover and tricks others into doing so as well. He keeps a lover in bondage. Because it’s a camp musical and a sci-fi horror spoof however, these offenses do not register much disturbing impact on the viewer. Frank simply comes across as outrageous and larger than life. So much so that he transcends the role of a villain, transcends even an antihero role. Frank is simply the hero of Rocky Horror. The viewer is expected to be on his side despite all these things. And as we know, legions and legions of viewers very much are because the whole thing is just so outrageously absurd, and the songs are fun, and they wanna have all the amazing sex everyone on screen is having, too. So by the end of the movie, people actually love this horrible caricature of everything about transness we’re all, cis and trans, conditioned to fear and despise. They recognize him as the caricature he is, laugh at and love its absurdity, and then go beyond that to actually find genuine value in his transgressiveness. When Frank is killed for his crimes, it is presented and received as sad and tragic.

So many trans characters in media are often powerless, only given pitiable sob stories, endure violence and other terrible things happening to them specifically because of their transness. Transness, or social issues resulting from transness, are always something to be overcome. Not so in Rocky Horror. Frank’s transness is never anything less than a 100 percent positive attribute. Not a personal obstacle, not a social disadvantage. There’s no negativity attached to it at all. Not even in passing. Not for a second. All the other characters love it. It’s irresistible. They are attracted to it and want to emulate it. Frank is killed, yes, as so many trans characters in media are, but not because he is trans. That’s incidental. In fact, his transness nearly gets him off the hook when his crew of newly converted genderfuckers are so grateful for their transformation that they object to the execution order and aid him in his plea for mercy. Is there any other media out there that portrays the transness of a character so positively?

This is a movie that takes an alienating stereotype of a trans person, has him murder, cannibalize, seduce monogamous cishet people, and has him convert cis people into trans people as its climax — and people love it. People love him. Cis people.

I’m repeating this because it warrants repeating: This scaremongering stereotype of a trans person murders, cannibalizes, coercively seduces and converts cis people into trans people, and cis audiences love him for it.

Any piece of media that can take all the hardest-to-swallow parts of transness, fabricated or not, and inspire such widespread love, lust, empathy, and admiration from a cis audience is doing something pretty incredible with a trans character. People wanna dress like Frank. Be Frank. Fuck Frank. Love Frank.

Regardless, this characterization would remain insulting if it was that of a trans woman. Depicting trans women as men in revealing dresses and salacious lingerie is insulting, offensive, and harmful. (Though, not because there’s something wrong or threatening about being a man in lingerie or a dress.) Trans women are women. But Frank is not a woman. He uses the word transvestite as an identifier, which could mean a variety of things back in the days of its popular usage. Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson and others used the term transvestite during this same time period and we understand them today as trans women. But transvestite was also used with other identities, including those we would recognize today as crossdressers. Frank is a crossdresser. He refers to himself as a man, as do other characters, and he uses he/him pronouns throughout the film. This is why the character of Frank actually works with cis male actor Tim Curry playing the part. The essence of Frank’s character is that we read his gender as a non-passing, no-medical-transition, male-assigned person embracing and getting off on transgressive hyperfemininity. Frank is a lascivious, gender nonconforming crossdresser. He is wildly flamboyant and effeminate (not feminine, effeminate). His makeup and wardrobe are confrontational and provocative. He has epic sideburns. You can see his dick in his panties.

Again, it is valid if one recognizes Frank as a challenge to respectability and social norms but still feels that he is damaging because he is an alienating misrepresentation that jeopardizes or obfuscates trans people’s real world lives.

However, uncritical rejection of these aspects of Frank as offensive could also reflect an internalized transmisogyny in ourselves and in our community — a rejection of a part of us that we’re conditioned to be ashamed of and marginalize in ourselves and others.

AMAB crossdressers and gender nonconformers are, to this day, kept at an arm’s distance from the greater trans community. And this is a problem because crossdressers and GNC people are part of the trans umbrella. Not to mention that so many trans women and AMAB transfemme people first begin discovering transness through crossdressing, often for sexual purposes. Cis women are free and encouraged to unapologetically embrace their desires for femininity and sexuality, to play with power and submission, whereas AMAB people (especially those who do not identify as trans women, are pre-transition, or cannot transition) embracing femininity, sexuality, and submission are subject to policing and double standards that their expressions and explorations conflate and denigrate the entirety of womanhood and femininity as solely sexual and submissive. Transmisogynist respectability norms stoke fears of one’s transness being illegitimate if it’s perceived as “just about sex” (and in our sex-negative society, sexual pleasure is not a justifiable enough reason to want to change one’s life, body, or apparently even clothing). Frank not only challenges these standards of legitimacy, he laughs at them, he gets off on undermining them. 

Frank’s eroticized “forced feminization” of Brad, Rocky, and Dr. Scott is also a ubiquitous trope and narrative of popular AMAB trans fiction, art, media, and porn. There’s an accompanying misperception that one must view femininity/womanhood as shameful or inferior if one desires a third party and an element of force or coercion to embrace it, which speciously ignores how personally and socially complex it is to adeptly overcome a lifetime of institutionalized and internalized gendered behavioral conditioning and culturally pervasive transphobia and misogyny all on one’s own. Fantasizing about someone doing it all for you and fulfilling your fantasies is a perfectly normal response to the isolation, the seemingly insurmountable task of doing it in real life, and the danger of potentially upending one’s life and becoming an identifiable member of a targeted community.

Respectability subverts open discussion of these things, but they are true, and they are things trans people need to be less afraid to talk about with each other because they are just as much a part of the trans experience as everything else. By rejecting them as something misguided AMAB trans femmes do before we found our true selves, as opposed to a fundamental part of how we did so and/or who we still are, it risks alienating and discouraging trans people who are currently in that stage and may want to take further steps to transition or find like-minded friends. By rejecting them as lurid, inappropriate, and disreputable, we shame a fundamental part of transfemme sexuality. It risks alienating people who genuinely and harmlessly enjoy playing with gender in that manner and within those various identities and stages of gender and sexual discovery — all as valid as any other in the trans umbrella. Burying these things as history, hesitating to talk about them openly, dismissing them as negative, worrying what respectable cis people will think about them is what trans erasure and transmisogyny look like. Frank, and Rocky Horror as a whole, confront us with all of these things, and dare us to reconcile them.

Frank not only rejects cishet respectability and norms, he rejects these trans respectability norms as well. Frank not only resists the male/female gender binary, he resists the cis/trans binary. Frank resists the MTF/FTM binary of transness. Frank flaunts the aspects of himself trans people are supposed to hide to gain social acceptance with cis people and each other. Frank resists the stereotype and the pathology that sexual enjoyment delegitimizes one’s trans gender identity. Frank celebrates and exhibits with pride what trans people are taught to be ashamed of. Frank queers queerness. Frank fucks with genderfucking.

 

The Double Feature

Fox’s 2016 Rocky reboot complicates everything further. It’s only fitting. From the reception, it seems likely that this version is not one that fans will be returning to for years to come like the original, but contemporary trans icon Laverne Cox’s turn in the lead role is something worth examining. And I am going to focus solely on analyzing representation and politicized identities here, and not critique whether the reboot was less enjoyable than the original because its action and costuming was constrained by the censorship standards of a primetime network air slot, whether it suffered from rushed pacing to fit it into a convenient length for commercial broadcast, or whether these limitations affected the editing and stage direction and precluded the audience from empathizing with characters’ motivations, emotions, and dynamics with each other. Nope, not gonna mention any of that.

If Frank weren’t already a divisive character for trans people, for all people, casting Cox only fanned the flame. Cox’s groundbreaking work in acting and advocacy has positioned her as one of the most respected and recognizable standard bearers for trans, black, and women’s issues in our society. So her playing a purposefully disrespectable trans role ruffles some feathers and stirs feelings about Frank in new ways. People fear that a high-profile, dignified trans woman leader portraying a lecherous gender nonconforming man in a dress undermines her respectability and how society views the validity of her and all trans women’s identities. All the same fears about the stereotypes of Curry’s Frank, except now there’s an actual respectable trans female figurehead walking the line who carries the weight of how society sees trans women, black trans women, trans femmes, and trans people in general. Not to mention the disparate social and personal hopes a community projects onto its leaders of how we want to see ourselves and be seen by others. Just as with Curry, there’s no way Cox can please everyone in this situation.

But it turns out Cox doesn’t play the same Frank as Curry did. This is a character reboot as well. Curry’s Frank is a crossdressing, gender nonconforming man. Cox plays the character as an out, passing, she/her pronouned, binary-gendered trans woman, whom I’ll refer to as Frankie for clarity’s sake.

To critique the pros and cons of Frankie, we cannot conflate her with Frank. She is a completely different character. There are many commonalities, but Frankie taps into things and challenges some norms that Frank does not, and vice versa.  

First and foremost, the obvious plusses of Frankie and the reboot. A black trans woman playing a lead role in TV/film is a great thing. A trans person playing a trans character is a great thing — in that it should be de rigeur. More people of color in co-starring roles is unequivocally a great thing. (Though at the same time, the remake’s Transylvanian conventionists are also uniformly young, lean, muscley, conventionally pretty triple-threats, while the original’s Transylvanians are young and old; black, white, Asian, and Indian; fat, average, and thin; tall and little — intentionally rejecting homogenous beauty norms of body shape and suggesting that all ages and sizes can be cool and sexy.)

Frankie does not resist binaries via genderfucking the same way Frank does. Nor do the circumstances of the remake’s network primetime constraints grant her license to be as transgressive as Frank. But the core of the character’s reclamations of outrageous stereotypes and rejection of sex-negative respectability remains in tact. Frankie just doesn’t tap into the man-in-a-dress stereotype that Frank does. She does still identify herself as a sweet transvestite, but again, this is a term of fluidity with a varied and nuanced history of usage (like everything else in the trans lexicon), and the remake still takes the mid-20th century as its setting. As mentioned earlier, transvestite was a term trans women self-applied in this period. And though it has gone out of fashion today as a respectable term, some people do still identify with it, and they have the right to do so.

One new potentially unpleasant wrinkle Cox’s casting adds is when Frankie is killed at the end. It is admittedly a tired, tragedy-porn cliche for trans characters in media to die. Neither Frank or Frankie are killed because they are trans, which is an important distinction as previously discussed, but still they still die. And it can be understandably upsetting to see transfemmes murdered, however camp the depiction. This is a very real threat in our lives, and those who run the highest risk of violence are trans women of color. Every week or so we’re seemingly confronted with news of another homicide. So it’s understandable if seeing Frankie killed (even by a silly guitar ray-gun) might be an upsetting reminder.

Frankie challenges different norms and evokes different thoughts and concerns than Frank. Just as it is impressive to see characters and audiences seeing through fearmongering stereotypes and embracing Curry’s male-leaning gender-nonconforming Frank, it’s also encouraging to see characters and audiences doing so with open love, admiration, and attraction for Frankie, an out and unapologetically proud black trans woman. More of that, please, in both mainstream and trans media.

It’d be an error not to include the voice of Cox herself in this analysis as well. We can theorize and postulate all day, but what are the feelings of the trans person who is closest to this role? This leader whose image and principles our community is so invested in — what does she think of it?

I had such a great time playing Dr. Frank-N-Furter; it was one of the most joyous work experiences of my life. … I discovered (Rocky Horror) my freshman year at Indiana University before I transferred to Marymount Manhattan College. Some friends of mine were talking about it, and I had never seen it. We watched it in the dorm, and they were talking back to the screen, and I was like, “What are you doing?” It was so cool, and I was immediately transfixed by the film and the music. Frank-N-Furter just spoke to me. The gender fluidity of the character, the naughtiness and the sexiness. At the time I was existing in a gender-non-conforming space. I had a shaved head and wore makeup every day and hadn’t yet medically transitioned. And I was like, “Oh my God, this is me.” And now it is me! I’m the new Frank-N-Furter. I still can’t believe it. (Variety)

When I started training again last year, I started working my chest voice. As a trans woman with a low voice, I had been so afraid of those low tones. This is a character where it’s absolutely appropriate that I sing in the bass baritone register that I have. What’s also fun is playing with those higher notes in my register too. This is sort of my professional singing debut. But it’s been wonderful claiming my chest voice. It’s been really healing. (Entertainment Weekly)

Apparently, even Cox was one of those isolated pre-transition AMABs who first found a core part of her identity and sexuality in Frank’s fetishized gender nonconformity. And apparently, even as far as she’s come since then, she still had something to gain in present day from undoing internalized trans respectability norms.

It’s hard to resist the tendency to evaluate the two characterizations — Curry v. Cox, Frank v. Frankie. I’m not sure it’s something that can even be fairly done. Critiquing the execution and enjoyment of the films themselves is a little more straightforward, but Frank and Frankie are different — different characters, different actors with very different life trajectories, different genders, different races, in different eras, in different mediums and circumstances. All of these things color the role. There is obviously large overlap, but they also simply mean different things. Instead of asking which is better, perhaps it’s more useful to ask, “What happens?” with each. And regardless of version, this question will likely still divide us on Dr. Furter’s place in trans culture.

 

The Pelvic Thrust

So what’s the verdict? Are Frank, Frankie, and Rocky Horror good or bad for trans people? Is there a tally sheet? What outweighs what? Whose opinions count? How does one balance the personal with the social?

This is not a debate we can settle so easily, even with analyses, articles, and conversations. It’s not so simple as good v. bad.

Belied by its camp and low-budget veneers, Rocky Horror and its characters are deeply complex. They are as complex as we are — trans, binary and non, crossdressers, kinksters, even all those adoring cishets in fishnets.

What is for certain are the feelings and passions inspired. Amazing, damaging, revelatory, insulting, sexy … we all feel so many things so intensely about this movie and these characters. And that’s why Frank endures. That’s why we’re still watching Rocky Horror every Halloween, more than 40 years later. That’s why there’s a remake — a remake with a trans person as the lead in network primetime. That’s why some of us watch this low-budget, camp, B movie every month. That’s why it’s still in theaters. That’s why there are hordes of fans, dressing up, shouting callbacks, watching shadow casts precisely mimic and mock every move on screen. That’s why some of us still feel compelled to address the stereotypes and talk about trans misrepresentations, and the struggles of our daily lives. That’s why we’re still writing articles like this one.

Good or bad, helpful or harmful … we can’t answer that with one single truth. Except maybe this one: “Do you like Rocky Horror?” will always start a conversation among trans people. We all have strong feelings and opinions about it and Dr. Frank-N-Furter, its enduring and memorable star, for better or worse. And whether you’re a lover or a hater, that’s exactly what an effective character does.