I was 10 years old the first time I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show. My parents had put the film on and with no context or discussion of sex and sexuality, the campy tale unfolded before my eyes.
I’m sure my parents also watched the film, but I can’t remember anything other than my mom telling me it was one of her favorite movies. After that, there was no mom, no dad, no me. There was only Janet, Brad, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, and a whole lot of my burgeoning sexuality.
Part of what drew, and still draws, viewers to Rocky Horror is exactly how it explores themes of sexual liberation and non-binary identities. Characters are seduced and like it, demonstrate diverse sexual appetites, and defy gender norms and the gender binary. Another appealing aspect is the sense that you’re looking into a time capsule. Rocky Horror is a product of the tumultuous ‘70s, when the Vietnam War raged on and the Brits got really into glam rock. It’s easy to see those influences on the film now, and it’s almost impossible to view it without a sense of how uproarious and unique it was for its time.
Of course, Rocky Horror is not a clean exploration of sexuality. It’s messy and revolutionary and sometimes outright wrong. The nomenclature could use an update, and the concept of consent seems to have been wholly lost on the creator and characters. Those issues also spill over into the culture around the midnight showings, where actors have been harassed and the audience has teetered into straight voyeurism.
Despite these valid critiques and issues, Rocky Horror remains a queer exploration of gender, sex, and sexual liberation in the form of a science fiction musical and B-horror film parody. And, if that sounds easy to do, just revisit the 2016 remake for proof that’s not the case. (Listen, I’m not going to say anything else about the Fox remake. There’s nothing new I can add, and the tribute does all the work of condemning itself.)
But my 10-year-old self didn’t know any of that. I didn’t know the film was a parody. I didn’t know it was about queerness and otherness and acceptance and fear. I didn’t know the sex scenes were problematic and titillating. I didn’t know anything except that Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his seduction of Janet and Brad stirred something in me I didn’t quite have language for yet.
Of course, if you’re watching the film on purpose, you know that this opening is to illustrate the contrast of where Janet and Brad come from and what they experience throughout the film. It’s meant to be hyper-heteronormative and it’s meant to satirize mainstream culture. But my young self had no sense of the irony or dramatization. To me, this was the opening of a film about a straight couple, a right couple I had been taught, and one I was allowed to enjoy. Little did I know the opening sequence was a Trojan Horse.
When Janet and Brad get a flat tire one rainy night, a simple journey to find a phone ends up rocking their world. The infamous Rocky Horror couple arrives at the overstated castle of a group of Transylvanians just in time for a celebration. Upon their arrival, their eccentric host slash “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania,” Dr. Frank-N-Furter, creates one man and murders another in front of them, all while singing and dancing about.
Oh, and as part of the festivities, Janet and Brad have been stripped to their skivvies and sent to separate rooms to sleep. You might be wondering why they put up with all of this and the answer is: they are both intrigued and alarmed by their hosts, who they can’t help but eye bang.
While in their chambers, Janet is visited by Brad and Brad is visited by Janet, except neither of these milquetoast, white bread kids would do such a thing. Enter Dr. Frank-N-Furter. He seduces both characters by pretending to be the other person and both eventually succumb to his advances willingly and enthusiastically. The mise en scene of each scene is absolutely delightful. First, Janet is seduced behind a red curtain where her silhouette and Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s intertwine. Next, Brad is seduced in almost the exact same way behind a blue curtain. Their exchange is the same, even the way Dr. Frank-N-Furter spreads their legs so that their ankles are at his ears is the same. (There are numerous ways to read these scenes, particularly as they relate to consent and sexuality, but for the sake of this argument, we’re going to stick with an uncomplicated one.)
The framing and juxtaposition of the scenes equate Janet and Brad as sex objects and playthings for Dr. Frank-N-Furter. After all, he just created a man for himself to play with, yet his appetite is not sated. (Another problematic sexual scenario for another article.) To Dr. Frank-N-Furter, sex is about the pursuit, the discovery, the total abandonment of all convention and reason.
I consoled myself with the idea that I must have just liked what Dr. Frank-N-Furter and Janet did, that the moment when she and Rocky have sex in his rainbow-tinted birth tank was the sex that I was drawn to. While I do love “Toucha, Toucha, Touch Me,” I would eventually realize that I didn’t identify with Janet’s sexuality or even Brad’s. I identified with Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
From the second Dr. Frank-N-Furter appeared onscreen, I can remember being aroused and confused. Who was this person with fourth wall-breaking eyebrows who was so hyper-femme, so totally up to their tits in sex appeal, but didn’t have tits? The love of my life, perhaps? Or another part of me?
He seemed so free, so unencumbered, so unconcerned with what anyone else thought of his gender or his sexuality. In fact, he knew he was the sexpot they needed in their lives and he wanted to set them free. And, I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but that’s what I wanted, too. But, like, with a lot of active consent.
For years, I didn’t say anything about my sexuality and nearly forgot about Rocky Horror. I went about my life, trying to ignore the vivid sexual dreams about all kinds of people and the sense that something about my body and the words used to describe it wasn’t quite right. I buried my secrets and Dr. Frank-N-Furter deep inside my heart where I figured no one would ever find them.
Eventually, I would find my own way to coming out as bisexual and non-binary. It would be really cool if I could point to the times I’ve seen Rocky Horror in my life and draw a line to my realizations about myself, but in reality, it’s all been a lot more subconscious and subtle than that. In fact, I mostly see how Rocky Horror changed me when I re-watch it.
I watch Janet and Brad’s tentative relationship to their sexuality and I see me in high school. I watch Dr. Frank-N-Furter seduce and delight his lovers and I see me in college and graduate school. I watch Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s confidence and love of red lips and I see me now. I see myself in his sexuality and his gender. I see myself as the tempting bisexual who will rock your world and the non-binary revolutionary who will bend your mind.
In the end, it’s revealed the Dr. Frank-N-Furter is an alien. His Transylvanian compatriots murder him and Janet and Brad are left dripping wet in their corsets and fishnets, running from the castle as it flies into the sky and returns to the planet Transsexual. Knocked to the ground by the house’s takeoff, Janet and Brad writhe and grope, covered in ash and smoke, forever changed by the fateful night they got a flat.
And, just like Janet and Brad, I’ve found myself forever changed by Dr. Frank-N-Furter and the fateful night my parents pressed play on Rocky Horror Picture Show.