It was the 14th August 1975, when, for the very first time, a corset-wearing Tim Curry playing Dr. Frank N. Furter appeared on the big screen. At the time, there probably weren’t many able to foresee the impact his performance would have – triggering a whole Rocky Horror Picture Show mania and helping the LGBTQ community to become more visible. Now, exactly 43 years later, parts of the film still seem to be just as revolutionary. With an American president initiating homophobic laws, destroying much of the progress of former years in the process, the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s storyline seems to be more relevant than ever. But it’s not only the content of the movie that we can still relate to in 2018, the campy, kitschy aesthetics and cinematography and the worshipping of “the ugly” is a tendency equally to be found in fashion and pop culture to this day – just take a look at the “ugly sneaker” trend or simply Vetements’ yellow DHL T-shirts.
However, at the beginning, the film wasn‘t very successful and did not have a big audience. There were just a few people who kept watching it again and again, leading to the producers deciding to alter the ending and bring the film back on screen six months later as a so-called “Midnight Movie“. This concept allowed Low-Budget- and Independent-films to be shown mostly late at night, after the main movies had been presented. Inspired by the energetic songs and dances featured in the film, audiences started to bring the themes to real life and dressed up as the characters of the show, pairing the actors’ performances with real-life actions.
Known for its subversive way of costuming its characters, and the distinct play with heteronormative rules, the Rocky Horror Picture Show made a significant contribution to showing a broader spectrum of gender and sexuality in the media. The late-night screenings in the early seventies and the dress-up-play allowed people of the queer community to have a safe space where they were allowed to express their gender and sexuality. Dr. Frank N. Furter exemplifies the idea of exploring one’s gender in the film – being a man that dresses up in feminine clothes, but that is sexually attracted to both men and women. He therefore is quite a pioneer of representing the LGBTQ-community in the film industry, considering that The Rocky Horror Picture Show was already made in the seventies. But not only does he represent gender diversity – looking at characters like Meat Loaf‘s Eddie or the man Frank creates for his pleasure also show different forms of masculinity, from the hyper-masculinity represented by Peter Hinwood to the one the self-proclaimed Meat Loaf portrays.
Another aspect making this show still so relevant today is the character Janet, played by Susan Sarandon. Initially portrayed as a chaste and prude woman whose only wish it is to marry, she suddenly sings the lyrics “Touch-a-touch-a-touch me“ while stripping down in front of a man that certainly isn‘t her husband. Despite the multiple interpretations that can be read into this – from oppressed sexuality due to society to the idea that feminism should enable women to freely express themselves no matter what – this cinematic image nonetheless makes a case for the acceptance of a sexual liberaty and subverting the prudeness of American and English society at the time. The painting “American Gothic“ by Grant Wood appears several times in the film – which is still discussed to either be a persiflage on the cultural values of rural America or an appreciation of precisely these. But whichever might be the correct reading, The Rocky Horror Picture Show definitely expresses it as a distinct mocking of societal norms.
Besides the provocative content, the film also provides us with an aesthetic that is far from what was common at the time. While other seventies productions were already experimenting with special effects yet tried to make everything look as “real“ as possible, The Rocky Horror Picture Show focused on old-fashioned and blatantly artificial settings and costumes. This is accompanied by explicit images of orgys and voyeuristic sexual desires, overly saturated colours, grotesque make-up and over-the-top clothing – referential to the notion of “camp“, found in counter-cinema films like the ones from John Waters and playing with everything commonly regarded as “bad taste“. Even though The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not as radical in its imagery as the movies by John Waters there still is a rebellious attempt to shock its audiences apparent. As Susan Sontag writes in her text “Notes on ‘Camp‘“: “[Camp] is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not“, and further “[…] it‘s good because it‘s awful.“
It gives bad taste the right to existence, to be shown, which goes hand in hand with the fascination for it, and again, an act of subverting everything mainstream. This idea also reflects in current fashion trends and the internet, with people wearing crocs, big, chunky sneakers and clothes that are oversized, have sleeves that are too long or seem to be ill-fitting overall. Add to that Instagram photos full of girls and boys posing in front of discount supermarkets, on toilet seats or making selfies, self-ironically grimacing in front of the camera – just as ugliness in The Rocky Horror Picture is a way of going against the grain, this imagery equally seems to be a counter-approach to the photoshopped status-quo of mainstream media.
What, however, needs to be regarded critically, especially in the eye of the current #metoo debate, is how consent is represented in the film. Janet and Brad are kept in Dr. Frank N. Furter’s castle against their will and are forced to wear only their underwear. Moreover, when Janet loses her virginity, she does not give her consent, but rather is “seduced“ to do so – or if we put it more radically, raped. All of this is secretly filmed by cameras installed all over the castle and can be watched by everyone on a live-stream, reminding us of the voyeuristic revenge porn a lot of women are victims of nowadays.
This only highlights the importance of watching films with a critical eye while being aware of the time and circumstances under which they were produced – helping us to understand why characters are portrayed and staged in certain ways. And in the case of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it was to push boundaries and pave the way for the waves of camp that were to come.
Header Image: Film Still