The Rocky Horror Picture Show is revered as a cult classic. With a TV revival, multiple productions on-stage and a catchy soundtrack, what’s not to love? After re-watching though, something caught my eye — the standout character (Dr Frank-N-Furter) is nothing more than an amalgamation of dated stereotypes. Yet, the campy performance, garish make-up and revealing costume barely scratch the surface of how problematic this film truly is.
It’s easy to dismiss Dr Frank-N-Furter as the lovable bad-guy — the camp, comical foil to Brad and Janet — but there’s a sinister personality behind his sweet facade. He murders Eddie, creates Rocky to serve as his sex slave, rapes Brad and Janet, all before serving them Eddie’s corpse for dinner. The writers couldn’t settle for simply making him a villain, rather they literally portrayed the film’s most iconic queer character as alien.
Beyond this, everything begins to atrophy after Frank is shown raping Brad and Janet, re-enforcing the “bury your gays” and “death by sex” tropes. It could be easily dismissed as a product of its time, since the film did introduce an overtly sexual, unapologetic queer character to straight audiences. However, trans viewers have since come forward with complaints about the film’s marginalization and trivialization of non-cisgender characters.
Personally, Rocky Horror is a guilty pleasure. I fully accept the problematic nature of its story, especially its portrayal of trans characters. But, it’s a cornerstone of queer cinema — and is argued by many critics to have laid the foundation for many of the films we now enjoy today, e.g. Call Me By Your Name and Moonlight — which is some proof of its positive contribution. Nevertheless, its negative impact on trans representation cannot and should not be ignored or downplayed.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show has always been controversial, but its good-natured, over-the-top narrative cannot hide its problematic treatment of LGBTQ+ characters.