“Erotic Nightmares, Beyond Any Measure…” Femininity in 'Rocky Horror:' Fetishes, Demons, and Subhumans
Queer Theory Essay
Throughout the history of theater, femininity as presented on stage and on camera is a concept which has transformed significantly over time, alongside the ever-changing writing and performing of theater. Because the theatrical representation of femininity is rooted in a time when performance was exclusive to male actors, female characters in theater all began with a representation of femininity that some scholars say is ingenuine, while other scholars say is queer in the sense of nonconformity. When those perceived as women were banned from performing on the stage in the early ages, it is likely that most actors were male-identified; however, it is also impossible to know the true gender diversity that existed among actors who were perceived as men playing women’s roles.
The comedic element of audiences being exposed to the spectacle of a "man in a dress" relates to early transphobia towards women in the theater, which directly connects to the ways in which the concept of femininity was and is scripted and performed. The concept of perceived femininity throughout theater history has been continuously viewed as a trait that exists only to pleasure masculine identity, threatens and deceives masculinity, or is objectified to the point where it is no longer seen as human from the masculine gaze; in this paper, these functions of femininity will be observed and analyzed through the framework of Frank N Furter’s character in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The paper will use scholarship, articles, and opinion pieces to explore topics of gender and performance, queer identity and analysis, and sexualization of deviant bodies to dig into the roots and consequences of fetishizing, demonizing, and dehumanizing femininity.
Fetishization of Femininity
As is no secret to the performers, production teams, or audiences of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this show is an intentional display of sexuality and queerness, as well as the relationship between an intersection of these types of identities. The character of Frank N Furter unashamedly encourages all the other characters and the audience to “give [themselves] over to absolute pleasure.” There is, of course, nothing unnatural or problematic about people or characters proudly claiming power in their own sexual identity, though the concept of fetishization complicates the subject. There is a history of fascination with identities and sexualities that traditionally deviate from social and cultural norms of what defines a person and their desires.
Many characters in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the main character of Frank N Furter in particular, are sexualized through the queerness of their appearance and behavior. The very thing that makes Frank N Furter just so enticing to the sexual desires of Janet and Brad--the characters who begin as extremely traditional and conforming in nature--is the fact the Frank N Furter is perceived as a man in women’s clothes, who behaves femininely and outwardly in the presentation of sexuality and desire. The Transylvanians, of which Frank N Furter is the leader, are literal aliens who are presented as the cause for the sexual corruption of the norm, as represented through the conformity of gender roles in the heterosexual presentation of Brad and Janet. Because the Transylvanians are more ambiguous in presentation, gender identity, and sexuality than Brad and Janet who represent the conforming population, there is an inherent element of fetisization towards the sexual behavior of the aliens--something that is intended to be perceived as pleasurable in a rather mysterious or disturbing way.
Most fetishization and sexualization that occurs on stage or in films is directly connected to female characters, and/or bodies that are typically defined and perceived as female bodies; The Rocky Horror Picture Show is different in this way, as it is not only female characters who are sexualized, and it is not only bodies which are perceived as female. But, identities and bodies aside, all of the sexualization within the characters is rooted in all bodies and all identities claiming their own idea of femininity. Frank N Furter encourages the masculine characters in the show to lean into their femininity as a form of becoming more sexually free, which makes the concept of femininity itself fetishized in the conflation of these two ideas.
The question lies in finding the line between characters claiming their own power, and the writer of the show festishizing identities and bodies for the sole purpose of audience spectacle; were the writers giving power to femininity, or building entertainment on dangerous concepts rooted in the exploitation of transgender women? According to journalist Laura Jue, “when it comes to the fetishization of people because of their genders, races, or sexualities, it quickly becomes a means of oppression, subjugation, and dehumanization.” Because of this fact, the line between empowerment and exploitation can become rather ambiguous and blurred, which poses a threat of harmful representations enforcing misunderstandings in relation to transgender identity.
Among other things, it is also significant to note that Frank N Furter is played by well-known, successful actor Tim Curry. While we cannot know how this actor identifies off screen, based on information the general public has access to, he is presented by the media as a cisgender man (which is defined as someone who is assigned male at birth, and identifies exclusively with that assigned gender). The situation becomes further tangled when it is acknowledged that an identity represented on stage or in film is not played by an actor of that same identity—Tim Curry playing a character who is more imprecise and layered in gender identity rather than identifying simply as a cisgender man is a prime example of this kind of complicated casting. When a cisgender man plays a character who is genderqueer (an umbrella term which is defined as someone who identifies with a binary and/or non-binary gender which deviates from their gender assigned at birth), it becomes difficult to decipher which identity group is dominant in holding power.
Demonization of Femininity
An underlying idea enforced by The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the demonization of transfeminine identities (which is defined as a male-assigned person who identifies femininely, though not necessarily as a transgender woman). Frank N Furter is one of the very few characters in popular theater and cinematic history represented as a transfeminine character, which puts a lot of pressure on this specific kind of representation. Frank N Furter, as an isolated character, commits a murder and multiple rapes on screen, so it is difficult to argue this character to be morally "good."
The following question then arises: is the character of Frank N Furter a bad person who happens to be genderqueer, or does Frank N Furter’s nontraditional performance of femininity drive the character to unhealthy decisions and evil behaviors? Author Mark Siegel claims that The Rocky Horror Picture Show depicts the acts of separation and transition, but, because our society has not yet nearly stabilized its sexual attitudes, the act of incorporation is aborted.” The isolation of cultures in an "us" versus "them" kind of categorization begs the question: what was Frank N Furter’s goal in interacting with humans such as Brad and Janet, and were those intentions "good" or "bad" in their moral standing?
This outlook on the foreign culture Frank N Furter and the other Transylvanians come from implies the potential for a different understanding of what is considered morally good and bad, in comparison to the culture we as a society are accustomed to in our reality. In this way, Frank N Furter was trying to progress Brad and Janet’s society by making sex and sexual deviance more prominent and acceptable among human kind. In the view that Janet and Brad represent the general outside world in their initial conformity to gender roles and sexual obedience, Frank N Furter was arguably successful in the disruption of these cultural and social norms. While Brad and Janet experience a kind of sexual freedom through the exploration of their own genders and sexualities as prompted by Frank N Furter’s personal statements of expression, there is still a significant element of corruption which occurs: going from "good" to "bad," or from "normal" to "queer."
It is through the associations with the character of Frank N Furter that the film achieves the demonic glorifying of that which is supposedly abnormal. As stated in a piece about The Rocky Horror Picture Show by Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien, Frank N Furter is “associated with intoxication, dancing, madness, transvestism, love and sex, extremes of pleasure and suffering, murder and dismemberment, grotesque eating rituals, frenzy, and moisture.” All of these associations often come along with an idea of pleasure, though a kind of sinful pleasure that is not meant to be indulged.
This restricted desire that Frank N Furter represents relates to the very real perceived threat and fear of deception that goes along with “stealth” transgender women (which is defined as a transgender person who is able to “pass” as cisgender in the world without being perceived as or assumed to be transgender). In the cultural eye, there is something mysterious and enticing about the very existence of transgender bodies, along with a distorted, shameful desire among cisgender, conforming folks to see what genderqueer bodies look like, as well as understand how they function in a sexual context. Coupled with this longing, however, comes a kind of socialized fear of the unknown--fear of what is different.
The perpetuation of associating danger with transgender women and transfeminine people is wildly harmful to the transgender community. Spreading misinformation and skewed ideas on these identities, even in fictional media, does damage. Kris Hayashi, executive director of the Transgender Law Center, was referenced in TIME with the following quote: “The majority of society does not understand who transgender people are in ways that lead to the violence and the murder and the harassment that we’re seeing.” At least partial responsibility for this ignorance is the lack of queer and transgender representation in shows, films, and other media, though misrepresentation of these marginalized and misunderstood communities can be equally as damaging as direct exclusion. The main thing it comes down to is this: what associations are being given to the general public to connect to the idea of trans-femininity?
Dehumanization of Femininity
Frank N Furter’s life is dramaticized and exaggerated to a point where all notions of the character’s humanity are virtually lost. Everything the character of Frank N Furter says and does within the film is a performance for an audience--both for the other characters in the show, as well as for the real audience in front of the screen. Scholar Justin J. Rudnick of the Scripps College of Communications of Ohio University explains that “performance studies is… best described as an interdisciplinary approach to the study of human action as political, embodied, and aesthetic.” The politically dehumanized body of Frank N Furter’s character moves about the film to serve as shock-value and spectacle for Janet and Brad, who represent the conformity of the general population as well as the constructed audience.
Frank N Furter’s physical body in both its appearance and its behavior is written and performed to exist not as an individual, but as an object to be observed, gawked at, and acted upon. A cause of this is the subconscious belief among the audience that everything the character of Frank N Furter wears, says, and does is for the pleasure and/or entertainment of others, which further erases the character’s individualism and humanity.
One of Judith Butler’s various analyses on gender identification and presentation states: “what is called gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo.” As suggested in this analysis, there is a cultural reward that comes along with performing the gender roles and expectations that are assigned to a person, and any sort of non-conformity must be socially punished.
In the specific case of Frank N Furter, the form of punishment for not conforming to our understanding of social norms is taking away the character’s humanity through the power of the audience’s lense of oppressive perception and judgement. Additionally, Frank N Furter’s dramatically deviant sexual presentation and behavior throughout the film leads to the character’s eventual murder. Not only is Frank N Furter’s nonconformity punished by death, but it is at the hands of two other Transylvanians who, in comparison to Frank N Furter, not only brought less attention to the abnormalities of their sexual relationship, but also better conformed to perceived heterosexuality.
Even the way in which Frank N Furter presents very familiar human emotions is shown on screen through some form of subhumanity. All of the emotions expressed by the character of Frank N Furter are over-the-top and highly theatrical, making it less likely that the audience members will connect with the character in a deeply human way; and, when audiences do not feel a human connection to a character that is different in appearance and/or identity than them, that character will remain an "other."
Scientist and writer Zuleyka Zevallos says “Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought… no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.” Within the culture we are accustomed to, there must always be an "other," separate from what is considered the general public. This kind of categorization which has to do with picking out what appearances, behaviors, and identities are different from the majority--or are different from what is considered socially acceptable--directly relates to what is seen on stage, in films, and in media. Lack of exposure is one of the primary contributors to "othering," and therefore also contributes to the dehumanization of deviant identities. But, when the audience is unable to connect with the representation of certain identities existing on screen and on stage in ways they can humanize what they see in front of them, the "other" only becomes more defined in its separation.
As argued, the oppression of femininity is one of the main foundations in which theater history was constructed, and to this day is one of the most commonly used and understood structures of writing and performing feminine characters, both on the stage and on the screen. While The Rocky Horror Picture Show successfully challenges and plays with the idea of what kinds of characters can be feminine, the film still falls into lots of the common traps of fetishizing, demonizing, and dehumanizing the very trait of femininity.
The character of Frank N Furter was certainly a revolutionary character for the time period that the film was released in the 1970s; although, in the context of transgender politics, which are becoming increasingly more prominent in the public eye as of present-day, the concept of these aliens being “transvestites” has arguably not aged particularly well. The character of Frank N Furter and the rest of the Transylvanians, as highlighted throughout this paper, perpetuate a handful of problematic ideologies about both genderqueer identities and femininity itself--transfeminine identity, most specifically.
Despite these issues, it is also important to acknowledge the fact that The Rocky Horror Picture Show is and will always be a significant piece of queer history. In the context of modern theater, the show can continue to be an important production containing proper representation of gender minorities, if cast, performed, and directed with care.
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