"Give yourself over to absolute pleasure, swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh," croons the seductive transvestite Dr. Frank-N-Furter in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." After creating a muscle-man to satisfy his ravenous sexual urges and then converting the innocent Brad and Janet to hedonism, he instigates a decadent floor show and an aquatic orgy in a pool painted like the Sistine Chapel. That's my kind of man.
Sometimes I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I perform with the Rocky shadow cast in my hometown of Austin. It's an admittedly goofy thing to do, though I do it with more moderation than some: I attend the same midnight movie several times a month, dress up in costumes like the ones on the screen, and act it out for an audience of groupies and teenagers excited at being out past curfew. When I attend the show and I'm not performing a part, I scream lines back at the characters on the screen and the performers in our cast. I volunteer to train new cast members in the parts they want to play. And sadly, I make Rocky references in my everyday life, to the point where sometimes I quote the movie without even realizing it. Rocky has permeated my existence, like it has done for so many before me and undoubtedly will for many after me.
As a young teenager I first attended the movie with my best friend, whose brother was in the cast. We dressed up with wild hair and makeup, looking very much like the little teenagers who come today. (I remember my outfit: garter and black stockings with red fishnets over them, red boots, shorts, a black tank top, and a tiny vintage button-down shirt worn open, the fabric a repeating print of a Campbell's tomato soup label. At the time, it seemed to me the perfect sexy, cute, funky ensemble for an event such as Rocky.) This was the first year Austin had a curfew law in effect, as I recall. We went to the theater and were courted by older guys; with breath reeking of pot, they yelled lines at the screen. Their timing was great; the highlight was when one recited an entire Pace Picante Sauce commercial and ended with "New York City?! Get a rope!" as a rope flew across the screen. My friends and I flirted shamelessly with them, enjoying being sexy and powerful in this pseudoadult world; attention from older guys was always a thrill no matter what the situation. Afterwards, we all went to a train bridge and knelt on the concrete braces beneath, smoking pot and waiting for a train to pass over us. I was freezing in my skimpy outfit and so exhausted I could barely walk to the car afterward, but I was having the time of my life pretending to be a grown-up. It wasn't the movie; in fact, I didn't remember it from that evening (I'd seen it before). Even today, sometimes the kids are out in the lobby or outside having a clandestine cigarette for most of the film's duration. It was more the overall experience, of being out late and in this odd situation where sexuality was so strong, where forbidden fruit was spread out in a veritable banquet.
Today I see myself in the girls who come in groups of three or four or five, heady with their own sexuality and the thrill of being at such a thing as Rocky. Perhaps that's why I forgo the two hours before last call at the bar and head to the theater on Friday and Saturday nights. I've learned to stop rolling my eyes when twentysomething cast guys hit on the little wispy girls. I want those girls to think back on their Rocky night the way I do, to remember being hot stuff and having a great time in a strange, sexy, alternative environment. It's not that I want them all to become Frankie Fans and attend every week, though that would be nice. Rocky is a sort of milestone in growing up; I think everyone should see it in a theater at least once.
Rocky has an important place in American cultural history, to be sure. The subject matter (sex, cross-dressing, homosexuality, promiscuity . . . not to mention cannibalism and alien incest) is still controversial stuff today, though it almost seems quaint to me. A bomb when it debuted, Rocky later found its niche as a cult favorite, shown at midnight in theaters across the country. It attracted fringe-types (and still does, to a degree) who felt welcome amid the strange sexual chaos. Starting in liberal cities, my beloved Austin included, the Rocky phenomenon gradually spread until it permeated American culture. People started yelling back at the screen, dressing as their favorite characters, bringing props, and acting out the movie as it played on the screen behind them. Audiences loved the production and came back again and again. There was even a Garbage Pail Kid known as "Rock E. Horror" who wore a costume similar to Frank's famous fishnets and corset. Various celebrities were at a recent Rocky convention and did karaoke from the movie for a VH-1 special. It's bigger than anyone ever thought it could be, and has mutated somewhat in the process. As Richard O'Brien (the author and one star of the movie) said, it's wonderful art: a movie, a live production, and audience participation all rolled into one.
Many people credit Rocky with helping them come to terms with their sexuality, particularly gays. A Rocky showing is generally a pretty open environment; it's definitely a place where kinks are welcome. As our preshow routine states, "There will be people running around in lingerie, fishnets, garter belts, and possibly less! (Preferably less!)" Everyone gets to be sexy, regardless of their gender or appearance or history or anything else. For the most part, it's a very supportive environment. We welcome just about everyone.
There's a distinct humor about the sexuality, of course. When "virgins" (people who haven't ever seen the movie in a theater) come, we have a sacrificial ceremony to deflower them. In front of the cast and any non-virgin audience, they line up in same-sex pairs, with one person behind the other. They must take a pledge admitting their virgin status and stating their desire to lose their morals and welcome decadence into their lives, "in the name of the Frank, the Rocky, and the holy Riff Raff." After this, the virgins in front bend over and the ones in back bump-and-grind, while everyone sings the Oscar Meyer wiener song. It's fun, not too embarrassing (when I was sacrificed we all did it in one big line, rather than in pairs), and sets the mood for fun tinged with some sexual tension.
I play three roles in our cast: Trixie, Janet, and Columbia. Trixie is a small part; she is the "usherette" who sings the opening song, "Science Fiction Double Feature." Our cast has Trixie lit with a spotlight as she gyrates, pantomimes, and ultimately strips down to sexy underpinnings and sets the mood for the show. It's a fun little part to play, and there's more room for interpretation than with other parts. Playing Janet is entertaining; I try to emphasize the contrast between her wide-eyed innocence and her transformation into a wild sexual creature. Columbia is the tap-dancing groupie who fell for the delivery boy; physically I'm well-suited to play her, and I get a lot of comments about how I look when I do. Her high-kicking floorshow routine is a lot of fun to do; a former cast member and friend of mine excelled at the swing dancing scene, and could do complete vertical lifts with me. (For our recent Gender Bender night, I played Riff-Raff, the deadpan handyman. I went for a "sexy butler" look, with shiny viynl boots and skirt, plus fishnet stockings. It seemed to go over well.)
People tend to have one character that they enjoy playing or that they identify with strongly. I always think of Dori Hartley, an early Rocky fan who became famous for her portrayal of Frank. She's since said that the part totally consumed her, she was too involved with it and eventually had to step back. But people were so drawn to the character, she felt compelled to perform it. Others have said the same thing about the character, he's absolutely mesmerizing. Most don't get that far into it, but many Rocky people have echoes of the same feeling; a friend of mine played Frank with our cast and would absolutely transform when she put on the costume, wig, and makeup. She just felt drawn in, as many of us do.
Last year I was lucky enough to see a wonderful production of "The Rocky Horror Show" at the Zachary Scott Theatre in Austin. It was nice to see the show done in a different manner, without the constraints of being screen-accurate. Their narrator was not a criminologist, but rather Andy Warhol. There was a Y2K theme throughout, and the original costumes were incredible. But the characters remained pure. Joe York played Frank with amazing, strong sexuality; his power was undeniable. It was incredible to see. Interestingly, even in full drag-queen regalia, York was one of the most masculine creatures I've ever encountered. (He's currently playing Stanley Kowalski in "Streetcar Named Desire" at the same theatre, incidentally.) Of course he's immense and muscular and very much a commanding physical presence, but he captured the Frank attitude perfectly. You could easily see how Brad and Janet fell under his spell. To watch him was to be totally entranced.
(Aside: my mother is a teacher, and took her students to see a children's play at the same theatre during the run of "The Rocky Horror Show." A large cardboard cutout of Joe York in full drag graced the lobby. One of my mother's students studied the cutout for a long time, then announced, "Hey, that's a man!" My mother was at a loss to explain the Rocky phenomenon to a six-year-old. So she just nodded and said, "Yes. Yes, it is.")
Sometimes it all gets a bit out of hand. Thankfully, our cast's problems with sexual harassment have been minimal, but other casts aren't so lucky. A discussion on the Rocky Horror newsgroup showed that many people have experienced sexual harassment as part of their experience with a cast. It's like any other arena where sexual expression is free; sometimes people take it too far, with the excuse, "But it's Rocky!" One person with our cast used to, among other things, pull my top down to expose my chest. Now, I realize I'm very open about my body, but it's up to me when and where I choose to go topless. The person is no longer with our cast, and we haven't had any problems since. For the most part, when someone is uncomfortable, all they have to do is say the word, and the offending behavior stops. It's nice to have a supportive environment. That way everyone can express themselves and still feel safe doing so. As long as participants are dedicated to keeping everyone comfortable (well, maybe not too comfortable), Rocky will continue to be a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Decadence doesn't require total abandon, after all.
What is it about Rocky that's so compelling? Not the movie itself; it's entertaining, but in a so-bad-it's-good sort of way. It's the environment, the fun, the sexual tension, the campiness of it all. Plus there's the history; people have been doing this since before I was born, and now I'm part of the tradition. It's the ultimate cult movie, truly beyond compare.
No plans this weekend? Check the paper, see if Rocky is showing in your town. Maybe dress up a little, or dress up a lot. You might feel a little silly, but that's part of the fun. You'll be glad you did. Let there be lips!
Second Sex is an ongoing series of essays about the intermingling of sexuality, politics, gender, psychology, feminism, and philosophy.
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