The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again (2016) was an experience which left me feeling both disappointed and somehow queerer. Let me explain.
What doesn’t work:
-Brad and Janet were straight-laced and square for the 70s, but it’s unclear when this is set. 2016? 1975? Brad and Janet look retro and hip–those glasses! that skirt suit! I’m not really sure how to channel current mainstream sexual repression into those characters, other than to make them much younger (nope) or more overtly religious. Also, why don’t we have a cell phone?
-“Sweet Transvestite”: I get it. As a non-cis person, I find Frank-N-Furter’s brassy, declarative song, well, fun. Just not around or for cis folks. I wish I could run around singing about being a sweet genderqueer femme from outer space pretty much 24-7. But it’s not 1975 anymore, and the language has changed quite a bit. 1975!Frank-N-Furter can sing about being a “sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania” and have that be accurate, descriptive, transgressively proud language, but in 2016, we don’t use those words any more. Further complicating the matter is Laverne Cox, a trans activist, singing that. Obviously how she chooses to engage with the character is no one’s business but her own, but having cis people watch that and hear the lyrics when plenty of cis folks don’t know that transsexual and transvestite are hopelessly outdated is mind-boggling, even if “I’m just a sweet trans scientist from Transgender, Transylvania” doesn’t have the same ring.
-Attempts to update the sex scenes didn’t really make them consensual, though, and this is a huge issue we need to address in media.
-From a film standpoint, the film feels like a dress rehearsal–gotta pack in all the major songs but the glue between scenes isn’t there. There’s not a lot of chemistry, either, except Janet being super into Frank-N-Furter, which was really charming at first.
-The sets felt cramped.
-I had no idea what was going on from song to song. Maybe the original is like that, but I felt like I’d skipped scenes.
-What on earth is this film like for a cis audience? Dissecting the layers of gender performance and identity can be really liberating and fun as a someone on the genderqueer end of things. Yet, where I see Laverne Cox having fun with her gender expression as a trans woman (which sometimes you can’t do for fear of being told you’re not “doing transgender” correctly, which can have real repercussions socially and medically), and actually removing some of the “monstrous femininity” expressed with Tim Curry as the character (like the feeling Janet and Rocky want to be together because they are cis), I have no idea what it’s like to see this through the eyes of the a cis person.
As far as updating the language and plot to fit the Queer Agenda of 2016, the film is a huge flop. But there were a few nuggets of goodness in there.
-The singing was very polished. I was actually surprised at how good it was.
-Laverne Cox. Her accent and cadence was excellent, but mostly she looked like she was have Laverne’s Best Day Ever™ playing the role. Her enthusiasm is infectious. I think that’s also part of the reason I can’t totally write off Rocky Horror even though I’m not a fan–being able to play a role where you can be unapologetically fabulous, self-possessed, and over-the-top genderqueer iconic alien rockstar scientist is really, really appealing.
-The costumes. Those spider-web tights alone were incredible. Columbia’s pajamas, wig, and Mickey Mouse hat were perfection. (The gold basketball shorts were the worst, points deducted for those.)
However, my favorite costume of all was Brad’s gold corset. When I dress myself, I always try to include a little nod to my genderqueer identity in my clothing, whether that’s simply wearing a pretty dress with a flat chest, hairy legs, and an undercut, or pairing a boxy tweed jacket with a mermaid-inspired manicure: something to mess with social ideas about binary gender.
Brad’s gorgeous tangle of gender markers in this scene is exactly how I want to look. I actually turned to my partner and was “I’m too out for another ‘queer root’ but if I were not THIS WOULD BE IT.” A gold corset on a flat chest; short hair with long lashes and gold lipstick. No one makes fun of him in this costume. He seems perfectly at ease. It’s not a joke, it’s an expression, a complete upheaval of gender norms, the nonbinary femme look of my dreams. I am going to buy gold lipstick and add it to my “it’s not for you” collection of genderqueer fashions.
In conclusion: the acting and singing was great, but the lack of updates to the plot and language still makes queer and trans identities seem alien and dangerous. I do appreciate a show with queer and trans/GNC characters in which the show isn’t about coming out or crying about Tragic Queer Characters™ written by cishet folks. However, the film isn’t advancing the conversations we need to be having about consent, language and gender identity.