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Part 1: Glee
Part 2: Rocky Horror
Part 3: Transsexuals, Transgender, and Radical Feminism
Part 4: Racist Patriarchy, Post-Modernism, Genderism, and Bigotry
I can't describe fully to you what the experience was for me, just out of adolescence, still a teenager, sitting in a movie theatre watching giant painted red lips (not those of a woman) singing the opening number to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
A white male friend had told me and a few mutual white friends, "You HAVE to go see The Rocky Horror Picture Show!!" This cultural mandate was declared ages before Netflix and movies coming out on DVD or video so soon after initial release. If you didn't see a movie in the theatre, you had no assurance you'd ever see it any other way, especially if it didn't grab great box office. But this wasn't the initial release of the film, and so was kind of in a category of its own: the first cult film I'd ever seen as it was still becoming a cult film.
He was so enthusiastic about this cultural phenomenon that a couple of mutual friends and I made plans with him to see it ASAP. Probably the following Saturday night! This whole seemingly secret society had thus far totally gotten by me. Yes, I was sheltered in some ways from everything other than what was on television--I was a complete TV addict--into The Waltons and Little House on The Prairie, among other shows. I didn't yet know that "TV" meant anything other than "television". I had NO IDEA those two capitalised letters could also mean "transvestite" nor was I especially sure what it meant or didn't mean to be a transvestite.
Once, in my memory, when age five or so, my brother and I went to a white male friends home and he led us into his older sister's room and we all got into some of her dresses. DRESSES. I think she only had a few. And it was kind of thrilling, to be honest. Not sexually exciting, but just fun and boundary-pushing for us three male children to be running around in a home without any adults in it, in dresses! Sex codes and rules were so rigid then. I liked the experience and wouldn't put on another dress or skirt for about twenty years, when at a progressive, queer-friendly place where males could wear skirts--not to look like "women" but just because they were comfortable. That was what I liked: the option to dress comfortably. And the skirts males wore weren't short. The "comfort" wasn't in showing off our tighty-whiteys. The "comfort" wasn't in being gawked at or commented on as "sexual objects for a male (or female) gaze". We just liked having the choice to wear what we wanted without fearing being beaten up by misogynistic and homophobic (while strongly homosocial) guys for doing it. I'll be speaking more about "drag" later in this series of posts.
With our expectations set for "high", the four of us (two females, two males) went to see the movie at a local theatre. Before entering it was clear this wasn't going to be like any other movie theatre experience I'd ever had. For one thing, I was going to my first midnight show--of anything. For another, there were some people outside, young--we were all young--no adults at all--who were dressed up like some of the main characters. It was wild. I was filled with antici..... pation! We went in, got seated, and watched the characters--literally/figuratively--walk around laughing with one another. I sensed these people had been doing this for a while--how did this get by me?! (That's what good friends are for--making sure you don't miss out on the coolest thing ever.)
Before the film began some of those "regulars" began to shout to the screen--LIPS! (They wanted lips.) I was confused. And then bright red lipsticked lips--and quite possibly not a woman's lips--appeared on the dark screen. They came from the center, small and grew huge and began singing the opening number. This was definitely not like anything I'd ever seen before.
The next two hours were spent laughing hysterically, delighting in the music and characters, and being amazed at how the audience "regulars" were calling out comments to the movie as if scripted--as if these things were all supposed to be said and the movie wouldn't even be the movie without the audience's participation. That was what was so amazing: "we" were part of the show. The people in the rows in front of us and behind us who were wearing costumes like the characters were introducing us into part of the script that the screenwriters never wrote. It was like a strange and wonderful portal to another world had opened, just for people like us. Freaks. Odd-balls. "Queers". Two of the four of us, including yours truly, would come out as gay within ten years time, but for now just seeing bisexuality and transvestitism and lust depicted on screen and celebrated by the audience was kind of emotionally liberating. There weren't many places then to show overt regard for gendered experiences that weren't "normal" and "normal" then was very boring--at least my normal was. Until that night, probably around Halloween, circa 1978.
We caught wind of the fact that in a bigger city we had access to, there was a much better audience production. That's where we went several times over the course of a few months, some of us dressing up more and more. I was shy about stuff like that, so probably just wearing lipstick and eyeliner was as brazen as I got. But the male not-yet-gay friend who introduced us to this experience would later rival anyone else's impersonation of Frank-N-Furter. He had all the facial gestures down pat. He had acquired the outfit, piece by piece. And another of our little group of four would perform a fabulous Magenta. By then we all knew how to dance the Time Warp and had memorised the lyrics to all of the songs. What never occurred to me to consider was how I'd never really heard the actual soundtrack uninterrupted constantly. When, many years later, I rented and watched the film at home on video, I couldn't believe how mild an experience it was, by comparison. I don't recommend anyone do that--don't rent the movie and watch it alone or only with people unfamiliar with it.
The storyline, in a nutshell, is as follows: two white middle-"American" suburbanite newlyweds head off for their honeymoon and wind up more or less trapped inside a scary castle on a hill, occupied by various characters who engage in questionable activities, some of which we get a taste of, and some of which are only alluded to in song. This is place of transgression and sexual exploration--of being taught new values and how to embrace them. And it is also a place where some sinister things are going on that might spoil your appetite.
Here are a couple of other plot descriptions from IMDb:
After Janet accepts Brad's marriage proposal, the happy couple drive away from Denton, Ohio, only to get lost in the rain. They stumble upon the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a transvestite who is holding the annual convention of visitors from the planet Transsexual. Frank-N-Furter unveils his creation, a young man named Rocky Horror, who fears the doctor and rejects his sexual advances. When Frank-N-Furter announces that he is returning to the galaxy Transylvania, Riff Raff the butler and Magenta the maid declare that they have plans of their own. (An audience participation film) Written by Rick Gregory
While driving home during a rain filled night, straight-laced lovebirds Brad and Janet, by chance, end up at the castle of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter and his strange and bizarre entourage, and find that he's having a party. This is no ordinary party, no ordinary night. This is the unveiling of the Dr's latest creation: Rocky; A man-made Adonis that will give...absolute pleasure. This is an exceedingly grand visual and musical camp satire of the golden days of the B-movie horror and science-fiction genres. Projected along with a musical soundtrack to give "audience participation" a new meaning in dimension, time and space, this shall be a night that both Brad and Janet will remember for a very, very long time in the sexually kinky, rock 'n roll (f)rock-opera world of a gender-bending scientist...and his time warped plans. Written by Cinema_Fan
The theatre was an oasis of sexual libertarianism and while we all came from white suburban liberal families we didn't have permission to get decked out in this form of drag unless it was Halloween, and Halloween then wasn't what it is now: pornography hadn't yet taken over the society imposing its anti-sex, pro-sexxxism values on everything. Dressing as any of the stars of our midnight picture show was risque, but quite tame by contemporary standards. Our parents and care-givers knew we were getting heavily into the movie though, and assumed it was, more or less, harmless fun--which was the case for us. There were no drugs or drunks there that I could see, and it was just a place for teenagers and people in their twenties to rock out to this crazy theatrical experience that excluded no one who would be considered an outsider in our more or less white middle class suburban lives.
It would be safe to come out as, well, just about anything in this environment. It sure was not a place where being lesbian, bisexual, gay, or transsexual were "bad" and "shameful" things. Queer youth needed a space like this, and the theatres showing the RHPS at midnight were one such space. Whether it was genuinely liberatory or just a form of WHM supremacy draped in drag-queen garb is a question that will be taken up in the next post in this series. I'll also be discussing the role of this film and other events through the 1980s played in the social construction of dominant queer culture.
Over the decades, I went on to introduce other generations of older teens to this cinematic/theatrical experience, much to their delight. It was, for many of us, a rite of passage in a culture that usually only has rites that involve gross forms of self-destruction or destruction of other people, by humiliating and violating them, for example, such as in grade school bullying or college hazing rituals. That this was, for me, completely harmless fun cannot be overstated. I felt safe. I had a very good time. No one around me seemed to be out of their minds drunk or drugged, no one appeared to be harassed or violated, and at the end of the day--er, in the wee early morning hours, all I had to do to "recover" was use remover to get the black polish off my nails, and some cold cream to get the eyeliner and lipstick off my face. From there it was off to bed for sweet dreams of sweet transvestites from Transylvania.
The remainder of this particular post is a description of what any intrigued "RHPS virgins" out there needs to know, from the official website, rockyhorror.com. Please be on the look-out for Part 3 on the rise of Queer Culture and Feminist Activism.
VIRGIN - In the common world, this usually refers to a person who has not engaged in sexual relations. In the ROCKY HORROR world, this word refers to the many unfortunate people who have never experienced THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (RHPS) in a theater with an audience and a live cast. Seeing it on home video (Blu-ray, DVD, VHS, Netflix Instant, etc.) or on TV doesn't count!
You came to this page because you are hopefully going to consider attending a showing of Rocky Horror in a theater.
If you've already seen the movie by itself on TV or home video and wondered what all the fuss was about, read on. If you haven't seen the movie on TV or home video - GREAT! The more surprised you are on your first time, the more fun it is.
Rocky Horror is the first and only true audience partici-(SAY IT!)-pation movie. People yell back lines at the screen during the extended pauses between dialogue, dress up in costume and act out the film, and throw props various times during the film. The audience participation phenomenon was observed as early as the film's first run in 1975 (when it bombed during limited engagements in 7 of 8 cities), and was later re-released as a midnight movie where the audience participation really began to flourish. And by the way, for the "gore sensitive", Rocky Horror is NOT a horror film. It is a rock-musical send-up of old science-fiction and horror films.
Enough history! You are interested in going, so here's what you really need to know.
First, the only thing you really need to bring your first time out in order to have fun is a sense of humor, and money for admission (and food at the nearest 24-hour diner afterwards.) Of course, being surrounded by 10-15 of your friends is also a good thing. You should dress in whatever makes YOU feel comfortable, but also does not violate any local standards (this usually means nudity is out.) Speaking of violating laws and norms of society, it is usually best to go to RHPS sober the first time. Not only will you be more in-tune to pick up all the clever things going on around you, some theaters will not admit those people who look drunk - what theater manager wants to clean up after a drunk at 2:30 a.m.?
But hey, what about the props and audience participation lines and dressing up in costume? Well, no one expects you to know much of anything your first time out. While audience participation is mandatory to keep the show alive, it is not mandatory that everyone participate, every time. Virgins are not expected to know a damn thing (just like in sex.)
If you really want to bring props, check with your local theater and ask what props are not allowed. The safest ones to bring are rice (banned at some, but not most theaters), toast (unbuttered), toilet paper and a deck of cards. A newspaper may help keep you from getting wet, but water is banned at many theaters. Watch everyone else to figure out when to throw these items. A prop list is available on this website.
Oh, and if you need to know one AP line, there is one that is almost universal to every theater, that you can use multiple times. Whenever you hear the name "Brad Majors", yell "ASSHOLE", okay? An important note here: AP is NOT fixed from theater to theater and night to night. If you feel an new line coming on, YELL IT! A big part of keeping the show fresh is creating new lines with topical humor. (i.e. "Is Jessica Simpson a real dildo?" film: "YES!")
Hmmmm... sounds interesting. I am not going to be targeted for some humiliation because I am a virgin, right? Maybe. Usually, theaters will have some sort of virgin ritual which almost always only includes 2 virgins. Since at any one time, an audience can consist of 25%-50% virgins, it is not likely that you will be chosen for this harmless ritual (well, usually harmless, it varies by theater!) If it looks like you are about to be picked, the best thing to do is point to a friend of the same sex and mouth to whoever (whomever?) is looking at you that he or she is a "virgin" (the soon to be ex-friend that you are pointing at.) Once you have completed an entire showing of Rocky in a theater, they can not ask you to participate in this ritual... you only have to worry about this once. (And once you see it, sometimes you actually WISH you were picked!)
Now get off your butt, check the showtimes list and find out where to see Rocky (and don't rent the damn thing again until you do see it.) REMEMBER: Rocky Horror is like sex, you can only have one first time so make the most of it.
A 7 November 2010 ECD addendum:
Ruth Fink-Winter contacted me by email to alert me to some problems with the "contributors" listed below. What is below is exactly what appears on the original site--I just copied and pasted the whole thing. But below what follows I'll list the names as she believes would be more appropriate, honest, and accurate. Thank you, Ruth!!
As listed in the original:
CONTRIBUTORS TO THIS DOCUMENT: Christopher Amblers, Ruth Fink-Winter, Karen Majors, David Shetterly
As listed according to Ruth's helpful corrections:
Christopher Ambler, P7A77, Ruth Fink-Winter (for a latter period of time when some of this was written up), Karen Majors, and David Shetterly.