Keridwen Luis introduces “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”

Editor’s note: On June 27, 2018 Keridwen Luis, lecturer on studies of women, gender, and sexuality at Harvard University, introduced The Rocky Horror Picture Show, part of the Brattle’s Elements of Cinema program. These are her introductory remarks. –Jessie Schanzle, Film Notes editor

Thank you so much for the lovely introduction, and thank you for everyone at the Brattle for inviting me to this. This is lovely and exciting, and it’s been delightful trying to think, what can I say about The Rocky Horror Picture Show? I mean, what is left to say about this film? Actually, there’s a lot I could say about this film, but I’m not going to say it all because I’m sure we’d all rather be watching the film.

This is the most classic of what we call the “cult films.” It is a timely commentary and a cultural touchstone. It is supremely dated, and yet, it exists in this weird eternal present for us. It’s a classic, but why is it a classic?

One cannot say it is because of the sheer quality of the film. Alone of all the fandoms whose fans I have interviewed, Rocky is the only where people would come up to me and say, “Yes! I love this film, I love this fandom, it’s actually not really a great film.” Most people would defend their fandom object to their death, but not so with Rocky. So, it’s a terrible film, but enjoyable. It’s dated, yet salient. It’s ugly, yet beautiful. It’s horror, yet sexy.

So, what are we to make of this?

So, camp, according to Esther Newton, is dependent on the “creation of incongruous juxtapositions”, and Rocky Horror is a master of the incongruous juxtaposition. In fact, Susan Sontag wrote the famous 1964 “Notes on Camp,” sort of the first academic discussion on camp, but not the first discussion of camp, that “the ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.” But what is camp? I’m going to talk a little bit about what I think camp is because this is the kind of thing people love to get into very long arguments about.

So what I mean when I refer to camp is the process of exaggeration that draws our eye to the artifice of art. As Newton points out, in camp “Importance tends to shift from what a thing is to how a thing looks, from what is done to how it is done.” Camp constantly points to its own performativity and thus to the performative nature of what it is imitating. Thus, Rocky Horror, which is an homage to many film genres, is pointing not only to its own sort of self-performance, but also to the performance of those other films. It’s disrupting our ability to see these films as things unto themselves, and telling us to view these films as things that have been made. These incongruous juxtapositions, the theatricality, and the conscious performance of camp make us, the audience – all camp always has an audience – uncomfortably aware that not only is this campy performance a construction, but the performance that it imitates is also a construction.

So, as I said before, camp is one of the things this film excels at. Sontag might not agree with me, Sontag might agree with me. She’s not here for me to ask. But Sontag also suggests that “if homosexuals hadn’t more or less invented Camp, someone else would.” But, I argue that queerness and camp are deeply, deeply intertwined, even when the rest of the world does not want to admit it.

A little secret I’m going to let you in on. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is really, really queer. I’m sorry if you didn’t notice.

One of the things I find that’s interesting in my experience with Rocky Horror, is that the fandom for Rocky Horror doesn’t always want to admit this. The last time I saw Rocky Horror with the shadow cast in the theatre, I was really struck by the relentless heterosexuality of the pre-show. I was really struck by the way in which so many of the shadow performances were shifted to make the performances adhere to male-female sexuality. Even the fandom tradition of branding virgins – remember you have to wear a V on your forehead – and all across the country there are different traditions, as one of the fans recently reminded me, of how one loses that virginity at some point during The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But, all of this is dependent on a very heterosexualized notion of what virginity is and how one loses it.

Previous scholars of Rocky Horror have noted that “cult films allow deviation and yet engender conformity.” I’m about to argue with that. This catharsis of participation is supposed to resolve the issues that the film itself raises. But I’m arguing that Rocky Horror does not actually do this, and one of the reasons that Rocky Horror doesn’t do this is because of the way that fans interact with it. What we’re seeing here is that fandom and the film use camp to move beyond the boundaries of the film itself.

One of the things that I personally find fascinating about Rocky Horror is that it is itself a text about fandom. The opening song, “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” one of my favorite songs as well, is an homage to old science fiction movies, which is a classic form of nerd fandom. As I argue in my own work, fandom itself is somewhat queer – and I know this may be very troubling to many fans who do not identify as queer, but this queerness both informs fandom itself and camp. Let me explain what I mean when I say fandom itself is queer.

First, fandom is something which is often imagined that is visible and physical, and yet deniable. Does this sound familiar to you? Like gaydar? You can recognize a fan by the way a fan dresses, by a fan’s face, by a fan’s glasses, by a fan’s physical embodiment. That sounds somewhat familiar to a lot of people. You can spot fans. But just like queerness sometimes we “pass.” Also like queerness, fandoms have a history of being considered pathological. This is not necessarily an argument for fandom’s queerness because you can be pathological without being queer, but consider what fandoms are being considered pathological for. Joli Jenson suggests that fans are seen as the symptom of a debilitated modern society: lonely and isolated, they are “seduced” by the media and then act out in ways inappropriate to their gender. Which sounds pretty queer to me. In this light, we are all pathologized for doing pretty much the same thing.

Then, there’s the notion of compromised masculinity in fandom, that if you are a guy and in fandom then you’re not as masculine as if you were not in fandom, in particular fandoms of course – sports fandoms are always an exception to that. Similarly, women doing things women are not supposed to do, like scream at rock stars or play videogames, trespass into this not really hetero territory. All of this ties together into this kind of stereotypes but all of which can sometimes be dismissed as well, “isn’t it just–” the same way that queerness also can be dismissed with dubiety.

David Halperin’s book How to Be Gay is actually really about fandom. He proposes that gay male queerness is a cultural rather than a sexual performative and that it entails particular forms of aesthetic knowledge – not to mention an affective, that means emotional, position towards that knowledge, and that position is both embraced and rejected. Halperin suggests this in his great retelling of his student’s queer knowledge of Golden Girls episodes and Steel Magnolias. He also contrasts this with how you must avoid becoming (this is my favorite quote in the whole book) “the old queen in the piano bar watering his drink every time they played ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’” That’s actually a quote in Miller in Halperin. So there’s both the “you can’t be the stereotype” and yet, “you have to know this stereotype.” At the same time, Halperin notes that his students “enjoyed appropriating and queering works of mainstream, heterosexual culture. In fact, they preferred doing that to reading gay novels…they discovered more queer possibilities in adapting and remaking non-gay material, and thus more uses for it, than they found in good gay writing.” I’m guessing that’s because Halperin kept giving them the really depressing novels.

So we have these three parallels. These three things that mean that fandom may just be a little queer. Furthermore, fandoms are about relationships with the media, and these relationships with media can merge with one another, as queer fans often express.

I’d like to talk a little about the context of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, before I tie all these disparate thoughts together. The context, I think is really fascinating. Nineteen seventy-five, the year of The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s release, was also the year that saw Jaws, The Stepford Wives, and the film adaptation of Tommy in the theatres. Also One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (which swept the Academy Awards, of course). Also that year, Pasolini’s notorious Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom was released, and this is particularly relevant because in that film male-male sexuality is used as a synonym for fascism and evil. That’s the same year that this film came out. The original Broadway show, of course as many people here probably know, was incredibly popular in London, and kind of less popular in the U.S., not really successful – though it did run for nine months in Los Angeles. And then this film came out, and at the last minute someone convinced someone to run a midnight showing in New York, and we’re still on the first run of Rocky Horror. It has run continuously since 1975.

What this means is that these midnight showings starting in 1975 were happening at a time right after Stonewall, not directly after, but we’re just post-Stonewall, and on the screen larger than life we have our “Sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania,” larger than life, taking no shit, so over-the-top stereotype so that we’ve gone beyond stereotype and into the campiest type of camp that is possible. In a world in which being queer of any stripe, being trans, being gay, being even the littlest bit not properly straight, is literally illegal still in most states and in fact pathologized. This is still when being gay was in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders.

In some ways, you can argue that in fandoms the slight heterosexualization of Rocky Horror via skits and other self-declarations is inevitable. People are being a little defensive. This has a history of coming out at a time when queerness was dangerous. In fandom, we also see this in the “geek hierarchy” of acceptable types of fandom activities, in which the queer and feminine activities are always on the bottom. But for Rocky Horror, we see frightened fans declaring they’re not the queer ones, they’re not the ones who should be exploded at the end of the film. They’re just the innocent Brad and Janets, standing there in the ruins of what they thought was going on.

But the secret of this film is that Brad and Janet are no longer innocent. We all know by the end of the film. Even if Frank-N-Furter himself leaves us in a transcendental moment of queer death drive worthy of Lee Edelman (that was an inside joke for anyone here who happens to be doing queer theory) we are changed by our interaction with camp, and we are especially changed by our interaction with this film because this film isn’t just a film. It’s a film that almost demands audience interaction because audiences took this and made it into an interactive object. This is no longer just a film, it’s a ritual. And so we have become camp. It is implied that we, too, might wear a black corset under our clothes, and in fact, if we attend a proper midnight showing, we probably do. The guy running the opening skit about how extremely heterosexual he is, that’s OK. In the dark it’s fine if you find Frank-N-Furter really hot, that’s OK. Nobody needs to know.

Halperin suggests later that camp “involves not taking seriously, literally, or unironically the very things that matter most and that cause the most pain” in order to “suspend the pain of losses that it does not cease to grieve.” Several theorists, including Sontag, have suggested that camp is apolitical, but I think that camp is always deeply political, and of course, we all know that the political is personal. And then, we would add that the personal is painful. Therefore, camp must be political because it addresses that personal pain, it turns it aside with a laugh, it substitutes joy and community, and always subverts.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show in particular subverts some of the most important things in our society. It subverts gender, which is connected to identity itself. It questions sexuality, the very heart of relationships. It actually asks us who counts as fully human, who’s a human and who’s an alien, and who do we want to be. And it asks these difficult questions in a way that’s not only fun, but fun that has inspired this huge fan following. In 1980, Nicholas Salerno, responded to this question, “What is the significance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show?” in The English Journal. He responded, “When the followers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show cult fully comprehend the implication of the conclusion, I suspect that the film will be rejected and despised, that it will be hooted and laughed at.”

I’m afraid the joke might be on Mr. Salerno. Also on all of the nervous people who wonder why do we still love The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Indeed, we do hoot and laugh at the film, but we hoot and laugh at the film because of the way that the film opens up these camp possibilities and allows us to laugh at these larger structures in society, right? We’re all caught in this huge sweep of camp. We laugh at ourselves, and the way in which a really good piece of art is sometimes not in and of itself, but in how we receive it. Sometimes the art is the fandom.

So, that’s my introductory talk and in terms of general kind of questions, I guess I just ask for people to look for incongruous juxtapositions in the film. Look for moments of possible camp, and how it is that we want to interact with these films.

Thank you very much and I hope you all enjoy the film.

Keridwen Luis, Lecturer on Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Harvard University. Keridwen Luis is a cultural anthropologist who specializes in gender, sexuality, agency/identity, and the body. Her current book, Herland: Exploring the Women’s Land Movement in the United States (this October from University of Minnesota Press), examines the contemporary women’s land movement in the United States through lesbian identity, body praxis, and ideas about community and race. She holds a doctorate in Anthropology and an M.A. in Anthropology and Women’s Studies from Brandeis University, where she also teaches in the Anthropology, Sociology, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies departments. In the 2018-19 year, she will be teaching Sex Education: Politics, Policy, and the Production of Knowledge (fall) and Identity, Inequality, and Social Media (spring). Over the summer, she will be teaching When the Princess Saves Herself: Gender and Retold Fairy Tales, and The Human Market: Global Traffic in Human Beings, from Forced Labor to Stolen Cells, here at the Harvard Summer School.

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