“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” Taught Entire Generations to Embrace Queer Expression

Posted on September 25, 2020

This weekend will mark the 45th anniversary of the American premiere of one of the most influential films of the last half-century, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In all the many drafts and iterations of Legendary Children, our book on queer culture and drag history, there was never a version that didn’t set aside space to pay tribute to the film, its creator Richard O’Brien, and its star Tim Curry.

In many ways, The Rocky Horror Picture show represented one of the biggest cultural triumphs of the queer art community immediately post-Stonewall. O’Brien, like many queer people in the underground theater and experimental film scenes of the late ’60s and ’70s, took his babyqueer obsessions with B movies, camp, movie musicals, sexual desire and non-conformity and turned it into an explosively queer form of art with not only mass appeal, but culture-shifting power. It’s long been described as a “cult film,” but no film with this much lasting influence and this many fierce fans could ever truly be seen as something hidden or unknown to the public. It may have started out that way, and the folks who kept the flame alive through years of toast and toilet paper-filled midnight screenings deserve to be lauded for seeing the film for what it was before the rest of the culture caught up, but roughly twenty-five years ago, the film shot far past its status as an  underground favorite and became as well-known to the culture at large as its heterosexual cousin Grease (Sandy and Janet are the same character, on the same journey, with different results largely because Sandy was a het princess who changed to keep her man and Janet changed because she was secretly horny and learned how to get her freak on).

 

When our publisher asked us for a list of people to be featured on the cover of our book, Curry in his iconic role of Dr. Frank N. Furter was one of the first on the list; not just because of the influence his portrayal, but because it was important to us to use the book to represent not just drag in all its forms, but queerness as well. We didn’t want it to be a book full of gay men in dresses or even a book devoted to transgender figures in drag and entertainment. We wanted to talk about as many gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender people, non-binary people and pansexual people as we could stuff into a book that uses RuPaul’s Drag Race (a show that’s become a bit infamous for its refusal to spotlight broader forms of drag or queer identities other than gay men) as its framing device. Tim Curry has never declared his own sexual identity publicly, which was another reason for us to give him a little time in the book’s spotlight; because again: queer drag doesn’t have to be seen as the purview of only queer-identified men or trans women. Curry’s Frank N. Furter provided a shocked public an image almost none of them had wrestled with prior to 1975: the image of a pansexual non-binary figure who was hot and down to fuck.

 

 

 

Prior to his portrayal, most of the public would have seen the image of a cis man in women’s makeup and garments as something campy or funny; not something that stirred feelings in them they weren’t quite prepared to have. To be fair, glam rock and gender-bending figures of the ’70s like David Bowie helped this shift in public thinking along, but if we had to designate the one figure most responsible for making gender non-conformity look hot as hell and aspirational, it would be Curry in his corset, heels, and garters, licking his lip and arching his perfectly made-up brow. There’s no true way to measure this, but it’s our contention that Curry’s portrayal, which inspired countless numbers of people over many decades to tentatively step out of their cishet boundaries among a crowd of people who would only applaud and support them in their freak flag flying, was one of the strongest cultural influences on queer Baby Boomers to stop hiding their queerness. His portrayal walked untold numbers of men right up to their closet doors and not only invited them to open it, but told them it would be glorious if they did so. At the same time, it trained an entire generation to see queer identity and gender non-conformity as something to celebrate. So happy birthday, darling. And thank you, thank you, thank you.

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