Immortalizing Glitter And Tights While On The Morally Gray Fringes
Queer film historian, programmer, and director Elizabeth Purchell recently tweeted in response to IndieWire’s article The Gayest Movies That Aren’t Actually Gay, “Why is so much queer film writing and programming about movies that aren’t actually textually queer?” While there is power in subversion and identifying queer subtext, Purchell raises an excellent point on the status of film criticism. When you Google ‘LBGTQ+ villains, it’s alarming to find an astounding amount of photos of animated Disney villains or characters otherwise not outwardly queer in the narrative. This Pride month, it’s important to spotlight intentionally queer stories and characters rather than picking at the scraps of a heterosexual script.
Villain characters are prone to queer readings for multiple reasons. In a text striving to reach straight, white, middle-class audiences, where the heroes are often straight, white, middle-class victims, their greatest fears likely involve others who challenge their rigid identities and beliefs. If a film wants to distinguish its male villain, it will typically give him effeminate features to emphasize his polar opposite nature to our macho American hero. If a movie wants the audience to sympathize with a prudish, heterosexual female virgin, her greatest enemy is a self-possessed, sexually active, probably bisexual woman. And if a film wants to intimidate able-bodied cis people, the monster may be gender-fluid, deformed, and reside within a liminal space of the body and sexuality. What is not understood is feared.
In mapping out the best queer villain, it’s essential to consider all of this and identify a character that is not only textually queer but embodies this range of psychological anxieties. And one character bursts onto the scene in response, tightly and perfectly clad in a corset and tights: Dr. Frank-N-Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
A Villain Until He Isn’t
Frank-N-Furter remains one of the most fascinating villains because of how he challenges and crosses boundaries with the characters. He is also essentially redeemed and elevated beyond the status of a villain by the end of the film. A trend for villains, particularly in Marvel’s Hollywood, is their radical perspective toward an aspect of society that audiences can initially agree with. A strong villain should possess a level of realism, narratively offered contextuality that allows the audience to understand why they hold that belief; what makes them a villain is how they exert their opinions, often more morally gray. So what is Frank-N-Furter’s radical perspective? Most abundantly, sexuality. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in 1975, around the heyday of freewheeling hippie love was losing its footing, and many sought to reinstate conservative values regarding the home and family. This is displayed through Brad and Janet, who are plunged into the plot as a newly engaged, virginal couple. The film introduces a recurring motif with the painting American Gothic alongside the couple’s engagement at a wedding. This is the heteronormative American Way…or is it?
As the night continues, Frank-N-Furter revels in queerness and villainy as he reveals his creation of the hypersexual, masculine Rocky, who though he acknowledges has the mind of a newborn creature, will work to “relieve” his “tension.” His sexuality is intertwined with deceit and ethical ambiguity, though not necessarily beyond redemption. He kills his ex-lover Eddie after using some of his brains to form Rocky and keeps the secret for as long as he can, thus motivating Eddie’s uncle Dr. Scott to champion Frank’s death, though by the end, he admits losing Eddie was probably for the best as he had a temper. Frank initially disguises himself in his private seductions of Brad and Janet, but each of them willingly submits to be pleased by him once he is revealed. This is crystallized in the film’s final act, after the narrator says, “Their host was a man of little morals and some persuasion…What diabolical plan had seized Frank’s crazed imagination?” After he turns Rocky, Columbia, Janet, and Brad to stone, each of them sings, and Janet, who is the most hesitant and fearful of entering the home, finally achieves her transformation, singing, “I feel released. Bad times deceased. My confidence has increased. Reality is here. The game has been disbanded. My mind has been expanded. It’s a gas that Frankie’s landed. His lust is so sincere.”
More of a Trickster than a Simple Villain
Though Frank’s expressions of sexuality, desire, and pleasure may not be the most morally upstanding, especially through heteronormative, conservative eyes, his offering of these experiences allowed the characters to reach new heights of their own identity, liberating them from the shackles of patriarchal expectations they may, unfortunately, reinstate after the film. This can be attributed to another archetype, the mischievous trickster inhabiting a morally grey space. Brilliantly explored in the novel Trickster Makes the World, this archetype rings true of Frank’s personality: “Trickster is… the cross-dresser, the speaker of sacred profanities… Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence…his seemingly asocial actions continue to keep our world likely and give it the flexibility to endure” (Hyde).
It’s also in the final act that Magenta and Riff Raff, operating on their own villainous time-table, enable the conflict, no longer willing to sit patiently in Frank’s shadow as he postpones their return to their home planet. Unlike before, Frank displays vulnerability and compassion in his breathtakingly memorable performance of Rose Tint My World (Don’t Dream It). As he describes, “That delicate satin draped frame as it clung to her thigh, how I started to cry cause I wanted to be dressed just the same,” his queerness, which can be modernly interpreted as either engaging in drag or being trans, is no longer solely connected to sexuality, but to gender identity and expression. What could have been a stereotype is contextualized and even granted grace. This element of his character was something the 2016 remake understood as they cast Laverne Cox, a trans actress, to play Frank.
The Visibility of Queer Decadence and Its Power
For those whose innermost desires force them to occupy the fringes of society, radical indulgence is revolutionary. A person’s home is their sanctuary when they cannot be themselves publicly. Though Frank took his position of authority too far at times, many willingly participated in the lust he enabled and were ultimately grateful for it. Columbia continues to be his faithful servant while challenging him when his actions hurt her feelings, and Brad and Janet gleefully partake in the underwater group romance. Their inhibitions are gone, and their deepest desires are fully realized. When Frank-N-Furter dies at the hands of Riff Raff, Brad and Janet gasp and seem genuinely saddened by his and Rocky’s loss.
Frank’s final performance of “I’m Going Home” features an audience of predominantly white, elderly, wealthy people cheering him on as he sings, “Everywhere it’s been the same, feeling like I’m outside in the rain, wheeling,” showcasing his disconnection and lack of acceptance from a society whose approval he craves. Frank championed a decadence so often stigmatized and shamed by the general public, creating a space where this freedom could be revealed. He dared others not to “dream it,” their hopes and wishes, but “be it” and embody them boldly and brashly. Frank-N-Furter is unforgettable in his subversive tight spandex and pearl necklace, an accurate image of fierce queerness and irrelevant gender norms, unafraid to highlight that not all queer people are images of innocence, but where’s the fun in that anyway?
The Rocky Horror Picture Show 1975 20th Century Fox Official Trailer
|Ariana Martinez is a Florida-based writer and filmmaker pursuing a cinema studies degree. Their work frequently gravitates toward explorations of gender and sexuality in film, and they have a Youtube channel and website, Awake in the A.M., dedicated to film analysis.|