Author: annie trussler – contributor
“Don’t dream, be it.” The forever quotable tagline of the world’s beloved fish-netted musical spectacular, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The quirky show has inspired a cult phenomenon, and rightfully so; the music, color, costumes, overt sexuality, lingerie, and the always quotable dialogue has inspired audiences to strut partially dressed, throw toast at live actors, and embrace themselves, regardless of gender or sexuality. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, undoubtedly, a revolutionary piece that celebrates love of the self, of others, and the beauty found in what society regularly deems impure, unclean, or tactless. The Picture Show returns annually, a holiday in and of itself, and brings with it a renewed sense of freedom, expression, and liberation.
Though the myriad of unconventional characters harbor their own individual merits, and represent their own unique means of self-expression, it is clear that Doctor Frank-N-Furter, in all of their “creature of the night” glory, serves undoubtedly as a beacon of gregarious self-love. In each rendition of the piece, Frank-N-Furter promotes an identity of purpose, fluidity, pride, expression, sexuality, and violence that so few people accept, particularly when placed in Transgender hands; very few people allow themselves to imagine Trans* figures with individual identities, which results in them often reducing Trans* people as a blurred, ambiguous subset of gendered humanity. Though many do not understand them as such, Frank-N-Furter is one of modern media’s loudest, proudest, most celebrated Trans* character to date.
That being said, each theatrical or film rendition of the cult classic refuses to introduce gender variant cast members into the infamous role. Rocky Horror was written by Richard O’Brien, who debuted in the original film as Frank-N-Furter’s long-suffering servant, Riff Raff. Unsurprisingly, O’Brien’s non-binary identity goes unknown to a number of viewers and fans. O’Brien, with their own gender identity in mind, wrote the piece with the appropriate terms of the time (i.e. transsexual in place of transgender), but anticipated the piece to grow. It has, evidently, as it has taken lingerie-enthusiasts and musical goers by storm, but not in the way Trans* artists might have originally intended. The focus here does not pertain to the continued usage of outdated terminology, but rather the inability to modify and improve casting as Trans* rights evolve. Again and again, despite the heavy emphasis on gender expression throughout the production, Frank-N-Furter continues to be cast routinely as a cisgender male.
This is not to discredit the moral of expression and freedom the musical already promotes (not to just dream it, but to be it), but instead to beg the question of how the public’s perception of gender has actually evolved. While Frank-N-Furter persists as one of the more influential gender-variant characters of our time, the denial of any true development in respect to Transgender communities continues to baffle me. We are told, even begged, through mascara tears and smeared red lips to chase our dreams, to be who we wish to be, but always in the voice of a cisgender male. While Trans* communities continue to grow and evolve beyond the notorious Picture Show, making room for growing amounts of Trans* characters and storylines, the greatest, boldest, loudest, most extravagant tale of Trans* excellence and intrigue continue to go un-evolved, unchanged and undeveloped. For now.
Hope is not beyond reach, though; while the role has gone unaltered since the show’s inception, recent reports place Laverne Cox in Frank’s stilettos and tights. Cox, as many are aware, debuted in Orange is the New Black as an established, charismatic, developed, and proud Trans* woman who uses her transition and identity as a basis for education, beauty, pride and self-love. Though this newest rendition will premier as a television series, Cox’s debut as the good doctor is the first earnest, real, proper, evolved portrayal of Frank-N-Furter: a Trans* icon portrayed by a Trans* woman who uses her current celebrity status to spread awareness and encourage other Trans* people in her community.
No one can say for certain how the change will be received, as many (people who claim to be open-minded, but all too often prove otherwise) could take the change in casting as a mutiny against the original part; although, as previously discussed, O’Brien wrote and casted the piece according to what was accepted at the time. As times have changed, so to have rights, and with these changes, there must come an evolution. Cox and her story hold the power to dramatically change Frank-N-Furter’s place in modern media, and always by positive means. We dreamt it, let’s just hope we can still be it.