By Charlotte Wood, VI Form
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: a Social Commentary
Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), an absurdist musical comedy that parodies sci-fi B-movies, particularly those of the 1950’s, reveals much about the culture of Vietnam era America. Specifically, the film comments on the conservatism of the previous decades, the Watergate scandal and other governmental matters, the counterculture movement, and questions of sexual and gender politics.
The 1970’s were a complicated and often confusing time in American history. By 1975, the U.S. had finally withdrawn from Vietnam after being entrenched in the anti-Communist conflict for nearly twenty years, and even then the war raged on between North and South Vietnam for two years after the U.S. had removed its troops. America was left divided, economically devastated, and, perhaps worst of all, defeated. These troops were not coming home as heroes. The right saw them as failures or losers, while the left saw them as murderers. Vietnam truly “pierced the myth of American invincibility,” and postwar America has never been the same as a result.
The counterculture movement of the 1960’s was influenced in large part by the Vietnam War, as well as the Beat Generation of the 1950’s, and was heavily intertwined with the anti-war movement. The counterculture movement was essentially a rebellion, carried out by teenagers and young adults of the Baby Boom, against the strict social and societal expectations of the 1940’s and 50’s. Granted, this was by no means a majority movement, but its heavy media coverage and its complete rejection of the values of the previous decades make it highly significant nonetheless. The counterculture movement was characterized by casual attitudes about sex, recreational drug use, and nonconformity. It was also characterized by a kind of dogged idealism and a constant striving for something more and something better. This explains the counterculture’s involvement in politics, especially as the movement coincided with Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and, to a lesser extent, the feminist movement.
Also characteristic of this moment in time was the Watergate scandal and its implications. The scandal, a burglary of the office of the Democratic National Committee by Richard Nixon’s CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President) in an attempt to acquire information about the party, as well as a subsequent cover-up, was itself a result of widespread and deeply ingrained paranoia during this time period. While Nixon never confessed to any criminal action, his involvement in the scandal did lead to his eventual resignation in 1974. The scandal further disappointed Americans, already disappointed by the Vietnam War, and led to further confusion, disillusionment, and anger. Ultimately, the Watergate scandal forced America to ask the question: who are the “good guys”? Who are the “bad guys”? How can we possibly know for sure?
At this point in time, women were also becoming disillusioned with the expectations imposed upon them. We know how strict the 1950’s were in terms of female behavior, à la Philip Wylie’s “Generation of Vipers” and Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia F. Farnham, M.D.’s “Modern Woman: The Lost Sex.” Women were expected to be wives, mothers, and little (if anything) else, even in the wake of Word War II, in which female support on the home front was an absolutely crucial part of the war effort. Beginning in the 1960’s and continuing into the 1970’s, women began to fight back against these expectations. A watershed moment in the women’s movement came in 1963 with the publishing of Betty Friedan’s feminist manifesto The Feminine Mystique. In it she wrote of the frustrating lack of fulfillment felt by housewives across the nation. One particularly striking passage reads,
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — “Is this all?”
The feelings expressed in the work resonated with many women, and Friedan is often credited with starting a new wave of feminism. It was then that women really began to fight: for equal rights in the workplace, for equal opportunity, for equal education, for contraception and the legalization of abortion, for simple recognition. Oddly enough, sexist attitudes were continuously propagated throughout the counterculture movement and within the New Left, with much of its political focus falling to men in the midst of the draft.
It was also in the late 1960’s and early 70’s that the LGBT community in America began to make progress in the political sphere. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s, being gay was still considered either a crime or a disease. The gay rights movement really began with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and continued through the 1970’s and 80’s. The movement struggled at times because of the diversity within the community, as well as because of societal pushback, but nonetheless it became a large part of the political scene in the 70’s.
In prior decades, especially during the 1950’s, the good/evil dichotomy was very clear: we, the Americans, are the good guys, and we must fight the evil, evil Communists. But, all of a sudden America began massacring innocent people and bombing Cambodia, a country entirely uninvolved in the Vietnam War up until that point. The leader of the free world is all but forced out of office for paranoid, dishonest crimes. All of a sudden, that dichotomy is not quite so simple. This kind of large-scale moral ambiguity—and even then, “moral ambiguity” might be too soft a term—led to small-scale moral ambiguity, like casual sexual relationships and drug use. American society was upended by social movements. The once-strict social structure of the U.S. fell away. At this point in time, many Americans were forced to question all of the values and beliefs that they had once held to be simple truths. America at large entered both a moral and political grey area and a state of flux.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, being made right in the middle of this incredibly contentious time period in 1975, comments heavily on all of these developments. It is often written off as a silly, campy musical—and it is—but it is also so much more than that. Its messages are complex and rarely stated outright, but they are there and important nonetheless. I am limited by time and space, but know that there is far more to be discussed in Rocky Horror than I am able to cover here.
In the opening sequence, a pair of disembodied female lips emerge from a black background and begin singing “Science Fiction/Double Feature” in a male voice. This is the first of many instances of gender confusion seen throughout the film, a theme that is unsurprising considering the state of gender politics in the 1970’s. The song “Science Fiction/Double Feature” references many sci-fi B-movies made from 1930-1950, namely The Day the Earth Stood Still, Flash Gordon, The Invisible Man, King Kong, It Came from Outer Space, Doctor X, Forbidden Planet, Tarantula, The Day of the Triffids, Night of the Demon, and When Worlds Collide. All these references set the film up as a parody of this genre, and against the backdrop of the song we see the credits, written in cartoonish, bloody font—likely poking fun at the unrealistic special effects used in early sci-fi films. Lastly, the fact that the song references “the late night double feature picture show” and “R.K.O” (a film production company famous for its noteworthy contributions to film from the 1930’s through the 50’s) reminds the audience that they are watching a movie. There are several references to the fact that Rocky Horror is a movie throughout, indicating that Sharman did not intend for the audience to get lost in the film, but rather to be aware the entire time that they are consuming a form of media.
In the following scene, Brad and Janet, our unlikeable protagonists and personifications of 50’s conservatism, attend a wedding. At first glance, everything seems relatively normal: a simple, traditional Episcopal church, happy bride and groom, the throwing of the bouquet, but the scene has some very unsettling undertones. Janet catches the bouquet and gets Brad thinking about their relationship. We see the happy couple drive off in a car covered in shaving cream reading: “Wait til tonite…she got hers now he’ll get his,” a very public reference to their sexual relationship, as well as to the ways in which the counterculture movement led to sexual liberation, even in very conservative circles. The camera then lingers on a sign reading “BE JUST AND FEAR NOT,” a line said by Wolsey in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII after he is arrested for treason. The line is part of a long plea to Cromwell not to make the same mistakes that he made. He also warns him not to put anything before God, not even the king. This message serves as an antithesis to later ones, such as “give yourself over to absolute pleasure,” that encourage hedonism. Brad then proposes to Janet with “Dammit Janet.” During the first part of the song, they stand in front of a billboard that reads “Denton, The Home of Happiness,” but they are also standing in a graveyard, and we can hear thunder in the distance. This implies that marriage is actually the end of life, a reference to the extremely strict and constraining social expectations of the 1950’s—expectations that many people fought against around the time this film was made. In front of the church doors we have a direct quote in the form of two figures from Grant Wood’s iconic American Gothic, a painting from 1930 depicting middle Americans. It has been interpreted in a number of ways, but one of the most popular readings of this work is that it represents a type of conservative simplicity that was necessary during the Great Depression. Throughout the rest of the song, Brad and Janet feign a wedding as the figures from American Gothic prepare for a funeral in the church, once again equating marriage with death.
Briefly, the Criminologist speaks directly to the audience about the events of the film. He is a physical manifestation and an extreme dramatization of the surveillance state—watching without being watched, observing, analyzing. The film is mocking the idea of the surveillance state, however, by characterizing the Criminologist as an intellectual sitting in a fancy study, flipping through slides and police reports, and taking us through diagrams of how to do the Time Warp. He is not scary, he is just ridiculous. This points to the larger satire seen in the film of the Cold War-era sci-fi B-movie, movies that often had monsters in them meant to symbolize the Communist threat or contagion.
Later, while on their way to visit their old science teacher Dr. Scott, Brad and Janet hear Nixon’s statement of resignation over the radio. The focus is not on the broadcast, but it can clearly be heard in the background. This moment is a turning point in the film—Brad and Janet are just about the stumble upon Frank-n-Furter’s castle, which will change their lives forever by blurring the line between good and evil by introducing them to deviant behavior. Similarly, the Watergate scandal was a turning point for America, one that blurred the line between good and evil politically.
Brad and Janet arrive at Frank-n-Furter’s castle to escape the rain after their car breaks down, and see that the Transylvanians are gathered for the “Annual Transylvanian Convention” and are doing the Time Warp, a crazy, foreign, and sexual dance. Just the name “Transylvanians” is a reference to the rejection of gender norms at this point in time, and in the film Transylvania is another planet, which points to the way that those breaking with the norms could be alienated (no pun intended). This shocks Brad and Janet, being the conservative couple that they are. We also see American Gothic, the real painting this time, hung on the wall collecting dust next to an upright coffin—another message that typical American life is unfulfilling. The solution? The Transylvanian lifestyle, one that is truly alien. During the Time Warp, we also see two black-and-white copies of the Mona Lisa, perhaps a subliminal message that the Transylvanian way of life, while foreign, is actually superior to theirs—the same way that the Mona Lisa is Italian, but considered higher art than American Gothic, which is typically categorized as regional art or folk art.
After the Time Warp, Brad and Janet meet Frank-n-Furter, the owner of the castle and leader of the Transylvanians. He is dressed in drag—lingerie, to be specific—and heavy make up. He introduces himself as a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania,” indicating that he is about as deviant as one can be. He is also a scientist, and tells them about a man that he has been creating, who is great for “relieving [his] tensions.” Frank-n-Furter is not only playing God by creating a person, but he is doing so in the name of homosexual lust. If that is not enough, he also feels no shame whatsoever about it. He fully embraces hedonism, and it is meant to look like a lot of fun. Frank-n-Furter is a far more likeable character than Brad or Janet, and that was done on purpose. Sharman is making a point about the unapologetic rejection of conservatism in America during this time, as well as about the blurring of good and evil, right and wrong. Frank-n-Furter also says, “But maybe the rain isn’t really to blame,” questioning if Brad and Janet are really here to escape the weather, or are maybe a little bit curious.
Brad and Janet are stripped of their clothes, and metaphorically of their inhibitions and values, perhaps. They are then sent up to Frank-n-Furter’s lab, where they see his creation: Rocky. Frank-n-Furter claims to hold “the secret to life itself,” a sacrilegious claim to good Christians like Brad and Janet. Frank-n-Furter also wears a lab gown emblazoned with a pink triangle, similar to the one homosexuals were forced to wear in Nazi concentration camps. However, Frank-n-Furter wears his pointing up, a reclaimed symbol of pride, while the ones worn in the camps were worn pointing down. There are references to the male ideal all over the lab in the form of Classical Greek statuary of nude men. When Rocky, Frank-n-Furter’s creation, emerges, he resembles them. He has been made in an image, so to speak—Frank-n-Furter’s, to be specific. Frank-n-Furter’s God complex once again rears its head. Rocky also is nearly naked, in no more than tiny shorts. Frank-n-Furter objectifies him the same way that women have been historically in film. This gender swap was most likely put in to point out how ridiculous these representations of women are. It is also important to note that Magenta calls Rocky “a triumph of your will,” speaking to Frank-n-Furter. This is a reference to the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.
Frank-n-Furter then sings “I Can Make You a Man,” which further comments on the ideals imposed upon men and women alike in the 50’s.
Shortly thereafter, Eddie bursts through a wall of Frank-n-Furter’s lab and causes immense chaos. Frank-n-Furter, of course, solves this problem by murdering him and calling it a “mercy killing”—perhaps referencing eugenics, and specifically sterilization and euthanasia of minorities by several countries before and during WWII. It is at this point that Frank-n-Furter really crosses over from more typical deviancy—homosexuality, gender confusion, etc.—and into extreme deviancy.
After this, Brad and Janet are taken to two separate rooms. Frank-n-Furter enters their rooms one at a time and seduces them, each time pretending to be the other one. He introduces Janet to sexual pleasure, and Brad to homosexuality. Janet exclaims that she was “saving herself,” but gives in to Frank-n-Furter after he promises not to tell Brad. Frank-n-Furter could represent a number of things, from the media to Communism to evil to pure pleasure. Regardless, he is a seducer, and in this scene more than any other that is clear. He says to Brad, “there’s no crime in giving yourself over to pleasure,” and in many ways that is the message of the film, and arguably the message of the counterculture movement.
Janet escapes her room and sees footage of Brad smoking a cigarette after sleeping with Frank-n-Furter and becomes very upset. She also has just been introduced to sex, and this combination of sexual desire and desire to take revenge causes her to seduce Rocky. This is a reference to the feminist movement as well as the sexual revolution, as this is a personal sexual revolution for Janet. Throughout the interaction, Columbia and Magenta watch from behind a monitor, mocking Janet the entire time. This is another mockery of the surveillance state, even more relevant after the Watergate scandal.
Soon after, Dr. Scott, Brad and Janet’s old science teacher—the one they were on their way to visit—arrives, looking for Eddie, who is his nephew. Dr. Scott is essentially Dr. Strangelove, complete with the secret Nazi past—his name is actually Dr. von Scott. The group eats dinner together, and it becomes clear that they are eating the recently murdered Eddie. This is a terrifying moment for nearly everyone, cannibalism being the ultimate form of deviance. This furthers the view of Frank-n-Furter as a true deviant, since he has no issue with it.
This begins the final struggle between Brad, Janet, Dr. Scott, and Frank-n-Furter. He uses a scientific contraption to turn them all into Classical statues, another reference not only to the ideals imposed by 50’s conservatism, but also to the idealism of the time in which this film was made, a time full of such yearning for more and for better.
Frank-n-Furter has a moment of anguish, saying, “it’s not easy having a good time…even smiling makes my face ache…” implying that his (and the counterculture’s) constant love of pleasure can get tiresome. However, his mood swings again when he initiates the floorshow in which Columbia, Rocky, Brad, Janet, Dr. Scott, and Frank-n-Furter perform “Rose Tint My World,” which, from the title alone is clearly about the idealistic view that the counterculture movement had of the world. Columbia even starts the song by saying, “ Now the only thing that gives me hope is my love of a certain dope. Rose tints my world, keeps me safe from my trouble and pain.” This is a clear reference to the drug culture during the 60’s and 70’s. The rest of the characters say similar things about sex, drugs, and the like. The movie is complex in that it seems to be simultaneously encouraging and discouraging this behavior, in that it encourages the countercultural values, but not to an extreme. The movie’s satirizing of mid-century American culture seems almost apolitical, as if Sharman just thought the situation was so messy and ridiculous that it might be better to hold a mirror up to it than make a firm political statement. In “Rose Tint My World,” all the characters are dressed like Frank-n-Furter, implying their full conversion to his way of life, and performing in a cabaret-like stage show, another reference to entertainment, media, and consumption—all used as weapons during the Cold War. The curtain then rises, revealing Frank-n-Furter in front of the R.K.O. logo, yet another reference to media and consumption during the Cold War. He sings about his desire to express himself like a woman, and encourages us all to “give yourself over to absolute pleasure,” a hedonistic statement that directly contradicts the conservative values of the 50’s. He dives into a swimming pool, proclaiming, “don’t dream it, be it!” which is arguably the message of the film, not necessarily in that one should give in to every instinct or urge they have, but rather to follow your dreams and not be constrained by others’ opinions and societal constraints. At the bottom of the pool, we see the Creation of Adam as painted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo. This creation of Adam by God mirrors the creation of Rocky by Frank-n-Furter. It also sends a message that Christianity is not always about repression, because after all, didn’t God make all this? Sex and drugs and individuality? The rest of the characters dive into the pool with Frank-n-Furter and begin embracing, kissing, and touching each other—in a sense, giving themselves over to absolute pleasure. Moments later, Riff Raff and Magenta, themselves symbols of deviance because of their implied incestuous relationship, enter the room and declare themselves the new leaders and Frank-n-Furter their prisoner. They are sick of Frank-n-Furter’s “extreme” lifestyle and want to return to Transylvania. Frank-n-Furter peforms “I’m Going Home” for an imagined audience, perhaps as a way to depict the alienation felt by women and LGBT people at this time.
Riff Raff then threatens him with a laser, proclaiming that “society must be protected,” a very clear reference to how conservatives felt about the emergence of counterculture, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement—the idea was that all these things were degrading society. Riff Raff does kill Frank-n-Furter, who is then carried up the R.K.O. tower by Rocky à la King Kong. They try to kill Rocky, but the beams bounce off of him, perhaps a reference to the privilege that Rocky enjoys, being a white man. They fall, however, when the tower tips, and they drown in the pool, right above the Creation. The castle blasts off, Magenta and Riff Raff returning to Transylvania. In the aftermath, Brad and Janet sing about how the night they spent at the castle has changed them, a reference to how all these movements, Vietnam, Watergate, the counterculture, permanently changed America, for better or worse.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is complicated, but ultimately does a beautiful job of painting a picture of the chaos, confusion, and discord of this moment in time, in the midst of political and social struggles within America.
Charlotte Wood is a VI Former from Wellesley, Massachusetts. She is an avid actor.
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