Don’t Get Strung Out: Reading History Backwards with Laverne Cox in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

When Adam Lambert was offered the role of Frank in Fox’s 2016 remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show he turned it down citing he believed it was inappropriate for him, as a cis male actor, to play a Trans role. Seeming to agree with this logic, Fox instead offered the role Laverne Cox who enthusiastically accepted.

Despite this intentioned attempt to align the character of Frank with contemporary progressive identity politics, the casting of Cox as Frank, I argue, wildly misinterpret Frank’s character and enacts what David Halperin would call “reading history backwards.”

Cox has stated that her only real reservation with the role was the use of the word “transvestite”: “I’ve been telling people, ‘Please do not go up to a transgender person in 2016 and call them a transvestite that is an antiquated term.’ But in 1975 when Rocky Horror Picture Show came out transvestite meant a very different thing” (Haas). However, she points to Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera who self-identified as woman and today, based on contemporary language and identity politics, would be recognized as Trans women, however, in the 1970s, used the word “transvestite”.

Cox is quite correct in pointing out that the word “transvestite” had a very different definition in the 1970s, but what problematizes Frank as a transgender character runs a bit deeper than the historical drift of transvestite’s etymology.  In the song “Sweet Transvestite” Frank-N-Furter introduces himself as “Transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania”, Transylvania, in this case, referring to a fictional planet in the Transsexual galaxy. Zachary Lamm parses out the slippery nature of this linguistic unholy trinity in his analysis of the song “Sweet Transvestite”:

“Logically, if we assume that Frank is biologically male, then his transvestism would cause him to dress as a woman, but his transsexuality would actually make him a woman, thus produce a ‘female woman’, which he seems not to be” (Lamm 198).

The ideological double negative of place transsexual and transvestite seems to suggest that neither term should be taken that literally. And indeed it is the third term that should draw our attention to the fact that this entire identity of alliteration should be taken with a grain of salt: Transylvania. Unlike the first two “t” words in the song, Transylvania has received little critical analysis by scholars. Its function is obvious: Transylvania is an allusion to Dracula. In the context of the song it is a slang term that, in the western imagination, conjures the images of a dark, gothic, sexual other. It also shares the root suffix “trans” with the other two words in the musical phrase creating both lyric alliteration while also drawing a connection between a historically recognized depiction of the gothic other- Count Dracula- and with the more contemporary sexual other expressed by transsexual and transvestite. It would be absurd to try and parse out the “meaning” behind this word with reference to Romanian politics, and I’m tempted to say the same is true with the word Transsexual: it is used largely as a buzz word that evokes a mysterious sexual other, but contains little reflection as to its actual meaning. Even Rocky Horror’s creator Richard O’Brien, notes that transvestism and transsexuality were not intended to be play such a central role in the show’s dramaturgy.

Julian Cornell notes that rather than reading Rocky Horror’s transvestite anti-hero as a drag character, which he so often is, “Frank’s persona can [better] be understood as an allusion to the iconography of the male glam idol” (40). And while glam rock and drag queen identities are not necessarily mutually exclusive, Cornel notes that Glam’s “excessive gender identity [contains] an additional layer of excess and self-consciousness that underscores Glam’s unwillingness to disengage completely from male privilege” (Cornell 40).

In the 1975 film Tim Curry’s costume as Frank reveals its distinctly glam, proto-punk aesthetic. Curry’s corset, for example, goes to his neck thus flattening his chest, rides high on his unshaved stomach and is bound loosely across the front to expose his natural chest hair. Thus while the corset signifies feminine dress, its actual aesthetic functions to highlight Curry’s masculine body, albeit in an untraditional way.

Cox, on the other hand, has used her celebrity as an actress and model to challenge the very notion of gender as inherently disruptive. Rather than “constantly referring” to the contradiction of signifiers and body, Cox’s gender performance is underlined, politically, as normal: there is nothing shocking, or at least there should be nothing shocking about Cox strutting the stage in a corset, or a dress, or feminine make up, because she is a woman in woman’s clothing. With her breasts cupped by the red leather corset and the “Bowie inspired” cobweb fishnets that seem to melt into her skin, there is no contrast between body and costume. No one is “strung out by the way she looks.” Cox has spent considerable time and effort repeatedly arguing for the authenticity of her gender expression and thus while original transvestism or “drag” of Curry’s performance destabilizing his identity at every turn, Cox’s high fem fetish wear fits seamlessly not only with her body on stage, but perhaps more importantly, with the feminine gender identity she embodies as a public figure.

This is not to say that Cox or another woman could not have played a female Frank with a modern feminine androgyny. The twentieth century is replete with androgynous and butch transgressive woman: Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Stormé DeLarverie, Patti Smith, Grace Jones, Vaginal Crème Davis, Annie Lennox, Diane Torr, Del LaGrace Volcano, Dred Gerestant, Mistress Formika. Any of these woman would have pointed to a way that Frank could be re-interpreted in a female body, so it’s not a question of Frank needing to be played by a man. But what is required, I argue, is some interpretation, even a modernized one, of Frank’s shocking, bifurcated gender identity; to interpret that as a contemporary Trans woman would be disingenuous of both Rocky Horror and the Trans community.




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