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The new ‘Rocky Horror’ stars trans actress Laverne Cox: Why some in the LGBT community are not pleased

Laverne Cox as Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Screen grab)

In 1975, a movie starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick and Richard O’Brien appeared in theaters. It was a total commercial failure — barely anyone saw it. But years later, the movie was still being played in theaters around the country. But generally at midnight and now, it had fans. These weren’t your regular moviegoers though — these fans cross-dressed, sang and danced in the aisles and treated the screenings like interactive Broadway musicals.

That’s not so far off since the movie, which of course is “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” began as a musical in 1973. Later, Roger Ebert would refer to it as “not so much a movie as more of a long-running social phenomenon.” According to IMDB, it holds the record for the longest theatrical movie run in history, having been playing in movie theaters in 1975. And since last April, when FOX announced it would be making a television movie out of the cult classic, fans have been eagerly awaiting its arrival on the small screen. 

On Monday, FOX released the film’s trailer during its upfronts. In it, actress Laverne Cox dons the colorful garb of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, flashily worn in the original film by Tim Curry.

But some think that, while the script was subversive and daring in 1975, it might now come off as a reinforcement of insulting stereotypes about the LGBT community. To understand why, some history is necessary.

For anyone who hasn’t experienced the campy cult classic, a recap of its deeply bizarre plot: The movie centers around Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a mad scientist who is actually a cross-dressing alien from the planet Transsexual, which resides in the Transylvania galaxy. He lives in a castle somewhere near the town of Denton, Tex. Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, a young couple who find themselves stranded after a flat tire, stumble upon the castle while seeking a telephone. The Annual Transylvanian Convention just so happens to be underway, and the couple is brought into a music world of cross-dressing, aliens and murder. Many strange things occur — for example, the alien-doctor seduces Brad (while posing as Janet) and Janet (while posing as Brad), and there’s more than a little cannibalism going on.

While that might sound dark, the movie is much closer to musical camp than true horror. In his original review, Roger Ebert called it “a horror-rock-transvestite-camp-omnisexual-musical parody.” Those midnight screenings that have kept it alive for more than forty years are treated more like charged costume parties than trips to the movies, and they’ve long been popular in various “fringe” groups, those not accepted by the mainstream. As the Atlantic wrote about the “campy beacon of sexuality and self-acceptance”:

Young people who felt disconnected from society could identify with the film’s literal aliens, and for those from more strait-laced backgrounds, the initially conservative Brad and Janet’s presence gave them a way into a fantasy world outside their immediate experience.

“I think it has a large appeal because … people are accepted as they are: fabulous, regardless of gender or sexuality or race or body type,” Sarah de Ugarte, who portrays many of the characters in official productions in New York, told The Atlantic. “I love ‘Rocky’ because it lets me and everyone around me be uninhibited and fly our freak flag and not be ashamed to be ridiculous.

For many in the LGBT community, part of the film’s appeal is the way it bends sexual and gender politics into nearly unrecognizable forms, at least by traditional, binary standards. That’s another way of saying it was one of the first films to truly support and display the notion of being “genderqueer.” As Judy Berman wrote of her experience with the film in FlavorWire:

This isn’t a movie where characters discover they’re gay and come out to their families; it’s a movie that … reveals how slippery the boundaries of what we call “identity” are, how confusing and situational and prone to the irrational whims of pleasure. Frank-N-Furter’s gender is so mutable and non-binary that his sexual encounters with Brad and Janet both have their queer elements.

In fact, some argue the movie helped America see those who were once considered to be on the fringe of society. Wrote Jean Kim in AlterNet:

Decades later, we have come to view the prophecies of “Rocky Horror” with the maturity of greater mainstream acceptance for transgendered and LGBT lifestyles, for racial minorities, atheists and other souls who have all lived and loved in our midst as the secret “aliens”—the offbeat folks who don’t fit in and conform to blandly perfect middle America.

Given that, the casting of Cox — a transgender woman best known for her role as the transgender prisoner Sophia Bursett in “Orange is the New Black” and an LGBT activist — as Dr. Frank-N-Furter might seem to many to be in keeping with the film’s traditions. But not everyone is pleased with it.

Mari Brighe, a trans woman, writes in FlavorWire that the casting “feels more like a disaster waiting to happen,” expressing “serious concerns about how this could affect the views of trans identities in mainstream.” In particular, Brighe worried that Cox in the role of the cross-dressing Dr. Frank-N-Furter could exacerbate the “subtle but potentially very damaging conflation of crossdressers with trans women.” She wrote:

In an era where trans people (and trans women in particular) are still consistently struggling to shed the social view that we are little more than men in dresses, the once sexually subversive “Rocky Horror Picture Show” becomes simply a tool for the re-entrenchment of oppressive and harmful tropes about transgender people.

Rebbecca Jura, also a transgender woman, agreed. The film long mattered deeply to her — “It was one of the first times in my life when a film spoke at least a little to who I really was, rather than the masculine role I presented to the world,” she wrote in Advocate. But she also worried about how, outside of the LGBT community, the film will be received.

I shudder to consider what some right-wing groups and politicians might do with video clips of a spectacularly staged production of a fully transitioned celebrity trans woman singing “I’m just a sweet transvestite.”

Others, though, are excited by the casting.

GOOD magazine wrote that “Cox continues to rewrite the representation rulebook in Hollywood” with this role. Cox herself told Entertainment Weekly that the experience was “magical,” and it allowed her to be herself by using her “chest voice.”

“As a trans woman with a low voice, I had been so afraid of those low tones,” she said. “This is a character where it’s absolutely appropriate that I sing in the base baritone register that I have.”

FOX didn’t announce a specific date for the reboot but promised that America will be doing the time warp again sometime around Halloween 2016.