Rated “R” for Resistance
A Close Analysis of The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Musical Number “Sweet Transvestite”
One thing for certain about Frank N. Furter’s performance is that he enters with a bang. From his billowing cloak to his exuberantly adoring background dancers, Frank N. Furter blows away his audience with every hip thrust and hair flip. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), based off the 1973 musical stage production by Richard O’Brien, is a fun cult classic filled with romance, sci-fi and a little murder. As a young newly engaged couple seeks help during a storm, they come across the castle of Dr. Frank N. Furter. His famous entrance, the musical number “Sweet Transvestite,” leaves the heteronormative couple in shock and awe of this stranger’s bold drag performance. The character Frank N. Furter uses this song to create a fun, satirical resistance to society’s oppression of both drag and the greater LGBTQ community with boldly flamboyant choreography and sexually suggestive costumes, thus being one of the first founders to introduce drag to Hollywood.
The song “Sweet Transvestite” is one of those catchy unforgettable songs that play on an endless loop in the back of your head. From the first bass guitar notes to the intense drum beat, Frank N. Furter’s entrance is both memorable and captivating. The owner of the castle enters the scene in a metal elevator, surprising the young couple. In a full face of makeup, he struts down a red carpet up to a staged throne, his black billow cape masking any hint of what lies underneath. Once he reaches his stage, he grandly unveils himself by flinging the cape onto the throne behind him, revealing the shiny silver inner lining. His now visible main costume represents feminine lingerie, from the sparkly black corset to the fishnet stockings attached to a garter belt. To top off his dark, sexy look, Furter wears huge glittering platform heels and a choker with pearls each about the size of a quarter. From gyrating hip thrusts to his sultry shoulder rolls, each bold and sexual movement demands the attention of his party guests and visitors clearly indicating his supremacy as the host.
At one point of the song, he even lies atop a throne with his legs dramatically crossed atop the armrest as his servants surround the throne in admiration. At the end of the song, he leaves the scene in the same sensational manner as he arrived, by riding up the metal lift in an almost God-like manner. These constant power symbols of authority emphasizes Frank N. Furter as the center of attention. Throughout the whole song, his eye-catching drag and confident movements creates a fun theatrical entrance that is also in parallel to Frank N. Furter’s bold personality; he unconventionally introduces himself as a proud crossdresser to the otherwise standardized heterosexual American media.
This character’s use of dramatic and flamboyant body gestures entice sexual ideas following the stereotypes of queer gestures. With his hands on his hips and his thrusting in a slow deliberate circle, Frank N. Furter’s seemingly “extra” movements parallel the actions of many drag queens; their “racialized excess is already read as queer, outside norms of what is useful of productive” (Rodriguez 2014).
Author Juana Maria Rodriguez brings to attention in her book how the flamboyant gestures of the LGBTQ community is quickly met with societal oppression. Such gestures are deemed excessive by society and only magnifies their “surplus sexuality” (Rodriguez 2014). A majority of the LGBTQ community’s defining factor that distinguishes it from heteronormativity is based off of sexual preference, thus heightening all motions related to this not-straight, “abnormal” sexuality. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) uses the character Frank N. Furter, a bisexual man who loves drag, and his exuberantly sexual motions in a prideful manner. In emphasizing his sexuality, Frank N. Furter has no shame in who he is as he proudly sings, referring to himself as a “sweet transvestite,” a term I will further explore later in this essay. By glorifying this character that otherwise would be shunned by conservatives, the RHPS uses queer gestures to positively amplify an underrepresented community.
Some may argue Juana Maria Rodriguez’s book is specifically based on how the Latin communities struggle with “excessiveness.” Rodriguez depicts intersectionality and the backlash Latin@s experience as colored minorities in the queer community. The Latinx community “are often represented, if not identified, by our seemingly over-the-top gestures” (Rodriguez 2014); these races become labeled as physical and “touchy.” While Rodriguez’s argument is based on the intersection between colored and LGBTQ minorities, her analysis still applies to the white, yet queer character Frank N. Furter. In the beginning of the song, his grand unveiling of his body by throwing off his cape causes him to fling his arms up into a star-shape, almost as if he’s presenting his body.
This large gesture creates a spectacular entrance, far from the stereotypical handshake. While his race does not insinuate labels on his own, his gestures are also seen as dramatic and “over-the-top.” This man uses his bold body language to tell his queer identity to heteronormative society. His actions are similarly judged and differently perceived than those of heterosexual individuals; the literal and figurative expression of such a character blazes a trail through heteronormative Hollywood.
In addition to his choreography, the costume of the main character works in a more subtle satirical response to societal definitions of gender and fashion. In “Sweet Transvestite,” Frank N. Furter’s costume resembles the stereotypical wear of a 50s housewife. The long gloves, huge white choker pearls, stockings and permed women’s Italian cut styled hair similarly coincide with a classic 50s woman. These undertones in his choice of evening wear symbolize his 70s decade’s reprimands of 1950s heteronormative culture. Dressing as a woman from the past, his costume questions what clothing is socially categorized for specific genders. From the 50s and earlier, gender was emphasized as “a biological fact rather than a cultural invention” (Halberstam 2014). Masculinity coincided with the biological male sex as did femininity with females, yet this definition continued to be questioned by people who felt the gender they were assigned at birth did not fit with their gender identity. The LGBTQ community has battled to redefine gender as “a marker of social difference, a bodily performance of normativity and the challenges made to it” (Halberstam 2014). As other characters in the movie represent that masculine macho male and feminine petite female complex, the halcyon conformist days of 50s face the mocking satire of Frank N. Furter. Previous societal norms for a young woman included maintaining the house while looking pretty — the ultimate housewife. On the other hand, the macho men were expected to work while commanding the respect of his household — the head of the family. Challenging the expected actions and dress of his sex, his costume of drag creates opposition to such boundaries. Additionally, in sexualizing the ideal 50s women, he deflowers the old homophobic ideas by parodying such old society standards. By dressing as a sexy 50s housewife while being the leader of his own castle, Frank N. Furter bends these norms in a satirical way. This unprecedented jab at former 50s principles acts as an example for the queer community to resist restricting cultures and find self-expression despite societal expectations of either sex.
To heighten the contrast of Frank N. Furter’s parody, the RHPS uses the young couple, Janet and Brad, to exemplify the gender norms mentioned earlier. In “Sweet Transvestite” both Janet and Brad execute Hollywood’s stereotypical heterosexual couple. Janet, a newly-engaged young woman, faints at the first sight of our star protagonist. Her weakness and fear conforms with the idea that women at the time were to be faint-hearted, depending on their male counterparts for protection.
Throughout the song, she hides herself behind her fiancé and leans on him for support. Her macho pillar, Brad, also suits such societal expectations with his “masculine” facade. At the beginning of the song, he shuts down Janet’s worries by saying “I’m here. Nothing to worry about” (Sharman, 1975). While his heroic and manly words do little to comfort his girlfriend, he fulfills the role of the dominant male as presumed by traditional Hollywood characters. This couple’s striking difference from the unorthodox Frank N. Furter magnifies the protagonist’s derision of old 50s ideals.
Frank N. Furter’s other costumes continue to work in almost unnoticeable satire, especially in a historical context. Just following his entrance, the drag queen adorns a pale green apron with a single pink triangle painted on his chest. While most casual watchers wouldn’t think twice on the matter, Shaun Soman’s scholarly article discusses its significance. Soman points out that this triangle originated as “a symbol that men convicted of sexual deviancy (especially homosexuality) were forced to wear in concentration camps” (Soman 2014).
This historical “pink triangle, a symbol of persecution” (Soman 2014) creates depth in his character’s response. By adorning this historical symbol, Frank N. Furter draws on the oppression of his community to emphasize his satire towards heteronormativity. In wearing it proudly, he reclaims the symbol from its original intentions to persecute those branded in concentration camps. Representing this history of abuse, the costume reclaims and resists this literal oppression.
In addition to reclaiming historical symbols, Frank N. Furter’s refers to himself as a “transvestite,” an otherwise taboo term today. While the old term used to refer to “a person who wears clothes designed for the opposite sex” (Merriam-Webster 2017), it became butchered with negative connotations and assumptions. To call someone a “transvestite” would be viewed as an insulting label, such a term used by primarily conservative crowds. Even the definition itself connotes with the word “opposite” that only two sexes dominate and are acceptable. It also assumes clothing is categorized into either male or female clothing, a heteronormative ideal. By calling himself a “sweet transvestite,” Frank N. Furter mocks the backlash his community receives particularly for wearing drag. The sarcastic use of the word “sweet” paints a picture of timid innocence, a stark contrast to his all-black, dauntless confidence; Frank N. Furter is a sexy daredevil rather than a cute sweetheart. By referring to himself in this way, he bitingly derides the verbal backlash drag queens face.
From vivid color choices to the underlying mockery of bygone ideals, Frank N. Furter symbolizes a trailblazer for queer expression. The main attraction of this cult musical radiates sexual openness and intensity in a transitional time period for queer culture. In his bold gestures His statement as a “transvestite” mocks the heteronormativity that previously dominated the media. Frank N. Furter was one of the first iconic pioneers to introduce and popularize drag in an otherwise formulaic musical movie industry. This passionate and convivial character’s hypnotizing performance leaves watchers feeling good about a previously disgraced community. In a predetermined environment with conventional gender roles, this performance of drag shocked Hollywood America by testing such gender norms. The Rocky Horror Picture Show rocked the previously scripted media and set the tone for future popular musicals featuring drag queens like Hairspray or Kinky Boots. One of the first and one of the most unforgettable, this drag queen provokes and tests the expectations of his era. Openly queer and ruthless in presenting it, Frank N. Furter’s iconic performance created an instant classic still playing in theaters over 40 years later.