Home > Movies, TV > Brief Thoughts: A Lifestyle Too Extreme – Glee’s Rocky Horror is Censorsational

Brief Thoughts: A Lifestyle Too Extreme – Glee’s Rocky Horror is Censorsational

Brief thoughts on the horror of watching Glee’s Rocky Horror.

I remember watching The Rocky Horror Show when I was around 13/14 and simply having no reaction at all to what I’d seen. it seems wholly possible to me now that my brain simply deleted parts of the movie that it couldn’t process leaving behind a few good memories of the Time Warp, Meatloaf and Susan Sarandon in her underwear. In hindsight I’m surprised that I handled the thing so well and surprised that my parents allowed the experience. Despite English suburbia not being the most progressive place to grow up I’m grateful my background allowed for it.

I didn’t see the film again until I was 25. I fell in love with it’s vibrancy and the sheer joy in the material, despite what I initially read to be a wildly confused subtext regarding gender and sexuality. The problem was – or so I initially reasoned – if Rocky Horror is basically a comedic riff, or love letter to old sci fi B movies, and if it following the same conventions as those old B-movies. Frankenfurter, loveable transvestite though he is, is still the bad guy and Riff-Raff ultimately kills him off after he’s corrupted the heroes Brad and Janet by introducing them to a world of “deviant” sexualities (including crossdressing, bisexuality and orgies). In other words, I felt the film still fell into the queer evil guy trope. However, there’s something about the movie and its creator Richard O Brien – who has himself struggled to come to terms with his own gender identity and now identifies as third sex- that suggests the movie’s narrative is as joyfully subversive as it’s meant to be on the outside, and its only after repeat viewings that I’ve come to appreciate the fact that audience response and reaction to the film (and even moreso the stage show) is paradoxically as defining facet of its textual identity as the actual text itself.

Yes, America finds this offensive.

Audiences are notorious for participating in the experience of Rocky Horror, from dressing up in overtly sexual costumes that break down gender boundaries, to yelling out obscenities the entire way through; after a slow start the film became the biggest movie of all time on the cult midnight movies circuit and the Show has become a phenomenal success. This experience would hardly have been possible had the narrative lent itself to the obvious conclusions of my initial reading. Rather than become the cult, queer classic that it has, Rocky Horror would be the best friend of the conservative wing. It’s a very strange phenomenon but there’s something so powerful about Tim Curry’s entrance and something so cinematically unusual about seeing him strut his stuff in corset and suspenders with such confidence (and lack of prejudice) that despite the fact that, as an audience we know that Brad and Janet are the hero figures, our empathy switches straight to the villain. Any viewer with queer sympathies instantly wants this man to succeed (and “wants” him aswell, I imagine), since he’s so exciting and so honest, whereas Brad and Janet seem so plain, dull and annoying. As Brad and Janet fall under his spell during the course of the movie it’s pretty easy to agree that they’re better off for having discovered a new lifestyle. When Riff Raff shoots him, singing the words “your mission is a failure, your lifestyle’s too extreme” the captivated audience can only agree that the rest of the world probably isn’t ready for this, and that’s why he had to die.

Glee’s tribute to Rocky Horror goes a long way towards proving the point that, 30 years after it was made, Rocky Horror still encourages lifestyles that are too extreme for American audiences who will no doubt cite its “adult themes” as reason to keep it from primetime TV. Not a reason that ever kept Jack Bauer’s insane right wing violence and extreme behaviour off of our screens, but then again, that wasn’t liberal-sexual behaviour. It’s in-fact quite hard to see what prompted the decision of Glee’s creators to even tackle the show, since they clearly knew that censors would come down on them so harshly. During the show there’s a lot of talk about censorship and cuts and Sue Sylvester joyfullfully condemning the Glee club’s production of the show, but ultimately the schizophrenic episode sees Will Schuester agreeing that it was a terrible and inappropriate idea. There’s heaps of embrassment surrounding the production of the show, in particular adult/student interaction and students stripping down to their underwear, and none of it is made up for by a multitude of speeches about “being part of a community of outsiders” or repeated soundbytes about the importance of artistic expression. The problem is, the show tries to complain about this on the one hand but takes away from it on the other by conforming too wilfully to some of the most outrageous censorship I think I’ve seen. This takes place on two fronts that are both silent and aggressive.

Not quite the same….somehow.

Silently) What’s strange is that Kurt, the openly gay character who deals with issues surrounding his sexuality every week is muzzled during the Rocky Horror production. Frankenfurter is, of course, clearly bisexual and one can only assume from this that showing a camp gay character is Ok providing he’s quite clearly camp (and not infectious), but showing something on air that seemingly promotes bisexuality i.e. having sex without conforming to a well known stereotype is seen as very dangerous. The episode sidesteps this by not even discussing the sexuality of the piece, merely mentioning once or twice that it has “adult themes”. Those that don’t know would just presume it’s the fact that there’s a bit of nudity.

Aggressively) Frankenfurter’s now very famous entrance number “Sweet Transvestite” is sung by Mercedes, who happens to be a girl. Not a male transvestite. The director throws the audience who might care a quick bone by way of a reaction shot of extreme horror from Will when this decision apparently goes through over his head. It’s not nearly enough though and what should have been the highlight of the episode becomes a thoroughly conservative and boring rendition of the song without joy or abandon, and even has lyrics like “transexual” replaced by “sensational”. Amber Riley sings very well but this is the worst piece of miscasting since….forever, and I felt acutely embarrassed watching it.

Even though the episode wasn’t all terrible, I’ve never appreciated Glee less. I forget what a dull, normative world TV can be sometimes but it’s doubly sad when shows that I look towards to push boundaries, like Glee, come crashing down under the thumb of censorship like everything else.

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  1. May 31, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    I still haven’t watched any Glee (I’ll get to it someday!), but my impression of the show from its fans is that it has never really been transgressive at all. It seems that every time I go to Best Buy (which is only once every couple months), I see a new Glee soundtrack album. Since you mention the Rocky Horror fan base as being an integral component, I think it’s fair to say the same of Glee. A big part of that fan base seems to lust after lackluster covers of songs — in other words, conservative predictability in the guise of something “outrageous.” I guess you could call it subversive, but I see it as disingenuous. Half the reason the show seems to have any street cred at all is because of the contingent of the American Right that seems hell-bent on wailing and gnashing their teeth over the fact that the show has gay characters. Every hero needs a villain, I guess.

    But that’s the other weird thing. Rocky Horror became a hit in the U.S. At first, I think it was a genuinely cult thing, but in the decades since its release, it has become about as mainstream as anything else in our pop culture. You never hear conservatives kvetching about Tim Curry corrupting Brad and Janet. In fact, the younger crop of conservatives seems to enjoy the film on its own terms. Not everyone, but enough to suggest that the switching of allegiances you mention does outweigh the possibly reactionary reading of the ending. (And frankly, I do think that the ending does undercut the film’s progressiveness a bit.) So besides the cognitive dissonance that went into the watering down of the Glee episode, there also seems to be a cognitive dissonance in the American public about Rocky Horror itself. That’s why your caption, “Yes, America finds this offensive,” made me smile a bit. Sure, there are parts of America that do, but there are surprisingly large parts that *don’t* — above and beyond the usual left-leaning metropolitan centers.

    I enjoyed this capsule, btw. You can do more of these shorter, dashed-off pieces, you know. I won’t complain.

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