Back in April, Fox announced a colossally bad reboot idea to top all bad reboot ideas— it would mount a new production of the campy midnight-movie classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a two-hour TV special. This week, it was announced that the producers of the show would double-down on their bad idea by casting transgender actress Laverne Cox as the bisexual, lingerie-clad Dr Frank N Furter.
While a number of a outlets have hailed the casting of Cox as representing the best possible choice to step into the glittery heels of Tim Curry (who played the role in the original 1975 version), it feels more like a disaster waiting to happen. There are serious concerns about how this could affect the views of trans identities in mainstream, how it pidgeonholes trans performers, and how it exploits the fetishistic public fascination with trans people.
For those who aren’t familiar with the film, Dr Frank N Furter is a murderous gender-bending alien mad scientist, described in song as “a sweet transvestite from [the planet] Transsexual, [in the galaxy] Transsylvania.” When the film was originally released in 1975, “transvestite” was the common terminology used for a crossdresser, and the term “transsexual” was hardly known outside of medical and LGBT circles. In the context of the culture of 1975, both Frank N Furter and the film as a whole were incredibly subversive for their portrayals of flexible gender and non-heterosexual sex. It remained that way through its rise to cult status in decades of midnight showings.
But in 2015, that same script — on a mainstream television network — loses a significant amount of its subversive nature, and instead borders on exploiting LGBTQ identities for the gaze of a largely cisgender, heterosexual audience. Of course, all of that would be true without Cox in the cast. With her playing the lead role, there’s a subtle but potentially very damaging conflation of crossdressers with trans women. 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.
It’s also rather frustrating to see a trans woman cast as a crossdresser at a time when it’s difficult to get trans characters who are actually portrayed by trans people. For all of its accolades, Jill Soloway’s Transparent still has a cisgender man playing its titular character. The highly-touted trans Oscar-bait The Dutch Girl features a cis man — Eddie Redmayne — as the trans woman that the film is centered on. There are a few examples of trans characters portrayed by trans performers, including Cox on Orange Is the New Black and Jamie Clayton in Sense8, but it’s still fairly clear that much of the Hollywood movie machine is not yet ready for transgender performers, even as it finds an audience for transgender stories.
We also certainly aren’t seeing trans performers getting cast in cisgender roles yet. If we had reached that point, perhaps it would feel less glaring that Laverne Cox was cast as the crossdressing Dr Frank N Furter. But, at a time when trans actresses can’t see to get a fair shot at playing trans women or cis women, it feels rather pigeonholing to cast the best known transgender actress around as film’s most famous transvestite.
Lastly, it also seems like the decision to cast Cox is playing a bit on the current media obsession with transgender, and the tendency to turn us into spectacles for cisgender eyes. The most glaring example of this has been the reality TV circus that’s centered around Caitlyn Jenner for the last few months, but the way in which Cox and Carmen Carrera were treated during their interviews with Katie Couric last year, and Janet Mock’s disasterously offensive interview with Piers Morgan are other recent examples of a phenomenon that stretches back to the days of Jerry Springer.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in and of itself, is already a significant spectacle. To place a trans woman in center of it, and then put it on prime-time television. feels like little more than ugly catering to the cis gaze that views trans people as objects of fascination instead of actual human beings. Adding to that the fact that the costume for the part is generally nothing but lingerie, and you’ve got a recipe for a serious problem with fetishization.
It’s important to understand that the criticism here is absolutely not leveled at Laverne Cox for accepting the role. It’s entirely possible that Cox has a beautiful, transformative vision for the Doctor that will surprise us all, and that’s something worth hoping for. And even if she doesn’t, her history as a performer certainly points to her being the highlight of the show, is spite of what a terrible idea the entire enterprise probably is.
For her part, Cox expressed on Instagram that she’s very excited to be a part of the project. As well, there’s a definite plus to notion of putting a person of color in the remake of a movie that had been previously been 100% white, and it’s reasonable to think that Cox was aware of that, too. Cox’s incredible history of being a talented, eloquent representative of the trans community (especially trans women of color) is perhaps the only reassurance that this won’t turn out to a cringe-worthy disaster.
With its decades of cult appeal among LGBT and counter-culture folks, it’s not surprising that the very idea of rebooting The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been met with equal parts excitement and disappointment. If it were being produced for and targeted primarily to fans who are already somewhat aware of the complex gender- and sexuality-related themes that underlie the film, it might actually be rather exciting to see Laverne Cox as Frank N Furter. Instead, with the new version to be targeted to a mainstream straight audience, there’s a worrying possibility of this version diving straight into exploitation and ugly stereotypes. We can certainly be there cheering on Ms Cox in those sequin high heels, but we ought to keep a careful eye trained on the motives of those holding the strings.