Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Ethics of Absolute Pleasure

Ever since I first watched it as a teenager, I've been a huge fan of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I've seen it countless times, both in the privacy of my own home and in movie theaters complete with audience participation. I was even a cast member in a local theater production during high school--just in the chorus, but it was still a blast.

So when I heard that Fox was going to do a television remake of Rocky Horror for the 40th anniversary, I thought that it was a terrible idea. The cheap set, the tacky costumes, Tim Curry's ridiculous face--you can't beat that. A remake could only be worse.

Until I heard who had won the coveted role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter: Laverne Cox! Suddenly I was enthusiastic about the idea. If they simply hired someone to do a poor impression of Tim Curry, the whole thing would be a mess. But casting a woman is a fantastic move; there's no doubt in my mind that Ms. Cox will take it in a direction all her own.

Ah, but then Facebook pointed me to this Tumblr post. In it, the author makes a point that I hadn't considered, but it's completely valid, and we should all be worried about it: that if Laverne Cox, a transgender actress, takes the role of Frank, it will only confirm in people's minds the awful stereotype that trans women are nothing more than crossdressing men. Society already perpetuates so many harmful misconceptions about transgender people that, depending on the popularity of the remake, this could be a blow to transgender activism.

But that's not the part of her post I want to talk about--that point speaks for itself. It's this paragraph I want to address: "Dr. Frank-N-Furter is not an example of positive queer representation. He is a ton of shitty, old-fashioned queer exploitation stereotypes mashed into a single character. He’s a vampy, cruel, selfish, abusive, violent murderer and rapist. Y’all, he rapes people and keeps sex slaves. Not a role model."

Just to be clear: I 100% agree with this point. Couldn't have said it better. Dr. Frank-N-Furter is an extremely poor example of a queer character, and he's undeniably a villain. The thing I take issue with is that the movie never tries to suggest that he's not a villain.

True, Frank is presented more as an anti-hero rather than an obvious villain. Much like his pseudo-namesake, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, some part of us is supposed to be lured in by his quest for absolute pleasure, just as we are lured in by Frankenstein's quest to defy death. However, we also recognize that both quests are impossible, and we understand that the doctors' refusal to acknowledge the impossibility of their quests is what erodes their sanity and leads them to do disgusting, horrific things. As campy as it is, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cautionary tale: absolute pleasure leads to absolute destruction. In the name of pleasure, Dr. Frank-N-Furter abuses, rapes, and kills, and in the end, he pays the ultimate price: Riff Raff, a longtime victim of his crazed master's ill-treatment, shoots him with a laser beam.

We could debate the ethics of anti-heroes, about whether it's ever appropriate to enjoy stories about villains. But personally, I think it is appropriate. If we can't enjoy Dr. Frank-N-Furter, then we also can't enjoy Victor Frankenstein, or Erik from The Phantom of the Opera, or Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or basically anyone from Game of Thrones. I think that audiences are intelligent enough to recognize the errors of these characters' ways. We can appreciate their stories and personalities while at the same time understanding that their villainous acts are in no way justified.

If you're interested, Internet, I would love to open a dialogue about this. I am aware that I could be wrong. I have been wrong about things in the past, and I'm certain that I will continue to be wrong about some things in the future. It's entirely possible that I am too blinded by my love of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to adequately consider its faults, so I would be grateful to hear your thoughts on the subject. And really, what better subject could there be for a Halloween debate?

1 comment:

  1. I would like to point out Scar from Disney's the Lion King. Clearly a villain (this point is iterated in, like, a zillion ways: the spooky place he lives, his army of creepy hyena minions, his tyranny/totalitarianism, quest for power, his name, his black mane vs. Mufasa's regal red one, LITERAL MURDER, etc.)...

    BUT we love to see him on screen. He's snide and sarcastic and deliciously cruel-- what line from the movie is more memorable (aside from "hakuna matata") than "long live the king"? A lot of this is because, in terms of the blending of plot and character to make a decent story, Scar needs to be lovable for us to ever believe that so many others would follow him. He needs to be ultra-charismatic and comically dour for the possibility of his rise to power to make any sense to us as an audience. Maybe we have Jeremy Irons' distinct and insidious portrayal to thank, but I think it's more than that.

    We need to love the villain because we need to love conflict. That's what makes the story. Sauron, for example, is a figure of absolute evil. But without the threat of his return to power, there's no story. We don't root for the villain, but neither do we want the villain to go away. It's thrilling to know that there's someone or something that could ruin our hero's quest. It's even more thrilling when that someone or something has traits in common with us. I'm remembering Gone Girl, now: the whole time, both people appear to be so shitty that I don't know who to root for, but I still weirdly want to root for both of them. I remember leaving the movie theater after seeing that one and asking myself if I could ever be capable of being like the people in the movie. Which was terrifying.

    I remember seeing Rocky Horror for the first time in ninth grade, and I remember being afraid of Frank-N-Furter. I recognized him as a bad guy (mostly, I think, because of Tim Curry's wry laughter) and recognized the necessity of his defeat, and was glad to see him go.

    (My nose started bleeding in the middle of this and I lost my train of thought. It's possible that I didn't need to mention this.)

    I'm not sure that this portrayal of Frank-N-Furter is worrisome to me. I think that the spectacle of Rocky Horror is its strength, not its character depth, or plot complexity. I'm not worried about Laverne Cox in the role because people are already talking about it. I don't think something as fun and silly as Rocky Horror can hurt the amazing and forward-thinking work that is happening all over the internet and now, finally, in other media. I don't think we're immune to back-tracking, but I'm confident that this won't result in that kind of slip.

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