Tue October 15, 2013
'Rocky Horror' And Body Positivity At Midnight
The cult following behind The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been largely underground, but has been no secret. Fans have been going to midnight screenings of the film since 1975 to do The Time Warp again (and again). Presumably, that joke has also been written again (and again).
But something new occurred to me last time I saw Rocky Horror. Dragging some friends who hadn't seen the movie before to a midnight screening (the poor souls), I remembered my own first experience as a college freshman, somewhere between amused and alarmed by the pieces of toast hitting my head. One important difference between the two screenings was that my first was on Halloween, and many more people — nearly everyone — in the theatre had dressed appropriately for the occasion in makeup and fishnets and, in some cases, pretty much just lingerie. But while it wasn't the first time I had gone to a midnight screening, it was the first time I had gone to one with a shadow cast: a group of extra-dedicated fans reenacting the film as it projected behind them.
I knew these shows existed, again, thanks to how Rocky's underground culture has been well-documented in more mainstream culture – as in Perks of Being a Wallflower, where it appears as a sort of safe haven for high school outcasts. As the show went on and actors and actresses of various body types, in contrast to the thin stars on the screen, went through various states of undress, that idea of a safe space seemed more relevant. Everybody seemed very comfortable — even the audience was encouraged to participate in an underwear run, which the majority did. Rocky Horror is a pretty notoriously jarring and sometimes offensive movie, but has the community surrounding it become a forum for body positivity somewhere along the way?
"That can mean different things to different activists. That's generally a term that's used by fat activists, though somewhat scholars as well, to talk about kind of a claiming of one's own body," Amy Farrell, Professor of Women's and Gender studies at Dickinson College and author of the book Fat Shame, explains. "In a fat studies context or a fat activist context, that's really used to talk about the ways that the fat body — so someone with a fat body — is often shamed ... So body positivity is challenging that and claiming one's own body, whatever size it is, so that might be a thin body or that might be a fat body ... to say that my body is fine the way it is."
As a very activist-driven philosophy, body positivity is both social and personal, and communities naturally form around it. "Body positivity is about encouraging people to cultivate positive relationships with their body," explains Cat Pause, an activist on the board of the journal Fat Studies. "For me, as a fat activist, I am more interested in encouraging people to accept a diversity in body sizes as natural."
Rocky Horror shadow casts with plus-size performers reenacting the scantily-clad antics of the film would certainly seem to portray a positive body relationship, and those involved in these communities are nothing but enthusiastic about their experiences.
"I keep doing Rocky because I can go out there and rock it. I am a big girl and I accept that. It doesn't stop me from wearing lingerie and dancing around in my underwear," says Leandra Lynn, who performs in a shadow cast located in Washington, D.C., The Sonic Transducers. "I have gotten cheered and applauded. Audience members have told me that I am gorgeous, and it's because I own my body and refuse to feel like I have to apologize for it."
Lynn has been involved with Rocky for almost nine years, and explains that it is the community itself which has been an integral source of encouragement for her own body positivity.
"I know I couldn't have felt this way without Rocky. Before Rocky, I was so shy and embarrassed about myself. There's just no place for that in Rocky."
Other cast members share similar views, and say that the experience has been the norm within their own circle of the shadow cast community, both for the cast and for the audience.
"Some of our own performers have mentioned gaining extensive confidence in their own bodies and appearance after performing," says Niusha Nawab, who regularly plays the title role of Rocky in the Sonic Transducers. "The underwear run is part of what makes it a 'forum' for body positivity. We take the whole show to show the audience how it's OK to be declothed in public and to appreciate what you have, then we give them an opportunity to explore those feelings themselves, asking them to strip down to their skivvies and run about a movie theatre. It's a challenge for them."
At the same time, Nawab points out the importance of not making people uncomfortable in the wrong way. "Sometimes we get people who are unwilling to participate," he says. "We don't force or pressure them to do anything."
Fat positivity in the Rocky Horror community extends beyond the fan community. In the 2000 Broadway revival of the musical, the roles of Eddie and Dr. Scott were played by Orange Is The New Black actress Lea DeLaria, whose own material as a comedian has notably covered fat stigma.
"I've always thought that Rocky was a very comfortable place for fatties," DeLaria explains. "I'm very comfortable in my own skin, and I think that's a gift that I give fat people, and I certainly am told that on the street by people who are fat. That I'm the first kind of positive image of a fat person that they've ever seen, and it made them feel better about themselves."
Despite the body positive experiences Rocky Horror communities enjoy today, Rocky Horror shadow casts have a history of not always being so accepting.
"When I think about Rocky Horror, and the times I have seen it with a shadow cast ... there is usually only one body type represented," Pause says of her own experiences. "With the exception of Eddie (who is a fat male — and carries male privilege) and possibly Magenta (who can be larger than the other females/women on stage — but still not too large)."
Although such stigma has existed within Rocky Horror's community despite its proudly misfit attitudes, it has been challenged over time. Angel Martine joined a shadow cast when he moved to Austin, Texas in the '80s, and played a part in this shift from the limited body representations into a community more recognizable as the body positive one it has become.
"You had to wear a blonde wig to play Janet if you weren't blonde, gender bending was pretty much confined to special shows, and if you were over a certain size, you were never going to play anything but Magenta, Eddie, Dr. Scott, or the Criminologist. That part I was never happy about," Martine explains. "I changed the rules (unwritten but pretty ironclad for years) when I ended up cast director because I had seen so many people play parts really well and enjoy them on a gender bender night that I knew they wouldn't be cast for on a regular basis. ... Occasionally people in the audience made boorish comments, but that hasn't happened in a long time."
And while Martine has witnessed improvement in the Rocky Horror community itself, society hasn't progressed as quickly.
"I think our society is beginning to become more open-minded and accepting of us, but fat people are one of the few groups people can still bash and mock publicly and not be called on it."
If the Rocky Horror community is not just body positive, but ahead of the curve, then is there some legitimacy to the idea that the Rocky Horror community somehow became a safe space for body positivity?
"The folks who do the Time Warp are this fantastic array of sizes, wearing tails and party hats, happily doing the steps, pelvic thrust and all, and entering an altered reality because of it. I always looked for the fat people in the group. They're there," says Susan Stinson, a novelist whose work focuses on fat and queer characters. "Brad and Janet are allowed to enter this world: beginners welcome."
At the same time, Rocky Horror has never been the easiest film to get into, and its potential as a safe space might carry that weight as well.
"It is a very comfortable space for 'freaks' but it is probably a bit off putting for the 'Brad' and 'Janets' of the world who might be taken aback at the radical expression taking place," says Nat Pyle, who studies gender and sexuality at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "For the freaks that go regularly I have no doubt that the space has therapeutic value for them. It rejuvenates a sense of verve and lust for expression that then many take with them into their daily lives where they might be ostracized for the very thing that in the Rocky community they are celebrated for."
While often connected with fat acceptance and fat activism, body positivity is not a term limited to a person's weight. The idea of encouraging comfort with people's bodies also resonates with the LGBT community, especially for transgender and transsexual persons. When DeLaria played Eddie and Dr. Scott in the 2000 Broadway revival, she became the first woman to play the male roles.
"I personally just think that it brought us a little bit more into the 21st century, you know, challenging gender norms," DeLaria explains. "I think that what we did was we took that transvestite thing maybe just a step further than they'd ever seen it done before."
Challenging gender norms has always been an important element of Rocky, much more so than mainstream culture has as a whole.
"Western Culture has inundated individuals with images of what has been put on a pedestal as an 'ideal body type' which is thin and gender specific," Pyle explains. "In the case of people with gender non-conforming bodies, there is also an alienation that takes place as these individuals don't see themselves as having a place within society."
Before joining a shadow cast in Austin, Martine started attending Rocky Horror screenings in the late 70s in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he experienced such alienation.
"At the time, Corpus Christi was a very conservative, religious city that sort of tended to eat its young, and we Rocky kids were mostly outsiders there, the 'different' ones who were bullied, told we were going to hell, and considered 'weird,'" Martine describes. "It was our safe place ... but not always, since we had to contend with rednecks yelling 'Faggots!' at us and throwing eggs, tomatoes, beer, etc at us during the show."
Despite the varying levels of acceptance seen throughout its history, Rocky Horror seems to have always offered an important sense of community, one willing to progress and better itself.
"Safe spaces for fat bodies, trans bodies, etc., are pretty rare," Pause explains. "I do believe that Rocky Horror is/has become a safe space for many people ... I'm honestly not sure how this has happened."
While others are more hesitant to deem Rocky a "safe space," many believe it does have a unique and supportive quality.
"I have a lot of concern about the idea of 'safe space' ... But I will say that I think Rocky Horror is a reclaimed space. The movie is indeed sometimes jarring and/or uncomfortable, and a concerted effort has been made to take the sting out of the hard parts," says S. Bear Bergman, a transgender contributor to the Fat Studies Reader. "Body positivity boils down to the same things for fat people, trans people, and also all other kinds of people - it means pursuing what will make you feel most well, regardless of conflicting social or cultural imperatives about how your body is 'supposed to' be."
So despite its sometimes "rocky" history, Rocky Horror fans have made a supportive, body-positive community — out of shouting awful things at an awful, but lovably awful, film.
"The whole show is about embracing who we are for what we are and not to be ashamed of ourselves," Pyle says. "To hear someone chastise another about weight or to tell a boy he's too femme or a girl she's too butch would counteract the overarching sentiment of 'Don't dream it, Be it!'"