“Don’t Get Strung Out By The Way I Look”: The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Body Positivity

By Lauren Ferguson

On September 26th, 1975, the world became a little weirder as the cult-classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show was released in Hollywood, CA. Initially a flop, over the years the movie cultivated an eclectic and passionate fan base. A staple of the film’s culture is the midnight showing: theaters around the world play the film every Saturday night at the stroke of midnight, fitting with the flagrantly spooky tone of the film. These showings feature a large amount of audience engagement with the film, as viewers are encouraged to throw toilet paper, playing cards, and condoms when prompted, and scream hilariously vulgar lines at the screen in a lovingly mocking fashion. Born from the tradition of 1970’s audiences’ tendencies to act out the movie as it played, more official “shadow casts”, as they’re known, became a central part of the film’s viewing. A more structured concept (although “structure” certainly does not imply the absence of chaos) than its 1970’s origins, shadow casts perform the entire film by singing, dancing, and acting, while the movie plays behind them. The craziness of these midnight shows creates quite a liberating atmosphere, and it was performing in the Rocky Horror shadow cast itself that freed me from my body anxiety.

At first, the shows were a place I could feel free, dressing however I wanted and enjoying my body without fear of repercussion. But as time went on, I realized I was dressing more comfortably in the real world as well 

I joined the Queerios, Austin’s Rocky Horror shadow cast, in early 2013 after being asked to join by a cast member, and now dear friend, after he spotted me in the audience singing along to every song dressed as the film’s main character, Frank-n-Furter. Ever since, I’ve been performing almost every weekend as various characters, such as Columbia, Riff Raff, and Rocky. At first, performing was nerve-wracking, as every weekend I had to wear nothing but my underwear and heels in front of strangers and perform in a kick line. Over time, it became more natural, and my favorite aspect of the show. The shows are a shame-free area, as everyone from the audience members to the performers show up in fishnets, garter belts, and often less. Rather than seeing the gaudy and outrageous attire as something to be afraid of, everyone just celebrates the absurdity and embraces it wholeheartedly. Because everyone is in on the joke, no one is shamed for dressing provocatively. At first, the shows were a place I could feel free, dressing however I wanted and enjoying my body without fear of repercussion. But as time went on, I realized I was dressing more comfortably in the real world as well – I no longer feared being laughed at after having hundreds of strangers see me lip-syncing in gold shorts. Kennedy Hudgins, a fellow cast member known for her Rocky and Brad performances, claims she “used to dress fairly conservatively as just a matter of ‘respect’ for [her] body” But performing in Rocky taught her that “respect is relative…I respect who I am even more, and weight isn’t really a big concern to me.” Additionally, Courtney Kenyon, known for Janet and Trixie, noted anxiety when first performing, but began to realize there was nothing to be worried about. “Many strangers didn’t care what I looked like,” Courtney says. “Skin is just skin. The more I [performed], the easier it was to realize that the audience would love me no matter how bloated I was or how much I dieted that day.” Albeit in an untraditional environment, Rocky Horror inspired body love and comfort.

Many strangers didn’t care what I looked like…Skin is just skin. The more I [performed], the easier it was to realize that the audience would love me no matter how bloated I was or how much I dieted that day” 

Rocky Horror performances are inherently a sexual environment, but at the same time a desexualized one as well. Audience members are instructed never to touch the actors without their consent, and my cast treats each other with love and respect. Although we may grope and hump on stage, it’s all in the name of good fun. We respect each other’s bodies enough to realize that that is not reality – and not how we treat each other outside of performing. Being around so many bodies in an oxymoronic sexual/desexualized setting has allowed us to learn how to love our own bodies. Rachael Reed, a fabulous Janet and Trixie, said that “after being exposed to so many different body types and seeing the beauty in them, I’ve allowed myself to like my body.” After my first few weeks on cast, and seeing bodies covered up and completely exposed, I began to realize that bodies were not inherently sexual. The exposed performers have allowed both audiences and cast members to come face-to-face with the taboo of nudity and sexuality, and realize that naked and sexualized bodies aren’t as big of a problem as modern society makes them out to be. Rachael often performs with just nipple tape, and by doing so every weekend “realized that [the audience] isn’t so scary after all, and that they are just as afraid as me.”

performing has allowed me to love me body more…and it’s let me not give shit about what others think

When I first joined the cast, it seemed like a novelty to allow strangers to see my body. Now, it is just a part of how I like to perform. I don’t dress a certain way to gain attention, I dress the way I do because it makes me happy. Brenna Wissman, one of our Frank-N-Furters, Brad, Columbia, and Magentas, said that performing “has allowed me to love me body more…and it’s let me not give shit about what others think.” After having people view you at your most exposed, all while singing and dancing, the thought of restrictive behavior, both while performing and in reality, have flown out the window. Brenna said, “I don’t give a shit if people think I’m fat, I don’t give a shit if people think I’m ugly. I’m fine how I am.” Rocky Horror gives the female cast members a safe place to explore our bodies and what we’re comfortable with. It’s a safe place to explore how we could present ourselves in reality. It’s a place to grow uncaring of a judgmental eye, and a place to learn to love your body.

Rocky Horror gives the female cast members a safe place to explore our bodies and what we’re comfortable with. It’s a safe place to explore how we could present ourselves in reality. It’s a place to grow uncaring of a judgmental eye, and a place to learn to love your body

Respecting one’s body does not mean strictly hiding it away. It just means finding comfort in who you are and what you look like regardless of race, gender, body type, favorite pizza topping, anything! If you prefer wearing more conservative clothes, there’s no problem with that, just never think for one second that what those clothes are covering is something to be ashamed of. Your body is your body, which is awesome because that means you get to do whatever you want with it. Whether that means wearing skinny jeans, a crop top, a One Direction t-shirt, or no shirt at all. Rocky Horror has taught me, as Brenna beautifully puts it, “anyone who has a problem with my body or the way I present myself can kiss my flat ass.”

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Lauren Ferguson

The author

Lauren Ferguson is queer female writer and art team member for the Feminine Inquiry. She is currently a student at The University of Texas majoring in Art History and English honors. Her free time is spent fighting as a wanted vigilante and talking about Tom Waits.

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