Saying Yes to Rocky Horror – and No to “Slut!” Jokes

CN: I am going to repeat some offensive and harmful jokes in this article, including ableist and sexist jokes, in order to highlight the kinds of problems I’m discussing here. Derogatory language, including slurs for various groups, are included. Particularly of note is a mean joke about contemplating the murder of a disabled person. This post also includes sexual themes, but not explicitly sexual descriptions.

I sat in a crowded room and yelled the word “slut” over and over and over again. I did it gleefully, at the top of my lungs, for years. I did it as recently as this past July.

I am a fan of Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I first saw RHPS when I was 16 years old in the basement of my high school girlfriend, though I didn’t yet understand what she found so exciting about it. I started attending the show regularly when I was 18 in Madison Wisconsin, where the Tiny Fools floorshow cast did the show every week at the dilapidated Majestic Theater. I soon joined the cast, and they became the first true group of friends I had in my life.

For several years RHPS was my life. I married a woman I met on the cast, and formed the deepest friendships of my life either directly or peripherally because of my Rocky involvement. The night that we closed the Majestic Theater, filling it beyond capacity with screaming fans, was one of the most exciting in my life. I get goosebumps just thinking about it even 13 years later.

For anyone who doesn’t know, part of the tradition of seeing Rocky Horror in a theater is call-back lines – literally yelling jokes in the theater. There are a huge number of traditional lines, passed from generation to generation of filmgoers. New lines are created frequently, often referring to current events, recent movies and politics, or local issues. Remembering thousands of call-back lines, and getting their timing right for the best effect, isn’t easy. I was really good at it, and best when able to play off of a few other friends who were also excellent.

Many of these jokes are mostly funny due to shock value, either because they relate to issues not discussed in polite company, or because they punch down. Rocky audiences are definitely not politically correct and don’t shy away from jokes based on sexism, homophobia, or ableism. Historically, serious fans of the movie tend towards queer and geeky subcultures, these jokes didn’t come with venomous intent behind them, and for many years that was enough for me.

In the past few years I have continued to see RHPS in various contexts – a kinky campground, a huge sci-fi conference, and traditional theaters. Now, with my greater understanding of social justice, it’s increasingly hard to yell “Seig heil!” or call someone a cripple even in jest (two jokes related to Dr. Scott, a character who is implied to be an ex-Nazi and who uses a wheelchair). I remember how freeing it felt to shout some of the more clever jokes and get genuine laughter back. Now I find myself analyzing them, and feeling pretty ashamed of some.

I think Rocky can give me an interesting lense through which to investigate humor. Where do these jokes come from and why are they funny? How does the history and tradition of Rocky impact these jokes and influence their meaning? To what extent does the intent of the joke-yeller matter? In what ways do these jokes influence the attitudes of audience members once they step outside of the theater? Finally, how to the problematic parts of the movie itself influence this discussion?

Some of the call-backs are pretty clearly neutral jokes in terms of oppression.

Frank-n-Furter: “I see you shiver with antici…..”
Audience: “This movie would suck without audience partici…”

These jokes vary from old to new, and from mildly to moderately funny. Many are just observations of things happening on screen that people would miss if they weren’t seeing the same film hundreds of times. “It’s Brad’s unbuttoning, rebuttoning shirt!” My favorites reference other movies, celebrities, and popular culture. The first time someone started chanting “His name was Robert Paulson” repeatedly in the theater after Eddie is murdered I laughed so hard I couldn’t breath. It will always be one of my favorite jokes.

A LOT of the call-backs are crude, but not necessarily oppressive. They’re often sexual, and the line between the non-offensive and the offensive crude jokes is a hard one to parse. I think “Rocky found a hole in the ground!” while Rocky is doing push-ups is pretty clearly okay, as well as most of the many references to spitting vs swallowing. The blatantly sexual jokes are probably what drew me to Rocky week after week in the beginning. At 18 it was exciting to be able to joke openly about sex in a fairly explicit way.

Some of the jokes clearly punch up:

Audience: “Brad, what do you call the White House?”
Brad:“Must be some kind of hunting lodge for rich weirdos.”

Or an audience favorite (which can be adapted for your local area):

Audience: “What do you think of Scott Walker?”
Frank-n-Furter: “I think we can do better than that.”

These jokes are harder to create and do well than the cruder jokes, but they keep being funny. Punching-up humor generally requires a little more thought and work, and the Rocky format does mean that easy jokes are more likely to persist, being picked up by occasional attendees. Only the die-hards learn the jokes that require memorization, precise wording, and careful timing, as well as an extraordinary ability to be heard over the chaos. But when the joke lands, it’s perfect.

Unfortunately, many, perhaps most, of the jokes heard at a Rocky showing are neither benign nor progressive.

Audience: “Slowly I turn, inch by inch, and weigh my options. Kill a professor, gain a parking space. Kill a cripple, gain a parking space. Kill a crippled professor, gain a damned good parking space.”

Ableist, sexist, and homophobic jokes abound. The first callback people learn as new Rocky fans is often the one I mentioned first in this article: Calling Janet a slut every time she appears on the screen for the first 20 minutes of the film. It’s not particularly creative, but it’s easy, so it persists. The problematic jokes range from the incredibly easy to highly complex, carefully timed ones. They persist throughout the entire movie, sometimes overpowering better jokes, and always being carried forward from one group of attendees to the next.

Does it matter? People think of Rocky as being a highly progressive, sex positive environment. Does yelling “slut” at a woman repeatedly have an impact in that context?

I think it does matter. While die-hard Rocky fans, the kind of people who join floorshow casts and stick around for years like I did, may often become politically conscious eventually, the audience members are mostly people who attend only occasionally. At this point, Rocky is mainstream and has been for decades. It’s a fun “subversive” thing people do on halloween once. In that context, the callbacks become one more incidence of catcalling, one more moment of using a slur for a man in a wheelchair, and one more time a drunk straight guy can call the man in a corset a “fag.” This matters – Rocky can become a place that normalizes these hurtful jokes, instead of one that turns the prejudice of the world on its head. I worry that it makes it just a little easier to use those slurs and insults at someone who is not inside of a 40 year old movie.

I also know that many of the people who excelled best in callbacks when I was heavily participating were able, cisgender, straight, white men. They were also generally NOT the ones getting into corsets in front of audiences, exploring the contrasts of feminine and masculine that Frank-n-furter embodies, or the internal sexual conflict of Brad. This makes me seriously wonder to what degree I am not the only one finding discomfort in these jokes. Is it easier for these guys who do not experience oppression to make the oppressive jokes without cringing? Were other people around me quietly less comfortable with some of the content? I remember one of those guys drunkenly going on at length to me about how he objected to political correctness at a cast party once. Years later that’s an uncomfortable memory.

I don’t think I can change the culture of RHPS audiences with one blog post. All I can do is decide for myself how to participate in the future. This means thinking a lot harder about jokes than I have in the past, and being willing to pass up audience laughter in favor of my politics. There’s still plenty of good stuff to shout and I don’t expect to leave theaters with my voice intact in the future, just as I haven’t in the past.

I just don’t think I’ll be calling Janet a slut anymore. It’s 2016. It’s long past time to stop.

Saying Yes to Rocky Horror – and No to “Slut!” Jokes

Uprising Against Tragic Queers

CN: Death of fictional queer characters, queerness as tragic storyline in fictional stories. Mentions but not really spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and for Battlestar Galactica. Links include extensive spoilers Star Wars and many TV shows.

Several great posts lately have appeared on my social media feeds in rebellion against tropes in media (movies and TV mostly) about tragedy and queer life. I want to highlight these, largely because I’m also annoyed with the idea that queer life has to be tragic to be interesting or identifiable to audiences.

Do Not Make Luke Skywalker Another Tragic Gay Character – This article is amazing. Honestly, I would rather no queer characters exist in the Star Wars universe than for this to be the storyline, for EXACTLY the reasons Emily Asher-Perrin points out here. I’m a diehard Stormpilot shipper (one who believes that Finn and Poe are completely adorable and should do it a lot) but I’m open to other characters being queer in Star Wars. I just cannot stomach queerness being a tragedy again. Luke is tragic enough, don’t make my sexuality a part of that. Asher-Perrin concludes that if only one character should be gay it should be Poe and she has me utterly convinced. I recommend the whole article.

All 142 Dead Lesbian and Bisexual Characters On TV and How They Died – TV really loves to kill of lesbian and bisexual women. Like REALLY loves it. Want a good tragic story? Kill off a queer woman! Several of these are from series I adore (Battlestar Galactica has several) and I’m still mad as hell. Can’t we have some awesome lesbians that get to live through the end of a series please? I don’t mean one or two – I mean a percentage similar to the number of straight people that get to live through the end of series.

Queerness doesn’t need to be tragic. Much of the time these days it isn’t. I look forward to media figuring that out.

Uprising Against Tragic Queers

Zootopia – A Physical Accessibility Near-Utopia

CN: Mild spoilers for the movie “Zootopia” (aka “Zootropolis” in some countries) but I don’t think they’ll ruin the movie for you at all.

I had the pleasure of seeing “Zootopia,” Disney’s new animated film, on the second day it was out. Spouse and I went with little knowledge of what the movie would be, primarily because it looked cute and had a bunny as the main character. I tend to really love animated family movies.

Much has already been written about the racial politics of this film. It’s excellent and really complex, working hard to tell a story about prejudice that’s far more complex than movies aimed at kids usually are. It explores prejudice, and overcoming it, on both the individual and systemic scale. It shows how structures of power can be corrupt and wrong, and how those in power can manipulate the prejudice of others to build their strength. I loved it.

Additionally, I noticed something else while watching this movie. The world “Zootopia” takes place in accommodates animal characters of a huge range of sizes and shapes. All of the characters are mammals (the scientist part of me appreciated that they acknowledge this in the script), but the mammal class is hugely varied.

“Zootopia” is both the name of the film, and the name of the capital city in which most of the movie takes place. The city comprises several ecosystems, recognizing that the same environment is not comfortable for both a savanna gazelle and a polar bear. All mammals can cross these ecosystem borders, and it seems clear that the immediate downtown area is where all species interact regularly.

As the main character, Judy Hopps, sees the city for the first time we get a beautiful sweeping view of all of the ways Zootopia recognizes the needs of its different citizens. Hippos in business suits come out of the water to blowdryers. A beverage stand sends a drink up a small lift for a giraffe. Hamsters (who apparently make good bureaucrats?) come from the small mammal part of the city via habitrails.

This scene is a stunning way of showing how a community could work to make public spaces accessible to people with varying needs too. The creativity put into making the city easy to use for such a diverse group is beautiful.

The team at Disney didn’t stop there. Once Judy is settled into the city and the shine wears off, the ways in which inaccessible design is used for institutional oppression become clear. There are certain places not everyone is welcome, and the spaces themselves show that. Judy runs up against this in her first moments on the job. This is something people with physical disabilities encounter constantly in our world. No ramp? You’re not welcome here. Reception desk too high to see over? This establishment isn’t really for people like YOU.

I applaud “Zootopia” both for displaying really creative ideas for accessibility and for recognizing the ways built environments can send messages of non-inclusion. I especially like that they included this in a broader story that’s mostly about race, displaying intersectionality in a way that perfectly melds with the world building and doesn’t feel preachy.

Edit notes: This post experienced minor editing on 3/17/2016 to fix a few small typos. Nothing of substance changed.

Zootopia – A Physical Accessibility Near-Utopia