The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Philosophy
Let’s do the time warp again—
By Jeffery L. Nicholas
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is almost—almost—indescribable, unclassifiable. RHPS will celebrate its 40th birthday next year. After having a rough start, RHPS quickly developed cult status, and many of us, I am sure, have attended at least one midnight showing, recited lines and repeated, not very nice things about Janet. (For some reason, my wife, whose name is Janet, gets upset every time we watch this movie in a theater.)
Why is RHPS so nebulous? First, it’s a mish-mash of genres—science fiction, romance, horror, musical; it stretches and pokes at the mind that tries to understand the riotous tell. Second, it’s a social critique, but a critique that is tongue-in-cheek and not obvious. RHPS shoots holes in the traditional concept of love, not only through the pre-marriage cheating of Janet and Brad, but also through the obsession of Dr. Frank N. Furter with his objectification-come-to-life, Rocky Horror. It shags, almost literally, gender identification, hetero- and homo-sexual stereotypes, and trans-sexualism. It out-glams the most glam productions.
On top of which, of course, it’s cult status challenges the rituals of traditional religions. Audience recitation of counter-point dialogue (“Say something in French,” “Ask Ken and Barbie”) serve as prayers to the gods of theater and farce, or at least to Dionysius. The Time-Warp dance prepares us for the reception of meaning from the silver-screen, like communicants kneeling at marble altars.
All of which points to a nihilism. Nihilism names a philosophical position that values have no ultimate foundation. Like Rocky Horror, our values—whatever they might be—are monsters of our own creation. Consider Brad’s proposal to Janet. They’ve just attended the traditional wedding of friends, and Brad beats around the bush (so to speak) to ask Janet to marry him. Brad begins his proposal by pointing out that Ralph, the lucky fellow who just got married, will be up for promotion within a year—a clear connection between getting married and getting promoted, as we all know that married men (cheaters and not so much) advance in their careers faster than do single men. By the end of his proposal, we already see the seeds of doubt. Brad’s economic viewpoint and reluctance testifies to the groundlessness of love—it’s a value which has no value but what we give it, and the rest of the movie plays this groundlessness out.
Who has love at the end of the movie? Brad and Janet have cheated on each other—both with Dr. Frank N. Furter, and Janet further with Rocky Horror. Eddie lies dead in a freezer, and Columbia is left to her own tears. Only one person finds love, and it comes too late—Rocky Horror. Rocky’s scream when Frank N. Furter is shot to death echoes out beyond the gravity of his recent escape attempts from his creator. Of course, Frank N. Furter cannot reciprocate the love any more, and his love was all about objectification. Of course, taking that approach means that Rocky’s love can be seen as a form of Stockholm Syndrome. It too remains groundless in anything objective but our own psychological trauma. The narrator leaves no doubt: human beings are
“And crawling [“where?”] on the planet’s face
Some insects [“what’re they called?”]
called the human race…
Lost in time”
And yet… the farce is its own comedic truth.
Why does Frank N. Furter create his monster? Love. Rocky is a fantasy, but all fantasy answers to some need. And RHPS answers a specific need—the need to reveal the farce of the modern world where science replaces love with its own monster, a monster created by little insects. RHPS challenges our views about love and sex and human nature because the world hides so much of those things from us. We can accept the rather dire account of human life that lies on the surface of RHPS, or we can dig a little deeper to discover something about ourselves. That something is the revelation of certain needs that ground the values we have in life—values like love.
Today, we can use science and technology to create any object to be our love interest. More telling than Peter Hinwood’s Rocky are vibrators you can put in whatever floats your boat and sex dolls that floats the boat of whatever is put inthem. In this scientific view, we are just ants crawling on the dirt.
But we can believe in our own lives more than that and find at the basis of human nature a desire for love that reaches out to the other and calls for the other to return to us. This reaching out and return need not be groundless or selfish, for we are not just “selfish genes.” As the wonderfully insightful philosopher Mary Midgley tells us, genes cannot be selfish. Selfishness only makes sense for animals that can be altruistic—not in some naïve idealist way. Rather, the love a mother and father have for their child mirrors for us a calling we can feel that thwarts the nihilistic drama. A father or mother is selfish—and surprisingly so—when he or she neglects a child. Frank N. Furter is not an ideal scientist or person, but he creates Rocky out of a need that has not been answered.
In the end, RHPS rejects its own nihilism. Frank N. Furter has one desire that he gets in the end: “And I realize, I’m going home.”
Jeffery L. Nicholas is Associate Professor at Providence College. He publishes in critical theory and political philosophy (Reason, Tradition, and the Good (UNDP 2012)) and pop culture and philosophy (including editor of Dune and Philosophy (Open Court 2011) and entries in Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy, The Big Lebowski and Philosophy, and Ender’s Game and Philosophy (Blackwell 2014, 2012, and 2013)). When not doing the Time Warp or watching movies, Jeff can be found riding his hog in dark, rainy forests.
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