Throughout the years, cult classics have entertained us, changed our minds and shaped our worlds. They are the films with strong fan bases that we still watch and love years after their creation. They come with all different ideas, in all different genres with all different actors, but one thing remains the same for all of them: they strongly reflect the beliefs of time they were created in. The question that is always asked of this last part- should we “update” the cultures surrounding these films to match society as we know it today? No other culture surrounding a movie receives that question as much as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With the movie released in the mid-70’s, and people of all different backgrounds coming together over the decades to perform in shadow casts all over the country, this movie has stood the test of time. However, there are certain things that are quite common in the Rocky community that get eyebrows raised often.
In late August 2016, in Providence Rhode Island, RKO Army hosted the second RKO Con. With many events and panels over the few days, one panel drew a lot of interest- the discussion of Rocky Horror and PC Culture. The host of the panel, Bernie Bregman, selected four people to speak on the panel with different identities and views. They were:
Jackson Torii Bart, from NYC RHPS- a non-binary person, Brandon Sutrina, from Colorado cast- a straight and cisgender man, Ali Cornetti, from Los Bastardos in Dallas, Texas- a cisgender woman, who is a drag king. Alex Sanchez, also from Los Bastardos- a Mexican cisgender man.
The panel, being only an hour long, was only able to address two major areas of the vast subject- the first being callouts (jokes that are yelled out by audience during certain points of the movie.) and what might be seen as hurtful or offensive with them. The second being using the word “Tranny” to refer to the Transylvanians that are partying at Frank N Furter’s castle during the Time Warp.
“..where is the line drawn with callbacks?”
For the first subject, where is the line drawn with callbacks? When you’re part of Rocky Horror culture to any degree, you hear a variety of callbacks, old and new, and many of them carry jokes based on stereotypes or poke fun at certain people that some, if not many, might consider “distasteful”. A primarily known call out is calling Brad and Janet, “asshole” and “slut” respectively.
Although Brandon agrees that in the community it’s become something of an empowering term to a lot of people, we still use it during shows in a derogatory manner when we yell it at Janet. In a similar boat, Ali also mentions how it’s used in both lights in what she’s seen in her own experiences. She mentions a term heard in some casts, “Rocky Slut”, which refers to someone who comes to shows often and enjoys them. Though she points out that there is indeed a gray area of where the term is okay to use, and sometimes it depends on what the individual person thinks. “I’m not entirely sure we are being derogatory. When I call her a slut, I’m like, ‘Yeah, Janet’s a slut…go Janet!’”
Alex feels we’re not trying to directly slut-shame, but no matter how we’d poke fun at Janet, it’s going to carry that same negative idea. He points out, “Substitute any word in and it’s going to have that same kind of derogatory connotation to it.” No matter what the word you use, she’s still that wholesome, girl-next-door character that ended up sleeping with two guys the night she gets engaged to a third. The idea of the joke is the audience is calling out her actions, not intending to bring shame to those who might be referred to as a slut in today’s world.
Jackson approaches this differently- as with all callouts that could be deemed offensive, they talk to those in their cast that could be targeted by it, and see how they feel. They mention that there are a lot of women in their cast that actually appreciate and enjoy the term. Even with that, there are some audience members that can get aggressive with yelling it at them, “But that’s often just a case of respecting the personal space of the actors.” They feel regarding any offensive callouts, if there are those people targeted by them in your casts, discuss it with them and make sure they’re comfortable.
“We want to protect against any kind of abuse, especially in an environment where there is so much freedom, it can quickly turn to abuse.”
Bernie himself feels that at the time the movie came out, the call out of “slut” came to be, because there was little to no place to freely express anything regarding sexuality, and that Rocky brought out the subject on a humorous level, and questions if it might have been a word we as a Rocky community “take back.” However, lines should be drawn- you should know the difference between referring to Janet as a slut, and then calling the actual actress portraying her a slut. “We want to protect against any kind of abuse, especially in an environment where there is so much freedom, it can quickly turn to abuse.”
A member of the audience at the panel mentions that there is a nuance between calling the character in a forty-one year old movie a slut, and then calling someone in real life a slut. Jackson responded to that, saying that there is a matter of knowing the person you’re referring to and making sure they’re comfortable with being called a slut. While they and others see the term as referring to “a sex-positive person who enjoys expressing their sexuality”, there are those who don’t feel the same way, and you need to know whom you’re talking about.
Ali added that there needs to be a clear disconnect between the audience thinking that the actor or actress is a person, or simply a character. She feels the line can get blurred a little too much. “Calling the character, Janet, a slut is different than calling the person on stage a slut.”
“Can we condition the audience? Should we condition the audience?”
Another audience member addressed the issue of while we can certainly share words and ideas between casts easily, an issue of respecting others in regards to callouts is where to draw the line with what the audience says or does. He said that if an audience member is constantly targeting one person on stage with a barrage of derogatory callouts, they’ve surely crossed the line. Can we condition the audience? Should we condition the audience?
Ali responded to that by talking about leading by example in your own cast. Though you can’t control what the audience says or does, your cast certainly can control what they call out or represent. The audience will usually follow by example over time. Brandon mentioned that although the Rocky community has changed on it’s own over time, he’s concerned about making the community comfortable for all. “We want people to keep coming back to our shows, and if we’re up here saying racist, sexist and prejudiced terms, they’re not going to come back.”
In regards to the possibility of the one person who constantly yells malicious call outs that cross the line in audience comfort level, Jackson said usually the rest of the audience will be vocal about it. Bernie added in that respect, that you need to look at the offenses individually- if someone is constantly making callouts that make others in the audience uncomfortable, then talking to said person might help. It’s possible they don’t know how others are reacting. However, “if people have talked to them and tried, and they’re just one of those people who doesn’t get it, or gets it an doesn’t care, then you address them individually.” Overall, telling the audience what they can and can’t say is not something that is done.
Alex has another way of dealing with the one in the audience who is crossing the line- throw the shade back at them without being directly cruel. When there are cast members in the audience as floorwalkers, they will roast someone who is making a stream of nasty callouts. “We just start kind of cracking wise at them, and the audience- you’d be surprised at how fast they turn on that person, and just that peer pressure shuts them down, ninety-nine percent of the time.”
“This was further discussed in the second topic of the panel, using the term “tranny” to refer to the Transylvanians.”
Even with some of these measures that are taken, something that people often forget in this discussion is how we can’t hold one type of callouts sacred for certain reasons, but ban others on similar grounds. It’s usually pretty clear when someone actually is making callouts with malicious intent. (In a way, Rocky culture is so offensive that nothing is offensive; insulting and making fun of everyone equally with no one issue being more important than another.) This was further discussed in the second topic of the panel, using the term “tranny” to refer to the Transylvanians.
Jackson was the first to kick off that discussion. While they understand that it’s a traditionally used term in Rocky culture, it’s not a word that they feel should be used lightly. “The thing about that phrase is that it comes from a history of violence for a lot of people.” they reminded everyone. Although they feel no one should be censored and be free to say that word, people should know the history and be respectful of when they say it, how they use it and who they say it around. “As I said with everything else, talk to the people in your cast that would be affected.”
Bernie told the story of when he first joined a Rocky cast, and when he first heard that word being used in the community. He was asked if he “wanted to be a tranny”, to which he replied, “No, I’m happy being a man”, being unaware that they were using an abbreviation for Transylvanian. He only knew the word in reference to someone who is transgender. He concluded that it’s a term we could do without in the Rocky community, and people wouldn’t really be that upset over losing it. It’s a term mostly used within the casts, and we have more control over it. “It’s simply taking away an abbreviation of a name and it would make a lot of people feel better, and I feel it’s one we can totally do.”
“People need to be educated on the difference between a transvestite and a transgender person, so they don’t go around thinking the word “tranny” is a way to refer to someone who is transgender.”
At this point, I got to chime in with my own comment from the audience. Piggybacking off of Bernie’s story, I talked about how it really comes down to the intent behind using that word, as well as the people in the community knowing where that word comes from- from the word, “transvestite.” People need to be educated on the difference between a transvestite and a transgender person, so they don’t go around thinking the word “tranny” is a way to refer to someone who is transgender.
One topic that was mentioned, that is easily applicable to everyday life as well as Rocky, is how we freely use the word “faggot”, but avoiding use of the N-word- why are some words seemingly more acceptable to say?
On that matter, Bernie began by addressing the crowd watching the panel. “Some of you are cringing right now, and that’s because our society is changing. It’s a word we’ve been previously been comfortable with using, and now is that going in the same rout, where it’s okay for them within their group to use, but it’s not okay outside of the group?”
“Within the Rocky community, there is a lot of open discussion and showing of sexuality, as well as gender identity and expression.”
The general answer from all the panelists seemed to revolve around context and environment. Within the Rocky community, there is a lot of open discussion and showing of sexuality, as well as gender identity and expression. Ali mentioned how there is a larger focus in the community on people that could be referred to with a derogatory term regarding sexuality or gender, where as not so much focus on those who are different in race. Though it’s not to say that any of those words should be used in everyday conversation, it’s being reclaimed within the Rocky community.
Alex directly pointed out the context of the show, and the type of stereotype of the group of people it focuses on. “If this was a Blazing Saddles shadow cast, we’d have a lot more racial jokes going on.”
Jackson even had a suggestion for having callouts that still encompass the same joke, but cut down on offensive wording- find replacements that everyone can enjoy. For example, when Janet sees Brad smoking a cigarette after having sex with Frank, instead of saying, “It’s a fag, smoking a fag after smoking a fag!” you can say, “If your asshole smokes after sex, you need better lube!”
“People need to be aware that there are repercussions with their speech.”
Even with words that are being reclaimed in certain ways, there is still the thought of how it looks to the individual, rather than the group as a whole. Brandon believes that people try to take back these words that come from years of oppression, because, “it hurts less when you say them to yourself.” But even with people taking it back, he warns it’s still not good thing to use in general everyday verbatim. Not everyone is going to be comfortable with trying to take it back. When people are using offensive words like “faggot,” Brandon is also concerned about the fact that, regardless of intent, it’s still putting hate speech out there without the other side of the discussion to accompany it. People need to be aware that there are repercussions with their speech. “You go ahead and say what it is that you want, but you need to be prepared for what other people are going to say to you about it.”
Though the majority of the topic was not covered, as the time constraint didn’t allow for further discussion, most people in the Rocky community feel it needs to be discussed more openly and often.
“It’s an ongoing conversation,” said Ali. “It’s an important thing to keep talking about between your cast members, because we can guide our audience by example, but also be receptive to what your particular community is telling you about what they like and dislike about your shows.”
It’s a topic that needs to be discussed through the years, especially due to how a joke that is funny today will be met with angry reactions tomorrow. “The reason for that is, society changes,” said Alex. “It’s not like someone came on the stage and said, ‘this isn’t funny anymore!’ It’s because everyone agrees, ‘this isn’t funny anymore’.” He feels that, referring to what’s said in shows only, with the jokes that fade away with the changing times, and the balance that naturally comes from the reactions of the audience and the community, censoring the performance is not something that needs to actively happen. The audience will no doubt react and tell you if you went too far with a joke.
Being well spoken (“and not drama queens!” as Bernie put it.) and open about topics like this is something that will no doubt help shape the Rocky community, but as I’ve said in the past, will also help shape the world we live in. We don’t have to have artistry and free speech by a matter of either/or. The more people learn to discuss controversy without grabbing at the other person’s throat or censoring them, the more we can get by in the world without having to worry about what the next person is doing.
FOR BUSINESS INQUIRES, THE PANELISTS’ EMAILS ARE LISTED BELOW:
Bernie Bregman: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jackson Torii Bart: email@example.com
Brandon Sutrina: brandon.Sutrina@gmail.com
Ali Cornetti: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex Sanchez: email@example.com