The Queer Platonism of Hedwig and the Angry Inch

(and why The Rocky Horror Picture Show is bad, actually)

I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show when I was thirteen. My mother had taken me to the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade; we went, afterward, to a midnight showing of the 1975 cult hit, complete with audience callbacks and live costumed actors pantomiming the action under the screen.

I bought the DVD two days later. 

I do not know how many times I watched Rocky Horror that year. It was the year I first read Oscar Wilde and Anaïs Nin. It was the year that I realized — though it would be several more before I told anybody — that, whatever I was, I definitely wasn’t straight. 

I had so many crushes, that year. I did not yet know precisely how to understand them. There was the Ukrainian girl in my class who wore combat boots and tartan skirts to assembly; I do not think I spoke to her more than a couple of times. There was the much-older pink-haired boy who wore velvet and did ballet and quoted William Blake in his AIM away message (he wasn’t straight, either). There was the girl who introduced me to Edna St. Vincent Millay. 

It would not have occurred to me, at the time, to connect these longings to what I understood sex to be. Sex was something you learned about in health class. It was clinical.

It was condoms on bananas; it was STDs; it was articles in Cosmo and gurl.com about blowjobs; it was porn. It was the parents of my classmates who had affairs and got divorced. It was in rumors about who’d gone to third base. It was getting chosen at school dances. It was one of the only boys I’d ever been on a date with, forcing his tongue down the back of my throat in the back of a movie theatre while I tried, uselessly, to push him away. 

It was heterosexual — less by ideology (this was New York City, after all) — than by hegemony: it was about boys liking you, and wanting you, and wanting things from you, and about the power that entailed.

Not that I would have had that language for it at the time. I would have said, then, simply that sex seemed to me unpoetic: unlike, say, the erotic longing I’d read about in Oscar Wilde, or Anaïs Nin. (I was confident that when Oscar Wilde or Anaïs Nin had sex, it was poetic, but I wasn’t sure exactly how they managed it).

What I felt, rather, was a inextricable lattice of desires. I did not know where the aesthetic, the erotic, the introspective began or ended, or even which was which. I did not know whether I wanted to kiss the girl who introduced me to Edna St. Vincent Millay, or whether I wanted to be the girl who introduced me to Edna St. Vincent Millay, or whether I wanted to read Edna St. Vincent Millay with her, at the East Village pierogi place she’d introduced me to, or whether I wanted to kiss, or be, Edna St. Vincent Millay. (The answer, I think, was all of the above). 

I did not know how to make legible, my feelings for the boy with the pink hair other than by wearing that same candy-pink bob every day to class. 

Then I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

There is a reason that the film — a gloriously shoddy glam rock opera — has become a beacon for so many queer teenagers. 

In the movie, set in the same mocking burlesque of the 1950s as Pleasantville and Grease, the newly-engaged, virginal straight couple Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon) find themselves — for plot reasons too complex and nonsensical to relate here — at the home of a a lascivious corset-wearing, gender-bending mad scientist, Dr. Frank N’Furter (Tim Curry), who is also (this part makes no sense either) a space alien from the planet Transsexual, in the galaxy of Transylvania (hey, it was the 70s). In the course of a single night, Frank seduces Janet, then Frank seduces Brad, then Janet seduces Frank’s hunky humanoid creation Rocky (whom Frank has also seduced), then everybody — including Frank’s ex Columbia — seduces one another in a swimming pool while wearing feather boas and lipstick and glitter, and singing what would become the film’s great queer anthem: “Don’t Dream It, Be It.”

At the time, it enthralled me. I was in love with Frank N’Furter, with his indeterminacy, with his swagger, with his lipstick. (Tim Curry’s performance, as pure erotic jouissance, is by far the best thing about the film). I was in love with the promise of seduction, as something distinct from the kind of banal base-counting sex I thought was all that the world could offer me. I was in love with the idea of myself as wanting.

But it wasn’t just about the film itself.  I was in love with feather boas and corsets, with beauty and with strangeness. I was in love with late nights in New York City, with the twenty-four hour diner I’d go to before or after midnight showings, with the Ricky’s drugstore where I’d buy my wigs, with the people brave enough to get up in costume every Friday and Saturday nights to act out the plot of a film that I knew, even then, made very little sense at all. I was in love with the film’s joy, with the way its outsiders — (for at thirteen, I was secretly convinced that I too was a glamorous space alien in disguise) — had made such a rapturous home for themselves in Frank N’Furter’s castle. I wanted to be Frank N’Furter, or else — like Brad and Janet — to be changed by Frank N’Furter, to discover in desire, and in another, a new way of understanding myself.

I do not know when, exactly, Rocky Horror began to trouble me: whether it was a showing of the stage version I attended in college, or the time I introduced a baffled high school friend to it back in New York, or the time I accidentally took a pair of seventy-something friends of my grandmother’s (long story) to a midnight screening. (“Very postmodern,” one declared approvingly; the other shrugged and said it was nothing compared to the parties after an Allan Ginsberg exhibition.)

There are the obvious difficulties, of course: the ways in which the ebullient liberation of the 1970s curdles with age.

There is the fact that Frank explicitly builds himself a sex slave in the titular Rocky, that he brutally murders another earlier sex experiment, Eddie; and that his mendacious seductions of both Brad and Janet read — to a contemporary audience, at least — as outright rape.

All of these could, perhaps, be dismissed as problems either of the film’s era, or of its genre: Rocky Horror is, after all, a parody of 1950s Hammer Horror films, and the silly sci-fi violence goes with the aesthetic territory, to be taken no more seriously than, say, the “just a flesh wound” gore of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

But there are bigger problems, too, problems that render Rocky Horror’s entire aesthetic and ethos of queer liberation as narrow as the dull, straight, heterosexual world it purports to mock and supersede. 

Ultimately, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a film about how all desire is good, how all forms of acting on that desire are not just allowable but laudatory, and about how the only people who try to live by another set of rules — like poor, naïve Brad and Janet — are just deluding themselves. Although the film’s ending is campily tragic — Frank N’Furter and Rocky are betrayed by Riff Raff the butler, who murders them for their “extreme” lifestyle and then heads back to their home planet — the fundamental mood of the film celebrates solipsistic liberation. Give yourself over to absolute pleasure, one of the songs goes, swim the warm waters of sins of the flesh.

Our desires form us; they give us life. They make us who we really, authentically, are. The objects of those desires — quite literally, in the case of the hapless creation Rocky — don’t really matter. They are mere conduits for our pleasure.

The vision of queer life offered by Rocky Horror is a thoroughly neoliberal one — the culmination of a tradition of libertinage-as-liberty that we can trace from the Marquis de Sade to Bataille to, well, “The Time Warp”. It is predicated upon the notion that what we love — something that often limits us — matters less than what we want.

Furthermore, it posits the freedom of the individual as the foundational politic of queerness, that which sets it apart from “boring” heteronormative society. Those dull straights repress their desires, the narrative goes; but we — and of course as a teenager I always saw myself as part of the special we — celebrate our freedom to be, and get, who we want.

It is easy, of course, to understand a context in which some of that freedom might be desirable, even liberating in a broader, political sense. If I’d been a queer teenager in a different era, or a more politically conservative environment, or in a more repressive familial setting, the sheer sexual joy of Rocky Horror’s characters might have been a revelatory balm, a necessary corrective to a lifetime of enforced shame. 

But it also true that the ethos of Rocky Horror, far from being transgressive, is at its core the ethos of the whole hegemonic liberal order: a society structured on the notion that what we want defines us, and that other people exist as goods for us to consume or control. What is so different, after all, between the don’t dream it, be it of Frank’s final orgy and Woody Allen’s the heart wants what it wants? 

All too often, throughout my adult life, and in romantic relationships with both men and women, I’ve found my instinctive thoughts too easily channeled into discomfiting and reductionist binaries: the post-liberal hearth and home of heterosexual traditional marriage (something I’ve written about for Commonweal), set against the libertinage of a queer life predicated entirely on free exercise of desire. 

I’ve tried both. I’ve found both wanting. Both, furthermore, have more in common with one another than either narrative might allow, particularly in an era where sexual liberation and its capitalist manifestation in the attention economy so often go hand in hand. 

Central to Rocky Horror’s conceit — like that of de Sade’s works before it — is a fundamental cynicism about human relationships. Either people are freely exercising their wants, or they’re simply repressed hypocrites. (The idea that Brad and Janet might genuinely love each other, and genuinely want to reserve their erotic desire for one another, is exclusively played for laughs.) There is no room for the way in which our desires themselves are transformed through vulnerability to those we love, no room for an understanding of eroticism that is about ways in which love calls us to limit ourselves: not in the sense of societal rules or taboos, but in the sense of love as the openness to the full, abundant personhood of another.

I wonder, sometimes, how different — and dare I say it, much healthier —  my self-understanding would have been if the foundational genderqueer-cult-glam-rock-stage-musical-turned-movie I’d watched at thirteen had been not The Rocky Horror Picture Show but 2001’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Like Rocky Horror, Hedwig tells the story of a genderqueer individual whose gender identity doesn’t fit neatly into contemporary categories. (The down-on-her-luck punk chanteuse Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell), assigned male at birth, has a sex change operation for exclusively pragmatic reasons: in order to legally marry an American man and thus escape communist East Germany. Nevertheless, she thereafter identifies herself as a woman). It tells, too, the story of self-creation — and, in particular, the creation of one’s identity through other people. Hedwig is hung up on her ex, the young and raffish rock star Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who rejects her after learning her birth sex, and subsequently propels himself to solo fame on the back of Hedwig’s songs.

The narrative of the film traces both Hedwig’s quest for revenge on Tommy, and the quiet struggles of Hedwig’s long-suffering husband and backup singer, Yitzhak (Miram Shor — the role is traditionally played, both onscreen and in stage versions, by a woman), who has given up his own dreams of drag in order to ensure the tempestuous Hedwig can hold onto the spotlight.

Ultimately, Hedwig’s quest for recognition — which she understands as the celebrity robbed from her by Tommy’s success — becomes a quest for a different kind of recognition. She wants to be seen, by Tommy, for who she is and for the role she has played in his life — the ways in which he has become himself in dialogue with her. 

When, at last, they are reunited face to face, Hedwig and Tommy are able at last to encounter, and forgive, one another as simultaneously full humans and incomplete ones: which is to say, they are both aware of one another as having the dignity of personhood, and aware too of the ways in which they have been shaped by one another, such that any talk of autonomous personhood becomes nonsensical. Hedwig takes on Tommy’s appearance, just as he has so often taken on her voice.

Their twinned, and often confusing and contradictory desires — to be, to be with, to become, to touch, to kiss, to be shaped by, and to shape — far better reflect my memories of being an uncertain teenager than the “orgasmic rush of lust” described in Rocky Horror, less confused about my bisexuality as such than about the very nature and purpose of sex at all.

There is, of course, an explicit Platonism at work here: one of Hedwig’s opening songs retells the “Origin of Love”, an extended riff on the speech of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, in which human beings were originally unified dyads, before the jealous gods split them in two, cursing them to wander the earth for their destined “other half”. But by the end of the film, Hedwig suggests that the Platonic split is not a single cut but a kaleidoscope: she is half of Tommy, but so too is she half of Yitzhak, the film’s most unselfishly devoted character, whom she learns to recognize fully in return. The film ends with Hedwig relinquishing her wig to Yitzhak, allowing him to at last achieve his dream of becoming the woman he loves.

It is that vision of queer life, and of queer love, I find most promising, and most hopeful. It is a vision of love that resists the consumptive demands of modern sexual culture — the brass rings of compulsory traditional heterosexuality, as well as the neoliberal fantasy of sexual capitalism that has permeated relationships of all orientations. It is a vision of love that tells us that the erotic is not a kind of Sexual Autonomous Zone in our lives, to be found exclusively in discrete acts of fulfillment, but in the way we want to better know and be known by, those we love, and in the way that our various vulnerabilities to those we desire shape us in turn, such that we — in some sense — become them.