Alex Blaze

Glee Neuters Rocky: "Tranny" is OK but "Transsexual" isn't?

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 27, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Transgender & Intersex

I probably would have just put up an open thread on the Rocky Horror episode of Glee glee-columbia-magenta-frank.pnglast night, which Jerame recorded for me, with a couple of lines if it weren't for the fact that Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee, is being asked to direct the remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While some of the changes were explained in the plot (doesn't let them off the hook much but it's better than nothing), the fact that they went a lot further than necessary to take the sexiness out, de-queer Rocky Horror, throw around some casual trans- and fat-phobia, and completely miss the point of the original.

I can't say much more without ruining the episode for people who haven't watched it; everything else is after the jump.

Tranny is OK but Transsexual isn't?

I posted last week about the lyric changes in the Glee episode. They cleaned up some of the lyrics for a tween audience, but the cultural cache of the original Rocky Horror was the confrontation of two worlds — the po-dunk world of Denton High, that represented queer people's communities and families of origin, and the Transylvanians, who represented queer people's communities and families of choice — and the fact that the latter world wins because it corrupts the former. So cleaning up Rocky Horror just misses the point; it's supposed to be provocative.

Anyway, one of the lyric changes was taking the word transsexual out of "Sweet Transvestite" and replacing it with "sensational." It made no sense to me, since if there was a problem with the word transsexual, which there isn't, then there should have been a problem with the word transvestite.

And there should definitely be a problem with the word "tranny." (Follow that link to read why many people find that term offensive.) When Mike, who was supposed to play Frank N. Furter, drops out of the play, he says:

I really want to do it, but [my parents] are just not cool with me dressing up like a tranny.

I'm the last person who would advocate banning a word, any word, from TV. We have few enough and cleaning up art and reality for the comfortable consumption of others is maddening.

But consider the good press Glee got last year for its episode involving the word "faggot," where Finn called Kurt "faggy" and Kurt's dad gave a big speech on the word and homophobia. Gay bloggers loved it up and everyone sang kumbaya and learned a big lesson.

So what's up with just casually dropping the word "tranny" without any response at all? I plain don't buy that the creators of Glee are in the dark about that word, considering that they've already caused controversy with the word "she-male" and heard an earful about that and then decided to mingle brands with a movie/play known mainly for transvestitism.

Again, I'm not in favor of any word being banned. If it was a show that frequently used slurs to show the characters' roughness, that'd be one thing. If they used the word to discuss it, that'd be another. But it's Glee, all pixie stix and gum drops, that made a whole speech about not using the word faggot not too long ago, and they even decided to edit out the word transsexual.

It's a strange case of selective sensitivity, probably because being against the word faggot makes them look all liberal and open-minded, while using the word tranny makes them feel edgy. That's my best guess, and it makes their little speech against the word faggy obviously empty. My humanity isn't a tool for other to strengthen their brand.

De-queering Rocky

Mercedes played Frank N. Furter, and while there's a neat little in-plot explanation about why a boy couldn't play that character (see above), we know that they just didn't have the balls to put a real sweet transvestite out there:

As for that other big Glee stunt episode, the Rocky Horror installment, which is set to air around Halloween, "I was initially going to do the Dr. Frank N. Furter role, the Tim Curry role, but I think the network freaked out and said we don't want to see Stamos in fishnets...again. So I play another role."

Stamos's character Carl, who we're told repeatedly that he adores The Rocky Horror Picture Show, says:

Whoa, I'm sorry bro. You know, I think it's fine to wear that Frankie boustier in the privacy of your own home, I'm freaky like that, but don't you think it's a little inappropriate in a high school musical?

Carl, we're told (not shown) from the beginning of the episode, loves loves loves Rocky Horror, and that's what he has to say about transvestitism. (Strangely enough, all the people who say they love Rocky Horror in the episode seem to hate its premise.) So they went with a girl because a boy can't wear a garter and make-up on bubble gum TV, and then they changed the lyrics from "man" to "girl" in Frank N. Furter's song to drive the point home.

And it started in the beginning of the episode, when Emma tells Will that she went to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show and he responds, "Isn't that where everyone dresses up and yells stuff?" Because those are the most noticeable features of Rocky Horror. It's like saying to someone who just read Moby Dick, "Isn't that the novel written from the first person minor point of view?" Kind of bizarre not to mention the whale.

I only noticed three times that the transvestitism of Rocky Horror was even mentioned in the episode, with two of the three blockquoted above (the other time the gay kid complained that he didn't want to wear make-up in front of everyone). If they had so much of a problem with transvestitism on this show, then they just shouldn't have done Rocky Horror. But it's edgy and respected and queer and a classic, so they had to try to grab some of that cool so they could sell albums.

Neutering Rocky

Here's the original costume for Rocky, the character:


Sam appears in a far less revealing pair of shorts and complains:

Miss Pillsbury, is there a way I could wear like some gold board shorts or something? These are really short. I'm afraid I'm gonna show off some nut-age.

Let's take a look at that original costume once again:


I'm thinking Rocky wore that much because any less and the theaters they played in would have been considered strip clubs and the movie would have been a porno. In Glee, they're practically trying to neuter him to avoid showing any "nut-age."

Sam got his two or three seconds in not-revealing shorts and then was in board shorts and an undershirt for the final scene. Columbia wore a Catholic schoolgirl skirt instead of the original ultra-minishorts. Mercedes's Frank N. Furter eschewed the underwear, bulge, and iconic fishnets for a pleather skirt that went to her knees. The lyrics were cut from "Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me" to take out the song's graphic sexiness. Etc.

Yet Emma took off Will's shirt at one point showing off a body few public educators have (and I find teachers incredibly sexy in reality). Carl shows up in the beginning wearing a tight leather outfit that covered him from his ankles to his neck. There's a little girl-on-girl-action-for-straight-boys in Mercedes's performance of "Sweet Transvestite." Will tells Sam he's out of the play in the men's locker room, where we get to see fuzzy, out-of-focus men's torsos in the background. Nine students, we're told, "signed up for therapy" because they saw Finn wearing boxer shorts that were less revealing than what the average American male wears to the beach. Etc.

It's all very Victorian. As Michel Foucault pointed out in his History of Sexuality, the Victorian Era actually loved to talk about sex and tell dirty tales and discuss other people's sex lives. But it all had to be done in a way that never crossed the line, that never got too graphic but showed just enough to excite the prudish bourgeoisie but never offend their sensibilities. And there always had to be an excuse to show a little skin or to talk about sex so that people wouldn't feel guilty. Jon Lovitz did a great sketch on SNL making fun of this sensibility, this very immature view of sexuality that simultaneously says bodies are off-limits and exciting.

It's profoundly un-queer and hypocritical as well, something that Rocky Horror critiques. When Frank N. Furter tells Brad and Janet to "quake with fear, you tiny fools," he's referring not just to the fact that he's trapped them, but also to the fact that they're going to have to lose control, transgress all gender and sexual boundaries, because they've been living as hypocrites and he hates them for it but he's in control, expressing a certain anger that's still found all over the LGBT community towards those straight conservatives who are just as perverted as everyone else but love to pretend like they're the Cleavers and look down their noses to judge the rest of us.

The sexiness is half the power of the movie, the other half is the transvestitism, both serving the central conflict. But since the straight oppressors win in Glee, they both got cut out.

The problem when the writers really didn't understand the source material

Fortunately, my job is easy because the show, through the character of Will, explains Rocky Horror and shows that they just didn't get it:

I was wrong. Rocky Horror isn't about pushing boundaries or making an audience accept a rebellious point of view.

Gag. That's exactly what Rocky Horror is about. It's about being rebellious and pushing boundaries. There's a reason Frank N. Furter is queer in every sense - pansexual instead of gay or straight, a transvestite instead of male, female, cissexual, or transsexual - and his goal the entire movie is to corrupt Janet and Brad. When he turns them to stone, puts make-up and cabaret outfits on them and forces them to sing and dance, that's "making an audience accept a rebellious point of view."

Will continues:

You know, when I was younger and they started midnight shows of Rocky Horror, it wasn't for envelope-pushers. It was for outcasts, people on the fringes who had no place to left to go but were searching for some place, any place, where they felt like they belonged. Sound familiar?

Actually, no, it doesn't, because that's not what Rocky Horror was about. It's what Glee is about, but Glee is a clean, Disney-esque product sprinkled with faerie dust. It's a clear case of projecting, thinking that everyone's going to be friends at the end of the day. Rocky Horror was about conflict.

But the guy behind that speech may direct the remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Expect everyone to be conventionally beautiful, Frank N. Furter to be played by a woman, and all the characters to sing kumbaya together at the end.

A word about the body fascism

Briefly, the sub-plot about Finn being fat was just weird. Here he is:


You can see abs and pecs, but he got called "the Pillsbury Doughboy" and "Baby Huey" while everyone agreed he was overweight in the narrative.

To paraphrase Brian Safi, "in better shape than 98% of America" is the Glee "obese."

Bil disagreed via IM, saying that the point of the sub-plot was about self-worth, how Finn saw himself. It's true that that was the moral, but to buy the facts of the story we have to see Finn as everyone else saw him, which is fat. And he is just plain not fat. The other characters should have had the decency to say "You're not fat" to him because otherwise it just seems like they're living in a strange, anorexic world where being as thin as possible is the equivalent of sexy.

Oh, wait, they are.

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This... yes. You pretty much hit on everything that's wrong with this episode. An episode that I think exemplifies everything that's wrong with the second season.

I remember the first season being a lot better thought out not only in what they tackled, but how they tackled it, like the 'faggot' scene you mentioned. This time around it's like they're looking for any hot-button topic to discus, and then utterly failing to be a)coherent and b)constructive or in any way positive. Between the Brittany Spears episode (in what universe is it appropriate for a high school teacher to participate, nay, lead in such a sexually provocative number as Toxic with his students?) and the way they went absolutely nowhere with the religion episode... well, based on that track record I'm not surprised they butchered Rocky Horror. Sadly disappointed, but not surprised.

I agree. I was immediately put off by the first five minutes of this season, when they casually reeled off about five gay/queer slurs. I get that in a show about outcasts seeking acceptance you're going to have to have some people demonstrating some intolerance for the heroes to fight against. But throwaway moments like that, or last night's use of the word "tranny", or the way Shuester ignorantly presumes Artie will be happy to play "the guy in the wheelchair", is just more meanness than I want in my weekly musical comedy/fantasy.

I had the exact same reaction to all of these points...I was practically yelling at the screen when Shuester gave his little speech at the end.

A few other things of note:

Kurt, for whom "fashion knows no gender" and who has no problem wearing women's hats to Mercedes' church, knocks wearing high heels and makeup on stage. Hey, if they'd used this as a teachable moment about how he didn't want his sexuality and gender identity conflated, I'd get it, but that's not what was said and so the character who ostensibly serves as Ryan Murphy's mouthpiece comes off as disdainful towards trans* people.

Sue gets her crossdressing knock in too, during the "How Sue Cs It" bit...about the least nasty thing in the show and were it not for the other stuff, completely negligible. But this episode was definitely death of a thousand cuts.

There is a moment of nonchalant ableist cruelty to Artie, at the hands of our supposed hero, Shuester (who has really becoming nothing more than a plot device, repeating the same mistakes episode to episode).

I didn't catch it at first but Adam Shankman directed this episode. That's a second bigtime player in gay Hollywood who had his fingerprints all over it. It's disappointing that with that much pedigree on display, they managed to produce something so decidedly queer unfriendly (I want to say trans unfriendly but this is Ryan Murphy and I saw the way trans characters were handled on Nip/Tuck, so I had no real hope of sensitivity there; thank god Pretty/Handsome never went to series).

See "tranny" is hip, queer and funny"... "transsexual" is just unpleasant (plus, those transsexuals complain about everything and Ryan Murphy clearly thinks they're all mentally ill).

"Don't Dream it... be it" is okay when applied to cis-women in women's clothes but not for someone like Kurt. And we're supposed to believe this is about freedom and liberation? (I have the same feeling when cis-women perform as drag queens... *yawn* and pretend it's soooo queer because they're performing gender). Big deal, they aren't performing anything people are going to be challenged by (except that Frank-n-further sucked so much). Have a woman playing a very butch Eddie... as it's done in many productions. The John Stamos subplot was stupid and had no business in the show... it's a show focused on kids, don't add more boring adult characters.

I also feel Kurt was literally chopped out of the episode. He's too feminine and queer to be in Rocky Horror except as a relatively minor character? What, would it be too scary for him to be pretty in makeup and stockings... would he end up looking too-cross-gender identified? Maybe some straight teenaged boys would, by accident, end up getting turned on by him and *horrors* jerk off about him that evening?! GLEE has gone from a quirky fun show to total crap.

This is your third post on this episode, Alex. Clearly you're offended by this homage. Kudos to you for being very clear about your feelings! :-)

I have all kinds of questions about choosing this plot line and the music at all for this series. I rarely use these words but, it comes off as Hetro-Normative/Cis-Gender Normative elitest crap co-opting a GLBT Movie/Story/Music part of our community.

Should I say I love the Rocky Horror Picture Show? That I do feel some 'ownership' of it?

*sigh* humans, why did I get stuck with humans?

I wonder the exact same thing... humans...

It was a great episode.

I liked that Ryan took a stand about what was "appropriate" for high school, but still had a positive message. I don't think Glee should be expected to "push the envelope" Alex. Rocky did that. Maybe Theater should continue to do that. The last envelope pushing we had was RENT.

The performances were great. Kurt was a great Rif-raf, Mercedes is no Frank N. Furter, but her performance was fun and Sam (Chord) looked good standing around. He did.

If Glee is going to use source-material that has the core point of queer/pushing-the-envelope, then yes, Glee should hold up to the same standard. Nobody held a gun to their heads saying "Use RHPS". If they weren't going to do it justice in any way, shape, or form, then why even touch it? If you're going to rip the guts out of something and make it something it isn't, then just start from scratch and make something yourself.

Oh, dear God, It's a TV show, people. It's a TV show about a high school glee club and ,I daresay, there is not a single high school in the United States of America that would be allowed to perform The Rocky Horror Show without cuts, if at all. Focus on the performers; Amber Riley has a magnificent voice and, I predict, will go far.Matthew and Jayma looked marvelous doing "Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me," and Matthew, shirtless? Yum! John Stamos rocked his song and Chord is, OMG, so fine! But since Ryan Murphy has managed to offend so many of you, do we stop watching now??

I agree with a lot of what you said--namely, they just shouldn't have attempted RHPS. However, I think a lot of the edits were done because of money (the networks don't want to lose ad money or viewership or *dear God* offend the parents or something), and also for time--there's a *lot* in RHPS, and not enough time to fit it all in a 43-minute show where other plot also needs to take place.

Some of the things were odd--I found Kurt's objections odd, but it wouldn't have been odd if maybe he'd said he didn't want people throwing more slushies on him or something.

As for the fat thing--I thought that was more about turning the male-eye-objectification-of-women into female-eye-objectification-of-men. Santana and Brittany made that point when Finn someone protested about how they were talking about Finn's body, as well as other guys' bodies on the show. I actually really liked that part. And Sam attempted to build Finn up. I also thought it was positive that Mercedes was the one to wear the bustier.

Also, Carl's objections were just weird. If he loves RHPS, then he should be okay with playing any of the characters.

Also, for Mercedes to be the one to play Frank N. Furter, I thought that was kind of awesome in its own right--no, it's not like the original, but she has a couple of qualities that push people's buttons: she's a black woman and she's larger than a size 4. I think that may have been Glee's attempt to make up for what the network wouldn't allow: a man playing the role.

And I think Schuster and you got it wrong: RHPS was both about pushing boundaries and a place for those of us who didn't fit in elsewhere. You're both half-right.

Also, I think it might be a bit unfair to conflate this Glee episode featuring RHPS with the remake of RHPS--after all, this *was* shown on primetime TV where the networks had a lot to lose or gain (and that's really what primetime TV shows come down to, right?), whereas RHPS has a long-standing history of pushing boundaries in theaters. I think the remake will probably turn out alright--but we will have to wait and see.

Lee Sonoflaw | October 28, 2010 11:21 AM

Some Movies shouldn't be remade. "The Wizard of OZ" & "Citizen Kane" are the most obvious. "Rocky Horror Picture Show" is another. Why do they want to mess with perfection? Its all high camp so there is nothing to fix or improve.

I don't think I would compare RHPS to Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz... but I can honestly state the remake will seriously blow chunks... severely stink... massively blow. The first film was actually made in a far more transgressive and non-commercialized era than 2010. If Ryan Murphy has the tip of the nail on his pinky in this project it will be homogenized crap served on a plate.

I think a small portion of the queer community has become as fundamental regarding "queer taboos" as fundamental "christian taboos".

Taking the FUN and/or even positive message out of something and just downright turning it MENTAL. When ANYTHING, in my humble opinion, becomes a "sacred cow" to never be interpreted, altered or even recognized out of some "original" context, that is again individually interpreted by people of that time/culture/media.

The Rocky Bible Thumping going on regarding the television show GLee, that has NEVER had/has the power to change the world, makes as much sense to me as quoting Leviticus as to why God HATES Fags... minus a few poster boards.

** La Cage aux Folles was interpreted to The Bird Cage.
** Transamerica was about a pre-op transexual, played by a non-TG/TS IDd woman, who won a Golden Globe for her role.
** To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar is an obvious take on The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Personally, I think being able to quote Chapter 3, Verse/Line 19 thru 31 of any originally script doesn't make anyone a better community member, just another fundamentalist.

I have never seen RHPS, but I knew something was wrong. It felt crammed and the main story wasn't about rocky horror, but will and emma and they shouldn't have named the episode such and pulled in crowds that have seen the original.

Bil disagreed via IM, saying that the point of the sub-plot was about self-worth, how Finn saw himself. It's true that that was the moral, but to buy the facts of the story we have to see Finn as everyone else saw him, which is fat.

Baloney. That misses the point entirely. It's not about how other people see him, it's about how he sees himself. Hence - self-worth.

If it's not how other people see him, why did five separate people call him fat or "the pillsbury doughboy" or "baby huey"?

Editing out "transsexual" was my favorite part of that episode. I am transsexual, and I was never fond of being associated with the Rocky Horror (Picture) Show. In the past, when talking about trans issues, I have had cisgendered people start singing about Transsexual Transylvania and assuming I'm fabulous. I resent that: I am not fabulous. I am chubby and ill-tempered.

The Rocky Horror Show has everything to do with loud and fabulous queer expression, pride, fishnets and feather boas. It has nothing to do with transsexuals. As Judy, my favorite part of the movie [i]Better Than Chocolate[/i], famously sang: [i]I am not a fucking drag queen[/i].

Ah shit, my HTML broke. Sorry!

I don't know if anyone has ever been to the Milwaukee midnight performance of Rocky Horror Picture show, but when I used to go a few years back the person who played Dr. Frankenfurter was a big, busty, beautiful woman with dark skin. I wondered while watching if the choice of Mercedes for Dr. Frankenfurter was in any way related. Either way, Mercedes was hot and she killed it--perhaps the most enjoyable part of an overall poorly handled episode.