When I first heard that trans actress Laverne Cox would star in a Fox remake of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (subtitled as Let’s Do the Time Warp Again) as Dr. Frank-N-Furter — the eccentric scientist who originates from a planet called Transylvania and is determined to create “the perfect man” during his residence on Earth — I was apprehensive. I was not looking forward to watching Cox, an acclaimed and beloved actress, known as a staunch advocate of trans issues, singing the lyrics of “Sweet Transvestite.” Many questioned my hesitation. Many of those people were cis.
Before I begin what will be an obvious criticism of Cox’s decision to take this role, I must stress the fact that we are both Black trans women. My views of her decision, the context surrounding her performance and advocacy should not be taken as the universal perspective of Black trans women everywhere. At the initial writing of this piece, Rocky Horror is currently airing on television. I’ve opted to forego watching it, for simply because I have enough information and points to make without it.
If I were to watch the original Rocky Horror at the naive age of 19, but with my current cultural consciousness and both the language and awareness of my identity as a trans woman, I would be severely disappointed by the film’s existence — especially the Frank-N-Furter character.
For historical context, Rocky Horror is a cult classic that first emerged as a musical in London before its transformation to the silver screen. Upon its release, it was critically panned but quickly became a legendary favorite after a New York City movie theater began showing it, with audience participation, in 1976. Since then, it has gained an immense international following and has remained a pop culture staple, especially in queer communities. In the latter part of the 1970s, as the film began an important reign in cinema history, trans people had mixed reactions to the film’s terminology about their identities, which continued the usage of outdated terms, reclamations of slurs and the creation of new words.
I remember Tim Curry’s performance as the main antagonist very well. It is lauded as a brilliant presentation of gender-bending, because according to the erasure in our bleached history books, white cis men were the first people to start breaking the mold of the gender binary. When I recall his portrayal of Frank-N-Furter, I think of mockery, of damage, of thievery that cannot be completely blamed on the performer himself. It makes this body, my body, a Black trans and queer body, uncomfortable — longing to take refuge among bodies and narratives similar to mine. Watching this character prance around in free space, singing that they are “a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania” does nothing for my existence. Hence why I’ve not watched Rocky Horror for several years.
Now here’s Laverne Cox, previously known for her Emmy-nominated work on Orange Is the New Black. After I heard the announcement, I took to Twitter and wrote in a series of tweets strongly objecting to her taking the role of Frank-N-Furter. A queer man, someone who was an active worker in the film and theatre world, asked why I thought she should remove herself from the project. At the time, Rocky Horror was not completed for showcase and I didn’t have the energy to explain my disdain to someone with inherent transphobia. For months, while my wonderful sisters would make jokes and give hilarious dramatizations of our accountability offerings to Cox, I also questioned whether my feelings were even legitimate — until some uncomfortable statements arose in the media.
After that, my feelings about Cox’s casting felt more real to myself. How can a Black trans woman, someone I used to strongly admire, align herself with work from a person who emotionally enacts violence against trans women — this same work featuring a central character that appears to be a revolutionary symbol of gender fluidity but offers a harmful demonstration of it?”
Prior to the film’s premiere, Cox gave several interviews. While speaking to reporters at Variety’s Power of Women Luncheon, she spoke of singing “Sweet Transvestite,” her character’s signature song:
“That was the only apprehension I really had about doing the film was the term transvestite. I’ve been telling people, ‘Please do not go up to a transgender person in 2016 and call them a transvestite; that is an antiquated term.’ But in 1975, when Rocky Horror Picture Show came out, transvestite meant a very different thing.”
But in a different interview with The Toronto Star, she said, “To call a trans woman a transvestite in 2016 is really offensive, but as an actor I don’t play roles based on politics.”
In Cox’s rendition, nothing in the song has changed. I have no opinion on her vocal performance. The only reclaiming going on is hearing “transvestite” come out of her mouth — but it doesn’t come from her own experience. It is in the spotlight because of the imagination of a white person, whose display and messages of gender nonconformity are problematic in many ways, but most importantly, outdated. Cox is just the actor, stripped of political thought. It makes me cringe, because I’ve only heard “transvestite” connected to something negative. If she doesn’t play roles based on politics, then I guess it’s safe to ask whether she’s choosy about her causes.
Let’s be clear: Laverne Cox is no longer a struggling actress. She has access in ways most trans women of color don’t, a reported net worth of $2 million dollars and a gathering of commendations on power lists. Besides this musical and continuing to perform in the “trauma porn” of Orange Is the New Black, she will be portraying a transgender attorney on the upcoming CBS drama Doubt.
As a public figure, one doesn’t just advocate for oneself, but also for the communities one claims to represent. Instead of flicking off her apprehension about “Sweet Transvestite’s” lyrics, this was a moment to flip the bird towards Rocky Horror’s traditions and serve as a consultant to change the vocabulary. But Sister Laverne? You didn’t do anything. You thought you were incredibly reenacting a horror comedy that would reintroduce its magic to a new generation.
Many will say that Cox doesn’t represent the entire trans community, or all trans people of color, or all Black trans women, and that is one truth — but here are a few questions: Who is she bringing with her? Not Janet Mock; she, of course, has established her own career and platform. Is she sincerely leveraging the resources she has attained? Or is her work as an advocate simply a hat she takes off when she feels like it? I’m sure projects like Laverne Cox Presents: The T Word and FREE Cece! weren’t produced for self-congratulation, but the advocacy towards them could have been implemented in Rocky Horror, too.
Yes, Laverne Cox does not represent all trans people — nor is she obligated to work for all of us, but Laverne better be bringing some people with her — people that will remind her whose house she came from, uplifting them as she has been uplifted. Laverne is not a “sweet transvestite.” Neither are other trans women of color — those of us with smaller stages, those of us without a stage, those of us who are no longer here. Laverne Cox is a distant sister, and because of that I can say, “Girl, I’m mad that came out your mouth. You know better than that.”