Putting on panties & corset to go to a movie screening once a year doesn’t make you a trans ally. In fact, creating a touchstone of gender variant media representation doesn’t, either.
O’Brien was commenting on the theories of 2nd wave feminist & gender essentialist Germaine Greer and female impersonator Barry Humphries, who have characterized sexual reassignment surgery as an “extraordinary” act of self-inflicted violence and “mutilation” respectively. He stood in support of these characterizations of surgical interventions that trans women might seek to affirm their gender identities and went on to comment that Caitlyn Jenner is a “publicity-seeking rat bag” just for good measure, apparently.
The real reason any of this is news is that many still lionize Rocky Horror and Tim Curry’s portrayal of Dr. Frank-N-Furter as a landmark portrayal of AMAB (assigned-male-at-birth) gender variance in mainstream media. Even with all its camp and hoke, fans have held Frank-N-Furter up as a groundbreaking character because of the way the character flies in the face of conventional gender in a story that pokes fun at several cis- and heteronormative conceptions of gender & orientation.
Someone finally sat me down to watch Rocky Horror last year around my birthday. It really is an incredible piece of art, and Curry’s role in the film definitely resonated with me at the time. I think I’ll always remember that first viewing (for a lot of reasons), but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the problems inherent in treating Frank-N-Furter, Curry, Rocky Horror, and O’Brien as some kind of heroes for trans women.
The Frank-N-Furter character plays into several of the negative tropes around trans women that exist in the limited media representation we get. He’s reclusive, a mad scientist who traps people in his mansion for wild parties and literal experimentation. Frank-N-Furter is more a tongue-in-cheek satire of the same caustic representation of psychopathic gender variant AMAB people that we can see in Hannibal Lector’s character in Silence of the Lambs than he is a workable representation of how these people can be represented in the media. (See also: Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho.)
In her touchstone book Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, & the Rest of Us, author Kate Bornstein includes the following hierarchy of male-to-female gender outlaws (warning: this book came out in ’95, so while some the language anticipates the contemporary discourse, much of it is still outdated):
“Post-operative transexuals (those transexuals who’ve had genital surgery and live fully in the role of another gender) look down on:
“Pre-operative transexuals (those who are living full or part time in another gender, but who’ve not yet had their genital surgery) who in turn look down on:
“Transgenders (people who live in another gender identity, but who have little or no intention of having genital surgery) who can’t abide:
“She-Males (a she-male friend of mine describes herself as ‘tits, big hair, lots of make-up, and a dick.’) who snub the:
“Drag Queens (gay men who on occasion dress in varying parodies of women) who laugh about the:
“Out Transvestites (usually heterosexual men who dress as they think women dress, and who are out in the open about doing that) who pity the:
“Closet Cases (transvestites who hide their cross-dressing) who mock the post-op transexuals.” (Bornstein, First Vintage Books Edition, May 1995, pages 67-68.)
Bornstein writes that these categories are often a source of contention within the MtF gender outlaw community; the hard and fast lines people try to draw around these individual identities miss the reality that there’s a great deal of fluidity between them. People often move up and down this hierarchy.
Drawing on this imperfect classification system, we might see Frank-N-Furter as an Out Transvestite (aside from the “usually heterosexual” part). I’m not interested in using that classification to put Frank-N-Furter down as a character, to claim they have no right to represent AMAB gender variance. Rather, I want to point out that, if we take the character at his word (e.g., “I’m a sweet transvestite.”), we can’t really use them as a model of transgender experiences.
I’m personally conflicted on the transvestite/transgender/transsexual categorization, but, in this case, it seems to apply because Frank-N-Furter, like O’Brien, seems to identify not necessarily as male of female, but somewhere in between. O’Brien says as much in the press coverage his remarks have generated, stating he wishes “Other” was an option in gender markers on forms. Which means that we aren’t beholden to giving even half a shit what O’Brien has to say about what is or isn’t a woman.
O’Brien isn’t a woman, and his assertion that those assigned male at birth can never become female is based in 2nd wave feminism’s gender essentialist thinking and is a prescription from someone who clearly doesn’t understand the experiences of trans women.
Interestingly, Bornstein arrives at a similar conclusion to O’Brien, Greer, & Humphries, but from a very different perspective. In Gender Outlaw, she writes:
“We [trans people] never did fit into the cultural binary of male/female, man/woman, boy/girl. No, we are the clowns, the sex objects, or the mysteriously unattainable in any number of novels. We are the psychotics, the murderers, or the criminal geniuses who populate the movies. Audiences have rarely seen the real faces of the transgendered.”
Bornstein holds herself outside of manhood or womanhood, writing that her identity as trans is somewhere else, maybe somewhere in between or beside that dichotomous binary. The key difference is that Bornstein is describing her experience as a trans person, as someone who has been excluded from female spaces on the principle that she is not and cannot become a woman in the ways these spaces define womanhood. Her understanding of herself as something other than a woman is based on that exclusion, a sense that certain people will never grant her femininity.
Contrast this with the prescriptions of O’Brien, 2nd wave feminists, TERFs (trans exclusionary radical feminists), or other transphobes. While they argue against the possibility of someone AMAB become female, Bornstein describes the reality of being denied femininity due to her gender assignment.
It’s a reality that O’Brien & Rocky Horror seem more intent on reinforcing than tearing down. It’s a form of gender dogma that comes not from a study of reality but from an interpretation of idealism.
Ultimately, we as an audience are not asked to view Frank-N-Further as a woman. Which leads me to wonder why we would be asked to care what his creator thinks of women.