Displaced Bisexuality & Naff Camp; or, Why Straight People Love The Time Warp

With a bit of a mind flip, you’re in to the time-slip. A dislocation in the flow of linear time, the time-slip is a liminal imaginary which allows different moments in time to be experienced at once. In it, we anticipate the past and remember the future; we experience supposedly discrete temporal points with a radical simultaneity. . .

One of the ways in which bisexuality can often be erased or delegitimised is by locating it elsewhen: thrown back into the past or flung far in the future. The popularly invoked ‘bisexuality’ of the ancient Greeks for instance, like the originary bisexuality of the Freudian developmental narrative, imbues the foundational Western civilization with a definitional bisexuality which nevertheless serves as a marker of just how different they were. The futural bisexuality of much science fiction tends to present it as a utopian sexuality from a more advanced and enlightened time. Both moves function as othering fantasies: two somewhat conflicting figurations which are held simultaneously in order to remove bisexuality from the present, to place it anywhere but temporally here; as the ancient foundation of Western culture or as its polymorphous future, but nevertheless resolutely other to the now.

This is one of the many cultural dynamics we might see being played with in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The ‘futuristic’ alien bisexuality which corrupts/liberates Brad and Janet is not from the film’s future, but rather from film past. As (among other things) a genre-blending, gender-bending, glam musical, sci-fi/horror pastiche the film resists easy and stable categorisation. But, as it lovingly constructs a rich collage of textual and visual references and allusions to rearticulate visions of the future from cinema’s past, Rocky Horror finds a radically bisexual future within a denigrated past of the B-movie.

. . . I’m about 11, at some sort of family wedding. Lots of aunts, uncles and older cousins. They’ve been drinking. The wedding DJ starts playing a song which gets all of them to the dance floor, laughing. It’s just a jump to the left. They’re all horribly out of time. And then a step to the right. And all going in different directions. With your hands on your hips. Where do they all know this from? You bring your knees in tight. Whatever it is, it looks awful. It’s a pelvic thrust. This is driving me insane. It’s naff; embarrassing . . .

Rocky Horror is undoubtedly naff, but this naffness operates within a long tradition of camp in queer communities. As a form of weaponised nostalgia, camp reaches back into the past, loving the cast-off and disparaged, fetishising forgotten objects, as both a survival mechanism and an act of resistance. As a community language which redeploys the past to make the present bearable, camp provides a way of coping with and critiquing a heteronormative culture.

Although camp is usually associated particularly with gay men, as a set of strategies it overlaps significantly with the ‘ironic authenticity’ which some bi scholars have suggested can characterise the formation of bisexual group identities. Due to consistent erasure from both gay and straight spaces, such identities, it is claimed, demonstrate

an acting out of the self which is conscious of its own status as performance – but no less real for all that. Such an identity is ‘on the edge’ of authenticity and of artificiality. It’s an identity which inhabits discourses (heterosexuality, homosexuality) where it is not recognized.*

Rocky Horror’s campness, and in particular its ironising of marriage and other social conventions, seems to operate according to a similar logic.

. . . between the ages of about 10-15 there are two main reasons, barring illness, that I’m granted afternoons off school. One is to attend rehearsals at a theatre where I am a member of the company for a time. The other is to attend funerals, usually for people I don’t know, where I’m paid £5-£10 to serve on the altar at the Catholic church. A childhood thick with the scents of incense and dry ice – both eliciting a similar illicit thrill. Costumes and smoke; the richness of ritual . . .

When homophobes attack ‘gay marriage’ as a parodic distortion of ‘real’ marriage, they are unwittingly pointing to queer community strategies centuries old. When, in Rocky Horror, Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) leads Rocky to a previously concealed chamber to the cheers and confetti of the assembled ‘unconventional conventionists’ we might, for instance, be reminded of the Molly Houses of 18th century London. In these early precursors to queer bars and camp subcultures men would meet in secret, cross-dress, call each other by female names, stage elaborate ‘marriages’ to each other and retire to the ‘chapel’, or back-room, for illegal sodomy.

When excluded from community structures such as the Family and the Church, queers of all kinds have often developed our own rituals, our own communities and spaces. Rocky Horror plays out these actions onscreen even as audiences use it as the focal point for the same social function.  Developing elaborate traditions around midnight screenings of the films, with live shows and audience participation, people have built new rituals around the film’s own queering of them.  

. .  . I’m about 14; not yet out. There is a summer showcase at the performing arts school I attend (I’m going to grow up to be a serious actor). Dancing boys. Jock-straps. Lycra. Me, the onlooker in the dressing room corner, learning the lines of their legs and arse. Some of the older ones are performing songs from Rocky Horror this year. One of them is wearing the gold pants. Perhaps I need to reassess my resistance to watching the film . . .

Of course, like any ritual these can become ossified, their meanings lost or substituted. A vital liberation from strict codes and conventions through the articulation of new camp rituals can itself become restrictive if that script remains static, if the unconventional just becomes convention. There is a danger that the Rocky Horror of the midnight screenings and audience participation becomes a space for the acceptable acting out of illicit desire within a contained and controlled space, rather than a fundamental threat to those forces of containment.

. . .“Jeremy Vine looks like he’s enjoying that a bit too much”. A lesson from my mother in 2002: the limit to acceptable pleasure is marked by fishnets. Men in tights can be fund-raising-funny, as long as they don’t enjoy wearing them. The BBC newsreaders doing songs from Rocky Horror is a highlight of this year’s Children in Need. I don’t think I’ve seen Michael Buerk below the waist before but when he steps out from behind the desk in fishnets and heels it’s very funny, among other more alarming things . . .

Likewise, the version of Rocky Horror which finds its way into straight wedding discos and the BBC news team might well represent a de-fanging of its more radical impulses. But even then, the film shows that the boundaries between these spaces are permeable, and reveals the queerness which inhabits the very establishment discourses which otherwise reject it.

The ‘traditional’ wedding which opens the film, in Denton, ‘The Home of Happiness’, and which initially seems to serve as symbol for the social and sexual mores which will later be brought into question ‘Over at the Frankenstein Place’, has in fact already been infiltrated by the Transylvanians. Tim Curry plays the minister – becloaked and with his back to the camera, just as he will appear as Frank during the Time Warp. Riff Raff, Magenta and Columbia are likewise present in the church. Thus, the ‘straight’ weddings which queer versions later ‘parody’ are themselves already brought into question by the radical bisexuality which already inhabits them.

. . . my parents have finally gone to bed, only just in time. I close the door to the front room, plug the television back in, and turn the sound right down. The screen goes black, and then those lips appear. Nothing can ever be the same.

by Dr Joseph Ronan

*Bi Academic Intervention. 1997. The Bisexual Imaginary: Representation, Identity, and Desire. London: Cassell. p.11.