Why the Rocky Horror Show has been caught in a time warp

The Rocky Horror Show movie and stage show has long been effective agitprop for the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. The movie was a favourite at ’80s university orientation camps for that reason – serving to promote what people thought was liberation or, at least, a good time.

Dr Frank N. Furter, the mad scientist at the centre of the show swishes (in a manner that is possibly politically incorrect now): “I’m just a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania, ha ha.” The musical follows his mission to corrupt naive Brad and Janet, an engaged couple. I always thought they were nicer people at the start of the show rather than the end.

Craig McLachlan has been playing Frank N. Furter in the resurrected Rocky Horror musical touring Australia. He has defended himself from at least some of the sexual misbehaviour uncovered by the ABC and Fairfax this week, by claiming he was being “in the role.” He has been accused by cast members of crossing the boundaries of sexual behaviour, by attacking them while they were vulnerable onstage.

Without justifying McLachlan’s alleged behaviour, is it a surprise that a cast member might be tempted to go too far?

In an account of an interaction on stage with Ian “Molly” Meldrum, McLachlan justifies sexual aggression by claiming he was being Frank N. Furter.

The whole Rocky Horror Show is about celebrating the crossing of sexual boundaries. Without justifying McLachlan’s alleged behaviour, is it a surprise that a cast member might be tempted to go too far? It gives a whole new and troubling meaning to the phrase “acting out.”

Accused boundary crossers Craig McLachlan, Don Burke and Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle are in the frontline of a sexual re-evaluation (if not a revolution). Could it be that society’s pendulum is trembling or, possibly, swinging back?

In The Guardian, progressive journalist Gay Alcorn revisits Helen Garner’s The First Stone, a lightly fictionalised account of a sexual harassment case at Melbourne University, which asked uncomfortable questions of the feminist movement when it was published 20 years ago. It is worth revisiting rather more than Rocky Horror is. In the era of the #metoo movement, Alcorn is concerned that “the culture wars may have been tedious in the early 1990s; they are killing reasoned debate and finding solutions now.”

Many societies are examining the abuse of power in sexual relationships

Yet she says there is progress for women. “After decades of silence, of open secrets in plain sight, women feel the power of looking out for each other, of being heard and believed. One friend told me that, for the first time, she felt people ‘had her back.'”

On the other hand, French actress Catherine Deneuve (and other French women) have accused the #metoo campaign of “puritanism” and they say men should have a ‘right to pester.’

Perhaps it was the US election of Donald Trump, or the sexual harassment scandals at the BBC that opened up the topic, but many societies are examining the abuse of power in sexual relationships.

The sheer range of offences being examined – from the male gaze to sexual assault – is indicative of a pretty thorough re-examination of what is decent conduct.

One takeaway for Christians is that after years of the deserved grilling of Christian institutions by the recent Royal Commission, society is looking to other institutions such as the entertainment industry. The free-for-all of the seventies Rocky Horror Show, and even the certainties of early feminism, are all being questioned.

But a second takeaway is the absence of Christian voices in the tumult. Apart from Eternity‘s reportage of Christian #metoo women, we are still clearing our throats it seems.

Peter Jensen, former Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, points out this reticence. “It has become quite common for Christians to take the line that our business is to talk about Jesus and not about sex and sexual morality. Our obsession with sex is creating a barrier to gospel presentation.” But, in an opinion piece for the evangelical Anglican movement, GAFCON, Jensen adds: “Well, should we stop talking about it and get on with talking about Jesus?”

“The trouble is, that if we take that line, it will not be the real gospel of Jesus we will be preaching.” Jensen is concerned that avoiding the subject of sex will mean preachers fail to present Jesus who transforms lives.

It would be healthy for judgment to begin at the house of God.

Christians may also be shy of this topic because if the entertainment industry can throw up real shocks (at least to outsiders), as “name” stars are, well, named, perhaps there are also Christians stars still to be named. Here’s a current US example of a pastor called to account. 

There will be some local examples. Let’s hope it is not a flood. But it would be healthy for judgment to begin at the house of God. In the US, conservative Christians have been trapped by supporting politicians who fall far short of Christian chastity.

Society is acting – and watching Christians. All who claim to preach with the Bible in one hand and newspaper (Twitter or Facebook?) in the other  – as leaders as varied as Karl Barth and Charles Spurgeon urge us  – have a topic for their urgent attention.