“A lot of people have been critical of a transgender woman playing a character who refers to herself as a ‘transvestite.’ But it’s really important to note that in 1975, our understanding of the term transvestite was not the same as today. [Activist] Sylvia Rivera is one of my favorite examples of someone who referred to herself as a “transvestite” in the ’70s. She famously started S.T.A.R. — Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries — with Marsha P. Johnson. These pioneers used the term to further themselves, but we also need to note that, yes, transvestite is an antiquated term. I think it’s possible to have a conversation about how language evolves. We can do that, and we can also enjoy Rocky Horror in 2016.”
— Transgender actress Laverne Cox speaking to OUT magazine about her upcoming October 20 appearance as the bisexual cross-dresser Dr. Frank-N-Furter in FOX’s version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The entire musical is filled with queer sexual overtones and innuendo and Cox’s character in specific has been called “a ton of shitty, old-fashioned queer exploitation stereotypes mashed into a single character,” by writer Caelyn Sandel. Sandel continues, “He’s a vampy, cruel, selfish, abusive, violent murderer and rapist. Y’all, he rapes people and keeps sex slaves. Not a role model.” Flavorwire writer Mari Brighe wrote that the musical presents “a subtle but potentially very damaging conflation of crossdressers with trans women” and “borders on exploiting LGBTQ identities for the gaze of a largely cisgender, heterosexual audience”.
Despite its problematic nature, the 1973 musical (and its 1975 film adaptation) remains popular as an one of the earliest depictions of subversive queer sexuality in musical comedy. In 2010, openly gay television producer Ryan Murphy created a Rocky Horror episode of his musical sitcom Glee which changed the word “transsexual” in Frank-N-Furter introductory song “Sweet Transvestite” to “sensational” — people noticed and questioned why.