A Trans Reading of Little Shop of Horrors
Morgan M Page: Prior to the recent explosion of trans-produced media over the past couple of years, trans people in North America have had few characters and stories in which to see our lives reflected back to us. Many of us have, like other underrepresented peoples, creatively read our lives into media not specifically made with us in mind. We see our struggles and our triumphs as imagined subtexts in films, books, and TV shows ostensibly created by and for cis people. This process has always interested me, as both a dedicated consumer of media and as someone who has spent a whole life reading imaginary subtext as the only way to find myself in culture. One of the pieces of media I’ve recently developed this relationship to is Little Shop of Horrors, the 1986 musical remake of the 1960 Roger Corman Z-grade sci-fi flick about a meek young man and the carnivorous alien plant he strikes an uneasy and murderous relationship with. In the 1986 musical, I see so many aspects of trans life in 2016 reflected back to me. Casey, I know you have some pretty deep Little Shop feelings, and I was hoping we could delve deep into a trans reading of Little Shop of Horrors together.
Casey Plett: Morgan, I was so excited when you floated this idea after we’d exchanged some small Twitter talk over Little Shop as a trans story. You and I are both trans writers and are publicly active in conversations on trans art, but the phenomenon you’re referring to, “reading our lives into media not specifically made with us in mind,” feels like one of those internal, intimate processes I don’t often share.
I loved Little Shop ever since I was little. Fun story: I saw the movie first with the happy ending in Grade 4, loved it, and weeks later saw my babysitter star in his high school theatre version, having no idea he was about to get eaten. I was like AHHHH for a bit, then decided I liked the play way better. Read into that whatever you like, ex-partners.
I don’t think it’s much of a reach to draw trans dynamics from the protagonists Seymour and Audrey, a star-crossed couple-in-waiting working in a flower shop on Skid Row. Between Seymour’s meekness and Audrey’s cheery/desperate passivity, they have a respective masculinity and femininity that the world hates and rejects; specifically, I feel like so many trans women I know have an attachment to Audrey, who so firmly and resolutely doesn’t believe she can ever be loved, who takes her abusive and shitty relationship with Orin (the sadistic Dentist) as inevitable. And the world of the movie makes fun of Audrey as fake, dolled-up, put-on, stupid, vapid, vain… but the movie and Seymour love her for who she is in a very real way. (Seymour makes some comments we’d call femmephobic or something in 2016, but personally I feel whatever about that.)
One of the things I love about Little Shop: It has markings of satire, and it’s often referred to as a satire, but it’s really goddamn not at all satire. It’s bleak, but it doesn’t filter that bleakness through cleverness or irony or a Statement. I don’t ever feel that we’re asked to make fun of or laugh at Seymour and Audrey’s pains and dreams, even at the end where she asks Seymour to feed her body to the plant. (Which, my goodness, is some stark shit but isn’t even melodramatic; I think it’s just a real part of her character that would sound put-on from anybody else’s mouth!) Seymour’s seduction by the plant seems so inevitable too; he’s not some greedy Faustian dupe, he’s been poor and unloved all his life and never gotten anything, so why wouldn’t he take the actions that he does? Both he and Audrey have been so unloved, but they respond to each other in such a beautiful way even though it’s for a tiny period of time. The interval of time between “Suddenly, Seymour” and Audrey dying is short. They’re both characters who’ve lived outside the margins all their lives, and their ability to love is screwy by the time they might love each other. I do relate to that. What about you?
MMP: There are so many things you mention that I want to explore. I first saw the Little Shop film when I was a kid and then as a teenager I saw it on stage. Over the past few years, I’ve revisited it a lot primarily because Audrey is deeply relatable to me as a trans women for the exact reasons you mentioned. And most recently, I was listening to “Suddenly Seymour” a lot around the time our friend Bryn died. Bryn, like me, was deep on that mtf4ftm tip, and as I listened to “Suddenly Seymour”, I began imagining it as an mtf4ftm ballad. Audrey and Seymour even look like a t4t couple: Audrey is taller, has these very prominent breasts practically falling out of every dress she wears, and her voice moves between two registers throughout the movie, while Seymour is short, meek, and almost painfully earnest in an outfit that I know at least two dozen trans dudes would wear.
I think one of the things that makes them both so easy to read transness into, beyond their physicality, is that they’re both living in poverty and yearning for a better life. In one of the opening numbers, “Skid Row,” Audrey, sporting a shiner from the hands of the abusive Dentist, sings that Downtown is “where relationships are [a] no go.” And Seymour gives us the ultimate refrain of anyone living in poverty: “Someone show me a way to get outta here / ‘Cause I constantly pray I’ll get outta here / Please won’t somebody say I’ll get outta here / Someone gimme a shot or I’ll rot here.” Trans people, on the whole, tend to be low-income. The Trans Pulse Project, Canada’s largest trans study of the 2000s, reported that 50% of trans people make less than $15k a year. It’s heavily implied that, like many trans women, including myself, Audrey makes extra money moonlighting as some kind of sex worker at a bar called The Gutter.
As you mentioned, the way Audrey is portrayed is the way people often portray trans women: constructed, vapid, vain, overly dolled up. And her fantasy life, as seen in the heartbreaking song “Somewhere That’s Green,” fits easily within stereotypes of trans femininity. A lot of second-wave radical feminists have centred their complaints against trans women on our supposed reification of patriarchal stereotypes of femininity—that we push an image of 1950s housewife womanhood. I think Audrey actually can provide a really nuanced counterpoint to that argument, though. When she sings about wanting to be just like Donna Reed and lists off the achingly quotidian objects she longs to have—a washer and a dryer and an “ironing machine”—she does so because she lives in seemingly inescapable poverty. To her, as to many trans women who live similar lives, the stereotypes of white middle class womanhood, even when they reach Stepford Wives-levels, seem like an unreachable dream of luxury. In Paris is Burning, Venus Xtravaganza sums it up perfectly: “I would like to be a spoiled rich white girl. They get what they want, whenever they want it. They don’t have to really struggle with finances, nice things, nice clothes, and they don’t have to have that as a problem.”
Before we get into Seymour and the Dentist and the evil alien plant, Audrey II, what is your hot take on Audrey and trans womanhood?
CP: The image of the movie that always stuck with me as a kid is that point where they get engaged among a crumbling courtyard and Seymour promises they’re going to run away from their shitty lives and their poverty. I always thought that was so beautiful and romantic.
I also never read Audrey as that parody or reification of stereotypes. I know I wanted many of the same things for my family that Audrey wanted when I was a poor child, and I never took those things for granted when my mom got money years later.
I saw a community theatre production of Little Shop about four years ago, and some beefy Vernon Dursley-esque white dude in the audience barked “Pathetic!” to one of Audrey’s lines. (Little dinkhead.) I forget what the line was. But I think “pathetic” is an adjective many casual observers assign to Audrey, as many do to trans women. And specifically, I think there are few things that folks love to snark on or attack more, to call “pathetic,” than a poor trans woman’s desires.
Also, I love “Somewhere That’s Green” more than I can say, as numerous ex-roommates could probably tell you.
They’re both characters who’ve lived outside the margins all their lives, and their ability to love is screwy by the time they might love each other. I do relate to that. What about you?
Audrey doesn’t believe she’s capable of or deserves any better relationship than what she has with the Dentist. She’s resigned to being poor. But at the same time she still has credence in her dreams. That reality exists at the same time. (I always think of my dad, wildly and dreamily talking about how he was going to get out and be rich, then the same night crying and begging me not to end up a broke loser like him.) Yet I think a lot of narratives try to pull off that reality and fall on their faces, inadvertently but inevitably ending up with romanticized poverty porn like Rent or something, and Little Shop, to me, escapes that.
So: to explicitly answer your last question. I think there’s a very true-to-life combination of resignation and hope present in Audrey’s character, one which resonates with the realities of how I’ve gotten through my life and one I see in many trans women around me.
I could hear you talk about Audrey all day, but! Seymour, and the Dentist, and the Plant. Tell me your thoughts.
MMP: Seymour, to me, fits perfectly into so many archetypes of transmasculinity common in major North American metropolitan areas. Beyond his short stature and a wardrobe that could’ve come from the closets of half the FTMs I’ve dated, one of the most compellingly trans characteristics I see in Seymour is his yearning to become a better man. This is at the heart of why he strikes the devil’s bargain with the Plant—Seymour wants to become the kind of man he believes deserves not only a way out of Skid Row, but also a way into Audrey’s heart.
Setting aside the delightfully sleaze-masc writings of Preciado, Halberstam, and Valerio, much of the writing by and about trans men this century has been concerned with struggles around navigating the emergent male privilege that often attends FTM social and medical transitions. To me, that “mean green mother from outer space” —the Plant—easily stands in for this struggle. The Plant, like male privilege, brings Seymour the economic and emotional advantages he’s always longed for but been unable to access. The problem is that, much like the white supremacist patriarchy, the Plant demands increasingly awful things in return to sustain these rewards. Seymour’s ultimate attempts to refuse and rebel against the Plant, to me, reflect so many of the think pieces and transition memoirs by trans men who are trying to resist their total enmeshment within patriarchal social systems. I also read so much of trans men’s relationships with cis men into the rivalry between Seymour and the Dentist.
I read the Dentist as the type of abusive cis boyfriend so many trans women I know—including myself—have put up with, because we don’t believe we’re worthy of better. The Dentist is a self-avowed sadist, in the non-consensual way. He beats Audrey up, uses her to push around his motorcycle, and tries to prove that he’s the biggest, baddest man by pushing everyone around. Like many abusers, his addiction sprays lighter fluid over his already controlling and abusive behaviour patterns.
When the Motown-styled Greek Chorus confronts Audrey about how awful the Dentist is to her—and here she has her arm wrapped up in a sling made out of a lace scarf, which just screams trans lady to me—Audrey is unable to imagine herself into a life where a sweet, “suddenly successful” guy like Seymour could love her. Trans women are constantly confronted with the pernicious and often deadly idea that no one could ever love us, and so we rush to accept whatever crumbs are offered our way.
CP: I never thought of Seymour’s position with the Plant and the Dentist as a stand-in for white male privilege. I really like that reading, though it’s complicated a bit in that the Plant’s voicing is generally coded as a sinister Black guy. As a side note: I’ll be curious to hear what Stephen Ira will think of this convo, as I know he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Little Shop fan himself.
There’s something to the twin endings that personifies the unpleasant realities and stakes of actually attempting to remove oneself from patriarchy; Seymour attempts to remove himself from that system completely at the end, but that kills him. In the movie’s initial ending, he kills the Plant and he and Audrey end up happily ever after, which is reminiscent to me of a certain kind of feminist-flavoured pop culture that often seems to implicitly cheerlead the idea that for men to resist patriarchy or for white people to resist racism, it only requires some quick trial-by-fire and light-bulb moments and boom, they are woke and can now work for justice! Happily ever after. Just like in the “happy” 1986 ending, once Seymour realizes he has to kill the Plant, it’s just a few minutes of harrowing action, then bam, electrical wire! Hooray!
In the real world though (and in the original/director’s cut ending), actively and continually resisting that enmeshment is not just necessary, it’s also really, really difficult, and it can hurt you. Maybe hurt you a lot. So most people aren’t capable of doing that work. (Insert rant here about how legitimate allyship requires giving up real things.)
Back to Seymour himself, on the flip side of reading him as a trans guy, I also see some elements in him of certain kinds of pre-transition trans women. (I say “certain kinds” knowing many of us have super-complicated relationships with our pre-transition lives.) Meek, unsure of himself, awkward in his own skin, resolutely resigned to his own unlovability. I don’t think it completely or so neatly correlates across the whole show, but I did identify with Seymour in those years of my teens where I too, in an ass-backwards kind of way, thought I could be a Better Kind of Man (who wore dresses and nail polish… it didn’t work out). I know a couple other trans women who have similar attachments to his character in this way.
Regardless, I definitely agree that Seymour’s heartfeltness in that sense is the most compelling part of his character. And it’s interesting to consider it as an inversion of the very common pop culture storyline of Guy Fucks Up, But Then Does The Right Thing! Pop culture loves to show men being general bonehead doofuses, then coming around to Be Better, for which they are then rewarded with the good girl or the good job or whatever. Of course, in real life, racist patriarchy ensures that when white men do terrible things it is less likely to stand in the way of their happiness, when it is not actively bestowing on them large rewards! And in virtually every fuckin’ movie and book with a Boy Becomes A Man plot, even the less repugnant ones, there’s always these winks to the camera and little shots and digs to say, in essence, “lol, but seriously, Boys Always Gonna Be Boys, party on, right?”
In the real world, actively and continually resisting enmeshment is not just necessary, it’s also really, really difficult, and it can hurt you. Maybe hurt you a lot. So most people aren’t capable of doing that work.
I think Little Shop, read the way you’re putting it, indeed has a more realistic take on the stakes of masculinity. And what I love about Seymour’s story is that even when he’s messing up, there’s an unshakeable—and I know this word is loaded—purity in his spirit. Which is something I see (and treasure) in lots of trans men. I will always think of Audrey and Seymour as a trans couple from here on.
MMP: To clarify for readers, there are two endings to the film: the theatrical release sees Seymour save Audrey and kill the Plant in a fast, deus ex machina moment as Casey described. But, in the director’s cut, Seymour ends up feeding Audrey to the Plant—she sort of sacrifices herself to ensure Seymour’s future—and then the Plant gets marketed across America and ends up eating Cleveland, New York City, and then eventually the world. It is a much funnier and far grimmer ending—so, it’s definitely my favourite.
Thinking about the ending and Seymour’s relationship to the Plant, I found this piece of Preciado’s Testo Junkie insightful:
The end of innocence does not begin the moment we become aware of the fact that we’re mortal, and that others are, as well. It begins with the intuition that we kill to survive. That we are predators, carnivores. Savagely omnivorous, devourers of everything that lives. Survival depends on our ability to kill the beauty around us.
The director’s cut ending follows this logic, forcing Seymour to see that he must kill in order to survive—in essence, he must lose his innocence of his place within white supremacist patriarchy.
The difference between the two endings then, for me, stands for the difference between the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves versus the stories that actually happen to us. Heroic fantasy versus grim reality. Seymour dreams of saving the day, of saving Audrey and being the better man he’s always longed to be—but the reality is that Seymour cannot save Audrey and is trapped by the patriarchy into feeding her to the Plant and eventually being consumed himself. His revelation is that even by giving in to systems of dominance, no one makes it out alive.
But even within the fantasy of the theatrical ending, in which Seymour and Audrey survive—they end up getting married in Audrey’s “Somewhere That’s Green” 1950s suburban fantasy house—Seymour is unable to completely extinguish the Plant, and thus the patriarchy it represents. The final shot is of a new Plant sprouting up in their garden, as if to signify that inevitably his happy-ending delusion will be confronted with grim reality.
CP: I don’t know of a lot of contemporary works like Little Shop in any genre. Definitely few that make me feel about transness the way Audrey and Seymour do! (Mayyyybe parts of Heather O’Neill’s story collection Daydreams of Angels; it has a similar spec fic-realism where there are bleak lives with kind moments, and some of O’Neill’s women are very trans lady to me.) We started this conversation because we see our contemporary trans lives reflected in this decades-old musical that folks generally take at face value as straight and cis—are there other works that touch you in the way that Little Shop does?
MMP: There are a lot of films, TV shows, and books I read trans malaise into, but I think for me Little Shop stands out as one of the only narratives I so strongly identify with mtf4ftm relationships. Little Shop of Horrors reaches deep into the particular parts of the trans affective realm I spend so much obsessing over. While we are moving into an era of increased visibility within mainstream narratives, I think there will always be a certain power in reading our trans lives into stories not intended for us, stories that don’t have to hold up questions of authenticity but can instead serve as metaphors for the more difficult truths of our experiences. To the two of us, at least, Little Shop of Horrors is one such metaphor.