Gods and Monsters


Like any good goth, I was saddened yesterday to hear of the death of Christopher Lee (1922-2015): actor, opera singer, and unexpected heavy metal icon into his nineties. With over two hundred films on his CV, including recent blockbusters such as the Lord of the Rings franchise as well as cult classics like “The Wicker Man” (my personal favourite, though steer well clear of the remake…), it is perhaps somewhat ironic that his career is likely to be mainly remembered for the series of low-budget horror films he performed from the 1950s to the 1970s for British studios Hammer. Though the Hammer films suffered massively from the law of diminishing returns, becoming increasingly dated and cliched until the late 1970s saw the end of them, it is the early ones that thankfully linger in cinephiles’ memories. 1957’s “The Curse of Frankenstein” launched the film careers of Lee and his co-star Peter Cushing with considerable panache, and while in plot terms it is no more  faithful an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818) than the 1931 Hollywood interpretation, it does perform an important couple of rectifications.

Firstly, it does away with the superfluous moral that the Hollywood film tacks on, almost as a disclaimer:

“[…] Frankenstein. A man of science, who sought to create a man after his own image, without reckoning upon God.”

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, an early feminist, rebel, and freethinker in her youth, would not have been overly impressed with that message. For the late Romantic authors in general, the over-reaching ambition of the epic hero or anti-hero, as exemplified in figures such as Prometheus, Milton’s Lucifer, and Napoleon Bonaparte was considered somewhat admirable, albeit dangerous, and certainly more laudable than cringing, conformist piety (bearing in mind this was a time of great conservatism and repression in British society). Furthermore, the Hammer film places the focus of blame not on Frankenstein’s act of creating life per se – Frankenstein’s assistant Paul Krempe (a character original to the film) is quite happy to go along with this, seeing its potential for good – but on the irresponsible, egotistical way Frankenstein goes about his experiments, alienating everyone around him and eventually descending to murder to secure his “raw materials”. Even the monster itself is portrayed more as a victim of his lethal narcissism than as the villain of the piece.

This is still a departure from the novel, in which Victor Frankenstein, though egotistical and irresponsible, is not truly evil, while the monster, having gained sentience and attempted, without success, to peacefully find acceptance in society, is eventually consumed with rage over its rejection, whereupon it vows revenge upon its negligent creator. I think, however, that Mary Shelley might have appreciated the excision of the reactionary “science = bad, nature (or God) = good” element of the 1930s films: an element that director James Whale was probably less than thrilled with himself, but required by the motion picture codes of the time to adhere to.

All of which serves as a most bizarre preamble to the following piece of academia I had the good fortune to stumble upon today (Full version archived here)…

My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix:

Performing Transgender Rage

By Susan Stryker

[…] The transsexual body is an unnatural body. It is the product of medical science. It is a technological construction. It is flesh torn apart and sewn together again in a shape other than that in which it was born. In these circumstances, I find a deep affinity between myself as a transsexual woman and the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment; like the monster’s as well, my exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist.

I am not the first to link Frankenstein’s monster and the transsexual body. Mary Daly makes the connection explicit by discussing transsexuality in “Boundary Violation and the Frankenstein Phenomenon,” in which she characterizes transsexuals as the agents of a “necrophilic invasion” of female space (69-72). […]

[…] To quote extensively from one letter to the editor of a popular San Francisco gay/lesbian periodical:

I consider transsexualism to be a fraud, and the participants in it . . . perverted. The transsexual [claims] he/she needs to change his/her body in order to be his/her “true self.” Because this “true self” requires another physical form in which to manifest itself, it must therefore war with nature. One cannot change one’s gender. What occurs is a cleverly manipulated exterior: what has been done is mutation. What exists beneath the deformed surface is the same person who was there prior to the deformity. People who break or deform their bodies [act] out the sick farce of a deluded, patriarchal approach to nature, alienated from true being.

Referring by name to one particular person, self-identified as a transsexual lesbian, whom she had heard speak in a  public forum at the San Francisco Women’s Building, the letter-writer went on to say:

When an estrogenated man with breasts loves a woman, that is not lesbianism, that is mutilated perversion. [This individual] is not a threat to the lesbian community, he is an outrage to us. He is not a lesbian, he is a mutant man, a self-made freak, a deformity, an insult. He deserves a slap in the face. After that, he deserves to have his body and mind made well again. (3)

When such beings as these tell me I war with nature, I find no more reason to mourn my opposition to them — or to the order they claim to represent — than Frankenstein’s monster felt in its enmity to the human race. […]

I want to lay claim to the dark power of my monstrous identity without using it as a weapon against others or being wounded by it myself. I will say this as bluntly as I know how: I am a transsexual, and therefore I am a monster. Just as the words “dyke,” “fag,” “queer,” “slut,” and “whore” have been reclaimed, respectively, by lesbians and gay men, by anti-assimilationist sexual minorities, by women who pursue erotic pleasure, and by sex industry workers, words like  “creature,” “monster,” and “unnatural” need to be reclaimed by the transgendered. By embracing and accepting them, even piling one on top of another, we may dispel their ability to harm us. A creature, after all, in the dominant tradition of Western European culture, is nothing other than a created being, a made thing. The affront you humans take at being called a “creature” results from the threat the term poses to your status as “lords of creation,” beings elevated above mere material existence. As in the case of being called “it,” being called a “creature” suggests the lack or loss of a  superior personhood. I find no shame, however, in acknowledging my egalitarian relationship with non-human material Being; everything emerges from the same matrix of possibilities.

This is a rather strange, but I think an empowering message, and one that totally appeals to both the goth and the nerd in me. With all of the kerfuffle about misgendering and dead-naming that (understandably) pervades online transactivism, this is the first time I have ever seen anyone calling for the reclamation and celebration of “monstrous” terms, and the irony alone is delightful. So please, if you are such a person who has a conscientious objection to calling me “she” (for whatever reason), I will be only too happy to acknowledge “it”, as I raise my glass to mutant solidarity…

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