Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Archive: Women Scientists in Frankenstein Films, 1945–2015

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

Archive: Women Scientists in Frankenstein Films, 1945–2015

Article excerpt

In an interview with Myles McNutt on the television blog Cultural Learnings, Bernie Su, director of the Pemberley Digital/PBS transmedia web series Frankenstein, MD (US 2014), explains his decision to reimagine Dr Frankenstein as a woman:

a Victoria version of Frankenstein is infinitely more interesting in today's context than a Victor is because we've seen him so many times, it's been done so many ways - modern, young, the Karloff movie, etc. All these have just been the straight way of doing it, and to bend the gender was very intriguing. ... And it speaks to the history of women being taken seriously in STEM - we know it's better than it was years ago, but to just be able to touch on that I think is a really cool thing. (n.p.)

Anna Lore, who stars as Victoria Frankenstein, adds: 'it's the simplest of innovations, just changing a gender, but it creates this whole fresh look that no one's done before' (n.p.). Like Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Victoria is a brilliant creator following in her deceased mother's footsteps. However, she is not the first female Frankenstein to appear on screen, but merely one of the latest to pursue the science of technological reproduction and manage personal relationships while working in a male-dominated field. Victoria's relationship with her mentor, her mother's memory and her romantic interest are complicated by her intellectual and professional remove - and that's before we even get to her unruly Creature. Intelligent and beautiful, ambitious and naive, rational and obsessive, she is by far the most positive representation of a female Frankenstein to date, but like her predecessors she also embodies cultural fears of both the power of science and the empowerment of women.

Shelley's Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus (1818) is one of the most frequently adapted novels, as well as a foundational text for feminist literary theory.1 It is regularly understood to be the first sf novel, and even though Shelley did not create the mad-scientist-as-hubristic-overachiever figure, she arguably perfected it, providing the blueprint for a central archetype in contemporary sf and horror. While the figure of the male mad scientist in general, and of Frankenstein in particular, has been the subject of a vast amount of critical scholarship, the female mad scientist has received little attention. This is not surprising; the majority of fictional scientists, from Faustus to Moreau to their many subsequent iterations, are male. Depictions of women scientists are notable because of their relative rarity in film and other media. Women scientists in Frankenstein films are of particular interest because they engage with the definitive story (written crucially by a woman) detailing an obsession to create life outside of the female body. Together, the films raise a number of significant issues, including technological reproduction, parental relationships, women as dangerous intellectuals, and the historical and continued demands of balancing professional and personal lives.

Frankensteins film history is well documented, but the existing scholarship does not include a comprehensive survey and discussion of adaptations that feature women as creators or in supporting scientific roles.2 This omission is not likely due to a lack of interest in these figures, but instead because Frankenstein films that feature women scientists are typically sequels, parodies and analogue appropriations instead of direct adaptations of Shelley's novel.3 Yet the cultural pervasiveness of female Frankensteins warrants closer attention. We have identified more than a dozen notable appearances of women scientists in Frankenstein films and series spanning seven decades, several countries and various genres, including sf, horror and comedy. They feature women in professional scientific or medical roles such as nurses, laboratory assistants or lead researchers; many are minor characters, but six are leading roles. Regardless of genre, female Frankensteins (or laboratory assistants who might one day aspire to this role) are typically abject figures, mocked or made monstrous through some combination of embodiment, intelligence or ambition. …

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