Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

'An Otherness That Cannot Be Sublimated': Shades of Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful and Black Mirror

Academic journal article Science Fiction Film and Television

'An Otherness That Cannot Be Sublimated': Shades of Frankenstein in Penny Dreadful and Black Mirror

Article excerpt

Always a dangerous story, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) continues to fascinate. In this context, danger means the consequences of creating a gendered body through deliberate technological invention, and how that body is then subjected to narratives of abjection and monstrosity. The dangerous bodies depicted in Frankenstein narratives are frequently feminised, though not always coded as female. Margaret Homans suggests that 'the horror of the demon that Frankenstein creates is that it is the literalization of its creator's desire for an object' (101). Her phrasing is useful in thinking through the gendered treatment of the beings who become their creator's desired object in Penny Dreadful (US/Ireland/UK 2014-16) and Black Mirror (UK 2011-). Endlessly adapted and reworked across a range of media, Shelley's story offers a rich set of possibilities for exploring the gendered cyborg or resurrected body as dangerous terrain. In a recent issue of Critical Survey, Dragoş Manea notes that

from January 2010 to December 2015 there were no fewer than thirty-two films, television shows, or videos that have in one way or another included the character of Victor Frankenstein and fifty-six have portrayed Frankenstein's Monster ... the sheer number testifies to the characters' enduring presence in cultural memory. (42)

While in these examples, portrayals of a male creator and his male creature are commonplace, stories which offer a female creature or creator are more unusual and thus worth attending to because they present a particularly 'dangerous' reworking of a specific element of Shelley's novel, namely, the male Creature's request for a female mate and the gendered consequences of this action. This article will examine two recent instances of Frankenstein adaptation and appropriation in the television series Penny Dreadful and the Black Mirror episode 'Be Right Back' (11 Feb 2013).1 My analysis will focus on two distinct pairings of creator and creature: Penny Dreadful's Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) and his third creation, Lily Frankenstein (Billie Piper),2 and Black Mirrors Martha (Hayley Atwell) and the android double she purchases to resemble her deceased husband Ash (Domhnall Gleeson).

Julia Kristeva's theory of abjection forms an important framework for examining Frankenstein's dangerous qualities and the ways in which it is reworked in these two texts. Kristeva writes of particular female characters that appear in Céline's work as 'the two facets of an otherness that cannot be sublimated - the sexual and the repressed, the marginal and the social' (169 my emphasis). Frankenstein functions in a similar way in Penny Dreadful and 'Be Right Back': it is the story that cannot be sublimated, just as the abject nature of their creatures, Lily and Ash, cannot be sublimated.

Benjamin Poore remarks that Penny Dreadful 'forces us ... to consider how Victor Frankenstein might have behaved if he had come to adulthood at the end of the century upon which he was such an imaginative influence, the century that Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick has called "the Age of Frankenstein"' (73 qting Sedgwick x). Penny Dreadful and Black Mirror confirm that we are still very much living in the age of Frankenstein: a period of fascination with the body, gender and scientific innovation. Over its three seasons, Penny Dreadful engages in the still-dangerous cultural work of exploring what it means to be a woman under patriarchy. 'Be Right Back' questions current cultural assumptions regarding gendered behaviours and expectations with regard to heterosexual relationships and domestic life. Drawing on the work of Kristeva and Mary Ann Doane, this article examines the ways in which Penny Dreadful experiments with representations of abjection via the bodies of Lily and Ash. The hybrid figure of Brona/Lily occupies a range of narrative positions - victim, monster, champion, sympathetic prisoner - and forces us to consider the question of consent (sexual or otherwise) and what it means to have real agency. …

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