‘Hail, Mary, the Mother of Science Fiction’: Popular Fictionalisations of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley in Film and Television, 1935-2018

I’m very excited to announce a new special issue of Science Fiction Film and Television, focusing on Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and women in science fiction! I’ve got an article in this special issue on Shelley’s fictionalised appearances in popular film and television, including Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Frankenstein Unbound (1990), Highlander (TV; 1992–1998) and Frankenstein, MD (2014).

Mary Shelley in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Read an excerpt from the article below:

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is widely regarded as the ‘mother of science fiction’ for her authorship of Frankenstein, first published anonymously in 1818. At first glance this is a formidable title. Brian Aldiss, one of those responsible for popularising it, described Shelley as a writer of ‘prophetic talent’, and Frankensteinas ‘a triumph of imagination: more than a new story, a new myth’ (Billion 35, 30). Like later science fiction, he argues, Frankenstein combined ‘social criticism with new scientific ideas, while conveying a picture of [the author’s] own day’ (23). In this account, Frankenstein becomes the origin story of the modern age, and Shelley its creator. Two hundred years after its publication, Shelley’s ‘hideous progeny’ (Shelley xiii) looms large in the genre, and numerous retellings of Frankenstein have graced screens large and small worldwide. However, Shelley’s role as the metaphorical ‘mother’ of this tradition is more complex than the above description implies. Specifically, while her feminist scholarship often portrays her symbolic motherhood as positive and powerful, popular culture offers a very different, often contradictory perspective.

As a historical figure, Shelley has received substantial attention from feminist scholars and critics since the 1970s, claiming her as a great author in her own right and as one of the ‘lost foremothers who could help [women] find their distinctive female power’ as writers and creators (Gilbert and Gubar 59). Jane Donawerth and Carol Kolmerten likewise argue that ‘a clear and traceable tradition of women’s writing often derives its permission for women’s writing from the example of Mary Shelley’ (9), and Debbie Shaw introduces feminist sf by outlining how, since ‘Mary Shelley’s time, many women have discovered the unique potential that sci-fi offers for social comment’ (263). More recently, following the conservative ‘Sad Puppies’ voting campaigns at the Hugo Awards, Shelley has been cited as proof that women’s contributions deserve more recognition in the genre: ‘Despite the fact that science fiction as a genre was literally invented by a woman – aka Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein – women have often been marginalised in the world of science fiction, both as fans and as creators’ (Cuteo n.p.).

Given this context, one might expect Mary Shelley’s increasingly frequent appearances in fictional film and television productions to reflect these empowering claims, with Shelley as a feminist role model and originary genius. After all, representation is an important tool in the negotiation of cultural equality. Christine Battersby suggests that ‘before we can fundamentally revalue old aesthetic values, the concept of genius has to be appropriated by feminists, and made to work for us’ (15).Here the image of the originary genius (the ‘mother’ figure) is championed as a key factor in the construction of a feminist aesthetic and a female artistic heritage. And as Carolyn Cocca argues, in mass media ‘the repetition of stereotypes exerts power’ (5). In the case of sex and gender roles, if ‘the constantly repeated story is that women and girls are not leaders, are not working in professional settings, are not agents of their own lives but merely adjuncts to others, and are sometimes not even present at all, it can reinforce or foster societal undervaluing of women and girls. It can naturalise inequalities’ (5). In other words, we need great women in our media if we are to value the great women we have in our society.

Shelley is an increasingly visible figure in fantastic film and television, with frequent appearances in the heritage cinema of the 1980s, children’s educational programming in the 1990s and 2000s, and new media texts of the 2010s. Each of these productions dramatises her role as the creator of Frankensteinand sf’s metaphorical mother. In practice, however, Shelley’s appearances in film and television are rarely flattering to the author herself, or empowering to female artists working in the genre today. This does not necessarily indicate that these texts are part of a postfeminist backlash; indeed, many claim explicitly feminist motives. However, while some feminists nominate Shelley as a ‘mother’ or great originary author in an attempt to create a space for female artists in the present, in popular practice ‘motherhood’ (or female authorship) is still not recognised as equal to ‘fatherhood’ (or male authorship).

Do note that this is a pre-publication version. To cite this article you should consult the published version here. If you have difficulties accessing the article, please get in touch!

Mary Godwin (later Shelley) in Frankenstein Unbound (1990)

Pierre Huyghe’s Human Mask at the Copenhagen Contemporary

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Copenhagen, where I visited the recently-opened Copenhagen Contemporary art museum. Before I stepped into the exhibition space to the left of the ticket desk, I was directed to a dark hall at the back of the museum, where Pierre Huyghe’s 20-minute film Untitled (Human Mask) was playing on a loop. The museum’s website introduces the film as follows:

A monkey wearing a mask of a young woman, trained as a servant, unconscious enactor of a human labour; and a drone, an unmanned camera, programmed to perform tasks, inhabit the same landscape of Fukushima, just after the natural and technological disaster.

Huyghe was partly inspired by a YouTube clip, ‘Fukuchan Monkey in wig, mask, works Restaurant!’, in which a trained monkey in a doll-like mask, wig, and server’s uniform waits tables in a restaurant. You can watch the video below:

Human Mask is dramatically different in tone and style, but features the same monkey in the same restaurant, following the Fukushima disaster in 2011. In this post-apocalyptic environment, Huyghe deployed a drone camera crew, capturing the monkey’s fitful movements through the space and creating the impression of an interior and distinctly human life. The resulting film is both supremely uncanny and surprisingly moving.

No words are spoken in Human Mask, aside from several instances of a muffled, automated voice speaking Japanese in the distance, issuing what sounds like a public service announcement. The monkey, too, is silent save for the amplified sound of its breathing behind the mask. Nevertheless, sound has a real, physical presence in the film, especially when rain begins to pound on the tin roof towards the end.

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

Frieze.com‘s Jennifer Higgie has written a brilliant review of the film, from when it was first exhibited in London back in 2014. She concludes:

Animals are indifferent to cameras and, as far as we know, to art, too. You can film them as much as you like, but there will never be any artifice to their performances – they’re anti-actors. It is impossible to know who – or what – a monkey is by imposing our values on them. This is the paradox Huyghe has set up: he has choreographed a deeply artificial scenario in order to explore something profoundly real about the assumed superiority of man over nature and about the ethics of using animals to satisfy very human needs. In all of this, Huyghe obviously implicates himself as well: his own actions demonstrate how inter-species communication is still an enigma – and that art, obviously, isn’t exempt from the problems that this poses. His film is a stark and brilliant reminder that humans are the only species who regularly practice deceit – and that the only ones we are capable of deceiving are ourselves. You can put a monkey in a mask but, however hard you try, you can’t make it believe a lie. It knows it’s a monkey. If only humans were as wise.

Click here to read the rest of Higgie’s article, and here to learn more about the exhibition, which runs until 21 May 2017.

© Pierre Huyghe, 2014
© Pierre Huyghe, 2014

Scream Queens: Women and Horror

woman-screaming-261010-large_newAs part of the final chapter of my PhD thesis, which takes a fan studies approach to historical monster mashups, I’ve recently been researching audience statistics for Pemberley Digital’s various series. Pemberley Digital is an online broadcasting company that specialises in serialised YouTube adaptations of classic literature. Specifically, I wanted to know whether Frankenstein, MD, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), had a different audience than their other productions. Unlike Pemberley Digital’s other shows, Frankenstein, MD represented a genre shift from drama to horror. How might this affect their viewership?

Pemberley Digital’s representatives were very happy to send over screenshots of their YouTube demographics data, which yielded some very interesting results. Below are the audience demographics for the two most popular Pemberley Digital series, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (based on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice) and Emma Approved (based on Austen’s 1815 novel Emma).

LBD Demographics
LBD Demographics
Emma Approved Demographics
Emma Approved Demographics

As you can see from the infographics, the audience for these series overwhelmingly identifies as female, and most are under the age of 24.

Unlike its other shows, Pemberley Digital produced Frankenstein, MD in cooperation with PBS Digital Studios, part of the online arm of the American Public Broadcasting Service (a free-to-view, non-profit, and largely educational media platform). This meant that while I could obtain demographics for all the extra videos produced for Frankenstein, MD (spinoff vlogs by Iggy DeLacey and Eli Lavenza) from Pemberley Digital, I would need to approach PBS Digital Studios for statistics on the main episodes. Fortunately, they too were happy to provide the information I needed.

Frankenstein MD Vlogs Demographics
Frankenstein, MD Demographics (Bonus Content, Pemberley Digital)
Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 9.28.41 AM
Frankenstein, MD Demographics (Main Episodes, PBS Digital Studios)

As you can see, viewers for Frankenstein, MD content skew slightly older and identify more often as male – especially on main episodes of the series. Part of this difference in demographics is no doubt due to the diverse makeup of PBS audiences more generally. It’s likely that, due to its more diverse content, PBS Digital Studios simply has more men in its audience than Pemberley Digital, and these viewers were attracted to the show because it was broadcast on the PBS YouTube channel. The Frankenstein, MD production team, which is composed much more heavily of men than the average Pemberley Digital production, may also have helped skew the demographic. As a social network, YouTube users are split pretty evenly between male and female, though many gender stereotypes prevail nonetheless.

FMDSlider

While I’m still working out what exactly this data can tell me about the audiences of historical monster mashup, it also led me to the question of who generally watches horror. Surely, as one Flavorwire list of ‘50 Must-See Horror Films Directed by Women’ points out:

Genre filmmaking has a reputation as a man’s field. That goes for audiences as well as filmmakers. To the novice, it’s easy to see why. For a long time women’s bodies have been used to titillate male adolescent horror fans — shrieking, squirming, disposable ciphers.

As it turns out, however, the audience for horror on big screen and small is not as male-dominated as one might expect. In fact, several recent studies have suggested that it’s pretty much 50/50 (these studies tend to stick pretty strictly to a binary gender system).

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Of course, this information will likely come as no surprise to scholars of the Gothic, a genre with a strong history of female readership (and viewership), but it’s worth noting that horror’s popularity with women crosses into visual media as well as textual media. In a 2003 Los Angeles Times article, Lorenza Munoz argues that female support for horror not only fuels its box office success, but ‘has revolutionized the genre’:

No marketing decision on these horror films is made without considering how to attract girls and women younger than 25, added Russell Schwartz, head of marketing for New Line Cinema, which distributed “Texas.”

“This young audience has been such a boon to movies over the past five years,” he said, noting that “Scream” and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” reinvigorated the genre and introduced it to a new generation of girls. “They can go in groups on a Friday night.

“It becomes a pack thing, the same way an action movie is a pack thing for guys.”

gal-scream-drew-barrymore-scream-jpg

The article continues:

 

Weinstein, who began distributing Barker’s “Hellraiser” movies starting with the third in the series after he launched Miramax’s Dimension Films label, said Barker had to convince him that females should be targeted in the marketing campaign.

“I questioned that,” said Weinstein. “I didn’t realize that women were as big an audience as men. It’s not perception of action or violence” that draws them. “What you are selling is fright.”

[…] “The girls run the show.”

If these excerpts interest you, then I strongly recommend you check out the entire article (it’s a short read).

Of course, the fact that women make up 50% of the audience doesn’t mean that women are well represented behind the scenes of horror cinema. You may be aware that women only make up 4,7% of the Hollywood film directors in the past five years. Horror is lurking at the very back of the industry, with the crews on these films just 9% female on average. There have been numerous calls for female-led horror in the past few years, but it remains to be seen whether things will actually improve for women making horror as dramatically as it has for horror’s audiences.

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Watch Shia LaBeouf Watching Shia LaBeouf

Shia

In a new piece of performance art, Shia LaBeouf (Nymphomaniac, Transformers, Holes) is watching all 27 of his movies in reverse chronological order, 24 hours a day, for three days — and you can watch him do it. He won’t be stopping to sleep, and there is only a five minute intermission between each screening. The finished piece will essentially consist 72 hours of reaction shots, though an attendee has posted a photo of the schedule on Twitter, so you also can follow along with what’s being played on the screen, if you so desire:

Some have called LaBeouf’s last major foray into performance art, #IAMSORRY, metamodern. Abigail Ann Shwarz had this to say about the work:

#IAMSORRY seems to be itself swinging like a frenzied pendulum between opposing thematic elements: LaBeouf wears a bag over his head that reads “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE,” yet people are lined up around the block just to see him wear it… his face is [originally] covered, but he is crying and seems to present an emotionally open front… you can do whatever you want within the exhibit, but there will be no record of you ever doing it… LaBeouf is sorry, and yet he again borrows from an artist uncredited… he is listening and reacting to what the audience has to say, and yet he wears earplugs… The list goes on and on.

It remains to be seen what interpretations will be drawn from this performance, though in my opinion it seems to lean more to the postmodern than the metamodern. This project, like #IAMSORRY, is in collaboration with Nastja Säde Rönkkö and Luke Turner. Despite my personal reservations about LaBeouf’s film work, I must confess I’m genuinely intrigued to see how this turns out, and I’ll certainly be popping in from time to time to check on the live stream.

In any case, it’s good to know that Shia LaBeouf’s expression while watching his movies is more or less the same as mine:

Shia2