By Kit Schuster
Introduction: A Trans Frankenstein
“What is your substance, whereof are you made,” Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein: A Love Story asks over and over, quoting Shakespeare’s Sonnet 53 (5, 14, 30, 61, 245, 341). Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein already introduces this issue of the nature of being and the core of our subjectivity. In Frankissstein’s source text, Frankenstein’s creature, an outsider in his society, raises the question of what makes someone human, what is considered monstrous, and who has the prerogative of deciding on the answers. As such, it has traditionally been read as “a representation of [marginalisation] and [victimisation], of binding cultural construction” (Mossman, no pg.). The creature acts as a stand-in for those who are “unjustly misrecognized, devalued, and excluded, subject to the social projection of dread and disgust, in short, dehumanised” (Wyse 77). The creature’s discrimination is one of othering, which is “the simultaneous construction of the self or in-group and the other or out-group in mutual and unequal opposition,” via the “identification of some desirable characteristic that the self/in-group has and the other/out-group lacks and/or some undesirable characteristic that the other/out-group has and the self/in-group lacks” (Brons 70). Othering “sets up a superior self/in-group in contrast to an inferior other/out-group, but this superiority/inferiority is nearly always left implicit” (ibid.). As Riva Kastoryano writes, “[e]ach society has its Otherness,” and the production of the other is a vital part of the systems that structure the given society through the adherence to, and maintenance of, hierarchies (82). Frankenstein’s creature is the monstrous other because of “its failure as a viable subject in the visual field,” which also problematizes how we understand its gender; the creature is not seen as a real man, but that does not make it female, either (Stryker 247). Consequently, queer studies and feminist theory see a parallel between this and the gender and sex-based oppression of patriarchy and heteronormativity (Mossman, no pg.). In 1993, Susan Stryker presented a performance piece entitled “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix: Performing Transgender Rage”, in which she explicitly links Shelley’s creation to the experience of trans women, stating:
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 (245).
The creature’s hardship has become both an emblem of trans pain and trans freedom, and the autonomy to change one’s body according to one’s needs. In Frankissstein, Winterson takes up this connection between the Frankenstein myth and the transgender experience and depicts it explicitly by introducing the protagonist Ry Shelley, a non-binary doctor, part creature, part creator. I will address entanglements of transgender identity and othering in Frankissstein, showing that Ry is othered specifically because of their non-binary gender identity. For this, I will examine how the two characters Ry mainly interacts with, Victor Stein and Ron Lord, discursively other them.
Victor Stein is Ry’s lover, and as such, their relationship can be read as the novel’s (sub)titular ‘love story’, yet this love story comes with tensions. Although Victor defends Ry when they are subjected to Ron Lord’s transphobic prying (Winterson 85), he sees their transgender identity only as a stepping-stone on the way to his transhuman utopia, exoticising Ry as his futuristic muse. In this way, he reduces Ry to their body, specifically their bodily modifications, which he does not see as necessary medical interventions to ease Ry’s individual suffering and increase their bodily autonomy and comfort, but as a techno-philosophical principle, a “future-early” blueprint of humanity to come (119). Victor is obsessed with the idea of leaving the biological body behind, yet is also obsessed with Ry’s body. He conceptualizes the gender-affirming surgical interventions Ry has had as a preliminary step towards his goals, as close to non-human or post-human as he can get at that point in time. Victor thinks the body “is a stage on the way to being transhuman,” and in his view, Ry’s body specifically is further advanced along that process (148). To Victor, Ry’s “sex change” is a way for him to conceptualize his idea of self-designed human evolution, and he clearly states that this is what attracts him to Ry (154). He uses Ry’s transition to justify and explain his ideology: “You are both exotic and real. The here and now, and a harbinger of the future,” Victor tells them, visualizing Ry’s body and their existence as a transgender person as fetishistic tokens of his experiments and plans for the advancement of human life (154). He ignores that Ry “[does not] want to be post-human” (281). Victor reduces Ry’s subjectivity to a logical theoretical point on the timeline of inevitable progress. He does not acknowledge Ry as a person, with their own motives and reasons for adapting their body, and does not see past Ry’s existence as a physical body. While fixating on Ry’s materiality, Victor is ignoring the “very real material consequences for non-binary individuals who navigate and negotiate prejudice and inequities in everyday life” by only seeing them as a theoretical body in the present that portends a theoretical vision of the future (Stewart 65).
Victor’s fetishistic conception of Ry and their body is inextricably linked with his sexual desire. His obsession with Ry’s body exists on both a theoretical, and a more base, physical level, and the two frequently intersect, making it unclear where intellectual curiosity ends, and sexual desire begins. Victor wants to “know” Ry “in the gnostic sense of close experience of what would otherwise be unknown,” and Ry is quick to translate this declaration into “[y]ou mean you wanted to fuck me?”, which Victor affirms positively (Winterson 298). For Victor, “knowing” Ry means examining and exploring their body, to “know” them in the biblical sense. “What are you?” he asks, and this scientific demand to inspect and categorize, to metaphysically take Ry apart, is what combines the sexual and intellectual desire he feels for Ry. To Victor, Ry represents not only “new data,” but “[d]elicious new data” (123). When Ry tells Victor about how they see their own gender (“I am a woman. And I am a man. That’s how it is for me. I am in the body that I prefer”), Victor “[doesn’t] know what to say,” but he tells Ry that he feels “[i]ncredibly aroused,” fascinated by Ry’s ease in their body and the very fact that they had their body “made for [them]” (122). Internally, Ry shows signs of discomfort with this treatment of their person (“[o]h, God . . .” 122), yet they rarely call Victor out on his behaviour (“[y]ou think I’m a toy, don’t you?” 158), instead choosing to continue their affair. Tellingly, when Ry asks Victor if they are only a “sex object” to him, Victor first asks a question in return without answering (“[d]on’t you like what we do? . . . Then why deny pleasure?”), and then initiates sex with Ry (153). Ry replies that one might “deny pleasure . . . [t]o avoid pain,” pointing towards how Ry and Victor use sex to bridge disagreements in their relationship. This is further cemented when Victor ignores their objection because he “can’t reason with [them]” when they act like this (153). In their interior monologue, Ry points out the irony of a “man who wants to be without his body” showing such an appetite for physical intercourse (153). Instead of communicating with Ry and taking their concerns and objections seriously, Victor only indulges in his sexual desire for Ry, fuelled by his intellectual fetishization of their body and identity.
Ron Lord, the misogynistic sex-bot entrepreneur from Wales, provides the novel’s most common friction with Ry. When they meet for the first time at a robotics exposition, Ron assumes that Ry is a cisgender man. He acts companionable and chummy towards Ry, including him in the “we” of homosocial male bonding versus the “they” of those not in his circle of men (Winterson 51). One of the conditions for his homosocial advances is the presumption that Ry, like Ron, is a heterosexual male. He constantly asks Ry rhetorical questions like “[y]ou have slept with women, haven’t you?” “you watch porn, don’t you,” “[women] . . . always out of reach. Aren’t they?” and “I hated blow-up dolls, did you?” to consolidate the naturalness of his implicit assumptions about Ry and to forge a bond between them based on that commonality (39-40, 42-3). However, this approach to socializing as equals falls apart once Ry informs Ron that they are transgender. When Ron still categorizes Ry as a heterosexual man, it allows him to form a relational identity to Ry that supports his own gender ideology. By “producing and replicating normative gender interactions,” Ron “[dictates] and [reinforces] the social differences between perceived sexes” and strengthens his own, heterosexual male identity (Whitley 609).
Finding out that his categorization of Ry was wrong means that he must recalibrate his interactions with them, and he is now unsure how to build a relational identity with Ry. Ron has two different social scripts based on whether he talks to men or women, and he tries to fit Ry into one of the two, questioning them and searching for signs that can tell him which binary gender category Ry belongs to. As he admits freely, he would not have talked to Ry at the exposition if they were “a girl” (Winterson 84). He goes over several potential gender and sex signals, from Ry’s visible body (“[y]ou look like a bloke” 84, “[y]ou’ve got a bloke’s hands” 88), to their genitalia (“have you got a dick?” 85) and their sexual orientation (“[d]id you fancy women? You fancied women but you didn’t fancy being a lesbian?” 86). He even sees Ry’s vegetarian diet as a clue to their gender (94). Ron scrutinises Ry’s actions, habits, and physical appearance, asking invasive questions about their body and sexuality to somehow uncover what he considers Ry’s true gender. He wants to eliminate the uncertainty that comes with his not being able to securely categorize Ry as a man or woman and thus not knowing which social protocol to activate in interactions with them. To Ron, Ry looks like a man, and so he cannot interact with them as he does with women (84), but they do not fulfil Ron’s criteria of manhood, either. They “don’t count” as a real man (229), being “a bloke who’s a girl” (331). Ron’s actions towards Ry can be subsumed under the “masculinist gaze”: “the interpretive contemplation of the body, in a dense process of exclusions and inclusions, of absences and presences, of validated/legitimated and invalidated/delegitimated,” with the goal of rendering that body meaningful, but “only insofar as it reinforces the principles of the compulsorily heteronormative patriarchy or can be used to demonstrate what may be considered unacceptable or inappropriate—if not, out-right threatening deviations from those principles” (Foster 10). Ry’s nonbinary gender identity threatens Ron’s sexist and binary social paradigms, and as such, Ron must continuously try to ‘make sense’ of their existence and their nonbinary body within a binary, heteronormative frame. This disregard for trans people’s privacy, the “objectification, misunderstanding, and pathologizing of a transgender person’s physical appearance,” such as being judged on “passing” as a certain gender, are all “detrimental to [trans people] and contribute to the perpetuation of the view that transgender people are ‘others’ rather than legitimate and valued members of society” (Hays et al. 21).
Ron’s use of names provides a particular example of how he discursively others Ry. Judith Butler writes that “the occupation of the name is that by which one is, quite without choice, situated within discourse,” and that being named is what first enables “the use of language” in general (122). When we are named by others or when we assert our own name, those are attempts to fix our identity via what Butler calls an “identity-constituting performance”: “The name orders and institutes a variety of free-floating signifiers into an ‘identity’; the name effectively ‘sutures’ the object” (208). When Ron continuously calls Ry “Ryan,” even after Ry tells him that this is not their name, he refuses Ry’s self-identification, their constituted identity, and instead claims the prerogative to name and thus identify Ry (Winterson 83). Naming is “the repeated inculcation of a norm,” and by repeating “Ryan” over and over, Ron sets a gendered norm for Ry (Butler 8). A name is a “linguistic token which designates sex,” and because Ry presents in a way that reads masculine to Ron, they need a masculine name to fix this sexed position (Butler 139). Ry at first does not react to being misnamed, but when they specifically state that “[i]t’s Ry. Just Ry,” they set a boundary for themself through a statement of identity (Winterson 83). By ignoring this boundary, Ron declares that Ry’s identity is not something that they get to define, and he underscores how much he does not take Ry’s name seriously when he says “Ryan, or Mary, or whatever your name is” (85).
Ron does indeed know that names fulfil more than a simple referential function, and so this flippant remark shows his disregard for Ry: he made the conscious decision not to give his sex-bots names so that the choice of naming and thus the prerogative of constituting an identity for them lies with the customer (41-2). “Naming is power,” Ry tells Claire (26). Furthermore, when Ron is in a situation where he is made to feel inferior to Ry, he uses their name to gain back his superior status. “Ryan is buying me a drink,” Claire tells Ron when Ron asks her if he can buy her a drink (230). She rebuffs his flirtatious advances and lets him know that she prefers Ry over him. Ron immediately reacts by stating that “[h]e’s called Mary,” at once purposefully misnaming Ry and outing his gender transition history and transgender status to Claire (230). Ron uses his knowledge of Ry’s gender identity to put Ry in a position where they are forced to disclose private information about themself. He gains power over them by making it obvious that he can choose to reveal this knowledge to others at any point. He also explicitly uses the name “Mary” to create confusion about Ry’s gender and to paint them as an incoherent other, an individual with conflicting gender signals. Later in the same conversation, Ron once more claims that “[Ry is] trans . . . his real name is Mary,” to which Ry replies “[m]y ‘real’ name is not Mary!” (240). Ron not only forcibly outs Ry as transgender, but he also makes it clear that there is fantasy, the artificial world in which Ry is called Ry, and reality, where their natural, ‘actual’ name is Mary. As such, he dismisses Ry’s self-identification and autonomy over their own person and appoints himself the sole judge over what is and is not a legitimate way for Ry to perform their gender identity. To Ron, Ry’s name is something that he can employ to show favour or to express his dislike for Ry: When Ry tells him to “shut up,” Ron counters with “[n]o, I won’t shut up, Bloody Mary” (280). On the other hand, once Ry earns Ron’s respect, he calls them “Ry” for the first time (312). Therefore, Ron wields Ry’s name, which is so directly connected to how their gender is perceived and how they autonomously choose to express their own identity, as a tool that gives him the power over the definition and disclosure of that identity. This allows Ron to uphold his gender essentialist, heterosexist ideology. When he can other Ry, he is no longer just a “lonely man” (235); instead, he is an individual in a powerful position within the gender hierarchy, which grants him the ability to judge what is and is not ‘normal’ and acceptable.
Conclusion: Non-Binary Stories
Winterson’s novel is a unique adaptation of the Frankenstein mythos, asking questions about the future of humanity, what makes us who we are, and who gets to answer these questions. The focus on Ry as a non-binary individual gives these issues a specific and contemporary reference point. Gender-diverse people are at the forefront of the philosophical debates on bodily autonomy, self-identification, and the nature of humankind. Ry, who “lives with doubleness,” makes us confront the consequences and implications of a future where we may change our bodies, or even leave them behind for good (Winterson 89). However, their story also makes it clear that while we, or in this case Victor Stein, have our eyes on a distant utopia, old stereotypes and discriminatory systems still exist, and that they will not be eradicated automatically, but brought with us into an age of pure consciousness, unless we choose to act otherwise. Hierarchies are built into our society and they are upheld through practices of othering that create and exclude an ‘other’ to strengthen the community of ‘us’. As Victor and Ron’s treatment of Ry shows, those who are empowered by the gender hierarchy, which is based on a binary gender and sex essentialism, perpetuate othering structures that exclude and disenfranchise the abject other. For Victor, this takes on the form of objectifying fetishization. In Ron’s case, his (hetero)sexism and gender essentialism other Ry and their queer body, forcing them into binaries to keep his position of power. Either character discriminates against Ry discursively, constituting their gender identity as other, unnatural, and less worthy than their own, binary gender.
The genre of science fiction particularly lends itself to an investigation into what gender is and what it means. Non-binary realities “[invite] us to reconsider what we know about being human, about relationships, education, bodies, social roles, and more,” and in the fantastical futures of sci-fi, these questions find a space where they can be explored (290-1). Sci-fi “has long been the realm of resistance for marginalised identities,” a place where new worlds and possibilities can be envisioned and, at the same time, symptoms of our current system analysed (ibid.). Where theory is often “[complicit] . . . with its objects of critique,” always at risk of “falling prey to the structures it aims to criticize” when “pinpointing mechanisms of exclusion and othering” (Gressgård 541), the fictional mode presents a tool to “speak about gender, transition, selfhood, bodily integrity, prosthesis, and rebirth or resurrection that is not amenable to taxonomy and surveillance,” in short, a utopian depiction of gender possibilities (Gordon 201). Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, non-binary realities are always reinvented, reimagined and reinscribed, and as we look to a future of ever-changing relations of gender and agency, of bodily autonomy and human corporeality, non-binary stories are the vanguard of how we can envision alternative ways of living.
Kit Schuster, “‘I live with doubleness’: Non-Binary Gender Identity and Othering in Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein: A Love Story,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 6 (2021): n.pag. Web 13 December 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.6.02
About the Author
Kit Schuster (they/them) is a graduate student completing an MA in British and North American Cultural Studies at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg, Germany. Their current research focuses on Embodiment, Posthumanism, and Gothic Literature, with an emphasis on Queerness and Othering. Kit Schuster is a published poet and an activist, engaging in community efforts on behalf of lgbtq+ students. They can be contacted on twitter @KitSchusterAca.
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Feature Image: I Ought to Be My Adam by Lou Bold