Friday, July 11, 2008

Recuperating Frankenstein's Creature as a Drag Icon

(Note: This essay discusses the text of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus as it was revised by Mary Shelley in 1831 and published by Random House in 1993. It does not consider other versions of the story, filmed or otherwise.)

Immediately after the moment of his ‘birth,’ Frankenstein’s Creature is abandoned by his creator. The Creature wanders about, attempting to make his way in the world with no education or socialization save that which is stored in the recycled human tissue used to construct his body. He observes the daily activities of a family living at a cottage in the forest, but is able to make little sense of their comings and goings until he finds “on the ground a leathern portmanteau, containing… some books. …They consisted of Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter” (Shelley 167). From these few texts—and from his purely specular fascination with the cottagers—Frankenstein’s Creature culls his entire personality. In this way he is like the modern day drag queens that, in Juan A. Suárez’s words, “…acquire their identity through mimesis of pre-existent images and icons, emerging from the already-seen, the already-read, the already-done” (Suárez 192). (See footnote 1.)

Frankenstein made his creature out of disparate parts, and so it contains within its physique multiple identities. It was then assigned a gender, though it was provided no corresponding partner, no completion to the binary implied by the designation of Frankenstein’s Creature as a ‘he.’ Perhaps these attributes suggest a more appropriate comparison with transgender or transsexual individuals. I don’t reject the potency of this metaphor; however, it is the performativity of the Creature’s identity assumption that holds the greater interest for me, and leads me to situate him within the same cultural space as the drag queen.

The books Frankenstein’s Creature finds in the portmanteau (an interesting word choice in retrospect, now that the term has come to mean a fusing together of two words to create something new) teach him everything he comes to know of humanity’s vices, virtues, and laws, its passions, emotions, and customs. “I learned from Werter’s imaginations despondency and gloom: but Plutarch taught me high thoughts; he elevated me above the wretched sphere of my own reflections to admire and love the heroes of past ages” (Shelley 169). The Creature begins to conduct himself in what he imagines to be the manner of these “heroes of past ages” in order to become closer to humans because “I found myself similar, yet at the same time strangely unlike to the beings concerning whom I read, and to whose conversation I was a listener” (Shelley 168). He characterizes himself as “miserable beyond all living things” (126) and learns from Paradise Lost that “I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence” (170). Finding himself to be in limbo—a border-crosser, between life and death, between identities— and thus an outcast of the first order, he begins to simulate humanity, finding a role and playing it.

Steven Shaviro calls the body “a flat surface of inscription and reflection, comprising all the image layers that are incised or overlaid upon it” (Shaviro 227). This is true of the body of Frankenstein’s Creature both metaphorically and, in the literal sense, it refers to Victor Frankenstein’s intentions at the act of creating this body. Victor says, “I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organisation… I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make a being of gigantic stature” (Shelley 61). Victor seems to equate the complexity of the being’s physical organization with it’s greatness—the comparison hinging on the double meaning of the word ‘stature.’ He rejects the notion of making a being equal or lesser to himself, instead planning to make one greater. His creature’s body thus serves as Victor Frankenstein’s commentary on humanity, “a flat surface of inscription and reflection.” But it is the Creature himself who uses his identity to reflect—or attempt to mirror—humanity.

Severo Sarduy writes, “The transvestite does not imitate woman… [he] does not copy; he simulates, since there is no norm to invite and magnetize his transformation, to determine his metaphor; instead it is the non-existence of the worshipped being that constitutes… the support of his simulation…” (Sarduy 93). The relationship between the drag queen and womanhood is analogous to that of Frankenstein’s Creature and humanity. The personality he constructs for himself is derived from textual sources and distant observation. He seeks to assume the persona of the “heroes of past ages” just as the drag queen enacts a perpetual recycling of “quotes and images that most often emanate from the stock of Hollywood fantasies” (Suárez 192). Even the original source is a fantasy, a romanticization. Goethe’s (sort of) romance may be of different conception than classic Hollywood’s, but as utopian representatives of lost ideals, their effects are similar. (See note 2.) Meanwhile, Plutarch and Milton dramatize everything from the historical to the spiritual in terms of great battles.

Frankenstein’s Creature is himself somewhat aware of his position as an identity-under-construction. Like “drag queens [who] grasp the fictiveness of this ‘want to be’… [who] understand the constructivist nature of the body better than anybody else,” Frankenstein’s Creature is conscious of himself as a simulacrum (Shaviro 227). He knows that humans consider him other than themselves, so he investigates further into the meaning of humanity. He is deeply disillusioned when the actual actions of men don’t match up to his impressions of “peaceable lawgivers, [like] Numa, Solon, and Lycurgus” (Shelley 170). He mocks humanity, though he ultimately desires to participate in it: “You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man!” (Shelley 129). It is not only his manner, and his words here, that mock humanity—it is the Creature’s mere existence.

Because he has ‘played God,’ and brought about something new and somehow unintended, even the Creature’s creator views him as somehow outside of nature, an abomination. When Victor Frankenstein contemplates the possibility of his creature’s ‘species’ populating the earth, he is repulsed and driven to violence. His response strikes me as similar to the conservative viewpoint of transsexual or transgender people, where one is paradoxically repelled by the ‘unnatural’ space occupied by a supposedly non-procreating human and terrified that they will somehow multiply and spread across the world. Drag queens, for all their presumption of femininity, leave out of their interpretation the intrinsic element of womanhood: the ability to bear a child. Thus, they mock child-bearers by their very existence, just as Frankenstein’s Creature mocks humanity.

Drag queens are all too aware that, as Judith Butler says, gender—and thus human—“reality is created through sustained social performances.” Butler has written that drag “imitate[s] the myth of originality itself” and “dramatize[s] the signifying gestures through which gender itself is established” (qtd. in Storey 125). The assumption of a ‘human’ identity by Frankenstein’s creature similarly dramatizes the way that “Personality… is a pure image, the most transitory and superficial layer of the body: it is something that needs to be put on each day, just like clothing and make-up” (Shaviro 226). Physically, the Creature is essentially an outsized, over-the-top human, and his assumption of a gentlemanly manner is equally grotesque. His response to the old blind cottager’s extension of simple hospitality is thus: “You raise me from the dust by this kindness; and I trust that, by your aid, I shall not be driven from the society and sympathy of your fellow-creatures” (Shelley 170). The drag queen affects the manner and being of a woman in the way Frankenstein’s Creature here acts the gentleman: too much, too big, too in-your-face, over-the-top. Perhaps his formality would have seemed less exaggerated in the era the novel was written, but there is something theatrical and unnatural in his performance of normality which is detected by both the blind cottager and the reader.

“Drag is so spectacular and so immediate that it cannot pretend to the authenticity of a ‘true’ representation: it ruins the very notion of representation” (Shaviro 226). A human confronted with the exaggerated display of supposed humanity enacted by Frankenstein’s Creature sees himself in a funhouse mirror. The only possible reactions are bemusement or horror. It is not his distance from us that so terrifies: it is his closeness. Besides the obviously larger amount of self-consciousness about his physical form, the only difference between Frankenstein’s Creature and most of us is that he is conscious of his performance. Of Judith Butler’s ideas, John Storey writes, “Gender performativity is not a voluntary practice, it is a continual process of almost disciplinary reiteration” (Storey 125). Both the drag queen and Frankenstein’s Creature are intensely aware of this “continual process,” but the former turns it into play and camp, while the latter is exhausted by it and comes to see it as futile.

Much like Frankenstein’s Creature, “drag queens… carry the logic of pure appearance, of self-hood as artifice…” (Shaviro 226). They ‘put on’ a persona, using the external elements interpolated into their images as icons of nostalgia and for their value as cultural referents. This act is conscious, apparent, and dramatic, and it disrupts “the very notion of representation.” Because of their seeming inability to play the roles assigned to them, or even to inconspicuously play the ones they have chosen for themselves, drag queens and other transgender or transsexual people are set apart from a society divided by a traditional binary gender code. The performative processes of identity (in general) and gender (in particular) made apparent by the textual and cultural recycling enacted by the drag queen are the same ones illuminated when humanity is confronted with the specter of Frankenstein’s Creature. The drag identity that Frankenstein’s Creature assumes is that of a human being. The conscious attempt on the part of the drag queen or the Creature to play these roles shows us what it might be like every day as we play them.


1 Credit must be given to Suárez, in whose Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars I initially found the juxtaposition of Frankenstein/drag queen: “…they are collages made up, like Frankenstein’s body, of pre-existing fragments…” (192)

2 Extratextual note on Goethe and Shelley: The Sorrows of Young Werther is presented as a collection of letters, similar to the construction of Frankenstein, so Shelley’s use of it in the novel is somewhat cheeky. Also, the use of Werther continues the chain of associations related to the fusing together of different parts to make a new whole. Werther contains Goethe’s translations of the “Ossian” poems contemporarily popularized by James Macpherson. It was soon revealed that Macpherson hadn’t discovered and translated an ancient text, as he had claimed—he had found fragments of an epic poem and adapted it into his own work.

Works Cited.

Sarduy, Severo. Written on a Body, Trans. Carol Meier. New York: Lumen, 1992.

Shaviro, Steven. The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. New York: Random House, 1993.

Storey, John. An Introductory Guide to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993.

Suárez, Juan A. Bike Boys, Drag Queens and Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture and Gay Identities in the 1960’s Underground Cinema. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Special thanks to Dr. Ellen Peel, Ph.D., whose course at SFSU, "The Constructed Body," was the venue for the first draft of this paper and whose notes were invaluable.

All images by Nan Goldin.


Anonymous said...

I hope the Frankenstein monster doesn't become associated with the world of drag. That would be most unfortunate. The icon deserves better than that.

The Brain said...

This article was just brilliant!

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Anonymous: Bigots are cowards.

The Brain: Thank you for your kind words.