Narrative and Technology
28 April 2012
Feminism and Sexuality through the Male Gaze in Frankenstein
“If it's true, as Longfellow said,
that a man must be either anvil
too much remains unseen to say
what a woman is,
or a beloved
or even the object--
agent, actor, act,
the scene itself unfolding
toward catastrophe--or if this is all
as bad as it sounds: to be rapt,
or if bringing back is the action
that connects us
to what, together, we perform. And of course it's not true.
Forgive me my unchaste eye.
I'd ask to be unfastened from
this tyranny of relation, but care of the body is referred (if any)
to the soul.
We fill pre-existing forms, and when we fill them, change them and are changed” (Estes)
John Estes wrote this poem in relation to the male gaze. The last four lines most aptly portray the notion of the male gaze from the most unbiased perspective I’ve read thus far. It essentially states, that we make attachments and set roles for all which surrounds us. They, in turn, as individual entities are altered by the society which sets these expectations. Consequently, some of these entities which have been altered over time to fit in these boxes can as well shape the society which molded them.
To ground this abstract concept we can look specifically at the male gaze in relation to the object most commonly of the men’s affection: women. Women have always been valued primarily one thing: our fertile childbearing abilities. Over time, this translated into valuing our curves because at the most basic, primal level, curves meant wide hips, and wide hips, in turn, meant apt ability to produce children and survive childbirth, ultimately allowing the mother to raise the child post birth. This, in turn, allowed the man to go out and hunt, and as society progressed work, fundamentally to provide a living for the family which the woman produced.
Regardless of how society continues to change, curves have remain constant in the stream of female body parts which are objectified. Cameras pan over them in films, TV shows and advertisements. Advertisers capture small snapshots of women in positions that persistently highlight the thighs, hips, breasts, and butt. Even in literature, certain diction can be labeled as feminine or masculine based on the “rounder” or “edgier” connotation they might have. This, is what is typically labeled as the “male gaze,” as the man’s gaze is generally drawn to the curves rather than any other part of the woman’s exterior. Edward Snow, of Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems once stated in relation to men and the male gaze, “It is clear that the superego is in control, enacting at the level of analysis in the aggression and desire for mastery it seeks to criticize the subject.” (Snow, p. 31) I am not arguing that Mary Shelley attempted to break the stereotype of the male gaze, but rather that she used it to her advantage to give a voice to the feminist movement in a time of female opposition in literature and submissiveness in public. While it may not come across this way given her portrayal of the passive females in Frankenstein, she does so by using female roles within male homosexuality to attempt to break this mold. First, we need to look at the role of the passive female and follow it up with the role of the homosexual male in relation to the passive female.
While Shelley paints the female characters as being passive, I don’t necessarily think she paints the female role as being completely passive. The distinction between the two, the role versus the character, is slight and borderline trivial, but there is enough of a distinction to comment on it. The characters themselves, Justine and Elizabeth specifically, do submit themselves to the male’s dominance. They cook, clean, tend to the house and the needs of the members of the household in the absence of a female with more of a hierarchy. They are gratuitous towards Victor and Victor’s father for taking them in and essentially submit their ability to think for themselves by allowing the men to make the decision for them. This is most obviously seen in Elizabeth’s resignation to Justine’s innocence after young William’s death as soon as Victor proclaims it so. Everything about this screams passivity.
Yet the female role Shelley paints in other characters varies from this. Victor is painted as a feminine, motherly figure. While Victor is the creator, and we can only assume he intends to nurture the creature like a mother as well, he quickly shies away from this classic feminine role as his disgust for the creature grows. Yet, he reverts back to this at times, one of which is most clearly seen on page 109 when Victor and the creature meet on the mountain, “For the first time, also, I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were, and I thought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness,” (Shelley p. 109) While this feeling was fleeting, it was a motherly feeling nonetheless. This can be viewed as passive because he is submitting himself to his child, essentially. Yet, Victor’s role in the creature’s life remains fairly masculine, at least for the time period in which this was written. In the 18th and 19th centuries (and for most of history for that matter) it was considered the woman’s duty to raise the child into adulthood and the man’s job to work outside of the house to cover the family’s living expenses. Shelley comments on this with Victor rejecting his child and refusing to raise it. He, in turn, is faced with an internal conflict of whether to support it in any way whatsoever, including creating a mate for the creature, or to ostracize the creature even further.
Shelley’s representation of men in a more feminine light points to a goal she may have had of breaking stereotypes surrounding gender roles. Yet her constant affirmation of most of the female characters fitting into that role specifically as they were passive, demur and agreeable leads us to question whether or not Shelley was truly invested in making these societal changes. Her messages were contradictory between the two similar representations of the genders and leads us to question her true intentions behind the manner in which she subtly crossed these gender lines.
In other words, did Shelley only slightly blur those lines of gender and sexual orientation stereotypes and roles and continue to paint her female characters in the light society was used to at that time in order to appeal to the masses? And was she doing this so that her novel would in turn subliminally alter society’s opinions of gender roles even if done so only slightly? Or are these potential goals too obscure and forward thinking for the period in which she was raised despite her feminist upbringing? In order for our society to continue to progress with social equality with race, gender, religion and sexual orientation, we must continue to ask ourselves these questions, look at these types of arguments, and in turn look at literary critics’, philosophers’, authors’ and social activists’ perspectives of how to make such advancements. Shelley, although not the only one of her time taking these steps towards social progression, was one of the more prominent pioneers of her generation and certainly one of the most important pioneers of her gender.
And Shelley knew this. We can easily look at the character, Safie’s role as a mirror of how Shelley viewed herself in her society. Safie is first mentioned in chapter 13, towards the middle of the novel and her origin is fairly mysterious for that single chapter. It isn’t until chapter 14 that we learn of her Turkish origin and more importantly the manner in which she was raised by her mother. Her mother, a Christian in a nation of Muslims, inculcated in Safie the importance of independence and intelligence in any realm, but particularly as a woman in the society in which she was being raised. The creature relays about Safie:
“The young girl spoke in high and enthusiastic terms of her mother, who, born in freedom, spurned the bondage to which she was now reduced. She instructed her daughter in the tenets of her religion and taught her to aspire to higher powers of intellect and an independence of spirit, forbidden to the female followers of Mahomet. This lady died; but her lessons were indelibly impressed on the mind of Safie, who sickened at the prospect of again returning to Asia and being immured within the walls of a harem, allowed only to occupy herself with infantile amusements, ill suited to the temper of her soul, now accustomed to grand ideas and a noble emulation for virtue. The prospect of marrying a Christian, and remaining in a country where women were allowed to take a rank in society, was enchanting to her.” (Shelley, pp. 135-137)
The bondage in Turkey from which Safie was attempting to escape is not in stark contrast with the societal bondages placed on women in most other nations at that time, particularly Europe, to where Safie was aiming to spend the rest of her life. Yet, the small differences are significant enough to Safie to symbolize progressives steps in the right direction towards gender equality. Perhaps in Shelley’s mind, she was Safie and her novels, particularly Frankenstein were her escape to Europe. They were her first steps towards social change, however seemingly minute in retrospect, at the time they were fairly drastic for these women. And thus the manner in which she subtly began to break the gender barriers in this novel should not necessarily be seen as a copout to true social progression at the time. Rather Shelley aptly read her audience and catered to them to allow her goal to ultimately be accomplished rather than swept aside out of shock if she had presented this message and goal with more drastic forwardness. We must also remember that Shelley wrote and published this novel only 14 years before the Women’s Suffrage Movement began in the United Kingdom, so at the time, seeds were already being sewn in the minds of game changers for social equality, and this novel and the messages that accompany it, although seemed drastic in some circles, were not completely out of place for the time period.
We can further see the effects of gender lines being blurred in William Gibson’s novel, Neuromancer, as the main characters adopt gender neutral roles or cross over gender lines in a largely cyborg and technology-dominated society. Donna Jeanne Haraway comments on this years after the novel was written and published arguing that with bolder more distinct gender lines, individuals are more hesitant to cross them. Rather, when they are blurred, individuals have little to no problem adopting otherwise gender labeled roles. In other words, the culture creates the culture and the predetermined expectations set further expectations in those limited boundaries. Haraway uses cyborgs as her premium example as she argues that their gender descriptions are not as obviously mapped out and because society views them as fairly ambiguous in terms of gender, they accept and almost expect more cross-over and blurred lines. Yet, in Frankenstein, the blurring of gender lines proved to be internally difficult for the characters who were crossing-over, namely Victor Frankenstein. We see this most aptly in his rejection of the creature once he comes to life. This can be attributed to many things, one of which his embarrassment in his passivity in the motherly role even if done so only briefly. Yet, when the creature is unsure of his gender identity for some time, he has no qualms about adopting multiple roles which would otherwise be defined as gender-specific simply because he was doing what he had to do to survive and consider ethically appropriate.
Although not named and studied until the 20th century, we additionally see the “male gaze” at multiple points throughout the novel. Edward Snow states about the male gaze:
“Masculine vision is almost invariably characterized as patriarchal, ideological and phallocentric......at times it seems, as Gaylyn Studlar has observed, that the female can function for the male only as an object of sadistic spectatorial possession.” (Snow p. 30)
As we noted in class, Walton’s obvious affinity for Victor Frankenstein is most noted through the description of Frankenstein. We can imagine Walton slowly panning over Victor’s body to describe him, as we often see in media with the male gaze towards the object of the man’s affection. However, the fact that R. Walton’s object of affection is Victor Frankenstein alludes to the upper hand women can have and their control in sexuality simply due to his pure captivation with Victor and his eagerness to be near him. This gives power to the individuals in a patriarchal and largely chauvinistic society whom would otherwise be mocked and placed in a box. In turn, the uncommon distribution of power and social discussions allows for homosexuality to be observed, even if it is done so subtly, as it is in Frankenstein.
Roxan N. Alexander Barr, author of California State University’s 2009 study on the male gaze entitled, The Male Gaze Meets Modernity: Introducing New Levels of Gazes, highlights the concept of the male gaze being used for more than just the gawking of white females, as it was built to be studied as when it was created over three decades ago. She comments on the notion that the male gaze is prominent in all cultures, is guilty in all ethnicities on different levels and taking the theory a step further in our modern society, is applicable in homosexual circles as well. This is a modern way of thinking simply because these aspects of the male gaze were considered taboo topics of discussion when it was created and were thus not even considered let alone studied even in the least. She states that “dispelling societal constructs is possible without dispelling the foundational research [of the male gaze]” (Alexander-Barr, p. 8) as we view the progressive perspectives of the male gaze in various circles. She continues to explain that “the male gaze is not ‘when men look’ (Walters), but when any person of any gender, race or sexual orientation takes on the role of social majority and experiences power through voyeurism” (Alexander-Barr, p. 8) What Alexander-Barr is arguing is really not a new concept, as we see with the male gaze being utilized in Frankenstein in the early 19th century. However, like Shelley helped plant the seeds for social change in terms of gender equality, she also has planted the seeds for social change in terms of what norms become for race and sexual orientation. Yet, Shelley’s homosexual representation of the male gaze was not necessarily done so with these intentions. Her intentions rest in the practicality she recognized she must have in presenting her goals to her society.
It can potentially be seen that Shelley intentionally chose not to use many female characters to represent the strength in females and the feminist movement. Rather, she uses the subtle presence of homosexuality in the novel to point to the power the female can have. She was wrapping the controversial individuals in society in a masculine package, while using literary techniques to make them appear to the reader to be looked at in a feminine light despite the knowledge of the gender of the characters in the book. This is done so simply outside of the manner of deep description, but rather the continuous heavy description of Victor. Walton characterizes both Victor and the creature, both the most prevalent male roles, throughout the novel. However, he does so starkly differently for each character. For the creature, he allows his actions and his most factual relaying of his story to characterize him. On the other hand, for Victor, he perpetually uses heavy descriptive details to describe his actions, his feelings, his appearance, his innermost thoughts, and his dialogue. When R. Walton relays Victor’s story, he characterizes Victor and his actions and dialogue with more adjectives, whether they are endearing or neutral. However, when relaying the monster’s story, even though it was also relayed by Victor, he uses bland adjectives, if any at all. It’s obvious simply by his actions and the Shakespearean style in which he speaks that the monster is an intelligent creature, particularly given his age. But it’s interesting that the reader can only pick up on the monster’s virtues by the most basic retelling of his story, that there are no adjectives or endearing sentences written about him by Walton. The mere frequency in descriptive characterization points to a more masculine perspective of Victor as Walton objectifies Frankenstein for affection simply because heavy descriptions typically are paired with a female more often than they are with a male character.
Shelley’s decision to portray the characters in the novel as she did, through the male’s perspective could be seen as acute commentary for how she viewed her society, with the women passively fawning at the men’s feet and the men egotistically inflating themselves. Additionally, in the way men typically then, and still do now for that matter, physically externalized the role of women to point to their affection for the woman. This was radical, for a woman to be noticing the injustices, commenting on them, and furthermore making somewhat of a mockery of them.
The novel initially leads the reader to believe that the creature is an evil monster meant to destroy the society, which the readers' society mirrors. Yet, when looking into the story, one begins to question who the real monster is: the society which paints the creature this way for lack of knowledge about it and thus fear of it, or the creature for not being integrated into society on somebody else's accord and thus unintentionally wreaking havoc? While my question was obviously biased, so was Shelley's novel, which in turn, would have created more controversy and potentially had cultivated a completely different tone had she written it in a female voice. She had a particularly interesting perspective as she was not immersed in that culture the way society aimed for her to be, and instead laughed at it with plain disgust. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it is satyrical commentary on how she views her society, but it is certainly teetering that border. Estes stated in the poem above, “We fill pre-existing forms, and when we fill them, change them and are changed.” Shelley broke the mold of the pre-existing form set for women, allowing other female writers, to do so and ultimately provided an example for many women in other professions to do so as well. She used the implications of the male gaze which were typically set aside for women, in the novel for homosexual men to give an unexpected voice to the effects the male gaze can have. She broke the mold for what the male gaze was used for, and she broke the mold for how to relay her liberal thoughts. Shelley was changed by the feminist movement, she then helped change the pre-existing form for women, and helped change the pre-existing form for society.
1. Alexander-Barr, Roxan N. The Male Gaze Meets Modernity: Introducing New Levels of Gazes. Thesis. California State University, Long Beach, 2006. Long Beach, CA, 2009. ProQuest/PittCat. Web. 5 Apr. 2012. <https://sremote.pitt.edu/,DanaInfo=proquest.umi.com+pqdlink?vinst=PROD&fmt=6&startpage=-1&vname=PQD&RQT=309&did=1790276351&scaling=FULL&vtype=PQD&rqt=309&cfc=1&TS=1333651477&clientId=17454>.
2. Estes, John. "The Male Gaze (Ending with a Sentence by Frank Bidart)." The Literary Review 53.2 (2010): 47. Academic OneFile. Web. 11 Feb. 2012.
3. Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1984. Print.
4. Haraway, Donna Jeanne. "AN IRONIC DREAM OF A COMMON LANGUAGE FOR WOMEN IN THE INTEGRATED CIRCUIT." A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81. Print.
5. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. Print.
6. Snow, Edward. "Theorizing the Male Gaze: Some Problems." Representations 25.1 (1989):