A painted portrait of Mary Shelley looking directly at the viewer
A painted portrait of Mary Shelley looking directly at the viewer
Richard Rothwell’s portrait of Mary Shelley, 1840

“Frankenstein” for the Multiracial Teenage Girl

How Mary Shelley’s Creature understood my multiracial hybridity

There is nothing in the world that I love more than stories, and there is no story that I love more than Frankenstein.

It’s a story that almost everyone in the Western world knows: a scientist creates life from death, and must live with the consequences of his creation’s sentience. Its appeal is built between our anxieties about death and our scientific curiosity, and it is hard to overstate its influence. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio adaptation is even drawing from it.

A painting of a man standing above a sea of fog atop a mountain.
A painting of a man standing above a sea of fog atop a mountain.
The cover of the same edition of “Frankenstein” I read in high school

Looking back, Mary Shelley’s story couldn’t have come in at a better time in my life. In reading the original text when I was in my teens, I was struck by how much a young English woman from two hundred years ago seemed to understand what it was like to struggle with being multiracial in America. It was strange: I found identification in the place where I least expected to find it.

But more than that, I could locate myself through Mary Shelley within the schema of the great Romantic artist and author. I had been drawn to its emphasis on emotional expression since I first heard Tchaikovsky, but due to its androcentric canon, I was unsure if my gender (and not to mention race) disqualified me from participating. Among figures like Lord Byron, her husband Percy Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and more, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s voice urgently spoke to me.

Teenage girls are routinely dismissed as frivolous, their emotional expressions and interests disregarded as air-headed. It’s almost funny then that the inventor of the science fiction genre, notorious for being a boys’ club, was a teen girl herself. With Frankenstein, I discovered a world where girls my age invented entirely new genres to suit the highs and lows of their experiences on Earth. As a storyteller now, I find it almost impossible for me to escape the influence of Frankenstein. It provided me with a template to explore the very concrete and earthly questions of my racial and national identity, within the realm of the fantastic.

Reading the work of another eighteen year-old was exactly what I needed at the time I first picked up “Frankenstein,” because I felt like a monster.

Adolescence is, in itself, a process of chimeric creation, as one works through the in-between space of childhood and adulthood. During my teenage years, this was magnified on several fronts.

Since I was a young child, I had been intensely aware of my “difference” as a multiracial person, but when I was a teenager, this seemed to become more urgent. I felt comfortable with knowing that I was “the cool girl with purple and orange hair who played in punk bands” at school, but I was privately grappling with an explanation for who I was, racially and culturally.

I searched for a lexicon that accurately encompassed my racial and cultural background, but found it difficult to find anything that I felt comfortable with. In my early teen years, I had been called “mutt” enough times that finding a label that acknowledged my diverse background without being derogatory seemed almost impossible. At the time, it felt like there was no term that I could use as a shorthand for others to understand “what I was” without going through a list of my parents’ ethnicities.

This was mainly because I had not yet worked my way out of the imperialist mindset of blood quantum, that made me look at myself in constituent parts and percentages, as opposed to a blended whole. This reinforced a negative image of myself, because I often lost sight of the fact that all of my “parts” added up to a single human being. The idea that I could be more than one “thing” at the same time was lost on me.

Moreover, I was deeply ambivalent about being American. Experiences with racism and micro-aggressions, coupled with my growing awareness of America’s immensely horrendous past and present made it difficult for me to imagine myself, to borrow from Benedict Anderson, as part of a national community outside of my hometown of New York City. America was something I didn’t want to be a part of, and yet I was still here. I saw myself as partly Irish, but not Irish American. But I also understood myself to be Chinese American: I was the second generation born in the US, and my Cantonese was very limited. I felt like I belonged nowhere.

As such, I went into Frankenstein for the first time with my head swirling with questions related to my own “incompleteness.”

An etching of Victor Frankenstein looking horrified at his monster
An etching of Victor Frankenstein looking horrified at his monster
The frontispiece for the 1831 edition of “Frankenstein”

The Other was given a voice in “Frankenstein” like never before.

I had never read a story that was so invested in the emotional and psychological development of a so-called monster. Despite Victor Frankenstein’s fear and loathing towards his creation, Mary Shelley made the Creature a sympathetic and compelling character. Though he often lurked in shadows, for fear that others may see his appearance, Shelley’s monster wasn’t one to be feared. His conditions were to be understood by the reader, his loneliness mourned. I connected with the Creature right away.

In reading Frankenstein, I was met with a vigorous argument for my humanity, from the mouth of the Creature himself. The monster was built from disparate bodies, yet eloquently argued that his provenance did not preclude the validity of his needs as a human being. Though I now prefer that people do not ask about my specific blood quantum, (“So what percentage are you Chinese?” etc.) I was empowered by the Creature’s frank acknowledgement of his own bodily diversity.

Shelley’s characterization of the Creature emphasized that his “monstrosity” was a social construction, rather than an innate quality.

This aspect of the story resonated with me the most. On our own, there was nothing horrible about the Creature and I’s diverse DNA. It was the prejudices of others and society that made us “horrible.” Considering the obstacles that many marginalized groups face in America and throughout the world, Shelley’s proto-social model remains especially salient. The sense of empathy that undergirds Shelley’s treatment of the Creature makes Frankenstein such a powerful entry for anyone who has ever felt alone.

With Frankenstein, Mary Shelley spawned my affinity for and identification with the abject. My favorite filmmaker is Guillermo del Toro, and my favorite superhero team the X-Men. Shelley gave me a vocabulary in which I could talk about marginalization through richly emotional stories.

Most recently, I returned back to Frankenstein while working on an animated film during my final semester of college. I was writing and animating the film from the perspective of a last remaining member of a group devastated by colonialism, who sits before a fire miles away from her homeland, reflecting on the circumstances of her condition. This story was based in my own longing for a home, as well as grief related to how colonialism has impacted my ancestors and I’s trajectories, especially in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In writing the film with such intensely personal themes, I hit a wall where I was unsure of how I could talk about these issues while also making sure that I left room for viewer interpretation and connection. It was then that I got a hold of my copy of Frankenstein from high school, and reread the text, going over past annotations and making new ones. With new insight into how Mary Shelley deftly captured my emotions and imagination years before, I went forwards with my story, confident that I could create something beautiful out of a painful condition.

Two pieces of black paper are sewn together by a needle threaded with yarn
Two pieces of black paper are sewn together by a needle threaded with yarn
A still from my animated short film, Night-Riders.

Written by

Chinese-Māori and Irish-Scottish filmmaker writing about pop culture. LA. https://www.instagram.com/infinitevibes/

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