This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: El Plaza
On Doctors and Transness: Medicalisation and Objectification of the Trans(gressing) Body in Winterson’s Frankissstein (2019)
This paper examines the representation of transmasculine character Dr Ry Shelley in Jeanette Winterson’s science-fiction novel Frankissstein: A Love Story (2019), and his romantic relationship with cis male AI-expert and transhumanist enthusiast Professor Victor Stein. In a text presented as a “love story”, one wonders how body politics intervene in a love that is based on a cis person adoring a trans person for their embodying transgression in the form of gender affirming hormone therapy and gender affirmation surgery. For this reason, special attention is given to the exoticization and fetishization of medically intervened transgender bodies, which should be noted, both worryingly reduce transness to a surgical-pharmacological intervention while reproducing damaging patterns of objectification. In terms of methodology, I combine both Literary and Queer Theories, being the feminist postmodern approach of authors such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Paul B. Preciado of outmost relevance to the analysis. On the one hand, the former encourages the examination and questioning of gender and sexuality in literary texts, while the latter intersects with it, therefore allowing a further dissecting of aspects of power, identity, and language – all these resulting crucial to the analysis of the representation of transgender subjectivities in the selected work. Thus, given that the most pressuring discourse for the trans
community is the medical one, so much so that it shaped (while delimiting) and recognized their existence at the beginning of the twentieth century, it is interesting to observe to what extent is it still connected to the trans body – a century later. Analysing Frankissstein allows for a study of the revisioning of the relationship between medicine and transness in contemporary science fiction, raising old questions that simply involve new scenarios: transgender characters are presented as objectified as they historically have been, only this time the objectification comes from links to AI, transhumanism, and technological singularity.
About the Author: El Plaza (they/them) is a PhD candidate at the University of Huelva (Spain) whose research focuses on the analysis of the representation of transgender characters in contemporary British fiction written by cis female authors. Their main research interests are the (de)medicalization, objectification and pathologizing of trans bodies, as well as the (mis)representations of transness in connection to class and race.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 3: Trans/Formations, which will take place at 3:50PM GMT time.
This podcast is presented by El Plaza who is a PhD candidate at the University of Huelva (Spain) whose research focuses on the analysis of the representation of transgender characters in contemporary British fiction written by cis female authors. Their main research interests are the (de)medicalization, objectification and pathologizing of trans bodies, as well as the (mis)representations of transness in connection to class and race.
“'Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance”, these were the words of Frankenstein to his creator, in a first attempt at self-recognition, in the 1818 text by Mary Shelley. You may be asking yourself why I am quoting from a more-than-two-centuries-old text if my intention is to talk about something envisioned as completely new: the trans body. Well, may drawing from a 19th century text work as a first step towards understanding that trans people have always existed, under different names and with different roles and meanings in society. Still, the 19th century is a crucial date for transness as we understand it today in the West: when we picture a trans person, we do so within a Western scientific model. This means, it is very hard (although not impossible) to separate a trans body from the medical discourse. Why is this?
Western Trans Studies, and so our understanding of what it is to be trans, is linked to the field of sexology, a European area of study that emerged in the 19th century. In this context, Austrian cis-male scientist Krafft-Ebing publishes his ‘Psychopathia Sexualis’ in the year 1892. He was one of the first scientists to research about people who did not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. By interviewing hundreds of people over several years he very much contributed to defining the fields of so-called at the time “abnormal sexuality” and “abnormal gender presentation”. How did he do this? By picking as a model to measure what was and was not normal a male, heterosexual and cis person. Even though he had the best of intentions at the time, since he wanted to move from a Catholic system that would label these people as sinners, towards a medical system that would gain him the sympathy from trans people, he set a very dangerous precedent that labelled gay, lesbian, bi and trans people as sick (as not normal). We probably are all reaching the same conclusion now: yes, I am afraid this stereotype found its way into the 21st century and we are still fighting it today.
Other famous names came after Krafft-Ebbing, you may not have heard of Doctor Hirschfeld, but you probably have of the Danish artist Lili Elbe, who underwent one of the first gender-affirmation surgeries at Hirschfeld’s Institute. (By the way, at the risk of being off topic, the story of Lili was made into the movie The Danish Girl in 2015 and is a great example of how to centre the narrative of the suffering of trans people on their cis companions). All in all, I want to make the point that the Western medical model has for over a century and a half and still is consistently pathologizing trans people. Not only this, but it also works for people with privilege only (as it is not fully accessible because it still is very expensive) and, also, it still focuses on gender that is only binary (leaving out people who identify as agender, as non-binary or as two-spirit).
Why is this important? Because this means that the medical model validates only trans people who want to transgress the so-called naturalness of their bodies in terms of sex assigned at birth if they do so by becoming the only other available option. That is, for the medical system, you are only read as trans if you were assigned male at birth and wanted to transition to a prototypical female, or the other way round, if you were assigned female at birth, and wanted to transition to the prototypical male. What happens then is that the extended understanding, what most people have in mind today when they picture someone trans, is someone who has to be read as part of the binary, and the most common way to do this is by means of medical modifications, such as gender affirming hormone therapy or surgery (or both).
The question here is: what happens to trans people (inside or outside the binary) that do not want any sort of medical intervention? How can they be recognized as their preferred gender or as non-binary without the gatekeeping mechanisms of Western medicine? And I will now go back to the words of Frankenstein that I shared with you just minutes ago (I quote) “God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours” (end of quote). Frankenstein had his body changed, altered, created, all in all, controlled, by a human being. What differentiates him from the trans body is that he did not chose to be brought to existence, to be the way he was. He is an alteration to an already existing human body (although a dead one, in his case), but he never held the power to say: ‘please, Dr Frankenstein, help me, this is who I want to be’. The protagonist of Jeanette Winterson’s ‘Frankissstein’ novel, named Ry, is similar to the original character of Frankenstein in that they both have altered bodies, bodies that transgress the norms of the social construction we have come to call “nature”, and bodies intervened by doctors.
However, we need to consider that Ry did want to make these changes in order to transition into a trans man, making a deliberate decision. Volition, yes, but to what extent really? In this novel, subtitled “A love story”, we are being told from the start that the transgressing protagonist, Ry, is not interested in “modern Prometheuses”, but in giving and receiving love. But can he, really? He falls in love with Professor Victor Stein, who praises him for being trans. This raises myriad questions, but two are key for me: first, is Ry trans for Professor Stein only because he underwent medical intervention, and second, is it really love if you love someone for their being trans (and not for being themselves)? Let’s explore now these two questions in the novel.
2. The trans body equals a medicalized body.
Let me share with you now a quote from ‘Frankissstein’, the 2019 novel, in which Ry and Victor see each other naked for the first time. (I quote) “I didn’t notice Victor had come in until I stepped out of the shower. He handed me a towel. Then he saw me. […] He saw the scars under my pecs. I watched his eyes work down my body. No penis. […] I’m trans, I said. I had top surgery about a year ago”. (p. 118) (end of quote). These couple of lines are interesting if we think of the trans body as shaped by the Western medical system. They show how Ry sees himself, how he understands his transness. He is trans because, first, he had a mastectomy (he mentions the scars under his pecs) and second, because he has no penis (he thinks that Professor Stein would assume him having a penis since he is a masculine presenting person). For Ry, it is then impossible to identify as trans without giving the main reason why he is trans: he’s had top surgery. Medical intervention equals validation, equals, even, existence. Victor, as a doctor, reads the signs of recognition as well as of transness of the medical system and replies (I quote) “I have never met anyone who is trans” (p. 119) (end of quote). In fact, Professor Victor Stein acts as a metaphor of the medical system itself, he is the one with the power to give Ry the validation he needs, and the first time he touches his body, it all seems to be a sort of medical examination charged with sexual energy: (I quote) “He moved nearer. He ran his long fingers down my forehead over my nose, parted my lips and rubbed my two front teeth, pulled down my lower lip, passed on over […] my non-existent Adam’s apple, […] then he spread his hand, thumb and fingers on either side of my collarbone. As though he was scanning me” (119). Like a human scanner, Professor Stein is the male, cis, heterosexual embodiment of the gatekeeping role of Western medicine. He is in charge of examining, of making a decision on whether Ry’s body is really a body. If it is natural.
But we all know that, for Western medicine, there are two pillars for transition: surgical intervention is one, but access to gender affirming hormone therapy is equally important. Unsurprisingly, our main character here ticks all the boxes when it comes to representing the perfect trans subject for the West: one that makes a big effort to pass as the other sex (in this case, as a cis male) and that for this they rely on medicine. Later in the novel, Ry will reflect upon how taking hormones is a vital part of his transness, since it is crucial to keep his male passing perfect: (I quote) “I’m trans, and that means a lifetime of hormones. […] I keep my maleness intact with testosterone because my body knows it wasn’t born the way I want it to be” (p. 310).
Therefore, we have seen that the representation of the trans man that Winterson offers in her novel, is one that is closely linked to the Western medical conceptualization of transness. Ry undergoes surgery and takes hormones, and only then he is able to (I quote) “keep his maleness intact” (end of quote) , to see himself as a trans person. But this is not just about the trans person validating themselves, but also about the role of the doctor, and of the lover, for they’re the same person in this novel, seeing the trans person as trans because of the medical procedures. Am I saying here that under no circumstances should we connect medicine and transness? That trans people who seek for medical help should not do so? Absolutely not. What I am trying to do here is to highlight the fact that society, with help of the medical system, and in this case in the form of best-selling fiction, is contributing to normalizing and spreading a fiction that only allows trans people who would undergo medical intervention to be validated as trans.
3. Fetishizing and medicalizing medically intervened transgender bodies.
This could very well be just another representation of the trans body as one that is medicalized, but Winterson goes a step beyond that and puts the fact that Ry decided to have medical control under his body to make this the centre of Victor Stein’s attraction towards him. Ry and Victor have a very toxic relationship that is not based on love at all, but on Victor’s obsession over Ry’s trans body. This is fetishization. This is someone feeling attraction towards another person for just this one reason, and this reason is not only them being trans, but them having had the will of medically altering their bodies. How does Winterson introduce (justifies, really, if you ask me) a character with such behaviour? Well, by presenting Professor Victor Stein as an Artificial Intelligence and transhumanist enthusiast. His devoted interest in a body medically intervened to be improved is seen as parallel to a trans person medically intervening their body. Whatever the reason is, however, Victor does feel attracted to Ry for his (medically) trans body.
Let me read this short passage for you, this is Victor talking to Ry: (and I quote) “And you, Ry, gorgeous boy/girl, whatever you are, you had a sex change. You chose to intervene in your own evolution. You accelerated your portfolio of possibilities. That attracts me. How could it not? You are both exotic and real. The here and now, and a harbinger of the future” (p. 154) (end of quote). At least one thing we can say of Professor Stein is that he is very clear. He is lacking all possible empathy at this very moment sharing with his long-time partner that he feels very attracted to him because he had a sex change (not to mention the outdated terminology to talk about gender affirming surgery, in a book published only less than three years ago). Notice as well how the character plainly decides to use the word “exotic”, which says a lot about the obvious level of fetishization of the trans character.
We’re reaching the end of this reflection now, so I’d like to wrap up sharing some thoughts. Winterson locates this story of fetishization around medicalized trans bodies within a dystopian present (for the novel is set during the Brexit years), using AI and transhumanism to justify a terrible behaviour that has been there for a long time now: that trans bodies are not loved but they are used as exotic sexual objects. After all, this novel offers a representation of a couple whose relationship relies on the trans person of the relationship being trans in a medical, Western sense.
Frankissstein, published in 2019, only helps engrossing an already long list of cultural products that represent trans people as subjects who always need medical intervention in order to gain validation. Not only this, but the author uses transness as the main motive for a cis person to feel attracted to a trans person. And it all connects in a vicious circle of trans equals medicine, attraction equals trans because it equals medical advancement.
I would like to conclude now rewriting Winterson’s ending of the novel, and I picture Ry in my mind, finally realising Professor Stein is not in love with him but using him for his transness. I picture him confronting the doctor, maybe above the village of Chamounix, using Frankenstein’s words as if they were his: (I quote) “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear. […] Beware, for I am fearless, and therefore powerful” (end of quote). Let’s be fearless, let’s be powerful. Thank you for listening.