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Rage and Feminism in Poor Things and Lisa Frankenstein

Ever since Elsa Lanchester lifted her salt-and-pepper head in “The Bride of Frankenstein,” filmmakers have been trying to figure out how to nail the feminist take on the classic horror story. The brutish strength and massive size of Boris Karloff’s original cinematic incarnation of the Monster isn’t exactly an obvious choice as the centerpiece of a female-oriented narrative. But although they approach it in different ways—one as a darkly comedic steampunk interpretation of an alternate 19th century, one as a gleefully malevolent retro pastiche of the 1980s horror comedy—Yorgos Lanthimos’s “Poor Things” and Zelda Williams’s “Lisa Frankenstein” both succeed in wrestling Frankenstein into a tale of rage, sex, and feminist self-discovery.

Both “Poor Things” and “Lisa Frankenstein” feature heroines who use sexuality as an assertion of their identity. It’s a key component of Bella’s (Emma Stone) journey to womanhood, as her first display of self-advocacy comes when she chooses to leave home with Mark Ruffalo’s Duncan Wedderburn for a jet-setting voyage of debauchery. Ironically, the more she embraces his sexually liberated ways, the more disapproving he is of her behavior—in Duncan’s perfect world, Bella would be exactly as immodest as it would take for her to have sex with him, and not an inch more. Bella’s intellectual awakening coincides with her growing knowledge of her own sexuality as she takes on a job at a brothel after breaking up with Duncan in Paris. Her career as a sex worker serves as an opportunity to support herself and her burgeoning academic pursuits, but it also allows her to discover sex on her own terms as an independent figure with agency.

Sex hangs heavy over “Lisa Frankenstein” as well, from the cheeky fact that the main character’s name is Lisa Swallows to the throwaway gag of her aunt giving her a vibrator for Christmas in an effort to improve her personality. Lisa (Kathryn Newton) is a reserved high schooler who is still recovering from the trauma of witnessing her mother’s brutal death, followed by her father’s speedy remarriage to Janet (Carla Gugino), a woman who can barely disguise her revulsion at Lisa’s presence in her life. She doesn’t exactly have a great track record with boys, and the furthest she’s gotten is a schoolgirl crush on Michael Trent (Henry Eikenberry), the brooding editor of the literary magazine. Between her mother’s death and the Creature’s (Cole Sprouse) emergence, she is keenly aware of her own mortality, and is determined not to die a virgin. Rather than wait for Prince Charming—or even take the easy way out, with a not-unwilling Creature already hiding in her bedroom—she resolves to orchestrate the loss of her virginity by turning up at Michael’s house in the middle of the school day to offer herself to him.

Just as both characters assert their sexuality as a means of seeking power over their own lives, rage and violence are tied into their relationships with those who attempt to control them. Although Bella initially sees Duncan as her savior, the man who’s going to introduce her to the world, her intellect quickly outstrips his and she resents his efforts to keep a leash on her. But this is nothing compared to what happens when she is faced with her previous self’s husband, Alfie Blessington (Christopher Abbott). Although she has no memory of her life before Godwin resurrected her, it becomes clear that his behavior played a large role in her decision to jump off a bridge, ending her life. Although she initially returns to their marital home, she is not willing to suffer mistreatment, and metes out her own unique brand of revenge when he deigns to cross her.

Meanwhile, Lisa faces struggles of her own. Her stepmother, Janet, is supremely mistrustful of her, and threatens to send her off to a psychiatric institution, presumably so that she can better maintain the pretense of having a perfect family unit with her new husband Dale (Joe Chrest) and her pageant-winning daughter Taffy (Liza Soberano). Although it is the Creature who ultimately dispatches Janet—blunt force head trauma courtesy of Lisa’s hefty sewing machine—Lisa is quick to hop on board, helping the Creature bury the body, sewing Janet’s ear onto his head, and seemingly developing a taste for murder herself. When the Creature expresses a desire for a new hand, Lisa’s quick to choose the perfect donor, getting revenge on the boy from school who groped her with that same hand at a party. He sought to assert his dominance over her, and was met with Lisa’s flaming sword—or rather, ax—of retribution. It’s also no coincidence that the boy who spurns her in favor of her stepsister ends up murdered and missing a certain appendage. Lisa’s furious at the world for the injustices it has delivered upon her, and the people who attempt to control her life or interfere with her plans have a tendency to end up dead. In both Bella and Lisa’s cases, their reactions are so extreme because they have so much to lose by allowing others to have power over them. They refuse to be vulnerable—instead, they take action.

The dynamic between Creator and Creation is one of the key relationships in “Frankenstein,” and in “Poor Things” and “Lisa Frankenstein,” Bella and Lisa occupy both roles. Bella is reanimated against her will as a baby in the body of an adult woman, forced to go through the stages of human development at warp speed. She begins the film with no agency—not even her death is respected. But over the course of “Poor Things,” she claws back power over her own life, first by running away with Duncan against her father figure Godwin “God” Baxter’s (Willem Dafoe) wishes, then by carving out an independent life for herself in Paris. But her true act of supreme agency comes when she herself becomes a creator—she refuses to accept her old life as the wife of the sadistically cruel Alfie Blessington, and uses God’s laboratory to replace his brain with that of a goat, allowing her freedom at last as the new god of her dominion.

By contrast, “Lisa Frankenstein” works in reverse. Lisa starts out as a creator, accidentally serving as the catalyst (along with a mysterious green lightning storm) for the Creature’s resurrection after leaving her mother’s rosary at his grave. She continues to fill that role throughout the film, repeatedly reanimating the Creature with Taffy’s malfunctioning tanning bed, each time after sewing on new limbs for him. Each of these times she operates as a facilitator for his agenda, giving him back the specific parts that he wants to reclaim. It’s only when she makes the decision to become a Creation—allowing herself to die in a fiery tanning bed accident and then be brought back to life in the same way the Creature was—that she is fully in control of her destiny. In the final scene, Lisa has come full circle, with the Creature serving as her resurrector, as she requested of him.

As we see in both “Poor Things” and “Lisa Frankenstein,” the journey to self-actualization for Bella and Lisa is not complete without a little bit of bloodshed. They rise above the circumstances they are born into, a world that seeks to stifle them, and assert themselves as women and as individuals. When they are faced with violence, they respond in kind. And against all odds, both women carve out a space for themselves in a hostile world—even if, in true “Frankenstein” fashion, their efforts to exercise personal agency come with a body count.


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