Gender Euphoria in Frankissstein

the book cover for Frankissstein

Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein (2019) is simultaneously a Frankenstein retelling and as far removed from Mary Shelley’s novel as one can get. The novel’s present-day narrator, Ry Shelley, is implied to be a modern incarnation of Mary Shelley. He is a trans man, a surgeon, and Victor Stein’s corpse-supplier/part-time-lover, and contrary to the arguments for the total disembodiment of humanity through digital consciousness made by some of the characters, Ry presents a striking argument for remaining in human bodies: gender euphoria.

Gender euphoria is a feeling of great joy experienced when one’s gender identity matches their gender expression, described by Laura Kate Dale in her 2021 book of the same title as “a powerful feeling of happiness experienced as a result of moving away from one’s birth-assigned gender.” It is often overshadowed by its opposite, gender dysphoria (here meaning the feeling rather than the DSM diagnosis), in which a person feels discomfort due to a lack of alignment between their gender identity and the outward expression or perception of their gender. Gender-affirming care and gender transition can be important means of relieving gender dysphoria for trans people. As such, the body can be a site for experiencing gender euphoria: just as gendered elements of the body can cause gender dysphoria for some trans people, gender transition can allow for gender euphoria to be experienced.

(I use the term “gender transition” here and throughout not to denote a specific set of medical, social, or legal changes regarding gender, but instead as a means of referring to the changes a person wants to make regarding their gender expression. When I refer to someone as “pre-transition,” I mean they have yet to enact the changes that they would like to implement—whether they be medical, legal, and/or social changes—whereas when I describe someone as “post-transition,” I merely mean that they have gone through all the changes they want at that time, rather than having completed some arbitrary list. I will be mainly discussing physical transition here, but transition can entail little or no changes to one’s body.)

The alignment of identity and expression necessary to experience gender euphoria can be attained through many means. For example, a certain action or piece of clothing may make someone feel like their gender is being accurately expressed, and a gender-affirming surgery may have the same effect. In Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, gender euphoria, though never named, does not always explicitly implicate the body, but for Ry it often does. His body, complete with both its masculine and feminine features, expresses his gender the way he wants it to, and as such, he experiences gender euphoria through physical embodiment. When discussing his physical transition, Ry explains that “I didn’t do it to distance myself from myself. I did it to get nearer to myself.” Physical transition, in making his body more accurately reflect how he sees himself, has also made Ry’s own body an expression of his gender. Thus, he enjoys his gender expression through enjoying his body.

Ry’s euphoria regarding his body is evident throughout his narration, which revels in descriptions of sex and nakedness. Winterson’s narration never shies away from describing Ry’s body, and in fact, Ry’s embodiment leads him to assert that “we are our bodies” when faced with Victor’s proposal of a digital, bodiless future for humanity. Rather than denying the reality of sex, as those who oppose trans rights would claim, trans people like Ry are actually more aware of their bodies than most; as Ace Lehner outlines in their 2022 article “Beyond Representation: Trans Embodied Methodologies,” the pressure for trans people to “pass” and thus have their identity accurately assessed by others is “a pressure that is felt through the very flesh of our bodies.” Trans people are also often reduced to their bodies, discussed only in terms of surgeries and hormones rather than as people living full lives. Winterson, instead of directing focus on a trans person’s body in a negative light, instead flips this trope on its head: Frankissstein can be read as a celebration of trans bodies, attempting to illuminate their beauty and imply an elevated level of gender euphoria experienced by trans people post-transition. This makes sense—if a trans person has been highly aware of their body due to gender dysphoria, then the alleviation of that distress could indeed cause them to feel exceedingly euphoric in their body post-transition.

Winterson avoids telling the perhaps overdone transition story, in which a trans character who is pre-transition and may even be unsure of their gender identity is overcome with gender dysphoria. Instead, Ry represents an end goal for most trans youth: he is comfortable in himself, confident in his identity, and not just passively accepting of his body but enjoying it. The presence of gender dysphoria in literature is certainly important for representing the distress it causes. For example, in Gretchen Felker-Martin’s 2022 novel Manhunt, her three central trans characters all display varying levels of discomfort with and hatred toward their bodies, presenting a stark and uncensored look at the pain caused by gender dysphoria, particularly for those pre-transition. These characters can be comforting for readers experiencing dysphoria, as well as informational for those who have never experienced it. Only ever seeing trans characters who are distressed by and uncomfortable in their bodies is, however, hardly inspiring for trans readers and problematic for cis readers, so Ry’s unabashed embodiment in Frankissstein is wonderful to encounter. Rather than being associated with dysphoria, pain, and medical procedures, Ry’s body is associated with sexuality and joy. The realities of being trans in the current world are by no means obscured by Winterson—bigotry and even outright abuse are present in the novel—but Ry’s own sense of self, and the euphoria he feels regarding his identity and his body, never waver.

This is a particularly powerful presentation of a trans man. While Ry experiences conflict with people regarding his gender, such as having to correct people calling him the wrong name or using the wrong pronouns, these conflicts are always concerning the world’s acceptance of Ry, not his acceptance of himself. Conflicts never arise from Ry being unsure of his identity or how he wants to live his life; Ry is sure of who he is. Trans men are often described as “lesbians in denial”; as Jay Hulme writes, “To transphobes, trans men are poor innocent deluded women. Being trans is something they see as fundamentally wrong, and thus we must have been coerced into it, somehow. We cannot possibly know our own minds, or be capable of living our lives on our own terms.” In light of these harmful narratives, which may well be the only way trans men are presented to some communities, the presentation of Ry as a trans man who knows himself and very much owns his identity is powerful.

Ry’s embodiment also serves as an argument against Victor Stein’s vision of the future, and transhumanism as a project. Throughout the novel, the two disagree dramatically about whether the development of AI consciousness should lead to a bodiless, digital future for humanity; Victor is adamant that it should, spending most the novel attempting to digitize his friend’s brain so that he may live forever, while Ry believes that this vision will mean “an end to the human.” Given Ry’s embodied gender euphoria, this attitude is understandable—if he were to become digital, the comfort he has developed with regard to his body through transition would be discarded. As such, Ry poses a criticism of transhumanism that Victor—and in fact the entire transhumanist project—appears to have missed: that if we discard the body, we risk losing gender euphoria.

While Victor seems to think of Ry as intellectually lesser, often making him feel like “a small boy or a small girl who can’t manage abstract thinking,” Ry’s gender euphoria demonstrates something he experiences but that Victor is ignorant of, flipping their power dynamic. Bodily euphoria is an idea that Victor refuses to engage with, preferring instead to dream of a disembodied future. This primarily casts transhumanism as a philosophy of avoidance, demonstrated in the intermittent chapters following Mary Shelley, who, after the death of her son and her husband, concludes that, “If we were not bound to our bodies we should not suffer so.”

For the trans community, who face not only internal struggle in the form of gender dysphoria, but also external resistance and harassment, it can be easy to be allured by the transhumanist future, in which people have no bodies and thus no sex as assigned at birth. But as Ry says, confronting Victor near the end of the novel: “what does it solve?” An avoidance of the body is not a solution to issues with the body, and if “we are our bodies,” then ridding ourselves of them may in fact mean we are distancing ourselves from ourselves. Instead, Winterson, by presenting embodied gender euphoria alongside transhumanist visions of the future, encourages us to imagine a future in which embodiment is embraced—in which the human body is customized and altered to best allow its user to enjoy it. In that world, transition would be embraced, and more trans people would be in the position we see Ry enjoy.

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