Manufactured men in Lisa Frankenstein and Making Mr. Right

Manufactured men in Lisa Frankenstein and Making Mr. Right

Ahead of the UK release of Lisa Frankenstein, Danielle Winston reflects on how Zeldia Williams' film and Susan Seidelman's Making Mr. Right find an allure in manufactured men. 

Films about fantasy women as romantic objects are as old as John Hughes’ Weird Science, and modern as Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things. Men controlling narratives surrounding femininity and the recreation of women in film has become so normalized, it’s hardly noticed. But when gender roles are reversed, and women are the shapers of men–that becomes a very different story.

Lisa Frankenstein, director Zelda Williams’s first feature, brings to life the playful Gothic vision of screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno, Jennifer’s Body), in which a darkly funny alternate version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is lovingly influenced by the ’80s comedies of John Hughes, Tim Burton, and Susan Seidelman. Instead of Frankenstein being a male doctor, here she is a teenage girl, much like Shelley herself was in 1818, when at 19 she wrote Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. Across over a century’s worth of infinitesimal reimaginings, until now I don’t know of a single interpretation that has cast the titular role as a woman—bizarre, with hindsight, considering that the legendary novel was originally envisioned through a young woman’s eyes.

Kathryn Newton plays Lisa Swallows, the new “weird” girl in a suburban high school in 1989. Suffering from PTSD after witnessing her mother’s murder, her complacent dad (Joe Chrest) quickly remarries, uprooting Lisa into a new home and ready-made family complete with an evil stepmother (Carla Gugino) and popular stepsister Taffy (Liza Soberano). Lisa struggles to fit in, writes poetry, and crushes on the editor of her school literary magazine. In her free time, she does tombstone rubbings at an overgrown cemetery, where she tells her private thoughts to the grave of a young man, who died in 1837. It’s a rare place she manages to feel safe and seen. But when a secret graveyard wish and lightning storm collide, his dead body reanimates and lands in her living room, changing Lisa’s life – for better or for worse.

The Victorian man-creature with bushy sideburns and zombie-like makeup, (Cole Sprouse) almost never speaks, which only makes him more beguiling. It’s not love at first sight for Lisa, but friendship. Once a sweet sensitive pianist, now the Creature is missing a hand, ear, and other vital body parts. She responds to his caring nature by sharing her private self. In the process, she comes out of her shell and into her own, develops personal power and a talent for sewing human flesh and murder. 

Frankie Stone is the female lead in Making Mr. Right, a film that has a lot in common with Lisa Frankenstein. Directed by Susan Seidelman (Smithereens, Desperately Seeking Susan, Sex in The City) and written by Laurie Frank and Floyd Byars, the underappreciated comedy gem was ahead of its time when it premiered in 1987. Both Lisa Frankenstein and Making Mr. Right, bask in the lush pop-art candy colors of ’80s aesthetic and playful absurdist humor. More importantly, though, they feature unusual male figures who are not alive, or exactly dead either.

Set in Miami Beach, Mr. Right stars Anne Magnuson as Frankie, a savvy and successful thirty-something PR woman mourning a breakup with a cheating politician, Steve Marcus, whose catchphrase is, “It takes a man this sensitive to know your needs.”  

Frankie is unsure about how to promote her latest client’s “amazing piece of equipment,” a robot named Ulysses, who looks identical to his creator – a long blond-haired John Malkovich in a dual role as Dr. Jeff Peters and Ulysses. According to Peters, Ulysses was created in order to tackle tasks too precarious for humans: handling hazardous chemicals, disarming explosives, and exploring space. Those things the robot can deal with, but not an interaction with a woman—that would be much too dangerous. When the doctor finds his creation face down on the floor after meeting Frankie, he’s furious. Forced to press the robot’s reset button, he rants at her, “I knew it, one minute with a woman and he short circuits!” But resets are useless, because Ulysses can’t help falling for Frankie.

Both Lisa and Frankie are more complex, funnier, and insightful than the men they meet. And the ones they do encounter either crudely objectify them, or feign interest, incapable or unwilling to delve beyond their surfaces. These women don’t initially take the interest of the almost-males seriously. A robot and a creature aren’t exactly how either envisioned Mr. Right. So instead they become friends, offering advice on how to behave, dress, and appear more “manly”. Frankie tells Ulysses he needs a boundary check, and can’t go around massaging strange women’s feet. No matter how good it may feel. 

In Frankenstein, Lisa tells the Creature to keep it together and not cry “stinky” tears. But when he can no longer hide his feelings for her and longs to be whole, murders begin, with the goal of finding replacement human parts for Lisa to sew onto his body. With the help of a high-powered tanning bed, he progressively comes back to life.

Lisa and Frankie are too smart for their own good. Even the so-called intellectual males prefer less challenging women, like Lisa’s sweet but overbearing stepsister Taffy. Neither Frankie nor Lisa ever try to dumb themselves down to stroke a man's ego. When they meet alternatives to human men—albeit manufactured ones—with no desire to change them, the women are intrigued.

Both Frankenstein and Mr. Right explore the complexities of men, power and penises. Ulysses tells Frankie he was generously endowed because, “Dr. Peters thought it would give me more confidence.” The Creature isn’t so lucky, but he does have some ideas to up his game. 

As Lisa bonds with the Creature, he plays her music, wears a flannel nightgown to bed, and listens to her deepest thoughts. As she works through her feelings, she opens herself up to love and murder, unleashing a hidden wild side. In Mr. Right, Ulysses can’t hide his affections either–but unlike the Creature, the robot-man can speak. Seeing someone resembling a male share heartfelt feelings is so rare that in Frankie’s eyes, Ulysses becomes more real than any human men she’s met. Caught off guard by his innocence and honesty, her trust issues fall away. 

Playful and protective, the robot and the creature are the ultimate sensitive males. They want women who do interesting things, and love their uniqueness. Without the need to dominate, they don’t interfere with Frankie and Lisa’s growth – if anything, they inspire it, in a muse-like way. They are non-threatening, but most importantly, they are not threatened. 

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