Why Mary Shelley Kicks It

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I was prompted this week to think up a girl-activist to cover, and since I’ve already written a few times about Malala Yousafzai, my mind switched to literary mode and bee-lined straight to Mary Shelley. A lot of people wouldn’t consider her an activist—she is best known as a novelist, after all—but a quick look at her life shows that Mary had quite a bit to say, and at a very young age.

When Mary Shelley was a teenager, she wrote what is only considered the germ of modern sci-fi and one of the coolest and most nuanced monster stories to date. During the week I was assigned to read Frankenstein a few semesters back, my husband just happened to be in the middle of the story’s TV series adaptation Penny Dreadful, which focuses a lot on the monster that Shelley created. Both the series and the actual novel were a radical departure from the cartoonish, green monster of the twentieth century. Shelley’s monster was complicated and nuanced. His very existence challenged the social order, the meaning of life, and laws of physiology all at once. Shelley is famous for bringing a spookier air to the gothic novel, pushing the envelope even further with the monster’s anguish of existence and the terror he throws at Dr. Frankenstein for creating him and then running away (similar to the Deist god that was hanging around Europe and the United States around that time). More so, Shelley set the precedent for women in science fiction right out of the gate—even if it wasn’t necessarily followed through until Uhura—and showed her contemporaries the value of a woman’s contribution to arts. Two hundred years later, and we’re still basing things off of her work, which says something about her activism to get her writing out there, in whatever genre she wanted, no matter how new or male sounding.

I admire Shelley most for her writing—if you haven’t sampled her work, I suggest that you pick up Frankenstein for some evocative summer reading. Still, it’s hard to forget that she comes from a fiercely political family. Her mother had been the vocal feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the perfect activist match for Shelley’s philosopher father, William Godwin. It’s no wonder then, raised around publishing and with a legacy as big as her late mothers, how Mary Shelley found the courage, as a girl, to begin one of the most famous writing careers the English-speaking world has ever seen.

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A Dive into Seventeenery

It’s the magazine my mom urged me to get back when I was twelve and having mean girl issues with some of my friends. “I know it’s for older girls, but it seems like it’s about the stuff you’re facing now.” She was right. And I think that was intentional.

For my girls’s studies exploration this week, I’m taking a peek at what makes Seventeen magazine tick. In truth I haven’t cracked a teen magazine since my baby sister was in middle school. (I got fed up after two sentences, scoffing that there’s no way a thirteen-year-old really wrote the Who Wore It Better blurbs.) Before that, I think my last teen mag went out with dial-up. That really dates me, but you get the idea.

As I buzz through the relationship and life advice on the Seventeen site, I find what amounts to a mixed bag and total jumble of stuff contributing to our society’s ideal of girlhood. Most telling—to me, anyway—is the navigation menu. First comes Celebs, then Fashion, Beauty, THEN Life, then Prom. Organized, no doubt, for the topics’ popularity and clickability, the section is a revealing look at what teen girls are accessing when they come to Seventeen. The hierarchy is pretty clear, and it’s odd that the great articles about applying for college or decompressing after stress are hidden four deep under Life, while a parade of pretty stuff drowns out the first three spots. Not that there’s anything wrong with Pretty. It just could stand to switch places with Life.

One article that I’m a little on the fence about is titled “Hero Boy Carries Around Tampons and Pads to Support the Girls at His School.” On one hand, the guy is a high school kid who seems to have been making an earnest attempt to support girls. The article tells a decent story of a guy who believes in gender equality and squashing the idea that periods are icky and verboten as far as conversation goes. He’s really trying to make a difference here, but the article talks about detractor bullies who have attacked him for his menstrual solidarity.

But hang on. Why is this thing calling him a hero? For starters, there’s the hero/damsel trope, which hyper-girlie culture seems to love. When girls stand to face the horrors of menstruation, here comes a prince to save them. At the heart of this “hero” business is the idea that girls need a gentleman to swoop in and save them when they’re unprepared for their own flow. I’d like to think the “hero” bit was added tongue-in-cheek by the editors in a reflection of the relief that shoots through any girl who’s ever gone to school and realized too late that she needs a pad. But I think that’s just where the problem lies: Should we just be saying things, like “This guy is a hero!” if we don’t really mean that? Doesn’t that kind of thing just perpetuate the idea that girls who read Seventeen are helpless without their male allies? Most of the teen mag readers I knew as an adolescent were among the smart girls at school. After all, they were the readers. So this hero/damsel dichotomy didn’t really apply to them. This, to me, is a weird headline that promotes an unrealistic and culturally backward ideal of what Seventeen readers are and how they should relate across gender lines.

But at least, it is neat that we have guys finally talking about periods without freaking. So that’s a win.