It’s been 200 years since Mary Shelley first published Frankenstein anonymously, so inconceivable was it that a woman was capable of writing such a story. It wasn’t until 1823 that Mary’s name appeared on the second edition, by which time the work had already been heavily edited by her husband, the poet Percy Shelley.
So as we celebrate the bicentenary of one of literature’s greatest works of fiction, how much has changed in the industry? Since 1818, Mary Shelley has quite rightly been recognised as the mind behind the infamous monster; and today we have institutions like the Women’s Prize to celebrate female talent and slowly address the gender imbalance in literature and film. Unfortunately, still only about 30% of fiction published is written by women, and the numbers are significantly worse when you look at manuscripts submitted by women of colour.
The recent biopic of Shelley’s life, directed by Haifaa al-Mansour, one of Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmakers, is testament to this ongoing battle. Boasting an all-star cast and more romance and intrigue than you can shake a stick at, it was surely a shoo-in. And yet, it’s distribution in UK cinemas was abysmal. Director and writer, Desiree Akhavan, experienced similar push back with her latest film, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, despite winning the prestigious Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Commenting on the lack of interest from mainstream cinemas, Akhavan said: “very few women have won the Sundance award, and it’s not escaping me that the one film that’s about female sexuality, directed by a woman, is having a harder time getting out there.”
The fact that 200 years on women’s work continues to be sidelined is a reminder of the change still to come. Mary Shelley’s struggles feel as relevant today as they did in 1818, as the industry remains gripped by gender bias. But it’s in the fearless and powerful work that continues to be produced by female artists all over the world, that challenges the status-quo and paves the way for a more diverse and equal future.