‘Middlesex’ a disservice to wider discussions of gender?

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“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960, and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974”.

So opens Jeffrey Eugenides’ multigenerational epic, Middlesex, a book covering ancestry and incest, race riots and religious cults, and woven throughout, the bildungsroman of intersex character Cal. Introduced to us first as Calliope, this complex family history hinges on the discovery and reinvention of Cal’s identity; Eugenides utilising wit and classical allusion to reinvent the American epic through the eyes of a ‘Hermaphrodite.’ [sic] 

This book though, is as beautifully written as it is flawed.

When I first read this book as a young teenager, diving into Eugenides’ elaborately written world, I was enthralled. This, as for many other readers, was my first introduction to a character who fell under the intersex umbrella. The novelty of this character in literature is evident, scanning lists of Intersex fiction, Middlesex figures prominently, especially in recommendations not curated by the community itself. 

This book though, is as beautifully written as it is flawed.

Prior to ‘discovering’ their sex, the character Cal seems to occupy a female identity relatively comfortably. Whilst Eugenides keenly indicates their lankiness and lack of breasts, as evidence to us of their incongruous occupation of womanhood, no internal struggle with gender is depicted. Cal’s sexual attraction to their female friend, the ‘Obscure object’, serves as our sole explanation for transition. Indications that ‘breasts have the same effect on me as anyone with my testosterone level’, jar for anyone not occupying a male heterosexual identity. Intersex activist Morgan Holmes suggests sexuality is thus positioned as determining gender, questioning whether the assertion is that Cal adopts maleness in order to pursue their sexuality comfortably. Holmes suggests this denies ‘the legitimate place of lesbian desire and rewrites it as male heterosexuality.’ In Eugenides’ depiction of Cal, it appears a central tenet of masculine identity is attraction to women.

[This] is not an accurate discussion of the often painful and complex identities classed as intersex, but rather a cis, straight man’s musings on gender.

Herein lies the problem. Eugenides has confidently stated that, though he researched intersexuality’s mechanics, emotionally ‘I did that from my imagination.’ What we are reading therefore, is not an accurate discussion of the often painful and complex identities classed as intersex, but rather a cis, straight man’s musings on gender. The continued placement of this book, often by reviewers of same identities, as a key representation of intersex voices, demonstrates how far we have to go in terms of literary representation. The book is rightfully lauded for its style and cleverly woven plot but positioning it as a window into intersex experiences seems woefully misguided. 

For a book so fluidly written, spanning oceans, generations and time periods, the very transition at its core, the thing drawing so many to read it, is simply not there. Once Cal discovers their ‘true’ biological identity, there is an abrupt pronoun switch. There are no discussions of what this actually means to Cal, beyond anguish at only now discovering ‘the truth’, notable in a book otherwise so rife with long emotional tangents. The choice Cal makes to abandon their female identity is simply not explained, perhaps because, from the perspective of a writer unquestioningly occupying his own masculinity, it does not need to be. Eugenides seems to suggest a biological inevitability, Cal is a man because a doctor tells them they are, and Cal, as we the readers are also expected to, accepts this. 

Arguably, the job of literature is not to educate its audiences, though whether a book on intersexuality would be written now, without consulting a single member of the community, is improbable. The invasive and unethical treatment of Cal by medical figures sadly mimics the lived experiences of many young people whose sex characteristics diverge from the binary, giving some window into this still underrepresented community, but this is not enough. The issue here lies with the treatment of the book following its release. Despite openly admitting to not meeting any intersex people prior to writing, Eugenides has frequently been placed in a position of answering for this diverse, complex community. What is clear, is leaning on a cis, straight man’s ‘imagining’ of what he would do, should he find himself raised female, does a disservice not just to this community, but to wider discussions of gender and sexual identity. 

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