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Retrospective Sex: Rewriting Intersexuality in Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 December 2009

RACHEL CARROLL
Affiliation:
Teesside University.

Abstract

This article examines the representation of intersexuality in Jeffrey Eugenides's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 novel Middlesex. It situates the depiction of intersexuality within the context of current scholarship on sexed identity within the field of gender and sexuality studies. It argues that while a fictional focus on ambiguously sexed identity might appear to be aligned with queer critiques of fixed categories of “sex,” Eugenides's narrative remains implicated in heteronormative assumptions. More specifically, it will explore the narrative strategies which frame Calliope Stephanides's intersexed body, focussing on the relationship between the male-identified adult Cal, “author” of this fictional autobiography, and his remembered teenage girl self. It will suggest that the retrospective logic at work in this narrative is complicit in a heteronormative temporality which reinforces the causal relationship between sex, gender and sexuality which queer theorists have sought to interrogate.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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References

1 See Chase, Cheryl, “Hermaphrodites with Attitude: Mapping the Emergence of Intersex Political Activism,” GLQ: Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 4, 2 (1998), 189211Google Scholar; Alice Domurat Dreger, Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1998); Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000); Suzanne J. Kessler, Lessons from the Intersexed (New Brunswick; NJ and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998); and Matta, Christine, “Ambiguous Bodies and Deviant Sexualities: Hermaphrodites, Homosexuality, and Surgery in the United States, 1850–1904,” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 48, 1 (Winter 2005), 7483.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

2 Dreger, 8.

3 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1999) 23.

4 Ibid., 60.

5 My use of gendered pronouns reflects Cal's sexed identifications at different stages in his/her life.

6 Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (London: Bloomsbury, 2002) 4. Page references hereafter given in text.

7 Judith Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1998), 165.

8 5-Alpha-reductase deficiency, the condition with which Cal is diagnosed, is thought to “have a strong genetic component” given its higher frequency in populations characterized by isolation and intermarriage. Dreger, 40.

9 Morland, Iain, “‘The Glans Opens Like a Book’: Writing and Reading the Intersexed Body,” Continuum: Journal of Media & Culture Studies, 19, 3 (2005), 335–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 335.

10 See Butler.

11 Fausto-Sterling, 45.

12 Chase, “Hermaphrodites with Attitude,” 189.

13 For a reading of Middlesex as “reiterating and troubling scientific and cultural engagements with sex, gender and desire” see Zachary Sifuentes, “Strange Anatomy, Strange Sexuality: The Queer Body in Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex,” in Richard Fantina, ed., Straight Writ Queer: Non-normative Expressions of Heterosexuality in Literature (McFarland & Company: Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2006), 146.

14 See, for example, Cheryl Chase's account of her discovery that she “had been my parents's son for a year and a half.” Chase, 194.

15 Morland, 342.

16 This is not the first time that Eugenides has explored female adolescence through a male perspective; in his 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides, also set in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in the 1970s, the narrative voice represents the collective experience of a group of boys brought together by their shared obsession with a family of teenage girls and their deaths by suicide.

17 Kenneth Millard, Coming of Age in Contemporary Fiction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 10.

18 Ibid., emphasis added.

19 Gordon, Angus, “The Retrospective Closet: Adolescence and Queer Prehistory,” Australian Historical Studies, 36 (2005), 315–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 321, emphasis added.

20 Gordon, Angus, “Turning Back: Adolescence, Narrative and Queer Theory,” GLQ: Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 5 (1991), 124Google Scholar, 3.

21 Judith Roof, Come As You Are: Sexuality and Narrative (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), xxxiv.

22 Judith Halberstam writes that in the nineteenth century the “female hermaphrodite was considered a freak of nature with an enlarged clitoris who desired to penetrate other women who might be drawn to her ambiguity.” Halberstam, Female Masculinity, 55.

23 Cal's tentative courtship of Julie Kikuchi, an expatriate Californian living in Berlin, fails to deliver a solution to his single state. Julie's wariness of romantic entanglements is attributed to a series of ill-fated relationships with closeted gay men; her reflections reveal the problematic nature of the conflation of sexed and racialized borders: “‘Asian chicks are the last stop. If a guy's in the closet, he goes for an Asian because their bodies are more like boys’” (184).

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