CultureReviews

Book Review: A look into gender fluidity in Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex”

Photo by McKenzie Heileman

Gender has always been fluid, though it has not always been recognized as such. Today, we now recognize and understand that gender is a spectrum, while sex is biological, but has social contexts. 

This topic is sometimes difficult for individuals to address, but Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Middlesex,” published in 2002, confronts the ideas of gender and sex head-on when he tells the fictional story of Cal Stephanides, who is intersex. Intersex individuals possess a mix of female and male biological traits, whether that includes genetalia, chromosomes and sex hormones, or all of the above. 

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl…and then again, as a teenage boy,” Eugenides wrote. This quote begins the story of Cal, who was given the name Calliope at birth. 

When he was born, physicians declared that Cal was a boy, unaware that he was intersex. Even to this day, physicians almost always gender children despite knowing that sex and gender are not linked. When infants have visible indications of being intersex, their gender is often decided for them and they are forced to undergo procedures to ascribe to either a male or female sex, despite the fact that being intersex poses no health risks, but surgery does.

Cal, unlike many intersex children, was able to grow into his own gender and make sense of his own body for himself. 

In his teenage years, Cal begins to realize that he identifies more as a boy than a girl, and he decides to be recognized as such. Having been socialized as a girl, but actually being a boy indicates that Cal is transgender, but the added nuance of being intersex makes his story all the more important to absorb as Eugenides dives into the often muddied waters of gender and sex. Readers learn of Cal’s thoughts, struggles and changes as he undergoes a highly significant decision. 

While a person of any sex, including intersex people, do not have to fit in a gender binary, Cal decides he feels more comfortable identifying as a man. Eugenides’s writing of his account is important for the expansion of people’s understanding of intersex individuals. 

In a chapter of her book, “Intersex Narratives” focusing on popular culture interpretations of intersex, Viola Amato states that intersex people are being newly represented and that their past representations are being shifted to fit a more appropriate society. A primary force in this shift is allowing intersex people to tell their own stories and take center stage.

“Narratives that renegotiate intersex lives, intersex experiences, and the cultural meaning of the category of intersex from an intersex person’s persepective have the power to challenge hegemonic medico-cultural narratives, to reject the definitions and terms through which intersex was and is understood, and to provide the conditions for a resignation of intersex,” Amato wrote. 

This is the type of narrative that Eugenides has written. It reimagines the scope of who intersex people are, and what sort of representation they receive. 

Middlesex is a fictional literary text that is informed by, and renegotiates different narratives on intersex, which themselves underwent processes of renegotiation and transformation. The juxtaposing of different genres in the novel affects a multilayered narrative that reimagines intersex between phantasm and medical reality,” Amato wrote. 

[Photo of the book “Middlesex”]
Photo by McKenzie Heileman | The Arbiter

Through his character Cal, Eugenides recognizes that a label does not change who a person is. 

“…Gender was not all that important. My change from girl to boy was far less dramatic than the distance anybody travels from infancy to adulthood. In most ways I remained the person I’d always been,” Eugenides wrote. 

This is an important aspect to realize in discussions of gender and its fluidity. A person is a person, no matter how they exist or label themselves. 

Eugenides’s novel faces the discussion of gender in a straightforward manner, though the author sometimes uses words to address transgender an intersex people that are now outdated and harmful. 

Though this is a fault of the novel, readers still have an educational experience while reading “Middlesex.” For example, Eugenides includes a very brief history of gay rights movements towards the end of the novel, helping readers understand the long struggle for equality for the LGBTQIA+ community. 

Through Cal, readers are able to step into a direct perspective of the struggles and thoughts of an oppressed person finding their way into their identity.

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