Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and author of The Virgin Suicides, which has since been adapted into a film, Jeffery Eugenides is an American novelist of Greek descent. He has been a finalist for various awards such as the National Book Critics Circle Award, the International Dublin Literary Award, and various others. He is a graduate from Brown University, and received an M.A in Creative Writing from Standford University.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex, published in 2002, is one of Eugenides’ bestselling novels, selling over three million copies. In 2007, Middlsex was the main feature of Oprah’s Book Club. This book follows the life of protagonist, Calliope Stephanides, an individual with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. This is a recessive condition that causes genetically male infants, those with XY chromosomes, to be born with external genitalia that resembles that of a female. This is caused by a lack of the hormone dihydrotestosterone (DHT), an integral hormone during fetal sexual development. Children with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, as we see in Middlesex with Calliope, are often mistaken for girls at birth and are raised as females. However, a big change for these individuals occurs at puberty. Due to an onrush of testosterone these biologically male individuals, who have been believed to be females all their lives, will start developing male secondary sex characteristics. These characteristics include increased muscle mass, deepening of the voice, and even enlargement of the penis and scrotum.
“I was born twice: first as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974….My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license…records my first name simply as Cal.”
As mentioned previously, Calliope, nickname Callie, is born with this intersex condition. Unaware of “her” biological maleness, “she” is raised as a girl. While growing up Callie felt different from how a normal girl should feel. At the age of 14 Callie falls in love with her female friend who she simply refers to as the “Obscure Object.” On vacation with the Obscure Object’s family many events unfold that lead to Callie realizing her intersex condition. In an attempt to appear like a normal fourteen year old girl, she engages in a sexual act with the Obscure Object’s brother, Jerome. As Jerome enters her for the first time, she experiences an immense pain and her condition starts becoming transparent to her.
“Jerome knew what I was, as suddenly I did, too, for the first time clearly understood that I wasn’t a girl but something in between”
This is just the first stepping stone in Callie’s realization. In an accident, Callie is injured and is taken to the doctors. It is here that her intersex condition is fully discovered. She is taken to a special clinic in New York where she is poked and prodded. Sex reassignment surgery is suggested to make her body match the female identity she was raised with. After much thought, Callie decides she wants to start living life as the boy her chromosomes say she is. In a letter to her parents she declares that she is not a girl, and that she is a boy. She runs away to San Francisco to assume her male identity as Cal.
“Despite its content, I signed this declaration to my parents: “Callie.” It was the last time I was ever their daughter.”
In the end, Cal returns with his brother to his family home and lives out the rest of his life as a man.
This book questions what it means to be a male or a female. Is gender biological and innate or is it a product of our environment, or perhaps a mixture of both. Intersex conditions are an important part of queer culture because they bend the gender binary.
“Biology gives you a brain. Life turns it into a mind.”
No longer is gender either one or the other, if that were the case, how come Cal’s doctor, much to Judith Butler’s chagrin, declared “It’s a girl” rather than “It looks like a girl now, but in fourteen years your daughter will become a man!” This sets up a role in which the child has to “act” in order to achieve gender normativity. According to gender performativity, Callie, before 14 is reiterating the act of being a girl. Her gender comes from her wearing the outfits, having the long hair, the whole theatrics of being her parents’ daughter. Finally when the time came for a decision to be made, Callie gave up the charade, her performance as female, and became Cal, the man he was meant to be. Cal’s decision was her putting on drag and finally starting the performative ritual of becoming “he.” As Judith Butler points out gender performativity is “not a matter of choosing which gender on will be today” but rather the repetition of gender norms which will in turn qualify maleness vs. femaleness.
“There have been hermaphrodites around forever, Cal. Forever. Plato said that the original human being was a hermaphrodite. Did you know that? The original person was two halves, one male, one female. Then these got separated. That’s why everybody’s always searching for their other half. Except for us. We’ve got both halves already.”