Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Pulitzer Prize novel Middlesex on Intersex: Genius or Crap?

I read the novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides because, as I often do on various forums I visit, I had put a few facts down about intersex people in a discussion. I am not an expert on intersex conditions though I have friends with different intersex conditions, have read a few books, some articles and talked online in various specific intersex condition websites. But intersex, one of the most hidden and stigmatized medical conditions often gets people saying very odd and outlandish things, usually because the idea that gender identity might be separate from chromosomes is radical to them.
So when the topic gets to the point of calling intersex women “he/she’s” or “it” or “50/50 people” I step in an give a little rundown of what intersex is, what ambiguous genitalia is and what gender identity is. In this particular thread the immediate response was, “Have you read the book Middlesex, it is all about intersex?” I told them no, in the same way that I don’t go to Transamerica to find out accurate information about Transsexuals or to Wild Things to find out about bisexuals.

But then I saw the book at the library and thought, “Why not?” My opinion: greatest disappointment since “Muppets Take Manhattan.” Okay for those not up on medical understanding of gender here is a quick tour: gender identity seems to be pretty much hardwired for most people, and that might have to do with hormonal washes in fetal stage, no one really knows. What we do know is that, after about 30 years of saying “Environment produces gender” (and assigning people gender based on how a doctor felt that moment) that a large number of public suicides and gender reassignments have blown up that theory. Some intersex conditions require doctors to wait and see what gender identity emerges before doing “corrective” surgery. A few people with intersex conditions prefer to identify AS intersex but most view themselves as male or female; some conditions are only displayed at puberty, some might be found even later (CAIS is the most famous) when a woman finds that she is infertile because, she actually doesn’t have a uterus, just a vagina (and undeveloped recessed testes which are usually removed), and that she is an XY chromosome female. In a few cases doctors intervened but actually mixed up the conditions (so the more estrogen appeared the more androgen they gave the patient because they were sure the person was a male intersex person only to find out at 18 that oops! It was a female intersex condition.).

The book starts with the announcement that the narrator, Calliope was born as a girl but reborn as a boy and that they are intersex (though actually Eugenides uses the phrase Hermaphrodite which he later agreed not to use in book promotion AFTER the book was published and after the Intersex Society talked to him). That’s the last we see of Calliope for a few hundred pages. When Callie emerges it is as a very femme girl. Indeed, the author tends to overwrite the girl parts, so instead of “Callie picked up the phone” is it “I picked up my pink princess phone.” Which gave me the impression of the “wink, wink” form of journalism that is given when you read interviews of transitioned transsexual women where the interview might be about the person as a filmmaker but starts with two paragraphs of their shoes, their clothes, their voice, their feminine appearance, the whole: she seems very female doesn’t she (wink, wink).

I kept reading and after a few dress up and girl trip scenes I thought, “Well, if the author plans to make an assertion for male gender identity, I hope it comes soon.” Actually, it never came. Indeed, Callie later says (page 479), “Unlike other so-called male pseudo-hermaphrodites…I never felt out of place being a girl.” Okay? Then why the fuck is this book asserting Callie is a guy? That word: fuck. Continuing: “Desire made me cross over to the other side,” So yes, what we get are a bunch of girl on girl crushes from the young Callie. Which at first I thought, “Cool!” But later realized that the author was setting up the old lesbian line, “What she really wants to be is a man.” Indeed the author’s entire reasoning of Callie as a male is that she likes females. That and the fact her genitals are different (but appearing female for 14 years). The clincher is when she has sex at 15 with the brother of the girl she has a crush with and IT HURTS. She looks back as the narrator and is amazed at her naivety that she didn’t realize at the time she was a man. Sorry every female who had teenage sex for the first time and it hurt, you are officially now a GUY, double that if you are attracted to girls.

I found out that the author Eugenides didn’t talk to any intersex people or organizations before writing the book (no shit!). But, partially on the back of the intersex narrator, the book won the Pulitzer Prize. In the book, with about 40 pages of 500+ to go Callie goes to a doctor and her intersex condition is found. A week long evaluation is done on her gender behaviour, her speech patterns, her mannerism, interests, friends, etc and it is decided that Callie is gender identity female and corrective surgery is planned. Callie is left in a room with the report and find she has an undersized penis with urethra at the base. Suddenly all becomes clear: Penis+loving women=gender identity of male. Though as Cal states while a “male”, (page 492) “She thought I was okay. Not a real man at all. Which I felt was pretty much right.” In contrast to the over the top femme descriptions of Callie, what we get from Cal is that he bought a suit. With Callie we get descriptions of girlfriend interactions, range of emotions, facial and hand gestures, clothing likes and dislikes, with Cal: bought a suit, wore it. I concluded that the author was male assumptive, in that they were so used to the male condition it needed no description. I was interested in this because on a lesbian forum we had recently discussed why some lesbians get mistaken as men; so we examined appearance, gait, speech pattern, word, body space, hand guestures, space usage, posture, distance from person of the same and opposite sex and other aspects. None of these appeared in this book. Indeed one of the comments which indicated the author knew, as far as I could tell, NOTHING about gender identity in North American society was the statement on returning home that, (page 520), “contrary to popular opinion, gender was not that important.” What a comfort that must be to the dozen to 25+ transsexuals murdered each year in North America, or the lesbian who had to leave Alaska because her gender presentation caused her such antagonism and hassle in something as simple as using the public restroom.

But the book won the Pulitzer prize. Maybe it wasn’t for the bad representation of intersex but for the Greek American family who was openly racist against blacks and practiced incest. I am sure that was a positive boost for understanding of Greek culture. Though, Middlesex follows in the steps of those who dare speak (in total ignorance) about LGBT people and win awards, like the film Monster, whose actress was praised for how horrid she had made herself look in order for people to recognize her as a lesbian (there seems to be some Hollywood acting rule that if you have to suffer in a film by NOT being one of the super beautiful people, you deserve an award for it). Anyway, I am pretty glad that Monster taught the world all about lesbians; we’re ugly and we kill people who look at our girlfriend. Or the awards given regarding Transamerica for Felicity Huffman for teaching us that transsexuals are ugly and kinda dysfunctional. Gays do slightly better; they are just having secret love affairs in Brokeback Mountain or dying in a kind, peaceful and out of sight way in Philadelphia (Seriously, you want to see what AIDS lesions look like, watch Silverlake Life).

I did it, I read it, I was left feeling robbed: Give me my time back. Let an intersex woman be a lesbian for goodness sakes. At the CAIS site I found that intersex women with CAIS are lesbians in the same percentage: 6-10%. Sorry, I took up all that time just to tell you a book sucks, but on the bright side, this is two pages long, and Middlesex is 529 pages long. Ug!

14 comments:

Philip. said...

An excellent post, very interesting!

Cooper said...

Hollywood isn't happy unless there are clear cut, bankable definitions to everything. There is no gray. How commercially successful would Monster have been if the lead character was June Cleaver? Or Wild Things pool scene featured two women from the checkout line at the grocery store? Reality has no place in Tinseltown, nor books, unfortunately. Good post.

Daniel, the Guy in the Desert said...

I think that's why Michelle Pfeiffer has such a reputation as an actress, because every once in a while she has a scene where she looks a little stressed out.

But Middlesex just got pulled from my reading list. More writers need to study themselves before they study and write about others.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Philip - thanks! I still want my 500+ pages of time back though.

Cooper: Hey, actually, if June Cleaver was starring it Monster, I would have loved that - June goes lesbo.

Daniel: Those poor poor beautiful people who have to look ugly for WEEKS and sometimes MONTHS for only a few million dollars of fees. No wonder they need those awards.

The Goldfish said...

I should thank you for your 529 pages of toil - trusting your critical opinion, I shall cross it off my to read list as Daniel has.

I should also thank you for informing me that my early sexual experiences suggest that I am in fact a guy. This explains a lot.

Cooper said...

Certainly wouold have given Leave It To Beaver a different spoin...

shiva said...

Thanks a lot for putting this review back up :)

You really nailed on the head the problem that i had with Middlesex when i read it - from my perspective, there seemed to be absolutely nothing to indicate Cal was unhappy with hir body or hir female identity before being diagnosed as intersex. I'm really glad that someone else felt the same...

However, after i read it, i lent it to my female-identified intersex/MTF transsexual friend, and in a discussion about it after she had read it, she said that in her opinion there were things that i had missed (attributed by her to my being autistic and/or genderqueer) which had subtly but strongly indicated to her that Cal had a male gender identity, but was just hiding it. Whatever those things were, they were obviously far too subtle for me, tho...

My other big frustration was that the book basically stops at about the point that i was hoping it would start to get to the really interesting stuff - what the hell happened to the whole of Cal's life between age 16 and the "present" time? I'd much rather have had that than 300 pages about hir parents and grandparents.

Still not sure i'd be quite as harsh on it as you - but your argument is pretty much unassailable...

Gabriel said...

I personally found Eugenides novel was most intriguing, but the part I liked best was the stuff about the Greek community and its transferal from what is now Turkey, I found the intersex stuff a little tedious to be perfectly honest...Love the blog, please feel free to visit my blog 'An Unrepentant Communist' at http://unrepentantcommunist.blogspot.com/
Greetings to you all from County Kerry in Ireland

Anonymous said...

I really liked the book, especially the first half. I was surprised by how the story progressed with Calliope turning into Cal the way he did. But I think it shows that gender can "come about" in different ways. My impression was he wanted to grow naturally and knew the only way he could do that (and "fit in" and satisfy his parents) was by changing his gender pronoun. He never wanted surgery, and he had had some inkling that his body was changing in a non-female way, which is why he never wanted to go to doctors. The progression wasn't a trangendered one but an intersex one, and I thought the author did a fine job. I did not go into this book naive about intersex/transgender/queer people, which I think helps the case of this book because it certainly could be misconstrued by people who are not familiar. Also, Cal was going to doctors during the 60s/70s when this was brand new territory. Mostly the author described Cal's condition in bits and pieces throughout the book without classifying it, but there was that one chapter toward the end when Cal was a performer called Hermaphrodite (which was the term used at that time). I know my long comment won't change your mind, but I still hope people will go out and read this book. It is a modern epic that is interesting on many levels. Great for discussion!

Ashley said...

I'm having the same problem with the book too. And I think its way too fragmented too, like it can't decide if it wants to be about greek immigrants or about an intersex person. Of course I'm comming at this from an MTF transwoman perspective, but whenever I start reading this book I can't help but think about how I'd rather be reading a non fiction peice like Jennifer Finley Boylan's "She's not There : A life in two genders." But I'm really glad that I'm not alone, and I'm happy now not to commit myself to this book especially since it makes way to many assumptions like you mention. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

Buddhastic said...

haha, thanks for the review. scratching this off my reading list. i mean, it sounds great in some sort of self-discovery sort of way.. but i'm definitely irked by people who flap their gums without doing a little research first.

Ellen said...

Just a thought about desire...I read Cal's reflections on allowing his body to become masculinized and live as a man to be about sexual desire--NOT who he was interested in having sex with, but sexual desire period. Callie read the file about her condition, realized surgery might mean no more sexual desire (or ecstasy as the narrator puts it) and decides she'd rather become Cal than go through with it.

A fascinating "what if" would be--what if the kid were told she could choose her sex, hormonal therapy possible, and could choose whether or not to have surgery...was told it was okay to be a lesbian, okay to be lesbian with a big clit, and it was all up to her?

But that's not a choice the narrator gets to make. Under the conditions of that choice, I didn't find his choice at all strange. But, that's just me.

Betty Rae said...

I really disagree with the comments about Monster. I feel like if you went in watching it thinking that it was supposed to be an educational film about lesbians, you totally missed the boat. Charlize Theron wasn't praised for playing an "ugly lesbian." She was praised for her amazing acting in that movie, playing a complex character who spent all of her time in survival mode and trying to negotiate love in a way that was so far beyond the limited idea of a lesbian romantic relationship.

Not having read Middlesex, it makes me skeptical of your critique. I will probably read it now.

Anonymous said...

As a reader of the book who knew very little of intersex conditions before hand, i can't really make an argument as to whether eugenides' character is a realistic portayal of an intersex person. however, i do think there are a few of your points you might look at a different way. for example, in my opinion the pink princess phone is not a device to illustrate that callie is highly feminine, it's actually just reiterating that her parents (or perhaps specifically her mother), who bought her the phone, are raising her that way. it was mentioned at some point that the mother wished for a daughter so she'd have someone she could talk to. She enjoys having a daughter, and enjoys buying her girly things. Also you made the point that there are no indications before she hits fifteen that she'll identify as a male. Maybe eugenides is not obvious enough, but i think there are places when he tries to subtly convey that the way that callie experiences sexuality is more like a male would than a female...i think it's when her girl friends talk about their experiences. i dont think eugenides goes far enough - the decision to live as a male does seem to come too easily. On the other hand, the way callie's body is growing - without breasts, with the bone structure of a man etc - gives her a clear reason to think twice about surgery. i dont think it is so far-fetched to believe that cal feels comfortable as is.