This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
Sex and Gender
2005 Second Web Papers
This is the most powerful act I will ever do as a human being. I could have children, I could become a world leader, I could join the army and end the life of another human. Writing this paper would be more powerful than any of those other things, because I am exerting more freedom of choice in doing it than in any other act. I don't have a choice over which of my chromosomes fuse with someone else's and make an entirely new person. I have written ninety-one words so far: for every word, a choice. But I could name that person, I could label that amalgamation of mine and another's DNA: I could call it boy or girl, John or Sarah. I could call it Blair or Lee and then I might have caused you for a moment to wonder about the sex of my baby. That's power, too, but it's just one small choice.
The climax of Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex is reached when one girl, Callie is given the power to rename herself. By doing so, she does not subvert a system of gender categorization, but places herself in another (the other) one. Speaking on categories in the preface to his essay The Order of Things, Foucault writes, "Where else could they be juxtaposed except in the non-place of language? Yet, though language can spread them before us, it can do so only in an unthinkable space" (xvii). So what are the frontiers of this unthinkable space? The word 'interior' is defined (among other things) as "the part furthest from the edge." In Middlesex, Cal is the edge. So why isn't she falling off? What is he clinging to?
To chivy out some answers, it is helpful to look at the moment of metamorphosis in the novel, a juncture where many dynamics overlap. The transformation for Callie comes when she is given, or more precisely, takes for herself the knowledge that her chromosomes read 'XY' instead of the 'XX' one might expect after being raised a girl. Following her discovery Callie runs away from her family, leaving a note which reads: "I am not a girl. I'm a boy. That's what I found out today" (439). Although she has felt for some time that she exhibits masculinity, it is not until she is given information from an outside source in reading the doctor's research notes that she actually transforms. The new image of self she puts on is thus created through an interpellation; the doctor has recognized her maleness and she therefore becomes, for herself and everyone around her, male. It is not from something interior to Callie that gender is determined, nor does she choose to take on a masculine appearance based on intuition.
Callie's note, "I am not a girl. I'm a boy," communicates that because she is not one sex, she is automatically the other, despite her possession of ambiguous genitalia. This leads one to think there must be something problematic with her assertion of one or the other; Callie is proof that there is an overlap which it may not be possible to account for in words. "The problem, of course, with the inside/outside rhetoric, if it remains undeconstructed, is that such polemics disguise the fact that most of us are both inside and outside at the same time" (Fuss 237). In language, we tend to emphasize the points of difference, placing categories in opposition. In doing this, we deny the reality that a person like Callie might extend beyond the limits of categories. For Callie to exist there must be a common ground between 'boy' and 'girl', perhaps not on the overemphasized plumb line of gender, but instead the loci where that line might intersect with other aspects of life.
There is a worse kind of disorder than that of the incongruous, the linking together of things that are inappropriate; I mean the disorder in which fragments of a large number of possible orders glitter separately in the dimension, without law or geometry, of the heteroclite; and that word should be taken in its most literal, etymological sense: in such a state, things are 'laid', 'placed', 'arranged' in sites so very different from one another that it is impossible to find a place of residence for them, to define a common locus beneath them all (Foucault xvii).
At some level, depending on the conditions, any combination of things might be inappropriate. For example, every person on earth can be grouped together under the heading "humans," but no two can ever occupy a common locus in a real sense, only with the use of language. Creating these groups through language gives the creator power, but as Fuss points out, such categories are unstable (233) and their legacy is an illusion. As Foucault demonstrates, the "sick" mind is unable to maintain categories for more than a moment. Perhaps this type of mind is incapable of buying into the system of representing categories as real, because in reality any grouping is transitory.
No sooner have they been adumbrated than all these groupings dissolve again, for the field of identity that sustains them, however limited it may be, is still too wide not to be unstable; and so the sick mind continues to infinity, creating groups then dispersing them again, heaping up diverse similarities, destroying those that seem clearest, splitting up things that are identical, superimposing different criteria, frenziedly beginning all over again, becoming more and more disturbed, and teetering finally on the brink of anxiety (Foucault xviii).
It is clear from this passage that the Big Bang is still happening...over and over. What causes Callie's transformation, like any transformation, is a combination of all the right ingredients at the right time. Eugenides frames the creation of her character as the result of a series of collisions: the moment when her grandparents leave Greece and siblinghood for America and marriage, or when her father turns suddenly from the brink of certain death and goes, instead, to school. Each individual is at the intersection of all these external circumstances which are beyond their control. Better yet, I would say that every human being is the "unthinkable space" where time, matter, ideology, biology, and everything else overlap.
Fuss uses the term "perpetual reinvention" (238) to describe the workings of sexual identity; I would extend that phrase to every turn of human life. When we talk about gender, we often become frustrated by its bipolarity, by its rigid dimensions and unrelenting call to labels. Our control over this construction is limited: there is no breaking from it outside the mind. There is only the guarantee that as we traverse the lines of life, there is always a new connection, a rebirth.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002.
Foucault, Michel. Foreword and Preface to The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Vintage Books,
Fuss, Diana. "Inside/Out." Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. 233-240.
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