Academic journal article MELUS

Ethnicity and the Biopolitics of Intersex in Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex

Academic journal article MELUS

Ethnicity and the Biopolitics of Intersex in Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex

Article excerpt

In Middlesex (2003), Jeffrey Eugenides relies on the familiar model of the US immigration narrative to introduce an international readership to the decidedly unfamiliar voice of a narrator who is a "hermaphrodite." As parallel emplotments, Cal (whose female self is known as Calliope or Callie) Stephanides's accounts of his family's immigration history and his gender transition suggest that the successful assimilation of the ethnic subject into the American middle class also points to the domestication of intersex phenomena. Middlesex brings mainstream attention to intersex conditions precisely at the moment when intersex is being invalidated as the medical term for individuals born with mixed genital attributes in favor of a classification asa "Disorder of Sex Development (DSD)." (1) While many activists regard this change as an abandonment of identity politics and an act of self-pathologization, DSD proponents--including prominent figures in the international intersex rights movement--claim access to appropriate and effective medical care as their motivating principle. Because it stands to alter the terms of intersexed subjectivity, however, this waning of the relevance of intersex in medical circles also predicts the departure of intersex identity from the alliance of sexual minorities represented in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights movement. (2) In this essay, I historicize Eugenides's novel against these developments in order to shed new light on Callie's refusal of corrective surgery and on Cal's subsequent choice to live as a "stealth" man, to employ the term used by transgender and intersexed communities to describe individuals who do not publicly disclose the fact of their gender transition.

Changes in the meaning of intersex over the last twenty years provide an important cultural context for understanding the absence of intersex identity as a viable social formation in Middlesex. At the same time, the novel's adoption of a post-identity framework to represent the intersexed experience points to major shifts in the contemporary meaning and uses of race and ethnicity. Specifically, the role that stealth plays in Cal's romantic pursuit of a fellow ethnic American, Julie Kikuchi, reveals an alternate and frequently overlooked genealogy for intersex genitalia: the sexing of racialized or ethnic bodies. Cal's successful courtship of Julie has received superficial treatment in literary reviews and scholarly articles on Middlesex, but since Julie's companionship is integral to Cal's performance of heterosexuality, their union represents his memoir's happy conclusion. His cosmopolitan masculinity and his intersexed body are both affirmed in the mirror of her Asian femininity: "'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','" she declares (184). Julie is thus aware of how their sexual attraction to each other resonates with the gendered implications of orientalist discourse, but Cal consistently denies his investment in US-based paradigms of racial desire. Even his self-appellation, hermaphrodite, obscures the intersection of race and intersex in the novel by locating the latter's origin in Cal's Greek ethnicity and the mythology of Asia Minor. Viewed alongside Julie's Japanese ethnicity, Cal's amassing of white privilege under the sign of immigrant assimilation lends a racial significance to his stealth identity that has--like the notion of their sexual compatibility--gone largely unremarked by critics.

In fact, the acceleration of post-racial discourse from the standpoint of the immigrant experience in Middlesex parallels the increasing normalization of intersex in the world of the text's reception. By normalization, I refer to the management of intersex through technologies of biometric standardization, including corrective surgeries, the DSD diagnosis, and the functional disappearance of intersex in the form of stealth culture. …

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