Monday, April 13, 2015

Stuck in the Middle(sex)

Jeffrey Eugenides
Adolescence is hell; it's filled with uncertainty about physical appearance, identity, sexual maturation, and the ability to “fit-in” to a desirable community.  For Calliope Stephanides, this time is especially difficult.  Cal’s a hermaphrodite, and is living in a world that has room for only two classifications of people: “normal” and “not.”  In this Pulitzer Prize winning 2007 novel from Jeffrey Eugenides, the author explores the construction of identity for a third generation Greek-American immigrant for whom a black and white world is just not feasible.

The novel reads as a sort of multi-generational memoir of a recessed chromosomal mutation. The narrator, who self-identifies with the masculine pronoun "he" and name "Cal" in telling this tale, begins by chasing this mutation to what he believes led to his existence. Along the way we meet Desdemona and Lefty Stephanides -- Cal's grandparents, who are both third cousins and biological brother and sister -- in their tiny Greek village. We follow their harrowing journey to America, weep with them for their loss of cultural identity, and rejoice as they begin to make their way in a new world. We wade through the years as Cal's mother and father meet, court, and eventually marry. We follow their early years, the difficulty of recognizing that they no longer belong in the neighborhood they first called home in Detroit, then their older years in which they realize they are not really accepted in the neighborhood they have come to call home.

But while the stories of Cal's parents and grandparents are interesting, the story we follow most closely is the one they lead us to: Calliope Stephanides and her adolescent rebirth as our beloved "Cal."

Cal's journey of discovery is paved with a series of binary choices about who he will and will not be as he grows up. He struggles for understanding of ethnicity, race, social status, and beauty. But he finds that, more often than not, the classifications within those facets of identity are fuzzy. He can be as American as apple pie, but perhaps not so much as a Mayflower descendent. He can be a snowy stand out in his all black neighborhood, but a bit too "exotic" for others. His angular, androgynous, super-model look in late childhood is awkwardly measured by the time he reaches 14. But all of these blurred lines are ok. They don't alienate him any more than any other adolescent learning to navigate the waters of the world.

However, a missing menstrual cycle and a worried mother force Cal to explore a facet of his life that no one is ready to consider shaky ground. At a time when his peers are flaunting their first sexual experiences and experimenting with drugs and alcohol, Cal learns that the discomfort he's been feeling with regards to his sexuality and body exploration has a biological component to its presence. Upon discovering his intersex genitalia and learning of his doctor and family's plan to rob him of his male parts, Cal abandons his parents to explore the world where he may be allowed to present himself as male without fear of recognition.


While this run-away experience does provide Cal with the opportunity to explore and accept his masculine side, choosing to continue identifying himself as male when he returns for the first time for his father's funeral, at the end of the novel he has yet to complete his search for a permanent self-concept.  Despite his physical appearance as a man, Cal remains uncertain about what life will be like for him in the future.  He is self-conscious about his inability to perform as a man sexually and still feels, in many ways, that he continues to hold feminine qualities.  Ultimately, Cal’s attempt to live outside of the gender binary is rejected by the rest of the world.  Although he is technically a member of the third sex, the insistence that he fit into one of two gender categories forces him to adopt all of the expected traits for one gender at a time, rather than simultaneously existing as both. For this reason, he may never be able to completely subscribe to one of the most essential binaries in identity creation—gender—and may find himself forever lacking a concrete sense of self. Living in a world in which even a word for his third gender is not readily available, what else can he do?

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