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Gender and Religion in Middlesex: An Unorthodox Treatment of Gender Identity

kgbrown's picture

Gender and Religion in Middlesex: An Unorthodox Treatment of Gender Identity


It was all around me from the beginning, the weight of female suffering, with its biblical justification and vanishing acts. (Eugenides 215)


In his novel Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides allows his characters to explore societal taboos and break down walls of identity construction. He addresses issues of incest and lesbianism as a method of preparing the reader for the ultimate discussion about gender identity and intersex. While Eugenides plays with these various parts of identity, he leaves the convention of religion, and specifically Greek Orthodox, alone. Perhaps his use of a stable religion is an attempt to stabilize the novel in at least one manner. However, by keeping with the patriarchal hierarchy of the Greek Orthodox Church, Eugenides undermines the fluidity of identity that he presents in the novel. Or does he? Is Eugenides’ use of religion in Middlesex and attempt to maintain a gender hierarchy? Or does he allow for religion to be the method through which characters choose to exhibit their chosen gender expression? Is the conception of religion in Middlesex feminist?

Eugenides’ major religious figure in Desdemona, who, in her immigration from Turkey to the US, brings faith with her. However, while she retains her faith in her immigration, she attains sin by choosing to marry her brother, Lefty, and with this act, Desdemona sentences herself to a life full of self-inflicted shame based on her religious understanding. Her relationship with the Greek Orthodox Church is a turbulent one, as Dedemona attempts to define herself throughout her life.

However, in marrying Lefty, Desdemona is able to redefine the traditional roles of her marriage, much like, as Phyllis Trible explains in her re-reading of Genesis, Adam and Eve were able to do. Trible explains that “[o]nly with the specific creation of woman occurs the specific terms for man as male…. The sexes are interrelated and interdependent” (Trible 76). Similarly, as Desdemona transforms herself from sister to wife, she thereby gives her brother the role of the husband. By playing the part of the wife, Desdemona thereby gives Lefty the role of husband. Seemingly, Desdemona’s sinful act also allows her some amount of power in that she is able to self-define her role in the relationship, shifting from relation to lover.

Moreover, though her sinful marriage does bring Desdemona a great deal of stress, it also allows her to assert independence over the Church. Desdemona demonstrates her own independence when she makes the decision to lie to the priest about her and Lefty’s marriage:

When she and Lefty had become members of his congregation, the old priest had asked, as a formality, if they had received an Orthodox wedding. Desdemona had replied in the affirmative. She had grown up believing that priests could tell whether someone was telling the truth or not, but Father Stylianopoulos had only nodded and written their names into the church register (Eugenides 103).

She is disillusioned by her childhood misconceptions about the strength of the church and the role of the church in her life. Desdemona does not seem to feel any guilt about lying to the priest and instead this act seems to strengthen her independence as well as her distance from the Church. Until, that is, she feels guilty about her sinful marriage and the horrifying punishments she will receive from God as a result.

Desdemona’s real fear of God begins after she gets pregnant and hears stories about the monstrous babies that are born as a result of incest. She becomes consumed with the fear of her children’s deformities: “In the Greek Orthodox Church, even the children of closely related godparents were kept from marrying, on the ground that this amounted to spiritual incest” (Eugenides 134). Her fear of the biological issues that her children might have demonstrate the interchangeability and interconnectedness of her biological and spiritual identity. Her punishments for her “spiritual incest” will come in the form of biological deformity, a punishment from God.

Moreover, Desdemona’s seeming independence from the Church and its traditional roles is ruined by her pregnancies. Desdemona loses her ability to define her own role in life as her position as a pregnant woman is the culmination of her sex, and perhaps also of her gender. Valerie Saiving describes how female sexual development is defined by her biology: “the girl’s history as a female is punctuated and authenticate by a series of definite, natural, and irreversible bodily occurrences: first menstruation, defloration, childbirth, menopause” (Saiving 31). In Saiving’s view, women are defined by role in the reproductive process. By this understanding, biologically, socially, and, more importantly, religiously, this Desdemona is not able to opt out of this role.

Ultimately, though, Desdemona is able to reclaim her independence. This time, however, she makes both a biological (bodily) and religious (spiritual) statement: “A surgeon made two incisions below her navel. Stretching open the tissue and muscle to expose the circuitry of the fallopian tubes, he tied each in a bow, and there were no more children” (Eugendies 165). Through this procedure, Desdemona refutes her “definite, natural, and irreversible bodily occurrences,” creating a biological block to for her spiritual misdeeds.

Despite her ability to stop any more pregnancies from occurring, Desdemona still fears that her sins will harm her healthy children: “She kept waiting for something to happen, some disease, some abnormality, fearing that the punishment for her crime was going to be taken out in the most devastating way possible: not on her own soul but in the bodies of her children” (Eugendies 157). Even though she is able to gain control over her body’s functions, she still feels immensely guilty and fearful of what the ramifications may be, and she therefore hangs on to her religious inclinations as a method of dealing with her guilt. Her fear is what seems to keep Desdemona connected to the Church despite her many rebellions. Several times throughout the novel, including before her son Milton is born and again when he joins the army, Desdemona makes deals with God in order to keep her family safe. The promises that she makes to God in exchange for His protection are never kept and this is a constant source of anxiety for Desdemona.

Desdemona’s control over her body and her reproduction coupled with her continued anxiety present an interesting opposition to Saiving’s conception that women are defined solely by their feminine processes and men by their anxiety. Women, who are thus defined biologically, differ from men who instead have to constantly prove their manliness through performance: “He must learn this or that skill, acquire this or that trait or ability, and pass this or that test of endurance, courage, strength, or accomplishment. He must prove himself to be a man” (Saiving 31). If such is the case, then how does Desdemona’s choosing to prevent her reproductive identity redefine her? In Saiving’s notion, Desdemona would become a man. However, her inability to have any more children does not seem to affect Desdemona’s gender identity in the slightest. She maintains her female role as a mother and does not become more masculine. Her gender identity, then, is determined by factor (or combination of factors) other than biology, including religion.

While Saiving’s conception of how gender is defined does not fit with Desdemona, it may match up with Cal.[1] Though Cal was raised as Callie, because he will never undergo the rights of being a woman and he is biologically male, he must find a way to prove his manhood. Callie was not religious, but for Cal, who has struggles with gender identity, religion seems to be a method through which he is able to demonstrate his manliness. As the novel ends, Cal takes up the male position of standing in the door way to prevent his father’s spirit from re-entering the house. However, as Cal explains, in his father mind, Cal will always be Callie: “with respect to my father I will always remain a girl. There’s a kind of purity in that, the purity of childhood” (Eugenides 512). Through his religious act, Cal is able to maintain the purity of his female childhood while performing the rites of his new male identity. Really, Cal acts as the intersection of which Trible speaks about in her discussion of Genesis, the “interrelated and interdependent” nature of the sexes. Cal, as an intersex individual, really is able to occupy the unity of both sexes, namely Adam and Eve.

So, is religion in Middlesex feminist? In the novel, while religion does seem to remain centered around female issues, including Cal’s loss of his female identity, religion does not seem to determine the character’s gender identity. Instead, religion seems to be a method whereby the characters establish and present their own chosen gender identity. While the presentation of Greek Orthodox seems to be very stagnant and limiting, through working within and against the religious doctrine, both Desdemona and Cal are able to determine where they fit. Desdemona is able to use her newfound, incestuous relationship with her brother in order to redefine herself as a independent woman, while Cal, in a very different way, is able to take on the male roles of the Greek Orthodox funeral services. Still, in the same moment that Cal is asserting his male gender identity, he is still able to appreciate the female. Whether breaking out of or fitting into the religious patriarchy, Eugenides’ treatment of religion is feminist as it allows the characters are able to manipulate the religious practices in order to define their own gender identity.

[1] Though this paper focuses on Desdemona, in this instance Cal offers another (male) perspective that is unique to him. The purpose of mentioning his experience is to contrast it to that of Desdemona and relate it to Saiving’s conception about gender identity construction. However, though his relationship with religion is interesting, it is too large to be contained in full in this paper.


kgbrown's picture


After reading Plaskow and Christ's introduction to Weaving the Visions, I am curious about the differences between the feminist theory from 1979 and that of 1989. Plaskow and Christ talk about the way that Womanspirit Rising was a limited representation of feminist theory that was specifically limited to middle-class white women. I am curious about how the theories from their first book differ from those of the second and what this may say about the 10 years between them and the changes in feminism of this period.
Anne Dalke's picture


It interests me very much to see you examining the framework of Greek Orthodoxy in Middlesex, kgbrown, to see how much latitude the religion allows the characters to re-make themselves; it's striking to see you demonstrate how Desdemona manipulates the church for her own ends, and esp. striking to see how Cal both performs masculinity and retains femininity in the same moment of religious observance. I'm assuming the implied definition of feminism throughout your paper, then, is "an ability to re-write the script"? Allowing manipulation of established roles? If so, your epigram, about "the weight of female suffering," forms a nice ballast and foil.

I'll be interested to hear if you are intrigued enough by some of the feminist theological material you draw on here to go exploring further in this direction. The history of gender roles in the Christian church is a tangled one: many forms of empowerment and disempowerment, thickly woven together.