Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Week 4--From the Mythic to the Medical: A Shift in Discourse

Anne Dalke's picture
This week we're finishing Middlesex, then welcoming Katie Baratz (HC '07) as a guest visitor to our class.
What strikes you, as you turn from the literary language of Eugenides' novel (and of the myths it recycles),
to a series of personal narratives told on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and then to a handbook written for parents of children with "disorders of sex development" (which you've encountered elsewhere under the terms "hermaphroditism" and "intersex")? What can you say about the different use-values of these various (mythic, confessional, medical....) languages? What  questions or observations do you have, in particular, for Katie (an undergrad classics major who is now in med school)? What would you like to talk with her about?

rchauhan's picture

When reading Katie's

When reading Katie's interview on Oprah, I think it was a good idea that her parents were telling pieces of her being intersex because Katie had a better understanding of her body and was mentally healthy about the idea of AIS. Whereas, in Middlesex, Callie was kept in the dark about her condition, and she didn't know much about it. This led her imagination run wild and felt almost like an outcast, especially after looking up the words in the dictionary and coming across the word monster.


The parent handbook was almost like an instruction's manual. They had steps on how to get through the initial shock and what to do afterwards. When I was reading it, I felt sorry for the parents who found out about their children being intersex because the manual sounded like all parents would feel confused/embarrassed. It kept telling parents how to get over the initial shock. I kept thinking, I'm sure there are parents who wouldn't feel this way. I really liked how the manual stressed the openness and love of the relationship between the parent and child because it really is important to show the child that he/she is loved for who he/she is. 


Questions for Katie:

1. Do you ever feel that having AIS makes it harder to have romantic relationships?/Are you worried how the person will react when you tell them?

2. You mentioned that AIS doesn't really have a huge influence on your life, but do you ever wonder what life would be like without it? If it would be easier?  

aaclh's picture

Readings on intersex and Middlesex:

I find the contrast between the readings interesting. The interview with Katie seemed more medical oriented than Middlesex. “Intersex ... is a medical condition.” The pieces with Oprah also had a different feel to them. “she never felt pressure to choose a gender. 'Society pressures you to choose sides just like they pressure mixed race people to decide.' ... 'I have both, and I'm not going to .. hide it.'” The DSD Guidelines book seemed very parent-oriented (obviously), but I think that added a nice perspective. The first people we interact with, usually, are our parents. So it makes sense to study how parents react to intersex children so that we can try to understand how people in general react to intersex people. (I want to note at this point that my word processor dictionary does not recognize the word intersex). I imagined being a parent of an intersex child and my first thought was, what would I tell everyone else? I mean this first question about a baby, in my experience, is is it a boy or a girl? I remember when my parents had their third baby they thought about never telling anybody what gender the child was so that they could experiment with gender roles (I think they were joking at least a little), but within half an hour we tricked the gender out of them (a girl). During that half hour though was really frustrating because we don't have words to talk about a single human being without talking about their sex. We have he, she or it, neither of which appropriately describe a single human being! I think our language handicap indicates (and reinforces) our more social handicap of only being able to think about a person as a sex. Clearly this is not useful when trying to experience the range of possibilities for human sexuality, and at this point I am not finding a use for this binary-like distinction.


As for the medical language, I have always found the connotations of the words doctors use to desribe people that don't fit the average disturbing. I wonder if this is the fault of doctors' or if doctor invent a word to describe a condition that most people don't have and then people assign negative connotations to the word.

hope's picture

Both the doctor on Oprah

Both the doctor on Oprah and the Parents' Handbook distinguish between sex and gender, but in his lecture Paul did not make this distinction. Is it useful to seperate the biology of the mind from the biology of the rest of the body?

i also wonder how Cal's life would have been different had his parents been informed about DSDs and had communicated more openly with him. even though they didn't know there was anything different about Cal, i feel like their silence on the subject of development made Cal's condition more confusing to him.

kgbrown's picture

Questions about Parents Assigning Gender

One of the things that I really wanted to talk about was a suggestion by the doctor in the Oprah article about the parents of intersex children "work[ing] with experienced doctors to come up with a gender assignment" during childhood and then the idea that "parents shoudl raise the child with that assigned gender." After having read Lynell's story, I was concerned about the parents of intersex children assigning gender to children so young and not really allowing the children to have any say in the matter. Perhaps, though, this is an issue in society at large that not only has to do with the assignments of intersex children, but all children in general. I think that sometimes the societal need to say "I am having a boy" or "I am having a girl" makes parents want for their child to be one or the other and doesn't take into consideration the feelings of their children or the feelings that their children may have later in life. Maybe children should be allowed to assign themselves a gender (or no gender) later in life. As the DSD Guidelines discuss, parents "want [their] child to grow up feeling normal." I wonder whether this desire to have your child feel normal has less to do with meeting the needs of the children than it does about fitting into a societal box. As Hilda said in her Oprah interview, "she feels and looks 'more male' or 'more female' in different situations. I think that this is probably a true situation for most people and I think that perhaps we should think about deconstructing the rigid standards of what it means to be male and female. I say all of these, though, aware that my gender was a very big (unspoken) part of how I grew up. At the same time, though, I don't think that I was ever judged by my parents or asked not to do something based on my gender. I think that Lynell's statement that as a male child "she was very effeminate and preferred playing with dolls and jump ropes to 'boy things.'" Honestly, who says that dolls and jump rope are "girl things." Why can't they just be play things? I guess what I am trying to get at is the allowance for flexability of gender as a parent and not attempting to make someone's personality fit their genitals. If we allowed for flexability, even to the extent that we wouldn't assign any gender to intersex (and perhaps all) babies, it might allow for happier kids. Of course, this certainly would a process and I'm not really sure how to go about it.
ebock's picture


"And Helga, taking an oddly feminist stance: 'See what you do for the mens? You suffer. Is not worth it.'" (311)

I wonder how Cal feels about feminism? We know that he doesn't see himself as political. But I'm wondering what he might think about our discussions surrounding sex/gender and even the word "feminism?" From someone who has lived on both sides of the non-existent divide between our traditionally constructed gender binary, and who chose to live most of their adult life as a man, what is feminism? Is it significant? who does it imply?

It's very funny to me that this book seems to imply by its subject matter and content that gender isn't relevant, and all these progressive notions about sex and gender, yet it still ends in an oddly predictable (in my opinion) way: the character elects to be male: to accept the inherited social/culture power of being male. Being faced with a choice (or so it seems) between choosing a specific gender identity (male/female) or living with a gender ambiguous identity? Or continuing to identify as a woman, and living life presumably as a lesbian? Does it feel to anyone else like it was kind of taking the easy way out for Callie to decide to transition to Cal? I'm mostly just playing devil's advocate because I have no idea what I would do personally in that siutation...


jzarate's picture


Questions for Katie: 

Do you think your condition has affected your relationships with other females? 

What advice would you give to parents with an intersex child? 

What advice would you give to an intersex person confronting societal gender binaries? 

Response to readings: 

When I read the chapter giving advice to parents with children with DSD, I thought it offered great insight into the negative side effects of secrecy. I appreciated the validation of the parent’s emotions, but at the same time it emphasized the importance of the child’s future emotions and potential choices. When reading about the consequences of secrecy and dishonesty, I was reminded of Callie’s response to Doctor Luce’s diagnosis and her evaluation of her parent’s response to her condition.  “.The synonym was official, authoritative; it was the verdict that the culture gave on a person like her. Monster. That was what she was. That was what Dr. Luce and his colleagues had been saying…It explained her mother crying in the next room. It explained the false cheer in Milton’s voice…”(431). Callie’s isolation and alienation fueled by Doctor Luce’s indirect explanation of his diagnosis and her parents’ reactions. I agree that there needs to be more conversations about DSD and other situations which break down gender binaries.            

The article also reminded me about the need to “fit-in” at a young age. “your acceptance of your child is what will make your child feel normal” I wish there was not so much social pressure to be “normal”. How can one determine their “normalcy”? Many women look in fashion magazines for their guidelines. I find this ironic when considering Zora’s statements in Middlesex. “Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome created the perfect woman, Zora told me. A number of top models had it. ‘How many chicks are six two, skinny, but with big boobs? Not many. That’s normal for someone like me’”(487). I do not think that all women should try to “fit-in” one mold. Classification can build friendships and unity, but many cultural divisions are based on unrealistic traits (biologically and otherwise) for humanity as a whole. We should embrace our genetic variations and respect ourselves and others as entire identities.            

 When considering the metamorphosis of the definition “feminism”, I feel that this concept must become more fluid. Today’s conflicts do not necessarily require women to divide themselves into a separate group. In order to address current issues feminism must promote unity, regardless of gender, or adapt an all encompassing gender definition for “female”. I hope that feminism can evolve in order to break down gender binaries, but I fear that too much historical context for this term will make it inflexible.


ssherman's picture

One thing that very much

One thing that very much struck me in the DSD handbook was: "Not all children with DSDs have genitals that look different than the average, and not all people who have genitals that look different from the average have DSDs."

I think it was important to emphasize that the physical appearance will not make them different than anyone else.  Everyone's different and just by genitalia, DSDs are not solely diagnosed.

Also, I feel like one of the reasons why parents can get upset about DSDs is not only because their child is different, but also because DSDs are largely known to be genetic.  No one wants to think that they put this upon their child.

Questions for Katie Baratz:

-How did your parents react when they found out you were intersex?  Was it hard for them to deal with because it could have been caused by genetics?

-In your support group, had most of the other kids been told by their parents right away about their DSD?

-What is your feeling about the DSD handbook?


sarahk's picture

Something tangential I read this week that I found troubling

I have a topic I wanted to discuss, and it is somewhat tangential, but I wanted to get more opinions on it and start discussions from it.


I recently came upon this book called "He's Just Not That Into You" which I thought shed a lot of light on our expectations of the gender binary in a way that was very troubling to me because it seemed truthful while also trapping women in very passive roles. I should preface this by saying the book is written by men as an advice column to women. There's an excerpt on that I found through a google search, of the introduction:

Many women have said to me, "Greg, men run the world." Wow. That makes us sound pretty capable. So tell me, why would you think we could be incapable of something as simple as picking up the phone and asking you out? You seem to think at times that we're "too shy" or we "just got out of something." Let me remind you: Men find it very satisfying to get what they want. (Particularly after a difficult day of running the world.) If we want you, we will find you. If you don't think you gave him enough time to notice you, take the time it took you to notice him and divide it by half.

Now you begin the life-changing experience of reading our book. We have put the stories we have heard and questions we've been asked in a simple question-and-answer format. If you're lucky, you'll read the following questions and know what they are: Excuses that women have made for their unsatisfying situations. If you're not so lucky, we've also included handy titles to clue you in.

So already they have set the condescending tone. And the advice they offer, while disguised in "empowering" advice for women, such as to not wait by the phone waiting for a man to call, is actually very disempowering. They say that if a guy doesn't go out and "get" you he's just not that into you and you should give up. At first, this message resonated with me in a truthful way, because let's face it, who hasn't had their fair share of rejection? But then I really thought about what they are saying to the whole body of women. They are really saying that women shouldn't go for what they want when there are challenges posed, and they are furthermore assuming that women automatically become control freaks or overanalyze the situation passively when they are met with challenges. And by doing this, the authors also assume many things about the man's side of the gender binary. That if he is a man, he will go for what he wants, and there is no weakness to pose as an excuse or other things in his life that matter more to him than a woman he is sexually attracted to. 

What really struck me about this book was my initial empathetic and thankful reaction to it, and then my averse reaction to it when I figured out that assuming the gender binary and then generalizing about that binary is extremely harmful to women's independence and strength.

Anyway, I probably shouldn't be taking it so seriously because it is a cheap romance self-help book, but I guess it resonated too much in reality for me to let it go, with several of my girlfriends constantly waiting by their phones waiting for a man to call. Girls at a supposedly empowering Women's College! Plus, I have been seriously considering the theory that there are more than two sexes because of Critical Feminist Studies, and if there are in fact more than two sexes, this book would have to be completely rewritten. Its fatal mix of chauvinism and assumptions about masculinity and femininity within the contrived gender binary really struck me.


What do you guys think about the affects of this book? Do you think I'm taking it too seriously, or do you agree with me? Do you think it's accurate that a guy has no interest if he isn't proactive and a girl just has to sit around and wait for that guy to be proactive, and we're just in denial as women? For lesbians, do you find that in general the butcher lesbians tend to be more proactive in finding their sexual interests than the femmes? I'm wondering if every relationship has to always be in the hands of the "men" at first to "work."


I'm also wondering if this book offends anyone else besides me. 

Dawn's picture

Diminishing the Reliance on Categories

Reading the DSD handbook for parents brought a lot of questions and ideas to mind. My general reaction to the document was that the handbook itself presented information and fielding frequently asked questions in a very reasurring manner; my problem lies with the types of questions and emotions "most parents" were dealing with. The intro to Chapter 1 of the handbook proves just how much sex and gender influence people's idea of social acceptance. We have a lot to learn from the parents' first reactions when they found out their children had some form of DSD. All the questions raised, brought up different and important issues, but the first three deal with categories most directly.

1. "Why me? Why my child?" When a child is born intersex, parents are forced to go through the process of deconstructing categories. This is the first moment that they have to confront the fact that there is another option out there, beyond the perfect pink and blue girl and boy labels for their baby. People don't like to break out of categories, because it leaves them confused and they feel like they/their child will not be accepted by society's strict rules. This ties into the final question, "Is there a way I can make all this go away?"

2. "Did I do something wrong?" I really hate this question, because when a parent asks if they did something wrong, they are implying that there is something wrong with their child. If the child is perfectly healthy, then there shouldn't be anything wrong. The only thing that's wrong is the inability of the parent to accept the fact that their child does not fit conventional stereotypes. I understand that it takes time to grapple through this, especially based on the conversations we've had in class, but the child will not feel normal until they are accepted by their parents. I also agree with Allie's point that the entire idea of DSD adds to this sentiment. Why is the deviation from the norm in regard to sex considered a disorder? If there really are multiple sexes, then why are two acceptable and the others are all "wrong"?

3. This question is the one that bothers me the most. "What if I can't love my child?" That's horrible! Parents who haven't even gotten to know their child are convincing themselves that SDS is something awful enough that it could possibly prevent them from loving their child. Social constructs should not be enough to cancel out a parent's love. Underneath it all, the individual child shoudl be what matters. Sex/gender is not really a defining factor in a person after all. Desdemona saw Cal as the same person immediately and accepted him as her grandson. Her consciousness was already stripped down to its base layer, so she could be objective. For others it would take time and thought in order for their ideas to break away from society, but they should be able to get to that point. In fact, I thought that was always the case. I never imagined that the sex/gender social construction would be SO opressive that it would sway new parents into believing that they couldn't love a child that didn't fit into either of the distinct categories.

This brings me to a conclusion that I've been searching for since the beginning of the course. As soon as I was taught to challenge the common definitions of feminism, I realized that I had no idea what feminism meant for me. At least for now, I think I've found an answer that works based on my belief system and the types of feminism that have been attributed to the subject matter in class. In my opinion, feminism is about equality in a sense of refuting categorization and destroying boundaries that are made socially. I agree with Sonal when she says that it doesn't necessarily have to concern "women". In that case does the term still work, or do we need a new one? People seem to use the term "feminism" in this way when it does not have to discuss the female. Why is that?


I also have some questions for Katie Baratz:

Are you a feminist?

Did you feel pressure to fit into the gender binary?

How did you feel when you learned about AIS when you were a teenager? Did you feel like your parents hid it from you until then? Did you feel like you deserved to know sooner?


lrperry's picture

Questions for Katie Baratz

I think one of the most important things I’ve learned from reading this material is that there are SO many different varieties of the intersex experience, and intersex as an embodiment. I wonder how you approach this as an activist, since you are working with “a term than encompasses at least 30 different conditions”. I feel like that must always be a challenge as an activist - to speak out of a personal experience and an individual standpoint, but also try to change the way an entire group in society is treated and discussed.

Cal in Middlesex claims to be apolitical, and the term ‘activist’ suggests that you are more explicitly political, but it does seem like you and Cal are engaged in a similar project – telling your own story to help others understand. 

I had a second question, which someone already sort of asked, but I wondered what you meant specifically when you said that the women in the Oprah audience "got it" - how did they 'get it'? what does it mean to 'get it'? 


sarina's picture

How to present the intersex experience

I think that in the case of intersex individuals, the mythical or literary methods can teach much more than the medical community. Although there are certainly contributions medical professionals can make to the general public about intersex (intersexism? I don't know the proper terminology here), I believe that personal stories (fictionalized or real) have more to contribute for the public. It seems that the greatest challenge for intersex individuals is acceptance by the public and by the media. As we see with the Oprah episode, times have changed. It has gone from a secret, mortifying medical condition, to simply a regular part of life for some people. I say "some" because acceptance is not wide-spread; there are communities still mistreating intersex individuals. 

Medical information may give public observers some idea of what intersex is, but personal stories make it human, and make it easier to swallow.  The idea of someone being in between (or neither?) sexes is difficult in a society so based on a binary sex system. If a person reads a book, they may feel like they got to know an intersex individual, and people are always more accepting of something if it is identified with one of their friends.

kscire's picture

Questions for Katie

What/Who influenced your decision to begin taking estrogen? 

 Do you think you would be interested in medicine if you hadn't been born with AIS? 

Do you feel that having such a unique adolescent experience has contributed to your world view?

 How has having AIS affected your romantic relationships?  

EG's picture

I am also interested in

I am also interested in Katie's emergence into the medical world.  I'd be specifically interested in her motives and goals as she continued through medical school, and whether or not she agrees with the theory that biology is a story.  If she's read Middlesex, I'd like to hear her interpretation of why it seems Callie never truely finds nor embraces his/her gender identity, and whether she can relate to that or not.
stephanie2's picture

Questions for Katie Baratz

While it is hard to say where I stand on the never ending questions surrounding intersex, gender, and sex, I do have a few questions for Katie Baratz:

I would like to know how did she make sense of herself and her body as a child?

How did she feel when she found out that she was intersex?

How has being intersex changed your perspectives on gender, sex, and identity? Are they separate or are they one?

Most importantly, as an aspiring physician, what advice would you give to fellow peers in regards to understanding and attending to someone with your condition?

mpottash's picture

Gender Identity

In Katie's interview with Haverford, she says: "I didn't learn about [my AIS] until my identity was already well-formed - when my parents told me, I already knew that I was a happy, healthy teenager."  I found this statement very interesting for its implications in our discussion on sex, gender, and identity.  It would seem that when Callie learned about her DSD, she was also a well formed teenage girl.  But when she learned about the DSD, as opposed to Katie, she decided to change her gender.  This speaks to the question of Nature versus nurture.  From the interview, it seems that for Katie, nurture was what was important.  For Cal however, nature was more important.  How are distinctions between nature and nurture made?  Does the gender identity of people with DSD prove a point about nature vs. nurture, as Dr. Luce says?  I would like to ask Katie her opinion about this. 

I was also interested in Hilda's comment that she never felt pressured to choose a gender, and that "Society pressures you to choose sides just like they pressure mixed race people to decide".  This brings us back to Tuesday's discussion about organizational control. While Cal was going against the control of Dr. Luce and the medical community, perhaps the fact that he chose a gender at all means that he was still under societal control.

sarahk's picture

I would like to ask

I would like to ask Katie:


Are there any specific similarities that struck you between yourself and Calliope in Middlesex? Was there a moment in the book that really resonated with you as an experience or emotion that you have gone through yourself?

Once you found out about your "condition," what was your initial reaction? Did shame find its way into this reaction? I am in no way implying that it is something to feel shameful about, but I'm wondering about the possible effects of societal pressures to fit into the gender binary.

What is your personal opinion about the gender binary? Do you think it is something we created for ourselves a long time ago and have since learned to call it "nature," or do you think it really is our nature to fit under two sex categories? Do you think there are more than two official genders/sexes?

What is your personal way of separating the terms "sex" and "gender?"

How did you feel the audience reacted to your interview on Oprah?

Does your condition allow you to step outside your body as a woman at all? Do you feel like you have a fresh perspective to add to the term feminism?

How did your discovery of your condition affect your body image, and do you think that a girl finding out she is intersexed necessarily exempts her from the societal pressures telling her what is "beautiful" for a woman's body? 

jlustick's picture

Some thoughts for Katie Baratz's visit

In reading the transcripts from the Oprah show, I was interested in Hida's remark that "the reason she is comfortable with her intersex body is that she never felt pressure to choose a gender." I found this statement somewhat shocking, for I can't imagine growing up in a society in which there wasn't a pressure to choose a gender. Aside from the way in which parents raise children, schools are structured around a gender binary, which allows for clear distinctions between "boys" and "girls." I would imagine that not assigning oneself to either category would lead to intense social ostracization. Even if the intersex individual can make sense of her gender ambiguity, her peers may not. Most children come to understand their bodies through the lens of gender. For example, when a young girls asks her mom about her genitalia, her mother will likely respond with something along the lines of, "that's your vagina, and it's what makes you a girl and will one day make you a woman." While I understand that such explanations pose multiple problems for transgender individuals, I'm not sure response would work/make sense to a child. In other words, how do children come to understand and accept their "private parts" or those sections of their body kept hidden. Is it possible to not subscribe meaning to them? Is there a way to teach children about their sex that's separate from helping them understand their gender? This brings me to my next question, which is whether or not it is possible to raise a child without assigning a gender. In cases of children born with DSDs where the sex is truly ambiguous, how should the gender be determined? How would not raising a child in a gendered manner have negative psychological effects? How does society need to change if children are to be raised without assigned genders? Are such changes even feasible? Lastly, are their any circumstances under which you (Katie Baratz) suppport gender assignment surgery, aside from when it is a "medical necessity"?
Serendip Visitor's picture

Oprah transcripts - "Growing up Intersex"

I am looking for a copy of the the transcripts for this particular episode of Oprah and would be very grateful for any help in getting a copy. Thank you so much!

Charlie_C's picture

Reading the DSD Guidelines:

Reading the DSD Guidelines: Handbook for Parents, I couldn't help but feel absolutely terrible. While I think it's fantastic that there are parental books for difficult situations, some of the emotions described that parents might feel were a bit horrifying. "Shock, disbelief, anxiousness, fear, curiosity, embarrassment, confusion, and helplessness" are reasonable for parents who have discovered that their children have, say, a terminal disease, but to have an intersex condition... I think it says something terrible about today's society, that parents would be so devastated to learn that their child doesn't fit in as nicely into these petty categories like sex/gender.

I was delighted by Hida's statement that "she never felt pressure to choose a gender." With our current sociological state, it's nearly impossible to fit perfectly into a single gender. This causes so many problems, especially for those like Hida who don't feel particularly drawn to either gender. As you've mentioned, gender encompasses so much of what we learn, including genitalia. But does it have to be that way? Is gender included in lessons about the anatomy of the liver? The fact that "vagina" doesn't always equal "girl," etc, shows that to teach it like that is an antiquated perspective. Gender isn't necessary to develop; in some cases, it's only a hindrence. For example, in the short story X: A Fabulous Child's Story, a child is raised with no gender, and receives hatred not from classmates, but from adults who believe that gender is essential. Yes, this is only fiction, but it provides a genderless environment where, believe it or not, everyone is happy in the end. While I recognize that reaching this point is extremely difficult, given our current society, I maintain that living without gender can provide advantages. Without any expectations of how you should act or what you should like, there is no longer the need to fill a role determined at birth, only the freedom to be oneself and to be happy doing so.

(By the way, if you have the time, that really is an amazing, amazing short story. One of my favourites. :D)



I also have a few questions for Katie:

1. What is your opinion on doctors determining the sex(/gender) of a baby, for whom that might not be so clear? Should doctors still try to make a determination, or not bother? Do you think, in the future, that children will be able to survive socially without an attachment to a gender, or even as assigned to a third (or fourth or fifth....) gender?

2. In your opinion, what is the relationship between being intersex and being transgender? Do you think there is any connection at all?

3. How have your parents and other family members dealt with your DSD or your career choices?

Thank you!

Anne Dalke's picture

The Story of an X

A student in the course on Gender and Science (which I taught w/ Liz McCormack in Spring 2007) wrote-and-drew a l'il graphic story inspired by Gould's "Fabulous Child's Story: see The Story of an X.
skumar's picture

Questions for Katie Baratz

Katie Baratz

I would be interested in knowing:

a) If she felt a sense of disconnection between her mind and her body. In her experience, I would like to know if experienced a clear distinction between what she felt in her mind and what she saw in her body.

b) How she defines Feminism and whether or not she considers herself a feminist.

c) As a medical student who is most probably familiar with the medical jargon/terms, I would like to know how Katie feels about referring to intersex as "a medical condition." I wonder how much of a role this experience has played out in her role a doctor.

d) What incited her decision to become a medical doctor. Also, if she wrote her medical school essay on being intersex? mention it in her medical school interviews?

skumar's picture

A conglomeration of my progressive thoughts on Middlesex

While my post will not answer the questions specific to this forum, I would like to present some of the ideas I mused over after today's class. I think I have come a long way in my conception of feminism and of intersex since reading Book 1 of Middlesex and I would like to share my mental transformation:

This afternoon, we discussed whether Middlesex was a tragedy or a comedy; a medical memoir or a fictional autobiography; a novel of inalterability or of change? I did not participate in this discussion in class because I could not articulate the way I felt. In other words, I felt pressured to chose between one or the other option. (My personal confliction to chose between one side or the other reminds me of Julia's analysis of our cateogorization activity in class. She says she was scared to mention some of the categories that she felt comfortable identifying herself a part of because she felt it would pressure others in the group to identify themselves in relation to that category). In the same way, I felt pressure, like Cal, to have to chose between deciding whether Middlesex was a tragedy or a comedy, a story of reincarnation or a story of rebirth. The unspoken tension I felt inside resonated with me. From Book 1 to Book 4, I had been frustrated with Cal's indecisiveness and failed to understand the difficulty of chosing between two equally attractive options. The ability to sympathize with Cal was just one of my revelations! To return back to my intitial discussion of how I would "categorize" the novel, I would say that it is impossible; Middlesex could be both a tragedy and a comedy, a story of inalterability or a story of change, a medical memoir and a fictional autobiography. Why is it necessary to chose? I just want to say that Middlesex is a fusion, a melange of all of the above.

I was enlightened to overcome this superficial sense of categorizing...everything. At the beginning of my intellectual journey through Middlesex, I could only percieve two sexes: a male and a female. It was difficult, I must admit, to accept the "grey" area between white and black, the middle sex. I thought about this today, tested my preconcieved mindset. Sometimes--no, most of the time-- I find myself indecisive. Should I wake up at 6:40 or 6:45 tommorow morning? Should I wear sneakers of flip-flops? When I am really stumped, I ask someone-- my mom, my sister, my friend-- to make the decision for me... to put me out of my agony! In the same way, Callie decides to become Cal after reading Dr. Luce's report. At first, I was frustrated that Callie would not make up her own mind, yet having thought about my own experience, I came to terms with how difficult it is for me to decide between simple, everyday things. I cannot imagine how painful, and mentally disturbing, for Cal to decide between two sexes.

Futhermore, my revelation encouraged me to think about the title: "Middlesex." I got that the novel is about a middlesex, an intersex. However, there are several occurences in the Eugenides' novel that substaniates my claim that no one thing in the novel is certain; every dimension of the novel has an in-between, indecisive state. After reading Middlesex, I am left confused about Cal's gender. Gender, Cal says, is not important. I do not think that Cal would categorize herself, despite her transformation, as being male or as being female. Additionally, the mind and the body seem to function both causually and distinctively throughout the book; at times, the mind controls actions as executed by the body, at other times, physical appearance of the body satisfies the mind. Futhermore, the book cannot be labeled as being just a comedy or just a tradegy; Middlesex is both hopeful and remorseful. I hope I am getting my point across that everything in the novel has a middle ground, a "grey area." Eugenides' Middlesex is two-fold, a parallel construction that challenges societies' tendency towards categorization .

Lastly, I would like to introduce how my understanding of "Middlesex" altered my understanding feminism! In my last post in the forum on feminism (about our definitons of feminism, a feminist question, and the ways in which Middlesex points to a feminist question) I said I thought feminism was equated with a woman feeling comfortable with her body. Now, I think feminism is about breaking boundarie, shattering the divide between one or the other. In other words, feminism is a theory that refutes societies general inclination to sterotype, to make a disctinction between "right" and "wrong," "left" or "right," "male" or "female." Essentially, feminism is saying: Look, what is wrong with deciding on both options? In this way, I think feminism appeals to a larger, broader spectrum of people: men, women, intersex, no sex. There is no set interpretation of the term "feminism." Feminism does not have to resonate only with women. (With this, I really think it is necessary to change the term. Hm.What else could "feminism" be called?) So to answer the question again, Middlesex undoubtedly presents us with feminist questions.

anorton's picture

Something I found very

Something I found very useful in the non-literary articles and medical texts was their attention to defining the terms we've been using, or perhaps throwing around uncertainly, in class.  Dr. Dreger (from The Oprah Winfrey Show,) succinctly settles the difference between "sex" and "gender": 

"There's issues of sex, which is biology—that's male and female and intersex....  There's gender, which is boy and girl, and sometimes people switch that.  And then there's sexual orientation, which is something else in addition—that's whether or not we're attracted to males or to females or to both" (8).

What Dr. Dreger puts forth is incongruous with Professor Grobstein's claim that, because there are uncountable ways of putting together the human body with male and female differences, there are uncountable sexes.  Dr. Dreger allows for three: male, female, and intersex.  Is it fair to group everyone who does not fit within standard conceptions of male or female into one group?

I am further unsatisfied with the term "disorders of sex development": why are differences from standard sexual development automatically "disorders," a word that carries definitions from the semi-innocuous "irregularity" and "confusion" to the more-negative "disturbance" and "disease" (from the OED)?  How can society move toward full acceptance of people with disorders (diseases, disturbances) of sex development if the very rhetoric surrounding them carries such connotations?