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Under the Eye of the Pantocrator

rfindlay's picture
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Plantagenet’s Auto-Erotica.  Milton’s eye in the camera.  And of course, Christ Pantocrator.  The male gaze is everywhere in Middlesex.  Just as present is the idea of showing, of being looked at.  When Callie finds out who she is, what pushes her to become Cal is a single word: Monster, which originates from the Latin monstrum, or something shown.  For Cal, seeing women as a man coincides with being seen as a man.  The preoccupation with appearance hinges on what Cal’s idea of beauty is. 

Cal explains that the “heart pleasure you get from looking at speckled leaves”[1] which he feels when he looks on the Obscure Object comes from an “appreciation of natural beauty.”[2]  If we agree that there is such a thing as natural beauty, then this is an argument that the ‘gaze’ is unavoidable, and that everyone has a right to perform it.  Therefore women should not resist being looked at.  But if this natural beauty that Cal exalts, like the ideal that Rosemarie talks about,[3] is only a social construction then there is a reason to resist the gaze.  We are validated in our anger and discomfort at being stared at and objectified.  If beauty is a “social fact…existing above and beyond the ability of individuals to control”[4]  then it may be impossible to ever fully reject beauty.  However, we can see that in current culture the requirements of beauty are only growing, for women as well as men.  Therefore we must at least attempt to check its growth, and explain its limits to others. 

Cal is unique in his experience of both the gaze and stare Garland-Thomson describes .  He gazes on women as she was once gazed upon by the men at the house on Sundays as they were “looking up over expansive bellies and having thoughts they didn’t admit.”[5]  As Callie, her own gaze went out to her reflection, “turning this way and that before the mirror.”[6]  In contrast, she “wanted nothing to do with them,”[7] only a few years later.  In time, she would be examined by doctors, and as a man by the crowd at 69ers, where he would experience the stare that those with disabilities know. 

Yet with all the looks and stares he got in his younger days, Cal still gives women a “soul ray from my eye.”[8]  He looks on women, including his former self as a woman, while apparently unaffected by his own experience of being looked at.  The only difference between his description and any other man’s is its artistic grandiosity.  He gives “an age to every part,” to quote Marvell, and turns each body into an epic.  When he describes herself as Callie, he writes about the separate components of her face as though each were unconnected to a greater person. Each part is given a story, like “a nose that comes from Asia, like silk itself, from the East,” already forming an arabesque,[9] or the Obscure Object’s freckles that spread like the Milky Way, and how she was like autumn.[10]  It is this method of looking at women in piecemeal that reveals sexism lying under the guise of ‘appreciation of beauty.’  The idea that beauty can be parceled up only reminds women how they are a sum of parts to be looked at, not a person.  His thoughts on being looked at and looking at others are incongruous with his experience; in order to call a girl the “Obscure Object” he must have forgotten his own objectification as a girl and denigration in San Francisco.   

I feel that this is because the author Eugenides has been limited by his experience as a man.  Having never faced the gaze in daily life, never feeling all of the reactions that a woman can feel when she is subjected to it, he misunderstands its effect.  As a man, he does not see it as problematic.  I’m not exempting women as perpetrators of the “gaze;” women look at each other all the time as well, to compare, envy, and desire.  The difference is that I know how my gaze on another woman can make her feel, because I have felt it, too; the shame, uneasiness, anger, or exhilaration.  The desire to look at a woman (in a way that is somehow not lust, but much more than a look) is sometimes overwhelming.  But the woman I look upon knows that I do not feel as though I have the right to look at her:  I’m looking with the hope that she will allow me to.  I am aware that I am invading her space, and will feel ashamed if she is hurt or angered by my gaze, not be surprised by or belittle her uneasiness.  If Eugenides understood how a woman reacts to being objectified in that way, I doubt he would have written only that Callie “felt the intensity of all that looking—the desire and desperation;”[11] she would have had a more complex, and visceral reaction.  When faced with ‘the stare’ as the spectacle Hermaphroditus, the feeling that “their gaze would have sucked my soul out of me”[12] is closer to the reaction I would expect.

Eugenides also uses the “social fact” that beauty is intrinsic to make Cal’s transition from female to male gendered easier.  Cal mourns the loss of his childhood as he “remembers a time when the world seemed to have a million eyes, silently opening wherever I went.”  The “awkward and extravagant beauty”[13] that Callie had was gone.  If what Garland-Thomson says is true, that “beauty and normalcy are a series of practices and positions that women take in order to avoid the stigmatization of ugliness and abnormality,”[14] could Cal’s sudden shift in his gender identity reveal that he became a man not because of his discomfort with his gender, but with his appearance in general.  It could be that both are social fact, but because they were at odds with one another, the stigma of ugliness was harder to bear than the sudden change from feminine to masculine.  It was a way out. After placing so much importance on the natural beauty of other women, to be faced with his own ugliness as a teenage girl could have been too much.  He changes suddenly, but the reaction that we have as an audience validates that change.  Now that Cal is a ‘normal’ and more attractive person, we accept that he was meant to be a man.  His ability to pass as man more successfully makes us less uneasy with the thought of someone changing their gender.  It doesn’t matter that Cal was never unhappy with his gender as a girl; he was unhappy with the stigma of being an ugly girl, and to find a way to avoid that stigma justifies the change. 

I do believe that Eugenides intended for Cal to find the ‘right’ gender without ever feeling out of place in the old one in order to show how fluid gender identity can be.  However, Cal’s move from beautiful girl to ugly young woman, and then on to handsome man is too neat.  It doesn’t challenge us enough.  Middlesex proves that gender is, as Cal puts it, “not all that important.”[15]  But it only reinforces how important beauty is to our culture. 

[1] Eugenides, 323.

[2] Sic.

[3] Garland-Thomson, 13.

[4] Garland-Thomson, 12.

[5] Eugenides, 278.

[6] Sic.       

[7] Eugenides, 328.

[8] Eugenides, 323.

[9] Eugenides, 278.

[10] Eugenides, 324.

[11] Eugenides, 278.

[12] Eugenides, 484.

[13] Eugenides, 218.

[14] Garland-Thomson, 13.

[15] Eugenides, 520.


Anne Dalke's picture

On Beauty and Being "Fair"

You've offered what seems to me a brand new reading of Eugenides' novel, rfindlay: the argument that Cal's transition was motivated by a hatred of ugliness and a deep desire not to embody it: "faced with his own ugliness as a teenage girl...unhappy with the stigma...justifies the change"). This intrigues me, first, because it really does seem a new way to look @ this particular novel; and secondly, because it has much larger implications, invites us to think more about our "natural" inclinations to gaze @ beauty and stare at ugliness. You really have made good use of the feminist disabilities material we reviewed in class.

Your paper is suggestive, in short, and/but it stops (=is!) a little short. Some texts to help you go-on-thinking about things include some fictional things like Ted Chiang's short story, "Liking What You See: A Documentary," in his collection Stories of Your Life and Others; and some analytical work that juxtaposes the field of aesthetics with that of politics, such as Elaine Scarry's essay "On Beauty and Being Fair," in her collection, On Beauty and Being Just.

I have a particular interest in your topic. Several years ago, I co-taught a course here with Sharon Burgmayer, of the Chemistry Department, called On Beauty: A Conversation Between Chemistry and Culture. It was an ambitious project; as you'll see from the syllabus, we looked @ pedagogical theory; @ debates among physicists about whether the beauty of a theory is predictive of its truth; and @ current cognitive work on how we apprehend the beautiful. We moved smoothly from the tradition of grand metaphysical aesthetics to the work of current aestheticians, but things began to heat up as we studied the beauty industry and feminist work on standards of aesthetic evaluation (in art history, literature and film study). Some of the livelier spots of debate included

Christine Koggel, Concepts of Beauty: A Feminist Philosopher Thinks about Paradigms and Consequences.

No More Miss America! (1968). The CWLY Herstory Website Archive

Elayne A. Saltzberg and Joan C. Chrisler, "Beauty Is the Beast: Psychological Effects of the Pursuit of the Perfect Female Body." Women: A Feminist Perspective, edited by Jo Freeman. Fifth Edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1995. 306-315.

Teresa Riordan. Introduction and Conclusion. Inventing Beauty: A History of the Innovations That Have Made Us Beautiful. New York: Broadway Books, 2004: xv-xxv, 276-278.

Paul Grobstein Biology, Brains and Beauty: How Do They (and We) Relate?

Ivone Gebara. "Yearning for Beauty." The Other Side. July-August 2003. 24-25.

See if any of that entices you further.... ?