Aggressive. Competitive. Assertive. Confident. Strong. Powerful. Unemotional. Independent. Provider. Macho. Sexually dominant. These are just some adjectives stereotypically associated with masculinity. But, following 1970s, when many traditional ideas and myths of manhood were drawn into question, we also heard men being described as effeminate (and not in conjunction with being gay), sensitive, and, most recently, metrosexual, along a sliding scale of masculinity. But, in today’s world of shifting gender roles and evolving gender self-realization, what does masculinity really mean? What does it really mean to be a man? Does masculinity hinge on power anymore? Is it still measured by sexual dominance? There’s much in contemporary literature and the media that questions the traditional construct of masculinity.
As a short example, just several months ago, Baxter of California, an iconic men’s grooming company, sought to reimagine its position in men’s grooming through provokingly heartfelt, true stories and cultural observations that connect with evolving trends and preferences. The brand’s resulting campaign, “#lifelivedtrue,” featured on its official website, instagram and twitter pages, is thus an honest depiction grounding the brand in a modern California culture through a lens that is inclusive of all expressions of masculinity—aka, modern masculinity.
Yann Joffredo, Baxter of California’s Global General Manager, explained that the campaign “is about being honest with yourself, embracing your imperfections, and not being afraid to showcase who you are as you experience life.” And, although published in the early 2000s, the novel, Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides, could have been written yesterday, as it is a work of literature that deeply explores the idea—and reveals dilemmas—of the masculine identity.
The topic has escalated to a new level where, as evidenced by the campaign above, traditional masculinity may be in a crisis. In Middlesex, Eugenides gives us the psychological journey of of a man who has to decide on how to “conduct” his masculinity once he decides to lead his life as a man.
This he does starting in young adulthood, after having grown up and living as a female because of a cruel twist in genetics that conferred him with ambiguous genitalia. He calculates a projection of his masculinity along many of the traditional ideals of malehood in the world—outside the bedroom.
But, his psychologically inescapable and permanent physical deviation forces him to underpin every purposeful step toward projecting manhood with a silent doubt and the burden of a secret that challenges his manhood not only outside, but most overwhelmingly inside the bedroom. Fascinatingly, his manhood is tempered by the history of his womanhood, and in this way the reader sees a deconstruction of traditional masculinity that creates spaces for alternative forms of masculinity.
On Traditional Masculinity
The traditional image of manhood is seen at the outset, mainly through the character of Lefty. At the novel’s beginning, in Asia Minor (now Turkey) where he and his sister, Desdemona, live prior to the destruction of nearby Smyrna in 1922, we see Lefty as the dominant one of the two, being very male as he commands the finances of the house, heeds to his body’s natural urges, and, very importantly, determines the trajectory of their life as they contemplate the personal social upheaval when they decide to abandon their ancestral home.
As for the two former behaviors, he is in charge of making their money selling the silk cocoons in the town market in Bursa, singularly making ultimate pricing and sale decisions—and, as long as he is there—also managing to satisfy his “manly” needs. All the while, Desdemona tirelessly takes care of the silkworms back at their village, and in her solitude can only wonder about her “needs.”
Lefty gets to do what he does simply because he is a male. Ironically, he actually has no interest in or talent for the family livelihood, “…he couldn’t judge silkworm cocoons by feeling or sniffing them as his sister could” (30). But, he is, by default, better suited for this task, as the market involves encounters with other aggressive men selling goods, an environment deemed unsuitable for women.
He feigns taking offense when someone speaks poorly of the silk cocoons, feeling that he is “ supposed to shout, to act offended…” (30), but not because it is an insult to Desdemona, but because it is the “masculine” way to behave. Lefty’s traditional masculinity continues to become more apparent as he tends to his sexual needs. Rather than come home to his sister after working the market—only to face a village with just two “eligible” women—he commonly stays in Bursa late into the evening—sometimes through the night—gambling and sleeping with prostitutes (the latter activity possible because (unlike Desdemona) he is “in full communication with his body”) (27).
This type of behavior is accepted, and even expected, of men then, although were women to do the same, their reputation would suffer in the disapproving eyes of their community. Once he and Desdemona escape Asia Minor and arrive in Detroit—their sibling relationship having now perversely escalated to that of lovers—his workdays of “sixteen, sometimes eighteen, hours a day” (136) give him the sense of male entitlement to sexual relief, albeit with his sister—now wife.
Years later in the novel, in 1960, the theme of robust male sexual aggressiveness is still proclaimed, amusingly in one instance, on a microscopic level: male sperm are described to be dominant in procreation, “a billion sperm swim upstream, males in the lead….[that] give instructions about height, eye color, nose shape…” (210) while the female sperm are “good old, slow, reliable” (9).
We see, however, how the female can challenge that predominance. When Desdemona’s denies Lefty his sexual due after the birth of their first son, fearing the creation of abnormal offspring, she becomes the sexually determinant partner in the relationship. This threatens his masculinity. As a result, Lefty reinforces his masculinity by exercising strict adherence of traditional gender roles in the household; Desdemona would remain in the kitchen while he would entertain guests.
The speakeasy he manages, the Zebra Room, harks back to his masculine days in Bursa: dissatisfied with the women there—and now similarly, with his wife—in the Zebra Room he can “serve” many women and experience the boyish excitement his wife denies him. So we see here that masculinity cannot stand on its own; it is, in large part, only as strong as the female allows it to be. Here is an inherent weakness in the self-sense of masculinity.
The Trappings Of Manhood
Cal, born in 1960, is the novel’s protagonist and genetically confused grandchild of Lefty and Desdemona. He escalates the issue of marginalized masculinity to an exquisite level. Born with ambiguous genitalia secondary to an inherited sex hormone enzyme deficiency, he is assigned as a female (Callie) at birth and lives as such, but undergoes progressive androgenic physical change as he goes through adolescence.
As a teenager, he reassigns himself as a male, at first adopting the usual “trappings” of manhood: “like a convert to a new religion, [he] overdid it…[he] adopted a new swagger” (449), wore a suit, spoke with a deeper voice, and cut his hair. Cal is constantly fearful, however, that his physical “deformity” will be revealed.
His conscious self-depiction as a male is convincing early on: The barber, Ed, who cuts his hair for the first time, sees Cal as a male, despite his long and girlish hair. But, Callie’s identity still lingers within Cal—and will continue to—because of the undeniable physical truth of his body. But, Callie can switch to Cal, even as his physical attributes remain unchanged, because Cal’s manhood is not based on a penile sensibility, but in his personal understanding of what it is to be male.
The Normal Man
But, can’t a “normal” man, or woman for that matter, possess qualities that are both masculine and feminine? Cal first begins to think about this as he looks at the sexual pictures scrawled on the walls of his school’s basement bathroom, “sketched in blue ink…little men with gigantic sexual parts. And women with enormous breasts. Also various permutations: men with dinky penises; and women with penises, too” (329).
He sees these physical permutations as a people being able to simultaneously possess traditional masculine and feminine qualities. Taken to the next level, that is, psychologically and behaviorally, a woman can be socially aggressive and sexually dominant, and still be decidedly female.
By the book’s end, Cal notes that he often still continues to feel the simultaneousness of his male/female duality, stating that when “even now, though I live as a man, I remain in essential ways Tessie’s daughter. I’m still the one who remembers to call every Sunday…I’ll be the one to nurse her in her old age” (520). Interestingly, he considers the thoughtfulness of calling one’s mother and the loyalty to care for an elderly parent the province of femalehood. In so doing, the unemotional aspect of masculinity is reinforced.
Challenging Conventional Masculinity
Perhaps as an extension of the fact that we are born naturally embodying a hormonal duality (we all carry testosterone and estrogen), one can challenge the either/or assignment of biological gender at birth and conceptualize gender roles in adulthood less on the basis of physical anatomy and more on the psycho-emotional appreciation of either genderhood. Hence, a non-penile-based, even ambivalent, version of malehood can exist, one that still encompasses the traditional trappings, as mentioned.
The idea, of course, would challenge the very core of conventional masculinity and shock the likes of traditional males, such as Cal’s doctor, Dr. Luce, who believes that being male or female is mutually exclusive. Cal’s intersexed body rejects either singular gender option and simultaneously demands both.
Despite Dr. Luce’s insistence to surgically force Callie’s body to “cooperate” with the female gender assigned at birth, Callie rejects the decision to “fix” her “deformed” body. This rejection of the surgical procedure to correct his condition doubles as Cal’s acceptance of himself and his denial of the social structure of the conventional suburban community in which he grew up and which strictly adheres to the gender binary.
His rejection at once establishes his own sense of masculinity. Callie at the time, cuts her hair short, and runs away to the West, to San Francisco, where she transforms from a suburban teenage girl to Cal, an urban intersex boy.
This move westward to San Francisco lands Cal in a culture that holds less rigid expectations of gender roles. This enables him to navigate his own identity outside of the traditional roles of male and female that dichotomize society. Upon his return home, he presents with his male gender identity, initially deeply upsetting Tessie, his mother, until she comes to realize that Cal is still the same person as Callie.
She begins to see that “contrary to popular opinion, gender [is] not all that important” (520) because a person can connect to another, emotionally, as a…person. Tessie shows how there is the capacity for someone else to understand, and accept, that dilemmas of gender identity can be negotiated when the final outcome is something everyone seeks: meaningful human connection.
On Physical Relationships
Now, as a middle-aged man, Cal contemplates his masculinity, and despite conducting his life thus far in an outwardly decidedly masculine way, he still feels the weight not doing so behind the bedroom door. He flashbacks to college, to the days when he had a girlfriend, Olivia. Olivia had been nearly raped as a thirteen-year old, just as Cal had at fourteen as Callie, by the Obscure Object’s brother, Jerome.
Cal and Olivia, both made psychologically vulnerable by their past, are able to emotionally bond over these painful experiences, and they develop their own form of physical relationship (and the reader has to use their imagination on this). As they approach the final “base” of this physical relationship, as they undress in front of one another, Cal describes, “It was like unwinding bandages. I was as much of a man as Olivia could bear at that point” (319).
Here, it is apparent that Cal rejects a demonstration of sexual dominance—he does not forcefully remove Olivia’s clothing—and this is happening because at this moment, Callie re-emerges. Callie had been sexually violated by Jerome, who in stark contrast to the way Cal and Olivia undressed, “ripped off” her clothing, “pulling down [Callie’s] overalls” and “tugging on [Callie’s] underpants” (375). From this unnerving personal experience, Cal understands the sense of personal violation associated with being the sexually submissive partner, and decides to not put Olivia or any of the other women he dates in such a situation.
We see Cal continue to refrain from exhibiting sexual dominance, when he describes a recent weekend vacation with Julie, the woman he is currently dating. He insisted they stay in separate rooms, which she interpreted as a sign of being gay. Her interpretation is why men have—what has to be—a burdening sense that they have to always prove their manhood; some men may feel the constant need to work to secure an outwardly masculine persona to avoid appearing like what they consider to be subordinated men, such as gay men.
But, Cal is unconvinced that all women think like Julie. He mentions that other women dates have had different views; and, by moving things slowly with women in the bedroom, he sees that many appear to appreciate this, seeing it more as a sign of Cal’s adherence to an “old-school, gentlemanly routine” (232).
In reality, Cal takes things slowly because of his own body insecurities and because Callie continues to re-emerge—and interrupt—at times. And, while Callie’s presence can temper, in a good way, his masculinity, it can sometimes be intrusive and annoying to Cal, The Male. He describes how certain actions, such as a self-conscious hair flip or a nail check, are unprovoked manifestations of Callie.
As Cal ponders gender differences outside the bedroom, he actually borders on being critical of women, pointing to them as being traditionally less secure and rendering this insecurity as a feminine attribute. It seems—perhaps on a more psychologically “practical” basis—he finds much more safety and confidence instead in masculinity; conventional male clothing, like bespoke double-breasted suits, make him feel better, and he refers to them as his “armor” (107).
But, Callie’s “visits” silently undermine Cal’s masculine sensibility when he feels her sticking her “little hands into the baggy sleeves of [his] arms ”(42) and her “girlish walk tak[ing] over” (which stimulates a somewhat derogatory “desolate and gossipy sympathy for girls”) (42). Cal still has to psychologically work hard at being outwardly male (despite what one might think would be relatively easy to do: don male clothes, chat women up at a bar, talk about their important job…) because of Callie.
A Fear of Serious Relationships
Notwithstanding Callie, because of his physical deformity and consequent inability to consummate a relationship, it, too, affects how he outwardly conducts his life as a man: it forces him to start multiple relationships anew, and is the reason why he chooses a life in the foreign service—he can run away and justify moving to a different place every so often.
When he runs away as Callie from the hospital in New York, he makes numerous stops in many states—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska—until he finally settles in California. He goes further on to Germany, which does not seem to be the last stop.
He runs from place to place in an attempt to avoid serious relationships, fearing that moment of when he becomes too close to a woman, when at the point of physical intimacy, she would realize his problem and reject him. He expresses this insecurity when he states “It’s getting harder all the time. With Olivia and every woman who came after her there has been this great knowledge to deal with: the great fact of my condition” (320).
Back to the adjectives used to typify masculinity: An insurmountable interference with any of those traditional aspects of masculinity could present a challenge to one’s manhood. Perhaps the most “damaging” infringement of manhood, however, is the obstacle to sexual dominance. That is rooted in the one thing that is incontrovertibly and solely male: penile function.
Cal cannot physically overcome this problem, but he becomes able to nurture an intimate connection with a partner on a basis that does not largely revolve around the physical sex act but on an emotional level. It is the only way he could ever achieve a sense of fulfillment “sexually.” And, it would require finding a uniquely primed partner (who seeks the same) if there is to be understanding and acceptance.
Cal comes to this realization, eventually accepting his body—after his calculated foray into traditional maleness doesn’t completely fulfill him. He first believes that his only chance of achieving happiness is to consciously present himself to the outside world with a decidedly male persona, but his insecurity in his manhood behind the bedroom door constantly and invisibly undermines his masculine sensibility.
We see when he appears to accept his body when he decides to reveal himself to Julie, being able to “lead her into the bedroom, where [he] hadn’t led anyone in quite a long time” (513). (Of note, it is interesting how Eugenides falls short in describing exactly what happens once they are in the bedroom, paralleling Cal falling short in consummating his relationship).
In the end, Cal’s inability to physically have conventional sex with a woman—perhaps one of the most intimate things a man can do—forces a new and different connection in his bedroom. Does this make him less masculine? Perhaps, in the traditional sense. But, in this world of increasing emotional isolation, deepening disappointment in relationships, and yearning to connect to another person, does it matter? “Modern” masculinity is a timely theme that society must address, I would say.