Contesting Gender in Popular Culture and Family Law: Middlesex and Other Transgender Tales

Posted: 27 Jan 2005

See all articles by Susan Frelich Appleton

Susan Frelich Appleton

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law


Citing the repeated attention to transgendered characters in today's popular culture, this review essay focuses on Jeffrey Eugenides's Pulitizer-Prize winning novel, Middlesex, whose engaging and delightful protagonist-narrator was mistakenly classified at birth and reared as a girl, only to experience at adolescence gradual transformation into a male.

The protagonist's particular medical problem and the story that Eugenides weaves around it allow exploration of two primary threads: First, this essay examines what the protagonist's fictional story adds to the true story of the man now known as David Reimer. Reimer became a notorious test case in the nature-versus-nurture debate about gender after Dr. John Money directed his distraught parents to rear their baby boy as a girl following the accidental loss of his penis. Money publicly proclaimed the treatment successful - promoting the belief that the Reimer family had a well-adjusted daughter and reinforcing the views of scholars who emphasize the social construction of gender. Although the family's later disclosures were utterly inconsistent with Money's claims, Middlesex helps tease out important nuances that Money's eventual disrepute has obscured. In particular, this essay's juxtaposition of the novel and the true story illuminates several prominent issues in family law and policy, including family secrecy, parental autonomy, parental reliance on (often mistaken) experts, and prevailing understandings of sex and gender.

Second, this essay analyzes what Middlesex's protagonist and the other transgendered figures in popular culture contribute to the ongoing conversation about legal sex-based classifications, including the male-female requirement for marriage. After a critical examination of both the vocabulary used to discuss sex and gender and the challenges that those like the novel's protagonist pose for the conventional hierarchy, the focus shifts to the law's sex-equality norms, specifically the anti-stereotyping analysis prominent in equal protection doctrine and various modern family laws. Under today's laws, what precisely is the difference between a wife and a husband, beyond pure anatomy? Although recent litigation about transsexuals' marriage claims mostly have failed to take anti-stereotyping analysis to its logical conclusion (despite the arguments of some strategists), nonetheless popular culture and contemporaneous legal developments have brought the current prohibitions on same-sex marriage to the brink of collapse. Assuming that marriage is here to stay (an assumption some feminists contest), the pathbreaking opinion of the majority of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health offers one glimpse of how the law might rethink marriage without an opposite-sex requirement.

Yet marriage is just one context that tests the law's commitment to gender equality. The essay concludes with three thought experiments about how the law might treat sex and gender in the future - consistent with the continuing erosion of the traditional understanding revealed through the lens of Middlesex. Although this essay confronts serious and important questions, throughout it maintains a somewhat playful tone that seems fitting for a review of this particular work of fiction and for an exploration of popular culture's mainstreaming of transgender issues.

Keywords: Gender, sex, popular culture, marriage, transgender, families, sex discrimination, stories

Suggested Citation

Appleton, Susan Frelich, Contesting Gender in Popular Culture and Family Law: Middlesex and Other Transgender Tales. Indiana Law Journal, Vol. 80, 2005. Available at SSRN:

Susan Frelich Appleton (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States

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