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The Binary Bind: Inversion, Intersexuality, and a Very Queer Kunstlerroman

Friday, October 13, 2017, 5:30 pm

In this talk, Madelyn Detloff takes a queer theoretical lens to the 1933 biography, Man into Woman, by Neils Hoyer.  This text, which tells the story of Lili Elbe, a Danish painter who sought and received sex confirmation surgery and is considered one of the first (western) transexuals to have undergone surgical sex "reassignment" or confirmation surgery.  Man into Woman presents a conundrum for contemporary queer theory, insofar as it posits two seemingly contradictory understandings of gender (gender as binarism/gender as continuum) in order to explain Andreas Sparre’s transition to Lili’s Elbe.  Man into Woman represents gender as polarized: Lili is a feminine person trapped in the masculine body of Andreas.  Even as Man into Woman reinforces sex role dimorphism through its trapped-in-the-wrong-body narrative, it simultaneously presents a gender-as-continuum theory of sexual variation rather than sexual difference.  Lili/Andreas is clearly represented as possessing a mixture of masculine and feminine primary sex characteristics (that is, testicles and ovaries).  According to this account, Andreas/Lili would not technically be a male who changed into a female, but an intersexed person who chose female gender assignment after years of living as a man.  How do we read this "binary bind," and what are the implications of our readings for understanding gender performance and representation?


Madelyn Detloff is Professor of English and Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University (OH).  She is the author of The Persistence of Modernism: Loss and Mourning in the 20th Century (2008) and The Value of Virginia Woolf (2016), and co-editor of Queer Bloomsbury (2016).  She has written a number of book chapters and articles on queer theory, crip theory, modernist studies (especially Virginia Woolf and H.D.), and is a fierce advocate of social-justice-oriented teaching and research.