Article Text

Original article
The subjective cut: sex reassignment surgery in 1960s and 1970s science fiction
  1. Karin Sellberg
  1. Correspondence to Dr Karin Sellberg, Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), Level 5, Forgan Smith Building, University of Queensland, St Lucia QLD 4072, Australia; k.sellberg{at}


This article considers the way in which ethical concerns about sex reassignment surgery and especially the research and clinical practice of the sexologist Dr John Money (1921–2006) is being negotiated in the 1960s and 1970s novels Myra Breckinridge and Myron by Gore Vidal and The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter. Drawing on the theories of gender and embodiment developed by Money, the article reads the novels as a critical response and discursive interaction with emergent sexological concepts.

Statistics from

Gender and sexual transgression or transformation is a relatively common trope in Anglo-American literature.i However, there was a specifically prevalent surge of writing focusing on this phenomenon in the 1960s and 1970s and this article will argue that it was related to the developing and increasing medical focus on the ‘transgender phenomenon’ and a continual semi-public debate about the availability of hormonal therapy and sex reassignment surgery in Western societies. I will particularly focus on the works of the New Zealand-born and US-based sexologist Dr John Money (1921–2006), who is most widely known as ‘the man who invented gender’ as a socially constructed and maintained concept2 and a set of gender-transgressive novels that developed in conversation with his work: Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1968), its sequel Myron (1974) and Angela Carter's The Passion of New Eve (1977). Although only Carter's work has previously been recognised as feminist science fiction,3 I will argue that it would be beneficial to read these novels as part of one consistent science fiction narrative tradition, as they provide a possible ‘bridge’ between the actual and the imaginary in the science of sex. I will furthermore suggest that they have formed a cultural response to Money's work, and the ‘transgender phenomenon’ in general, that has come to reinvent what it means to live and operate within the gender dynamics of Western society and thus also the conditions by which we come to determine the medical necessity for sex reassignment surgery and other procedures and therapeutic methodologies related to transgender identity and embodiment.

In doing this, I advocate a more symbiotic approach to our analysis of the literature and medical history of the late 20th century. As I will show especially, the field of transgender studies would benefit from increased cross-reading of sexological and fictional texts on gender transgression and transgender phenomena. Indeed, Money's sexology, similar to Carter's and Vidal's fiction, focuses on narratives of gender. He established the by now generally accepted conception of gender as a ‘fiction’, or internalised self-projection (as opposed to sex, which is materially conditioned)—and as such, fiction writing was as central to his research and clinical method as his scientific concepts were formative to the 1960s and 1970s writers of gender-transgressive fiction.

As Bernice Hausman establishes in Changing Sex, transgender-identified people ‘are a notoriously well-read patient population’.4 Early transgender transition autobiographies, like those of Elbe5 and Jorgensen,6 and fiction featuring transgender phenomena or characters undergoing sexual transformation were important both politically, for the mid-20th century-trans* movement, and psychologically, for mid-20th century transgender men and women throughout the Western world, offering a type of alternative coming-of-age narrative and a new set of role models.4 ,7 As Hausman recognises, the medical discourses surrounding the ‘transgender phenomenon’ were also made highly visible in these texts and in mid-20th-century media and popular culture in general.4 It was one of the rare medical concepts negotiated as much between medical men, sexologists and legal reformists as between journalists, writers and activists.8 It was a space where popular and scholarly interests met and many of the more famous sexologists, including Money, actively encouraged a less scholarly uptake of their work, writing scientific introductions to novels and biographies and making semi-frequent appearances on television and in other media.9 As a consequence, few areas of 20th-century medicine have received more attention in art, film and literature and few fields of medical research have been as dependent on a deeper understanding of cultural and social dynamics.8 Money was a central figure (at a certain stage, even the central figure) in this dynamic and visible field and he carefully negotiated and engineered its general and academic uptake.9

As Lisa Downing, Iain Morland and Nikki Sullivan acknowledge in their introduction to Fuckology, a collection of essays on Money's diagnostic concepts, it is difficult to distinguish between Money's scientific and more popular work, as most texts were aimed at multiple audiences. Like his predecessor, mentor and sometime close colleague Dr Harry Benjamin, who is often hailed as the pioneer of hormonal as well as surgical treatments of gender dysphoria, Money saw his role as one of mediation between culturally established concepts (such as gender and sexuality) and the reality he encountered in his consulting room. Due to the great amount of publicity surrounding some of his high-profile cases and the general popularity of his semi-scientific publications, he did also indeed become a globally acknowledged spokesperson for surgical and hormonal intervention with birth gender and the ‘natural’ inevitability of the gendering process and he had to shoulder some of the more conservative popular outrage in the media,ii at the perceived arrogance of 1960s, 1970s and 1980s social constructivist sexologists, who argued that gender was a social concept—a ‘role’ (or even a choice) which potentially could be changed through embodied and psychological conditioning.9 iii

When the truth behind the case of David Reimer, Money's long-term and very public ‘John/Joan’ case study, hit the media in 2004, the sexologist was made a scapegoat for a whole generation of scholarly thought. Reimer was born a boy, but his social and biological gender was changed at the age of 8 months on Money's recommendation due to a botched circumcision, and Reimer subsequently committed suicide at 38 as a result of life-long depression and gender dysphoria. A biography of Reimer, published by John Colapinto in Rolling Stone magazine in 1997, uncovered a series of what he presented as questionable and potentially abusive methods,iv and when both David and his brother Brian Reimer killed themselves shortly afterwards, the ethics of Money's approach and the whole Western feminist and social constructivist approach to gender and sexuality came under attack. Money's ruined scientific and cultural legacy became a catalyst for an open media ‘gender war’,2 where the opposing sides would cite the outrageous and ‘monstrous’ example of Money as a reason to condemn the violence committed by proponents either of a ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ approach to gender and sexuality.9

This article neither attempts to condemn Money's therapeutic methods nor justifies the methodologies of mid-20th-century sexology in general. There were certainly devastating consequences for many individuals involved (patients and doctors), but what is of interest for the purposes of my analysis is the public nature of the debate surrounding the ‘fiction’ of gender and the ways in which these issues were communicated and treated in literature. Although medical attempts to ‘create’ or change gender (alongside sex) were only discussed openly in media soon before Money's death in 2006,9 concerns had been brewing in relation to the clinical methods used by sexologists and the performance of sex reassignment surgery and hormone treatment since its inception and, as Carter's and Vidal's late 1960s and early 1970s gender-transgressive novels show, they continually circulated around the persona of John Money. In what remains of this article, I will anatomise the ‘gender wars’ of Carter's and Vidal's novels and investigate the ways in which these are channelled through a medical or, indeed, sexological gaze.

The gender wars

Perhaps controversially, I refer to Carter's and Vidal's novels as part of a unified literary discourse and as science fiction. In fact, Carter's and Vidal's novels are rarely analysed together, despite their shared interests, primarily because of different political agendas and readerships. Carter's fiction is generally read as feminist magical realism, or sometimes feminist science fiction,3 ,10 whereas Vidal's work is usually treated as political satire of American conservatism and the sexual, religious and social dogmas formed in its wake.12 Although the generic categorisation of both authors' work has been recognised as problematic,v no satisfactory consensus of terminology has been reached—and in fact, the writing styles and treatments of burgeoning scientific methods in Carter's and Vidal's novels are strikingly similar.

I will argue that in the interest of understanding the relationship between these novels and mid-20th-century sexology, it would be beneficial to read them as science fiction. In using this category, I refer to Carl Freedman's definition of the genre as a tradition of fiction attempting to make sense of, foreground and imaginatively progress the medical or scientific advances of its time.15 Carter's and Vidal's novels are part of a small body of mid-20th-century literature that reflects and proposes further advancement of sex reassignment surgery and hormone treatment and, although the critical cannon, especially surrounding Carter's work, is vast,vi very little has been written about the scientific specificities and potential of their work.

Unsurprisingly, considering the location of the most publicised mid-20th-century sexological research and debate of transgender embodiment (including Money's), both Carter and Vidal choose to locate their narratives in the USA and the transformative procedures specifically in California. Both authors construct their American worlds as spaces negotiating the lines between gender utopia and dystopia and both develop it in terms of a graphic sexual science fiction prose. In accordance with Money's sexological research, both novels focus on gender as constructed and somewhat arbitrary—but not entirely so—and the body becomes a form of battleground or space of continual gender conflict.

Money was at the forefront of the push for acceptance of transgender identity and procedures. Together with his colleagues Howard Jones Jr and Milton Edgerton, Money established America's first Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins University in 1966, which was a pivotal part of the medical legitimisation of transgender phenomena.9 Money's ideas of the roots and possible treatments of these disorders are not entirely uncomplicated, however, and are testaments of his complex reconsideration of the mind/body divide. According to Money, ‘conversion surgery’ is a viable solution, although the disorder is not technically corporeal. Gender dysphoria is a developmental disorder, but its most straightforward and successful treatment is physical, as the mind is not easily transformed.16 Gender, in Money's view, is psychological and social, but its expression and management is negotiated through the body.

Money's conception of gender as a social manifestation of sexual difference would neither seem particularly controversial nor innovative to a consumer of 21st-century popular culture and theory, but as Sullivan reminds us in her chapter on ‘The Matter of Gender’ in Fuckology, both the concept and the term are actually quite recent: ‘[i]t has been claimed by Money and others that the first use of the term “gender” to refer to something other than feminine and masculine forms of language was in Money's 1955 publications’.9 Before this point, sexologists and Western gendered discourses in general only referred to the category of ‘sex’ when considering physical and social manifestations of the concept. In his work dealing with intersex and transgender patients,vii Money found the simple and exclusive designation of biological sex an inadequate means to describe the physical and psychological reality of subjects experiencing themselves to be outside of the ‘normal’ sexual dichotomy and he thus argued that it was necessary to look at the social dimension of embodiment, the subject's gender role. At first glance, this conception seems to mirror the idea of gender developed in Suzanne Kessler's and Wendy McKenna's ground-breaking book Gender (1978) which is said to have manifested the strict division of sex and gender in feminist discourse: sex referred to the biological and gender to the social aspect of embodiment. Sex was a matter of ‘nature’ and gender was developed through ‘nurture’.17

Money's division was not as simple as this, however. His problem with the simple sexual divide stemmed from the fact that it was not always possible to deduce a subject's identity based on one body part alone. His studies of intersex and transgender patients clearly showed that one person could at the same time have one or a mixture of female or male chromosomes, gonads, sexual organs and other bodily manifestations and still express an entirely discordant gendered subjectivity. The idea of a subject's ‘gender identity/role (G-I/R)’, was thus introduced by Money as a means to describe the total embodied experience (physical and psychological). Money's gender is both mental and embodied; natural and nurtured. In Gay, Straight and In-Between (1988), Money develops the idea of a ‘bodymind’—the subject's psychological and socially conditioned relationship to his or her own body. He argues that gendered and sexual expressions are learnt behaviours that become part of our embodied reality, conditioned by early relationships to bodily difference, social expectations and hormonal inclinations.18

In his earlier book Lovemaps (1986), Money had established gender and sexual development in childhood as well as in maturity in spatial terms. It is a matter of ‘positioning’ or, in the case of transgender or intersex subjects, ‘transpositioning’. The subject's G-I/R, as well as his or her sexual preferences, emerge in the cartographical lines continually traced across his or her body as it matures. Each encounter between self and other bodies transforms the subjective experience and the gendered sense of direction.19 Carter and Vidal develop similar conceptions of the body as an open space—and embodiment as a process or positioning—in their respective novels. The Passion of New Eve follows the journey of an Englishman, Evelyn, as he arrives and acclimatises in a post-apocalyptic New York of crime, sedition, sexual extremism and inequality. He is a journalist and a passive observer of the new life that is presented to him. He soon develops a growing sexual intimacy with Leilah and, as Ricarda Schmidt recognises in an essay on the novel, he describes her as his opposite in every way—exotic, voluptuous, dynamic and sexually insatiable:20 ‘[s]he was black as my shadow and I made her lie on her back and parted her legs like a doctor in order to examine more closely the exquisite negative of her sex’.21

The medical analogy here is pertinent and Evelyn makes clear that Leilah is nothing but a means for him to encounter himself. As Schmidt establishes, his subjectivity takes shape in her reflection and an emotional bond remains absent.20 He maintains a position of complete objective detachment. Their relationship is entirely carnal; a continual dance of passivity and activity, observer and observed, that occasionally troubles but always eventually preserves the strict divisions of classical sexual dualism:viiiI was nothing but cock and I dropped down upon her like, I suppose, a bird of prey, although my prey, throughout the pursuit, had played the hunter. My full-fleshed and voracious beak tore open the poisoned wound of love between her thighs, suddenly, suddenly. Leilah, the night's gift to me, the city's gift.21

Leilah's reflective power gives Evelyn a sense of self, but he is unable to encounter her as another subject: ‘[s]he was a perfect woman; like the moon, she only gave reflected light’.21 When she becomes severely ill after a botched abortion and he is faced with the materiality of her bleeding and limp body, he is overcome with disgust and shame. He abandons her at a gynaecological ward and leaves the ‘dying city’ taking ‘to the freeways in fine style, like a true American hero’.21

As Aidan Day establishes, it is this cruel and heartless decision that sets Evelyn, the newly formed but ‘true American hero’, on a path of destruction.10 The reflexive space he has created turns on him. The gendered forces of Carter's post-apocalyptic universe are set into motion and Evelyn's own body becomes the space for an ensuing gender war. Once Evelyn reaches the American desert, he becomes abducted, first by a group of radical feminist terrorists and later by a sadistic chauvinist and his seven wives. Both groups claim their right over Evelyn's body. The leader of the radical feminists, known simply as Mother, surgically transforms him into a beautiful woman, Eve: ‘I owe this knowledge to the illumination afforded me by the sullen flash of Holy Mother's obsidian scalpel—Evelyn, the first victim of her wild justice, trimmed with that knife to Eve, first child of her manufactory’.21 When she escapes from Mother’ custody in Beulah, the chauvinist Zero makes Eve's body his personal possession: ‘[h]e raped me unceremoniously in the sand in front of his ranch-house after he dragged me from the helicopter, while his seven wives stood round in a circle, giggling and applauding … his body was an anonymous instrument of torture, mine my own rack’.21

As Schmidt and Day acknowledge, Carter presents gender, sex and sexuality as dichotomous and absolute in The Passion of New Eve.10 ,20 Yet, I would also argue that it is not unchangeable. As Christina Bristolakis establishes in an essay on Carter's fetishism, dualism empowers Eve/lyn and brings about change or what Money would call ‘transposition’ in The Passion of New Eve.27 Eve/lyn's gender takes shape as he or she journeys across the North American continent and, if read in relation to a study like Money's Lovemaps, it suggests his or her body becomes a cartographical testament to his or her subjective experience.19 Gore Vidal's novels similarly presents gender and sexuality in a strict binary light and, like Carter, he draws connections between activity and passivity and the intimate dichotomous positioning of doctor and patient, parent and child, teacher and student. Myra Breckinridge focuses on a feisty new instructor, Myra's arrival at Buck Loner's Academy of Drama and Modeling in Hollywood. The novel, which is written in an epistolary or ‘diary’ form, follows Myra's sexual and pedagogical conquests at the school (concepts which usually amount to the same thing in Myra's descriptions), as she prepares the groundwork for a new nation-wide sexual revolution:I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess … Wielding a stone axe, I broke the arms, the limbs, the balls of their finest warriors, my beauty blinding them, as it does all men, unmanning them in the way that King Kong was reduced to a mere simian whimper by beauteous Fay Wray whom I resemble left three-quarter profile.28

Myra states that she ‘intend[s] to create a literary masterpiece in much the same way I created myself’28 and it soon transpires that Myra is indeed a ‘creation’, a newly emerged side of a person suffering from multiple personality disorder (or dissociative identity disorder, as it is currently known).ix As the novel progresses we realise that the radically feminist and somewhat megalomaniac Myra shares a body with the chauvinist, closeted homosexual conservative Myron. Her persona only emerged when Myron undertook treatment with the famous sexologist, Dr Randolph Spenser Montag, whose approach to gender dynamics and embodiment directly reflects the research of John Money.x His book Sexual Role and/or Responsibility (a title reminiscent of several of Money's books) argues that ‘it is possible to work out in life all one's fantasies, and so become entirely whole’.28 Myron used to be a sexually ‘polymorphous’ man, completely under the thrall of Montag's insight and intelligence, and ruled by a ‘desire to surrender entirely to the feminine side of his nature’,28 which under his doctor's treatment became a reality.

Contrary to Montag's expectations Myron was not liberated by this move, however, but rather imprisoned. The new persona Myra, emerging out of his urges, is stronger than the original self, since although ‘Myron's masculinity was, at times, intense … the feminine aspects of his nature were the controlling ones’.28 Myron is entirely unable to regain hold of the shared body as long as Myra's ‘bodymind’ remains intact—as long as she maintains her ‘delicate vagina’, fashioned like the ‘ear of a snail’ by ‘the finest of Scandinavia's surgeons’28 and her ‘unusually lovely’ female forms.28 Towards the end of Myra Breckinridge, the protagonist becomes the victim of a car accident, however, and in her damaged physical state and with a lack of daily hormone treatment, Myra's hold over the body becomes weaker.

Gender identity according to Myra is a ‘realization of ancient magical belief in the guise of modern make-believe’:[T]he same ambiguity and ambivalence of spiritual essences are revealed that modern psychology, especially psychoanalysis, has uncovered in present-day civilization … by imitating the female the male believes that he becomes the female, thus automatically and unconsciously practicing the imitative variety of sympathetic magic.28

Myra considers herself impenetrable: ‘I have crossed the shadow line, made magic real, created myself.’28 When the lack of daily hormones makes her facial hair return and when several of her nurses accidentally refer to her as Mr Breckinridge, the magic fades, however. The moment Myra ceases to pass as a woman, she ceases to be a woman—and Myron finally manages to return. The sequel Myron sees Myra and Myron competing over domination of the body, feminising and masculinising it to keep the other persona out.

According to Money's model, gender and sexual orientation (a geographical concept which his Lovemaps to an extent established) may fluctuate and the body thus becomes a territory contested by two oppositional sets of social/hormonal influences.19 As I have shown, in Angela Carter's New York and Gore Vidal's Los Angeles, both sides are engaged in more or less covert warfare in their attempt to conquer cultural and political space and the bodies of Eve/Evelyn and Myron/Myra become the most immediate battlefields. It is not merely the bodily control of Eve/Evelyn's and Myra/Myron's bodies that are significant; however, there is also a matter of control of the people and reality around them. Both Eve and Myra are fashioned as warriors, or saviours of the feminine principle. Eve is created to bring humanity into a new (wo)man-made and limit-less era—she is a ‘tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper, an unhatched egg … a being as monstrous and mythic as Mother herself’.21 As Myra puts it “I am the New Woman whose astonishing history is a poignant amalgam of vulgar dreams and knife-sharp realities.”28 It is a new world, with a new set of possibilities. It is a world of manufacture, of artifice—of medical possibilities beyond the bounds of the general order of things. As Eve says, “I am not natural you know—even though, if you cut me, I will bleed.”21

The medico-sexual gaze

Eve explains that the surgically talented Mother “selected me, however arbitrarily, to atone for the sins of my first sex vis-à-vis my second sex via my sex itself.”21 Her punishment is to become a woman, a process Mother starts and Zero finally completes through his rape and abuse: “although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman … the Mediation of Zero turned me into a woman.”21 As Day recognises, Carter's new woman, the new Eve, is a mythical being,10 born to lead all of womanhood towards its point of rebirth. Vidal's book takes this process one step further (or rather cuts out the middle-(wo)man) as Myra is both the creator and womanhood reborn, taking on the world and changing it for the better. In both cases, change is made through surgery, the ultimate woman-made embodied artifice and the transposition of the medico-sexual gaze.

As mentioned, Money considers gender disorders to be developmental, as the gender concept is a complex and successive negotiation of the ‘bodymind’. If read in relation to Money's work, the process of gender transformation in The Passion of New Eve is thus achieved according to a simultaneous readjustment of Evelyn's body and mind. It is a progressive physical and psychological conditioning and it is achieved through surgical and medico-sexual means. Indeed, it is not dissimilar to the treatment Money prescribed for David Reimer in the ‘John/Joan Case’. Interestingly, although the critical cannon has treated the gender reassignment of Evelyn in The Passion of New Eve at some length,xi very little has been written about Carter's detailed methods of transformation, but both in Carter's and Money's accounts this process is pivotal. After the conversion surgery that transformed the 22-month-old Bruce (David's original name) into Brenda, Money conducted a careful treatment of sexual conditioning throughout the girl's early development. She was encouraged to play with her own and her twin brother Brian's genitals and to take part in sexual play, where Brian was asked to act dominant and ‘thrust’ himself against Brenda, while she remained inactive and submissive.2

Evelyn's treatment follows a similar pattern, although drastically shortened. Mother calls it ‘Psycho-surgery’.21 The initial stage, ‘[t]he plastic surgery that turned me into my own diminutive, Eve, the shortened form of Evelyn, this artificial changeling, the Tiresias of Southern California, took, in all, only two months to complete’.21 The procedure itself is described in such matter-of-fact terms that it appears comical amidst Mother's ritualistic orations. After announcing herself the ‘Great Parricide’ and the ‘Castratrix of the Phallocentric Universe’,21 she raises her knife and ‘cut[s] off all my genital appendages with a single blow’, catches them in her other hand and tosses them to one of her attendants ‘who slipped them into the pockets of her shorts’.21 She then ‘excavates’ a ‘fructifying female space’, supplying her with all the bodily attributes of a ‘complete woman’: ‘tits, clit, ovaries, labia major, labia minor…’.21 Like Dr Montag, her attendants try to convince Eve that feminisation of the outside will eventually lead to feminisation of the inside: ‘[a] change in the appearance will restructure the essence, Sophia assured me coolly’.21 The body is the key to the mind.

The process of feminisation is not uncomplicated, however, and there are a number of rituals that must be upheld. Once more there is an emphasis on creativity and absolute negation. The operating table is likened to Mother's womb and this space is described in mythical terms in The Passion of New Eve—a woman-made garden of Eden21 or the generative ‘crater of a volcano on the point of eruption’.21 Like Evelyn's lover Leilah, Mother and her acolytes are dark and Evelyn realises the moment he enters her temple that he was meant to end up on her operating table. From the time he was first drawn to Leilah, the living, breathing ‘antithesis’ of his own body and mind, he was fated to bear the punishment of all mankind: ‘one woman is all women … Leilah had lured me here, at last; Leilah had always intended to bring me here, to the deepest cave, to this focus of all the darkness that had always been waiting for me in a room with just such close, red walls’.21 Mother, herself, is this ‘symbolism’ made ‘concrete fact … the hand-carved figurehead of her own, self-constructed theology’, the many-nippled ‘concrete essence of woman’.21

Like Myra, Mother has created herself and continues to create a new womanhood with her knife and her toolbox of feminine imagery. After the surgery, the new Eve is put under strict psychological conditioning and Mother primarily uses ‘old Hollywood’ to provide her with ‘a new set of nursery tales’. When Eve first sees the mirror image of her new self, she finds herself strangely attracted to her own body. She is created so much in the image of the feminine ideals she has been instilled with that ‘the cock in my head, still twitched at the sight of myself’.21 Once more like Myra, Eve thus becomes the free expression or ‘object of all the unfocused desires that had ever existed in my head. I had become my own masturbatory fantasy’.21

Also Myra looks to Hollywood to create a perfect narcissistic and antithetical image of femininity. As Myra and Myron compete for control of the shared body in the sequel Myron, Myra perfects her skills as a surgeon. When she initially regains consciousness after Myron's return at the end Myra Breckinridge, she finds that he has changed their body:[t]hat son of a bitch Myron has not only removed the delicate honeypot of every real American boy's dream but replaced it with A Thing! A ghastly long thick tubular object … For one thing the overall effect is ghastly, since Myron was obviously too cheap to buy a pair of balls.28

Myra does indeed remove Myron's new appendage and continues to remove it every time he puts it back, with a new set of scalpels, and subsequently continually re-implants her breasts with a bucket of silicon, which she keeps ready in her closet for these occasions.

Myra, indeed, becomes a highly skilled surgeon in this process and decides to take her mission to control the gendered sphere beyond the confines of her and Myron's shared flesh. She uses the space that she establishes to be the generator of traditional gender reiteration in Myra Breckinridge (Hollywood cinema) and manages to get her body and Myron's body transported (literally sucked into the television) onto the set of the 1948 production of the film The Siren of Babylon, starring Bruce Cabot and Maria Montez. Myra plans to rewrite the formation of gendered being by personally reshaping the images that shaped Western history: “Once I have restored Hollywood to its ancient glory (and myself to what I was!), I shall very simply restructure the human race.”28

Inside The Siren of Babylon reality is limited. It is compared with the backside of a mirror;28 the binary opposite of the Real. Myra/Myron and a small additional number of people from different future points in time, who have also been transported into the reiteration of this Hollywood moment are trapped within a certain parameter of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Their perception is continually disrupted by reality altering ‘CUT TO's which ‘is like being flung across a room by a giant hand’19 or ‘FADE TO BLACK's followed by ‘FADE TO LIGHT's, the interval of which feels like ‘this awful weight pressing in on you from all sides like when you're deep under water and can't breathe’.19 Myra also notes that even if she leaves the actual set ‘all the while, back of everything, there is a giant screen hanging like in a drive-in movie against the blue-gray sky with the figures of Maria Montez and Bruce Cabot slowly acting out Siren of Babylon backwards from where we are’.19

The group of people that have ‘fallen’ into Siren of Babylon are known as ‘out-of-towners’ to the 1948 ‘locals’. They stay in the background and recurrently move back to the first day whenever the 8 weeks of filming come to their end. Myra, however, refuses to adhere to this principle. She does not merely reiterate the Hollywood moment—she shapes it. Myra uses her sexual appeal to lure the youngest and most beautiful of the male ‘locals’ and extras on the set into her hotel room, where she rapes them, gives them breast implants produced from her closet silicon and proceeds to perform sex reassignment surgery on them. Her goal is to create a whole ‘new race of beautiful, sterile, fun-loving Amazons’28 to replace the established gendered stereotypes and, although Myra is sucked back into reality and expelled from the shared body by the end of the novel, Vidal indicates that her mission has partially succeeded, as the still chauvinistic and homophobic Myron announces that the next Republican President is a ‘fun-loving Amazon’.28


The master surgeons Myra and Mother take surgical methods beyond the realms of what is currently, and is likely to be, possible. They successfully recondition the full scope of Money's ‘bodymind’ (something which Money himself failed to do in the John/Joan case) and manage to renegotiate the space/time continuum. Gore Vidal argues in an interview titled ‘Sex is Politics’ that the sexual became the political in 1960s and 1970s American society and that any politically minded author who truly wants to understand its dynamic has to navigate both fields.29 This is what Myra Breckinridge and Myron accomplish. Myra becomes a creator, first of her own body and then of American society as a whole. Like the authors of the early transition autobiographies discussed by Hausman, she has been referred to as a form of role model in canonical transgender studies texts like Kate Bornstein's Gender Outlaw and Marjorie Garber's Vested Interests.1 ,30 ,31 Also Eve/lyn has been read as the figure of the New Woman.10 In order to fully understand this (neither Myra nor Eve/lyn are entirely sympathetic characters), we have to recognise their significance as an ‘image of power’1 and an interlocutor between the scientific and social and between the real and the fictional—between what is currently possible and what remains a distant dream.

If read as science fiction, Carter's and Vidal's novels could be considered not merely translators of scientific successes but empowering images of potential. They provide a fictional bridge between what science can and what it cannot yet accomplish. Carter and Vidal engage sexology in conversation. This article has outlined the similarities between Money's theories of identity formation through erotic transposition and Eve/lyn's and Myra's erotic journeys to selfhood. It has also established a correlation between Money's therapeutic method and Eve/lyn's and Myra's transformative conditioning and formation of coherent ‘bodyminds’. Most importantly, however, it has shown how Carter's and Vidal's characters have progressed the methods of sexology and have created a fictional space where science accomplishes the unaccomplishable.


View Abstract


  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • i Gender studies scholars tend to trace it back to the common appearances of ‘britched’ heroines, boys-dressing-as-girls-dressing-as-boys, shedding their gendered personas like thin layers of clothing on the Elizabethan, Jacobean and Restoration stages, but the tradition goes further back than this. The Western imaginary has marvelled at the possibility of moving from one sex/gender to another at least since Ovid's Metamorphosis.1

  • ii Downing, Morland and Sullivan quote a number of letters to the Washington Times, the Vancouver Sun and the British Daily Mail referring to Money's arrogance and the arrogance of the medical profession in trying to change the ‘work of nature’.10

  • iii As Terry Goldie shows in his book on Money, the social constructivist approach to gender and sexuality was shared by the majority of the sexological profession, as well as the dominant sociological and feminist voices of late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s academia. Money's scientific and popular acclaim positioned him as the man responsible for this point of view, where he in most cases was merely a speaker for a general consensus.2

  • iv David (or Brenda as his name was then) and his twin brother Brian were allegedly told to engage in mutual exploration and sexual play in front of Dr Money, in order to cultivate Brenda's feminine and heterosexual role.2 Both described this as traumatic and it was said to have been a possible reason for Brian's suicide in 2002, as well as David's in 2004. It should be noted that in doing this, Money was actually following the accepted method at the time, developed in the wake of Sigmund Freud's emphasis on the importance of childhood family relations and sexual fantasy in the development of a healthy heterosexual psyche in ‘Of the Pleasure Principles’.11 Money's experiments were furthermore carefully described in his research publications on the John/Joan case, although he reported a more positive outcome.2

  • v The satirical elements of Carter's Passion of New Eve have been acknowledged by several critics3 ,10 and arguably make her political stance difficult to distinguish.13 Vidal's fiction acquired an increasingly prophetic and less straightforwardly satirical tone throughout the later part of his career.14

  • vi See especially Bristow and Broughton on the extensive scholarship produced surrounding Carter's work in the 1990s. She was named “the high priestess of post-graduate porn”.3

  • vii I am not attempting to conflate the concepts of transgender and intersex in this article. They are certainly very different conditions, although historically they were treated similarly. Money considered them to be two types of symptomology of a similar lack of ‘bodymind’ unification and both could be treated with psychological conditioning and surgery.16

  • viii Many 1990s critics, including Schmidt,22 Day10 and Palmer23 find this very problematic and a sign of Carter's ‘failure’ to create a truly progressive feminist erotics, primarily because they tend to be biased against a binary conception of sex and gender. As I have established elsewhere, this perspective is somewhat anachronistic, in that it assumes a 1990s conception of gender binaries as something that ‘should’ be challenged. As Margaret Atwood recognises, Carter was in fact very interested in these dynamics and found them productive for the foundation of feminine empowerment.22 At the time she was writing The Passion of New Eve, she was also finishing The Sadeian Woman, a study of the emancipatory possibilities of the sexual power relationships developed in the writing of Marquis de Sade.24 This was highly controversial also in the 1970s and some critics like Dworkin25 and Kappeler26 remained deeply critical of Carter for this reason.

  • ix It was changed from ‘multiple personality disorder’ to ‘dissociative identity disorder’ in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1994.

  • x Notably, ‘Montag’ is also a distinctly German-sounding name. Most of the early 20th-century sexology research (and indeed the birth of discipline itself) was German. The character, Dr Montag, thus appears to be a hybrid between John Money and his German predecessors.

  • xi As mentioned, Carter had a large critical readership in the 1990s3 and many critics, like Paulina Palmer, argue that The Passion of New Eve was Carter's most interesting and ‘progressive’ novel before the publication of Nights at the Circus (1984)23 and the critical readership is rich, including several of the articles, book chapters and monographs referenced in this article.3 ,10 ,13 ,23 ,27

Request permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.