top of page

Do we truly need a "true sex"? A Foucauldian analysis of Herculine Barbin

by Amber Barry

Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 2 First published April 2020, Manchester



This essay uses Foucauldian ideas and medical reports in order to argue that there is no real necessity to classify individuals as one ‘true’ definitive sex or the other. To illustrate this point, the memoirs of a 19th century intersex person named Herculine Barbin will be used to demonstrate that gender is a product of socialisation and therefore cannot be simply converted against the individual’s will. The essay further argues that to forcibly define an intersex person with a fixed, ‘true’ gender can only result in similar psychological damage to that suffered by Barbin at the end of her life. This is evident through the depiction of male patriarchal figures and their persistence categorising the ‘other’ as a means of neutralising it for society.


Herculine Barbin is a collection of documents that form a case study about a French intersex person born in 1838 (see note 1). Assigned female at birth and then later reassigned by a court order to male, Herculine’s inability to be classified within society’s rigid concepts of gender and biological sex made her a subject of medical fascination, both during and after her lifetime. Integral to remember when contemplating sex, is the need to historicise such a concept, as the idea of an intersex person having ‘a true sex’ is a fairly recent one. Foucault argues that ‘for centuries, it was quite simply agreed [they] had two,’ (p. vii). Historically, at the point of marriage, intersex people could choose which of the sexes they wished to identify as, even if it was not the one that they had been assigned at birth. Medieval people believed that ‘there were three sexes but only two genders' (see note 2). Therefore, although the need to label and determine the sex of an individual was still present, there was considerably more room for fluidity and personal choice regarding identification than there was in later societies. Acknowledging that a fixed ‘true’ sex is a contemporary concept is essential in understanding that our current popular view is not a universal and timeless fact of nature, as is sometimes supposed. Herculine’s Memoirs are of the most interest in terms of Foucault’s question about whether there truly is a need for a ‘true’ sex, as they give a rare insight into the mind of an intersexed person and allow Herculine to express how she feels about her situation in her own words – an aspect of upmost importance in areas that are highly subjective and defy easy definition, such as those of gender and sex. In opposition to the Memoirs, the reports of Auguste Tardieu regarding Herculine’s case will also be discussed to contrast the view of the subject herself with the more brutal and unemotional opinion of a medical professional. Throughout the Memoirs and the reports of Doctor Tardieu, it seems clear that the desire to classify human beings as one sex or the other is really just an attempt to solve an anxiety surrounding the unknown. It serves no true purpose, and for people like Herculine Barbin who do not easily fit within any societal approved notion of sex, can only bring harm. This essay will argue that throughout Herculine Barbin, Foucault’s question of whether we need a true sex is fully explored and answered in the negative. The viewpoint that Herculine Barbin is a ‘boy girl, [a] never eternal masculine feminine’ (p. xvi) that defies the constrictions of a true sex, is especially convincing.

Throughout the Memoirs within Herculine Barbin, the style and form suggest that Herculine, despite being coerced into transitioning by law, does not change mentally or psychologically to align with her ‘true’ sex. As Foucault notes, the Memoirs were written after her ‘true’ identity had been determined by society, ‘but it is clear she did not write them from the point of view of that sex which had at last been brought to light,’ (p. xiii). Herculine’s account does not show that she had any internal revelation about having always been male, in fact, it shows the opposite. Her style is very reminiscent of the overly sentimental, romantic style of the nineteenth century, one that also has stereotypically feminine connotations. Herculine has been raised around women and existed in purely hyperfeminine environments for the majority of her life. She begins her first employment as a lady’s maid, then goes to a convent school, and from there proceeds to get her teaching qualification, gaining occupation at an all-girls boarding school. As De Beauvoir notes in The Second Sex, ‘one is not born a woman but becomes one' (see note 3). If the concept of sex is partially about performative behaviours and socialisation, then Herculine has a ‘feminine’ mind through the fact she has been socialised and raised in purely female spaces. Bridget Byrne writes that expectations of men and women are ‘not all the result of “natural” biological differences, but rather the product of social and cultural processes' (see note 4). This is abundantly clear in terms of Herculine, as she writes that ‘[she] who [is] called a man, have been granted the intimate, deep understanding of all the facets, all the secrets, of a woman’s character.’ In her estimation, this would make her a ‘detestable husband’, (p. 107). She is clearly sexually and romantically attracted to women but the idea of being a husband does not feel right to her, implying that she fails to categorise herself as masculine even after her legal change. Definitely of note is the seemingly unconscious decision she makes to emphasise the public’s perception of her. She refers to herself as she ‘who is called a man’ but she does not claim that she is one, just that this is what people have chosen to perceive and label her as. Her days as a woman ‘were the fine days of a life that was henceforth doomed to abandonment, to cold isolation,’ (p. 87). It is evident that Herculine feels disconnected from the gender that is meant to be her ‘true’ one, and if anything, feels closer to the sex which she has had to leave behind. Therefore, the ambiguity surrounding Herculine’s sex means that there is no need, or sense, in assigning her resolutely to either of the ‘true’ sexes because she did not feel comfortable or accurately represented through either.

Moreover, in Foucault’s introduction he mentions Auguste Tardieu’s original publication of the text in an 1860s medical review. He writes that to Tardieu, Herculine was ‘one of those unfortunate heroes of the quest for identity,’ (p. xii). This raises the question: should identity ever be a quest? By dictionary definition, identity is ‘the fact of being who or what a person is' (see note 5). It seems logical that being who one is should just be an easy and natural state, not something that should involve a struggle or a harrowing journey to achieve. The implication is clearly that Herculine is a ‘hero’ because she suffered through the first couple of decades of life before she completed her ‘quest’ and discovered her true sex. However, the word ‘true’ suggests an alignment with an innate sense of self and that is evidently not what Herculine feels once she is assigned male. Throughout the Memoirs Herculine thinks fondly of her childhood, but this is not necessarily a complete and uncomplicated alignment with the feminine. According to Foucault, it is instead an identification with ‘the happy limbo of a non-identity,’ (p. xiii). However, Judith Butler problematizes Foucault’s interpretation of Herculine’s childhood and even accuses him of ‘radically misreading’ it. She argues that it was no such ‘happy limbo’ and was definitely not ‘a place effectively free of the juridical and regulatory pressures of the category of ‘sex’’ as Foucault would seem to suggest. Butler believes that the law of univocal sex does not necessarily have to be enforced in the literal way, as it subsequently is for Herculine, for it to impact the psyche of the individual and disallow them from living a sexless existence. The law is ‘embedded’ and ‘pervasive’ and therefore no childlike pleasure can be completely free from it (see note 6). It seems evident that of the two readings, Butler’s is a more accurate representation of how Herculine expresses her frame of mind in the Memoirs. Her childhood was not a world where she was at liberty to enjoy an uninhibited life until ‘true’ sex was forced upon her. Rather, the memories of Herculine’s childhood are ‘heavenly visions’ and ‘healing balms’ to her later self, yet she also admits to understanding at that young age ‘that [she] was to live in [the world] as a stranger,’ (p. 3-4). This supports the view that Herculine has no true sex, as it is not the displacement of herself from her feminine identity that leads to her feelings of isolation, as they existed prior even to puberty. It is the pressures of a society so insistent on unachievable and univocal sex classifications that leads to Herculine’s despondency.

Furthermore, an interesting aspect of Herculine Barbin as a collection is the influence of patriarchal male figures and their reinforcement of the belief in a true sex. As Foucault points out, ‘nobody in Alexina’s feminine milieu consented to play that difficult game of truth […] until a discovery that everybody delayed for as long as possible was finally precipitated by two men,’ (p. xii). Patriarchy therefore upholds the concept of ‘true sex’. Until her health problems required medical attention, even those who found aspects of her appearance or behaviour strange did not interfere or attempt to make complications for her. If gender is a performance of society’s preconceived values for men and women, then Herculine’s actions, whilst classified as female, were a threat to the masculine order. This is why it is the men in positions of authority that are the ones to so quickly set right the perceived wrong of Herculine’s sex. This is reflected in Doctor Tardieu’s report. He writes that Herculine spent ‘twenty years in the clothing of a sex that was not his own’, until he finally had ‘his true sex recognised,’ (p. 122). He draws attention to the idea that the initial assignment was an ‘error’ or ‘an erroneous declaration of the sex of a new-born child,’ (p. 123) in the opening line. The whole report rests on the idea of a ‘true’ sex. Someone did not look close enough at birth and made a grievous ‘error’. It does not at all consider that Herculine could be both or neither of the ‘true’ sexes. He goes on to say that ‘science and law were nevertheless obliged to recognise the error and to recognise the true sex of this young man,’ (p. 123). Tardieu even draws on the respected and overtly male dominated discourses of science and law in order to substantiate his claim that Herculine’s ‘true’ sex is male. He attempts to add credibility to his opinion that Herculine is a ‘young man’ and does not concern himself with the possibility that she could be something outside of the patriarchy’s direct sphere.

An additional point to support this reading is the aspect of lesbianism and how the divulgence of Herculine’s ‘true sex’ impacts the relationship between herself and Sara. In this society of the nineteenth century, women’s sexuality was so neutralised that despite Herculine and Sara being rather public with their love for one another, it was not seen as any sort of serious threat to propriety or to either of the girl’s chastity. Herculine mentions walks with the students where she would stop at a field and ‘[lavish] upon [Sara] the most tender names, the most passionate caresses’ as ‘a few steps away’ the children would be playing, (p. 53). This of course does not stem from an acceptance of lesbianism, but from a disbelief that it could ever occur. However, when suspicions arose that Herculine could be male, there began to be panic in regard to her modesty. The village starts to form ‘hateful rumours’ and an anxiety that Herculine has ‘dishonoured’ Sara (p. 91 – 92). Madame P, who had once thought of Herculine as her own daughter, feels visible ‘resentment’ (p. 85). This idea of scandal is what leads to Herculine leaving the boarding school. The shock that she had been living outside of her ‘true’, male sex caused moral outrage, despite it having no impact on her behaviour or her capabilities as a teacher. This indicates that the only reason for which we would need a ‘true’ sex is in terms of keeping the patriarchal system intact. Herculine is an unknown, an ‘other’, and that is viewed as a threat to society as a whole. Like all intersex people in her society, she is ‘the image of the monster, of difference that is radically Other’

(see note 7). Therefore, she must be neutralised and made ‘safe’ through a definitive categorisation of a true sex, thus making her at one with the rest of society, and consequently, no longer viewed as a moral danger.

In summation, Herculine Barbin strongly answers the question that we do not truly need a true sex and explores why patriarchal society has felt the compulsion to enforce this idea so adamantly. Herculine Barbin’s Memoirs are obviously a testament to the absurdity of assigning a ‘true sex’ to intersex people; which leads to her becoming an outcast from society, and her eventual suicide. However, this question of whether a true sex is necessary is one that can also have wide reaching and important implications outside of the text. As Herculine Barbin defies either biological classification, she has no choice but to identify outside of sex boundaries. If conservatives can accept her transition from biologically female to male, then it raises the question – why not accept it of others? The whole patriarchal system can be called into question if she can so easily change into a man; especially in the nineteenth century, when gender roles were even more rigidly assigned and abided by than they are today. Therefore, Herculine Barbin complicates and negates the entire concept of a ‘true’ sex through the obvious fact that it has proven to be inadequate in representing her identity and destructive in terms of her happiness and her relationships.



1: Herculine Barbin and Michel Foucault, Herculine Barbin (New York: Vintage Books, 2010). All further references to the text are in parenthesis after the quotation.

2: Christof Rolker, Björn Gebert and Jan Hirschbiegel, "‘All Humans Are Male, Female, Or Hermaphrodite’: Ambiguously Sexed Bodies in Late-Medieval Europe", Mittelalter, 2015 <> [Accessed 10 November 2018].

3: Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: Vintage Books, 1997).

4: Bridget Byrne, Gender, Conflict and Development (Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, 1996).

5: Angus Stevenson, Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

6: Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999). P. 45-46.

7: Brian Keith Axel, ‘Third Sex/Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History’, American Ethnologist, 25.1 (1998), 22-23 <>.

1,907 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page