Females By Andrea Long Chu
Reviewed by Madeleine Monson-Rosen
Andrea Long Chu is a wit. Like generations of the same before her, she delights in provocation, in mixing high theory with low ideas, in challenging orthodoxies, conventions, and taboos. She writes beautifully about bad (and good) television in her newsletter Paper View, and her recent essays, in n+1 and The New York Times Opinion page, have elaborated lyrical, but contrarian, analyses of her own experiences of her gender, her sexuality, and her desire. In Females, Chu weaves seemingly paradoxical theoretical argument with radically honest memoir. Part gender theory, part autobiography, Females takes on desire— rather, desire’s negation, rejection, disavowal, and denial—and makes that the basis for Chu’s, in her own words, “wildly tendentious” thesis: “Everyone is female, and everyone hates it.”
For Chu, the disavowal of desire is quintessentially female. She opens the book with an apology. “I am female. And you, dear reader, you are female, even—especially—if you are not a woman. Welcome. Sorry.” That “Welcome. Sorry” amounts to the essence of what it means to be female. “The thesis of this little book” Chu announces, “is that femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation, against which all politics, even feminist politics, rebels.” “Welcome. Sorry” functions as an emblem, a dramatization, an enactment of what it means to be female: to make space for others, to submerge your own desires, to apologize for taking up space.
Everyone does this to some extent. “What makes gender gender,” Chu writes, “is the fact that it expresses, in every case, the desires of another. If sexual orientation is basically the social expression of one’s own sexuality, then gender is basically a social expression of someone else’s sexuality.” Understanding oneself as the object of someone else’s desire makes everyone female. Freud is here, of course, and Chu reads penis envy at some length (“Pussy envy is therefore not the mutually exclusive opposite of penis envy, but a universal desire atop which the latter develops as a reaction formation”). But one of the things that makes Females a particularly daring work is Chu’s choice to let her assertion stand on its own feet. Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, Eve Sedgwick, and many other queer theory heavy hitters lurk under the surface, and future grad-student readers will undoubtedly make those implicit connections explicit, but here, Chu rests her thesis primarily on her reading of the life and work of Valerie Solanas, and on her own experience of desire and transition.
Prior to Females, Chu’s writing has been iconoclastic. Her New York Times essay, “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy,” challenges the liberal narrative of gender transition as automatically fulfilling self-actualization. “Transition doesn’t have to make me happy for me to want it,” Chu argues. “On Liking Women,” published in n+1, challenges TERFs (transexclusionary radical feminists), even as it gives their paranoia some ground. TERFs claim that trans women are threatening, “gropey interlopers … conspiring to infiltrate women-only spaces.” Chu, a lesbian, ironically agrees. She expects to feel desire for women. Indeed, she argues that the most radical of feminists should welcome trans women, “Because of us, there are literally fewer men on the planet.” Here, she also previewed Females’ affection for Valerie Solanas: “The Society for Cutting Up Men is a rather fabulous name for a transsexual book club.”
Valerie Solanas “founded” The Society for Cutting Up Men, publishing the SCUM Manifesto in 1967 (although she also denied SCUM was an acronym). The scare quotes indicate the difficulty in discussing Solanas and SCUM in any kind of definitive way. Solanas sometimes referred to SCUM as an organization, sometimes not. She referred to the SCUM Manifesto as satire, sometimes. She associated with feminists, including NOW co-founder Ti-Grace Atkinson, but rejected feminism. Atkinson attended a SCUM recruitment meeting at the Chelsea Hotel, where, according to Chu, Solanas “unzipped her jeans and played with her clitoris.” Most (in)famous for her shooting of Andy Warhol and subsequent diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, Solanas was a marginal member of Warhol’s Factory scene, a maybe-feminist who was, in Chu’s brief biography, “grifting her way around Greenwich Village in the early sixties, poor, often homeless, doing sex work, hanging with street queens, loitering in cheap automats—‘shooting the shit,’ as she liked to say.”
Solanas’s earlier work, the play Up Your Ass, is for Chu the locus classicus of femaleness. In Up Your Ass and SCUM, Solanas lays out her own paranoid, angry, sometimes-delusional theories of gender and difference. SCUM demands the end of men: “there remains to civicminded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.” While the SCUM Manifesto perhaps more clearly crystallizes Solanas’s vision, Chu lets Bongi Perez, dirtbag protagonist of Up Your Ass, offer epigraphs to many of the chapters: “BONGI: I’m so female I’m subversive” inscribes the book’s opening. Solanas is, in a way, a sort of Dante’s Virgil for Chu’s argument, leading her, and the reader, through the logic of femaleness.
Solanas, “Valerie” to Chu, “lives in my head like a chain-smoking superego.” Her violent fantasies, hatreds, and desires lead Chu to a profound and uncompromising personal honesty. Indeed, this book suggests that perhaps every work of theory should be accompanied by some radical self-disclosure, in the name of ethics (Chu defines ethics as “commitment to a bit”). That selfdisclosure makes Females persuasive as a work of theory and profoundly affecting as a memoir.
Solanas’s near-universal, and violent, hatred, grounds the second part of Chu’s thesis. SCUM and Up Your Ass propose, in Chu’s summation, “misogyny against men.” For Chu, Solanas inverts the polarity of the gender binary: men are weak, passive, and vain while “women are cool, forceful, dynamic, and decisive.” In other words, Solanas’s work reveals that men are also females. The hatred of femaleness is, for Chu, a cultural wellspring, explaining, obviously, misogyny and transphobia but also eroticism and sexual desire per se. Chu posits this formula: to be female is to be shaped by another’s desire. There is no eroticism without thinking about somebody else’s desire for you; to enter into sexuality or eroticism one must imagine oneself as another ’s object. To do this is to be female, ergo, everyone is female.
Indeed, if everyone is female—and I’m hoping you’re starting to believe that they are—then autogynephilia [the desire for oneself as a woman] describes not an obscure paraphilic affliction but rather the basic structure of all human sexuality. This is not just because everyone has an erotic image of themselves as female—they do—but the assimilation of any erotic image is, by nature, female. To be female is, in every case, to be what someone else wants. At bottom, everyone is a sissy.
Along the way, Chu offers femaleness as an explanatory account of, among other things, The Matrix and its popularity among so-called “men’s rights” activists; another, related right-wing group known as the Proud Boys, who reject pornography and masturbation; porn, and the particular bigotry of the aforementioned TERFs. These readings are more than persuasive.
What makes Females such a pleasure for this reader (who as a grad student in the oughts was electrified by queer theory despite being, herself, straight and cis) is the explanatory power of Chu’s argument paired with the radical intimacy of her personal writing. Chu’s intellectual rigor is matched by her honesty. It is at once profoundly disconcerting and deeply persuasive. It will, no doubt, be controversial. It will, I know, electrify.
Madeleine Monson-Rosen has a PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She writes mostly about the intersections of science, technology, and culture, and has contributed to The Millions, io9, and Real Life Magazine. She last wrote for WRB in 2016.