I can think of nothing less cool than giving Andrea Long Chu, queen of brutal one-liners, a sincere, glowing, snark-free review. Alas, she’s left me no choice.
Chu’s upcoming book, Females, begins with a reliably bold suggestion: Everyone is female. Through close examination of Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, Solanas’ play Up Your Ass, and a wide variety of other pop culture references, Chu explores the meaning of her assertion. She clarifies that everyone is not a woman; she instead uses female to mean “any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another.”
This redefinition alone may spur anger, but if you’re able to trust Chu’s voice, at least for the duration of these pages, the rewards will be great. More than gender, Chu is writing about desire. She might argue they’re the same thing, and she is convincing, but whether or not you agree with her, this exploration of desire is worth considering.
Chu uses a persona of provocateur as a mask for a deeper, more personal truth. It’s not that she isn’t suggesting things that are radical. It’s just that they’re not actually that controversial when you think about them.
For so many decades, cis people (doctors, journalists, artists) have shaped our narratives. A crude, simplified idea of transness pervaded society, even among trans people. It makes sense to counter that level of ingrained simplicity with an aggressive refusal to engage with respectability politics. Chu seems to take glee in shouting things other trans people cautiously whisper. This can cause backlash, like when some felt her New York Times op-ed about her gender confirmation surgery played into TERF talking points. But it can also be revolutionary, like when many of us felt our confused desires to be women and be with women finally represented in her essay, On Liking Women. (I, personally, found comfort in both pieces.) People will likely be split which category this book falls into.
During a section about Gigi Gorgeous, Chu explains that Gigi is a “TERF’s worst nightmare.” Her commitment to a high femme dumb blonde aesthetic embodies the transphobic claim that trans women uphold patriarchy. According to Chu that makes her a perfect representative for all transness. Chu writes, “Gender transition, no matter the direction is always a process of becoming a canvas for someone else’s fantasy. You cannot be gorgeous without someone to be gorgeous for.” This quote might upset you if you’re attached to the idea of transness as the fulfillment of the self. You might imagine a cis person reading it and fear their possible conclusions. It may simply not align with your own feelings. But it isn’t necessary that you agree with Chu to appreciate her ideas. Because Chu isn’t just expressing opinions, she’s justifying them. Before you have a chance to protest she makes another point: “If identity were all there were to gender, transition would be as easy as thinking it.” By stating the simple truths of being trans, Chu highlights the complexity, opening up room for even her most contentious suggestions.
In a later section, she confronts the oft-discussed disconnect between Men’s Rights Activists’ metaphor of “the red pill” and its origins in The Matrix, a movie by two trans women. Ever the contrarian, Chu suggests this disconnect isn’t a disconnect at all. She frames these men as ladies who doth protest too much. “He radicalizes–shoots up a school, builds a wall–in order to avoid transitioning, the way some closeted trans women join the military in order to get the girl beaten out of them,” she writes, unsatisfied saying just one controversial thing in a single sentence. Then she makes an observation about The Matrix that caused me to audibly gasp, despite my belief that by 2019 we were out of new trans Matrix takes.
But her bent towards the controversial, her relentless sense of humor, and her singular intelligence are all in service of a constant searching. The fact is no one actually knows what gender is or what it means to be trans or cis. Most trans people, myself included, shrug these questions, instead focusing on our desires, our safety, and the desires and safety of our community. But I’m grateful that Chu refuses to accept that. I’m grateful that she’s tasked herself with these unanswerable questions, and within this searching she has found fascinating answers, if never the answer.
Not to dismiss the interesting gender theory found within this book, but, at its best, Females, is a memoir. It just so happens to be a memoir written by someone whose Twitter handle is “theorygurl.” We’re not simply experiencing Chu’s ideas, we’re experiencing her discovery of these ideas. Anecdotes about a pre-transition college art project, her preference for forced feminization porn, and, in the last chapter, a revealed connection to Solanas, provide a context for Chu’s point of view. The sections on Gigi Gorgeous, The Matrix, and forced fem porn may be the most fascinating, and the most entertaining, but Chu’s enthusiasm for Solanas is infectious. It’s always a pleasure when a writer is discussing a topic they care this much about. It’s like when you’re falling in love with someone and their passions start to become your passions. It’s less about the thing and more about how that thing relates to the person. We learn as much about Chu when she writes about Solanas as we do when she writes about her personal life. The whole book has this level of connection and her vulnerability resonates deeply.
I expected this text to be thought-provoking. I wasn’t prepared for its depth of emotion.
Maybe defining female as inherently submissive, passive, and accommodating isn’t the progressive take you think it is. Maybe it’s just repackaged traditional sexism.
Yup and also gender essentialism.
Maybe it’s a just an interesting thought experiment not meant to be taken literally?
Without reading the rest of the context it’s hard to be sure, but my impression was that this was less an act of defining, and more taking an existing definition and drawing it out to its logical conclusion as a thought experiment. In a way, doing so brings to light the absurdity of the definition in its original form.
I CANNOT WAIT TO ORDER THIS BOOK!!! She always articulate the kind of thoughts that I’m scared to admit to myself, but she contextualizes them enough to turn taboo into insight. Almost as thrilling as learning for the first time that transition is an option
…apparently Verso doesn’t accept preorders but it seems almost heretical to go to Amazon for something like this
Thank you for this review!!!
“The fact is no one actually knows what gender is or what it means to be trans or cis.”
I don’t think this is fair – empirically speaking, most people know what it is like to be themselves and live as their gender. Also I found Judith Butler’s notion of gender as performative to be pretty informative, and it helps me on a day-to-day level in framing the behaviour of others and assessing safety and risk. Learning about queer theory and her work were an important part of discovering my gender identity. So while there may not be any ultimate final answer to the question of gender, there are still plenty of useful contributions to the field as the debate is ongoing.
This has had me ruminating on what being is, and how our notion of ourselves is always relational. On how we cannot separate ourselves from the universe we live in, however complicated our relationships to everything is.
How language is such an intrinsic part of the way we perceive our existence and our relationships. Language is communication, is drawing lines to define – carving slices that we can hand to each other or ourselves. Sometimes those slices nourish, sometimes they hurt.
Thank you for sharing your own thoughts, Drew.
And wishing for communication that nourishes for all of us.
To be honest as someone who’s afab and not a woman I find it kind of uncomfortable that she’s arguing ‘everyone is female’. I guess she’s doing it to be provocative and jokey and wind up cis guys but, can we not?
As a person who identifies as a woman, I’m not opposed in any way to woman positive content.
That being said, I am worried about how my very close friend who is a trans man would read this piece. As a person in his late 30s, he lived much of his early life as a politically active butch identified woman, who was simultaneously perpetually depressed. In his words “I tried every anti-depressant; turned out what I needed was testosterone.”
I tangentially understand the desire to view all people as basically female. But I believe that is as exclusionary and alienating as the desire to view inherent cis masculinity as the preferred baseline experience.
Lovely to see glowing reviews for this antisemite without mentioning her Jew problem.
(Receipts: https://mobile.twitter.com/theorygurl/status/117145149958448333, which, whatever you think of Bari Weiss, it is supremely antisemitic to deny Jews’ most deeply-held conception of ourselves—that we are a people—and define Judaism for Jews as a non-Jew despite multiple people calling her in and out, and doubling down on it.)
And no, I don’t love being Autostraddle’s one-note canary on antisemitism, I used to love this place, just, stop having it around and I’ll stop too!
Link is broken for me? Did she delete it?
Its hard not to think about Andrea’s articles and book as just one big grift based on shock and angering trans girls into generating social media controversy/publicity to sell her garbage. Its never actually come across as genuine.
Skimming her book, she seems intent on the idea that one’s conception of themselves is worth less then other individual’s conception of them.
Normally, Id expect this to go down a gender nihilist perspective that questions both the individual’s conception of self and other’s read on them.
But, here she only manages to be critical of trans women. She refuses to engage critically with trans women’s observes, instead treating it as fact.
I can understand if she were early transition and felt that cis people’s read on her somehow held more value or defined her in some meaningful way.
It just feels like reading white trans college kid trying to be edgy, without much background or awareness of other things happening in the conversations she’s injecting herself into.