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.