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My New Verso Paperback Won’t Make Me Happy

Andrea Long Chu’s Females (Verso, 2019)

Illustration of females from J.C. Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy. Courtesy Internet Archive Book Images, London.

Illustration of females from J.C. Lavater’s Essays on Physiognomy.

The reader of this article may be aware of the recent publication of Andrea Chu’s Females: A Concern by Verso Books. Chu has gained considerable clout over the past few years through essays such as “On Liking Women” (n+1) and “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy” (The New York Times), literary products that package the first-person bona fides of narrative non-fiction with spicy theoretical riffs on trans issues. Females promises similar titillation, proclaiming its thesis on the cover: “Everyone is female, and everyone hates it.”

A friend remarked upon spotting my review copy: ‘This is one of those books that you pick up because you say, “What! That’s obviously not true. What’s going on here?’” Fortunately, Chu explains the going-on early in:

The thesis of this little book is that femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation, against which all politics, even feminist politics, rebels. […] I’ll define as female any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another. […] When I talk about females, I am not referring to biological sex, though I’m not referring to gender, either. I’m referring to something that might as well be sex, the way reactionaries describe it (permanent, unchanging, etc.), but whose nature is ontological, not biological. Femaleness is not an anatomical or genetic characteristic of an organism, but rather a universal existential condition, the one and only structure of human consciousness. To be is to be female: the two are identical.Andrea Long Chu, Females (New York: Verso, 2019), 11-12.

I feel a mix of admiration and concern at Chu’s boldness at welcoming accusations of straightforward misogyny in “defin[ing] as female any psychic operation in which the self as sacrificed to make room for the desires of another,” when it seems her point might be delicately stated as something like ‘all desire is interwoven with the desire of the other’ – the fear of the figure of the misogynist transsexual haunts the outskirts of contemporary U.S. feminist dialogue. The point she hopes to get at through this terminology is that women find themselves the “select delegates” of femaleness, whereas men mask their femaleness by adopting the persona of the one to whom desire is immediate. Ideas such as this have a history in both egalitarian strains of liberal feminism and, as Chu is interested in pointing out, classical radical feminism. She cites Catherine MacKinnon, for instance, in making the case that “men and women are constructed through an ‘eroticization of dominance and submission’ whose central process is nonconsensual sexual objectification. Hence [Mackinnon’s] famous line: ‘Man fucks woman; subject verb object.’” Where Chu disputes MacKinnon’s thesis is the supposed lack of penetration of the man by the state of femaleness—the man is also female by virtue of his being conditioned into manhood. Discussing the film Don Jon, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a pornography addict, she writes:

Like all men, Jon watches porn not to have power, but to give it up. In short, pornography feminizes him. […] Don Jon basically agrees with the MacKinnonite doctrine that porn is structured by the eroticization of dominance and submission—but it locates this power dynamic not between the commanded men and the degraded women onscreen, but in the sex unfolding between the addictive pornographic image and the essentially female viewer it dominates.Ibid, 68.

If it is sounding here to you like being female/feminized here means something like having desires contingent upon external precondition, this is good, because it is exactly what I would like to suggest. Consider an article Chu published in her college newspaper shortly before beginning transition: “I’m a racist because I’m part of something bigger than myself […] Some part of me is determined—by chemistry, physics, social structures like racism—and some part of me is free.” Corporeality and autonomy: quite the opposition! Likely having concluded from experience that ex nihilo nihil fit, she has revised her position somewhat, revising “I am a racist” to “to be is to be female”:

The female is always the product of force, and force is invariably feminizing. This is why environments designed to forcibly masculinize their inhabitants—college fraternities and the US military come to mind—inevitably end up expressing their central contradiction (anyone forced to be a man couldn’t possibly be a man) […]Ibid, 84.

We have a syllogism: to be a subject of condition is to be female, and to be a person is to be a subject (we, as they say, live in a society); therefore, all persons are females. —Question from a man in the back: ‘Hey, wait just a goddamn second … If my desire is the desire of the other, and the other’s desire is the desire is the desire of the other, then who’s flying the plane?’ More on that in a bit.

I remember how, early in transition, I gave myself headache after headache reading online battles over the moral status of trans women. After a while, it seemed that most positions offered on the matter were either expressions of compassion and pity for the plight of women trapped in men’s bodies, or ones of outrage at the perversion of these delusional men disguised as women. The difficulty of reasonably adjudicating between these two axioms bothered me until I came to study a strain of post-Kantian philosophy concerned with the opposition between appearances and things in themselves, most famous today for its termination in Nietzsche. With this it seemed that both of these positions could be reinterpreted as a sign language of beliefs, fears, and fantasies about the relation between men and women.

I soon found that projecting issues of gender and sexuality onto this distinction has a great deal of historical precedent. Perhaps the most expressive example is Nietzsche himself, for whom the in-itself of things is cast as a feminine abyss—Kant’s famous “man is the measure” is transmuted through Nietzsche’s neuroses, not uncommon to his milieu, into “truth is a woman.” In accord with this formula of woman equals void equals truth, he makes explicit the picture of sex relations Chu might be charitably seen as implicitly criticizing; in 1882, after Lou Salome rejects his second marriage proposal, he writes “woman wants to be taken; consequently, she wants someone who takes” … “man makes for himself an image of woman, and woman shapes herself according to this image.” I find this distasteful and empirically unsatisfying, but it is more fruitful to regard Nietzsche as cultural symptom than it is to fingerwag at his corpse.

Returning to Females, Chu acts well in turning a skeptical eye to the claim that men’s desire is fundamentally domineering and women’s desire fundamentally heteronomous, a claim she takes to be implicit to all sorts of common discussions on and depictions of sex relations. Nietzsche has a ‘wise man’ character proclaim “the way of men is will; the way of women is willingness – that is the law of the sexes; truly a hard law for women”; likewise, Margaret Atwood writes in an oft-quoted paragraph:

Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy […] Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy […] You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993), 392.

What I am crediting Chu with is opposing this conception of the subjectivating ‘man’ and the subjectivated ‘woman’ to the processes of subjectivation by which one is made into a man.It would seem right to say she mirrors Atwood’s image of the “woman with a man inside watching a woman” with one of the ‘man with a woman inside watching a man’—this is one way in which Females falls loosely within the genre of self-accounting transsexual developmental stories, a cherished curio of intrigued onlookers since Christine Jorgenson. Consider here Chu’s quotations of the writings of influential early sexologist John Money: “Without the competition of a male hormone, testicular estrogen does an excellent job of shaping a female … Such is the power of the Eve who lurks, forever imprisoned, in even the most full-bearded, bass-voiced, heroically androgenized and macho-minded of males!” Her error, I propose, is in not rising above this tension to a higher understanding: here she simply writes “Does he even know what he’s saying?” and concludes the chapter (p. 47), apparently suggesting Money’s text is ridiculous not for its pathological idea of sexual difference but for failing to draw further inferences to her conclusions.

“Everyone is female—and everyone hates it” can be reread through this semiotic as something like: modern politics revolves around the autonomy of the subject, and most common definitions of autonomy and subject render this a contradiction in terms. Chu thereby teaches better, but did not learn better; she fails to overcome the impulse to conceive autonomy as anything but absolute freedom from external social condition.

The political is the sworn enemy of the female; politics begins, in every case, from the optimistic belief that another sex is possible. This is the root of all political consciousness: the dawning realization that one’s desires are not one’s own […] in short, that one is female, but wishes it were not so. [… Classical] feminists didn’t want to be women anymore, at least under the existing terms of society; or to put it more precisely, feminists didn’t want to be female anymore […] To be for women, imagined as full human beings, is to be against females. […]Andrea Long Chu, Females (New York: Verso, 2019), 13-14.

[T]he question that Amber Hollibaugh raised at Barnard: “Is there ‘feminist’ sex? Should there be?” Or, to put it bluntly: can women have sex without getting fucked? Valerie [Solanas]’s answer is still the best one: No, but who cares?Ibid, 65. ***

Chu’s recent skepticism towards a wide range of feminist discourses are a synecdoche of her reductive conception of autonomy. If women cannot have sex without “getting fucked,” “females” (all of us) can’t even conceive of sex—or anything, really—without being fucked by the social. The problem here is that these conclusions rely on the simultaneous presence and absence of the fucker, the unsubjectivated ‘man’. Since we’re all already female, one ought write the companion piece Males: A Consideration, which would observe how all persons are male insofar as all take part in the shaping of others’ desires and activities. A draft: “The producer of force is always male, and it is invariably masculine to have effect. This is why personal practices of womanhood inevitably end up expressing their central contradiction…” Perhaps after this we could come up with a third book about who has what degree of maleness/femaleness, though I would rather the sexual metaphor be dropped well before this point; else we take MacKinnon’s critique as an instruction manual.

Schopenhauer adapted Kantianism by way of the proposition that the in-itself of the world is blindly striving force of will. Nietzsche, in accord with his sexuation of the faculty of willing, mocks him for inappropriately projecting his sexual pathologies onto the in-itself. Due to their shared entanglement of man/woman with active/passive with cause/effect, he would have a better joke ready for Chu, in whose text the universal inescapability of cultural conditioning becomes an Unbearable Femaleness of Being. She acknowledges her epistemological overindulgence directly a few times, concluding her thesis with “or maybe I’m just projecting.” This air of ironic detachment towards her own writing may protect her ego from criticism, but it does not improve the substance.

One gets the impression from Females that Chu would deeply enjoy being understood as a product of precondition and milieu, any notion of agency lost in the echoes of Pavlov’s dinner bell. Inverting Adorno’s identification of resignation with the possibility of unconstrained thought, Chu resigns herself against her own definition of autonomy, as one would despair upon realizing the impossibility of becoming God. Psychoanalysis did this better.

S NOWAK is a cashier who will be going to philosophy grad school in half a year or so.