If you’re familiar with Andrea Long Chu, it might be for her marvelous takedown of Bret Easton Ellis (“an angry, uninteresting man who has just written a very needy book”); or the equally-deserved drubbing she gave Jill Soloway’s She Wants It (“As a book about desire, power, or toppling the patriarchy, it is incompetent, defensive, and astonishingly clueless.”). Or, you might have read her deeply ambivalent reflections on gender transition and vaginoplasty in The New York Times and n+1. Or, you may be one of her tens of thousands of followers on Twitter—where she writes under the handle @theorygurl—reading along for her snappy musings on the mundane and the momentous. Chu is a deft critic, adept at sliding across broad swaths of history and material, at conjuring the pithy poke or relatable read.
But the thing that keeps me returning to her work is its commitment to expressing the truth of her own experience in a way that makes the reader productively uncomfortable rather than settling for choir-preaching salability. Chu forthrightly addresses her misgivings (about culture and herself), the madness of desires that reorient our lives but not in ways that necessarily make things better or happier. She invites us into pleasure and pain, looking at both without blinking and compelling us to sit with what is there.
This critical disposition has, of course, earned her a fair share of critics from the right and the left. The recent publication of her first book, Females: A Concern (Verso), will do little to alter this perception for those who read her tendentiously rather than closely, opening as it does with the argument that we (you, me, everyone we know) all are female and that we all hate it. It’s a provocative claim, to be sure, but one grounded in the radical and, from a certain perspective, convincing, ideas about gender, sexuality and desire that Valerie Solanas’s put forth in the iconic S.C.U.M. Manifesto (1967). The reward of Females is a nuanced and sticky understanding of how and what we desire, of how a desire never really our own shapes us into the conflicted subjects we are.By “female,” I mean the condition of having someone else do your desiring for you.
In the interview below, I speak with Chu about the central argument of Females, about how her bottom surgery in 2018 shaped the book, about how Chu came to consciousness about her gender while watching sissy porn—a widely variable genre that involves male-to-female forced feminization fantasy and role play—and how the ubiquity of online porn may be helping many to find and understand identities that would have otherwise remained vague and unknown to them.
We also talk about Solanas’s influence on Chu as a writer and thinker, about how she resists the “It Gets Better” narrative and her complicated feelings about the trans readers who discover themselves in her writing but whom she knows all too well are themselves on the brink of a painful, difficult journey. And at the end, if you can stand it, there is love.
Eric Newman: The main claim of Females: a Concern is that everyone is female and everyone hates it. Can you explain what you mean by “female” and what the stakes of that association are?
Andrea Long Chu: Initially, I was just going to say everyone was a woman. I felt I could defend that claim in certain ways, but it presented obvious problems. There was an existing distinction between sex and gender, but there was a term—“female”—available for a sort of gendered yet pre-gender category.
By “female,” I mean the condition of having someone else do your desiring for you. This is an ontological claim about the subject, about what it means to be a subject: your desire comes from outside of you as opposed to originating inside of you.
The reason I’d call that condition being “female” is that it is traditionally what patriarchal culture ascribes to that sex and gender: everything from models of maternal care to the passive function in “traditional sexual intercourse” to styles of emotional relation in which women are supposed to be better at receiving the other, at taking into account other people’s feelings, etc..
There’s a long feminist practice of saying that these things being described as “feminine” or “female” aren’t really that, but I’ve always found that critical move ends up reproducing the female—as abject, as disempowered—somewhere else in order to get out of being saddled with those traits. So, instead of trying to deflate the claim of the female, I wanted to pump it with as much energy as I could and see what would happen.
EN: Valerie Solanas looms large in this book and, as you’ve written elsewhere, has been a central figure in your intellectual development. Can you talk about how she has influenced your critical approach and aesthetic?
ALC: Valerie was a panhandler and sex worker and playwright and failed artist who is famous for writing the S.C.U.M. Manifesto in the late 1960s, which she sold and distributed herself in Washington Square Park, and for shooting Andy Warhol at the Factory on Union Square a year later. She was extremely talented at performing her own impotence and something came out of that. I don’t know if something of any historical force came out of it, but I think what it did produce was a very specific aesthetic that, as a I writer, I am very interested in.
One of the things that draws me to Valerie is that she isn’t really a feminist. She never liked that term. There were feminists who sometimes associated with her and there were feminists who would have nothing to do with her. When we talk about feminism in the late 1960s, we are also talking about an uptown/downtown divide in women’s lib. Opposed to the uptown, Betty Friedan feminism focused on bourgeois values and empowerment, there’s Valerie’s downtown feminist energy that’s closer to a kind of terrorism, a guerrilla or a sort of agent-of-chaos kind of thing. There’s an authoritarian, if not fascist, streak in Valerie, too.
Her writing is interesting to me because it’s a very stark instance in which a political frame is superseded by the desires that motivate it. It’s a politics, but not for a good reason. I mean, [male] genocide probably isn’t the answer. Her demands are being described in the language of political complaint but the logic is so unforgiving, and I find that appealing on the level of logic, but it also has no chance of being realized without an enormous amount of investment. That is a tension that runs through lots of political projects, not just Valerie’s, though it becomes particularly inflamed in her case.
EN: Do you find that part of it appealing, that it’s a politics impossible to realize?
ALC: Writing about politics that won’t actually accomplish anything is about as useful as writing about politics that will, allegedly, accomplish something, right? I have long been preoccupied with the impotence of academic practice, not that I presume to have left that behind. Scholars who tell you that politically-engaged academic work has the power to change the world are like parents who tell you that their children are the best thing that ever happened to them. Even if what they say is true, it’s not why they believe it. They believe it because if they didn’t, their way of life would be thrown into a crisis of validity. How could you go on being a parent if you admit that your kids weren’t the best things that ever happened to you?
EN: You say in the book that sissy porn was formative of your coming to consciousness as a trans woman. If you hadn’t found sissy porn, do you think it’s possible that you might have just continued to suffer in the not-knowing?
ALC: That’s a really good question. It’s plausible to me that I never would have figured it out, that it would have taken longer.
EN: How does that make you feel? Is that idea scary?
ALC: It isn’t really. Maybe it should be a little bit more, but it isn’t really. One of the things about desire is that you can not want something for the first 30 years of your life and wake up one day and suddenly want it—want it as if you might as well have always wanted it. That’s the tricky thing about how desire works. When you want something, there’s a way in which you engage in a kind of revisionism, the inability to believe that you could have ever wanted anything else.
EN: People often talk about the ubiquity of online porn as a bad thing—I’ve heard from lots of girlfriends that men getting educated about sex by watching porn leads to bad sex—but there seems to me a way in which this ubiquity is helping people to understand themselves, their sexuality and their gender identity.
ALC: While I don’t have the research to back this up, I would certainly anecdotally say that sissy porn has done something in terms of modern trans identity, culture, and awareness. Of course, it’s in the long line of sexual practices like crossdressing in which cross-gender identification becomes a key factor. It’s not that all of the sudden, in 2013, there was this thing and now there are trans people. However, it is undoubted that the Internet has done something in terms of either the sudden existence of more trans people or the sudden revelation that there are more trans people than anyone knew there were. Whether it’s creation or revelation, I think everyone would agree that the internet has had an enormous impact there.
One of the things I find so fascinating about sissy porn is that it’s not just that I can hear about these trans people who live 20 states away from me and that their experiences sound like mine. There is a component of it that’s just sheer mass communication and its transformative effect, but another part of it is that the internet itself can exert a feminizing force. That is the implicit claim of sissy porn, the idea that sissy porn made me trans is also the idea that Tumblr made me trans. So, the question there is whether or not the erotic experience that became possible with the Internet actually could exert an historically unique feminizing force. I like, at least as a speculative claim, to think about how the Internet itself is feminizing.
EN: You had a full draft of the book completed just before you underwent bottom surgery and then went through the revisions afterwards. I’m wondering how that experience impacted the work that you did in the book and your relationship to it?Even if you’re happy now—and that’s never a permanent state—the change that love requires is painful.
ALC: I was revising Females just two months after the surgery. The draft and the final product were very different things. It got a lot better, of course [laughter]. I was in a lot of physical pain after the surgery and really hadn’t processed it for the most part. Of course, I still haven’t processed it and I’m still in some pain.
The experience of recovery really got infused into the book. The first couple of months after surgery were extremely dark for me and it was very hard to see an endpoint. There was anger and resentment. To some extent I offloaded that affect into the book. The writing and revision was partly a way of getting a little better. Which means that I have a pretty ambivalent relationship to the book itself. I told a friend recently that I kind of wrote a book about hating myself and now I’m in the position of hating the book. I say that half-jokingly, but I think it might not be that I hate the book less than I used to, but that I’ve made some peace with what it represents: shrapnel from this very particular moment in my life.
Also, with respect to transition generally, the book and my writing is really just telling everyone else that they are like me and preparing myself to deal with that rhetorical risk.
EN: Is that what you want readers to take from Females? Is it an invitation to, if not community, some other form of collective experience or sodality?
ALC: I do often get emails from people about how reading my stuff has made them transition or has made them consider it. I don’t know that it’s happening on some kind of epidemic scale, as much as I might like it to, but it’s incredibly moving when I hear from people that it’s carving out a non-celebratory space—one that’s not pride-based—for trans women or non-binary folks to be able to say “Yes” to themselves. I say in the book that being a man was my punishment for being a man; that I didn’t deserve to be a woman. In some sense, I still don’t and I’m writing towards creating a space where transition doesn’t mean you have to resolve anything about yourself or not necessarily feel better about yourself. All of this is to say that I’ve been told my self-loathing has been helpful to other people, and that’s really a wonderful thing to hear.
EN: One of the things I love so much about your writing is its refusal of the sad-to-happy teleology. The problem with the “It Gets Better” narrative, for queer people and others more generally, is that it doesn’t always work out that way, and even if it does, the process is always painful. Loving yourself or loving another person means that you have to become another person and that means cleaving and self-amputation and loss and abjection. Even if you’re happy now—and that’s never a permanent state—the change that love requires is painful.
So, when you get that feedback from readers who you’ve helped to transition, is there a part of you that’s ambivalent about it, both happy that you were able to help someone get to a more honest place with themselves but also thinking: “Girl, I really hurt for you because this is going to be painful and you might not come out the other side happy”?
ALC: Absolutely, because it isn’t about things getting better. That’s the terror and also the holiness of a desire: It doesn’t actually have to do with the good. It has no necessary relation to that which is good or beneficial or healthy or advantageous or in one’s interest or any of that. It is independent of the object, even as it is structured by dependence on the object. Coming to terms with that, with knowing that this is what I want in a way that’s purely open is an incredible thing. It is agonizing and I live in the agony of that. Lots of other people do, too.
Can I say something about love, though, hearing you talk about it?
EN: Sure, go ahead.
ALC: Years ago, I had a conversation about structural love, not in the sense of content but in the sense of a container or an envelope. It’s not that I like you or enjoy talking to you or that you bring me pleasure or that I bring you pleasure. It’s not any of the substantive content of the relationship, but rather this empty space in which the relationship happens.
I’m thinking, because I’m a good Christian girl, of the theological concept of God’s love: that you don’t deserve it and yet there’s nothing you can do to get out of being loved. For many this is a comfort, the idea that God will love you no matter what. But what it really means is that the statements “God loves me” and “I exist” are equivalent. God’s love is nothing, the pure nothing, the facticity of existence. You are there and, because you are there, God loves you. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s just the space in which your life unfolds: in God’s love, a pure predicateless position. I cut my teeth philosophically on theology and I’m still very attracted to concepts like that. The thing about God’s love is not that it is stronger than anything, but that it is weaker than anything. That idea is beautiful to me, the idea that love is so weak that nothing can defeat it.
EN: That’s beautiful. In some ways that brings us back to what we’ve been talking about here: the idea that vulnerability is a source of strength. Maybe, in addition to being female, we’re all in love and we all hate it.
ALC: Yes, absolutely.