Review of Females by Andrea Long Chu
JAMES LAWRENCE SLATTERY
“Everyone is female. And everyone hates it.” This statement is written large on the back cover. It is inclusive – overly so – and direct. Yet despite its pointed manner, what these words mean remains the central enigmatic kernel that I kept picking at when trying to locate what it is that Andrea Long Chu’s Females is arguing for, and against.
It is a slender book, one that could probably fit in the back pocket of your jeans. Yet despite its small size, the imprint it leaves will exceed the hour or two it takes to complete. With its witty tone, sliding between theoretical discourse and memoir, it is a thought-provoking and enjoyable text. This particular personal/theory genre hybrid has gained popularity in the last few years, and Females may be counted alongside other recent works such as Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015),Paul B. Preciado’s Testo Junkie (2013), and Kathy Acker’s I Love Dick (2015).
Females is structured around the work of Valerie Solanas, most famous for authoring the S.C.U.M. [Society for Cutting Up Men] Manifesto in 1967 and for shooting Andy Warhol a year later, in 1968. Chu is obviously and openly a fan of Solanas, thinking through some of the difficulties and contradictions of gender and sexuality with analytical and colloquially admiring references to her. Central to Females is Solanas’ lesser known play titled Up Your Ass, which was written a few years previous, in 1965. Females pays a (not uncritical) homage to the play, in part by formally structuring itself around it. Each section of Chu’s book is designated by a line or two of dialogue from Solanas’ play, whilst the top of every other page bares a scissor symbol followed by a dashed line which echoes the ‘cutting’ of Solanas’ manifesto. As the book progresses, the scissors travel – flipbook style – down this line, animated as you turn each page. This image would usually be followed with the instruction: Cut Here. That the little scissors literally reside above Chu’s words speaks to a quality of the text more generally. The book is funny somehow, playful, threaded through with little games and plotlines that progress throughout the time of your reading. But it is also to be taken seriously, not flippantly, even as it sometimes feels like its flipping you the bird. The scissors bring with them a plethora of associations that do not need to be explicitly stated, but present themselves nonetheless. Such associations might include the obvious cutting that Solanas speaks of in her manifesto, castration anxiety which Chu discusses with reference to Sigmund Freud, and Chu’s male-to-female gender reassignment surgery which must have entailed a variety of bodily cuts. The scissors, like the book, conjure a variety of meanings, unrestricted to the most obvious.
Chu is fully aware of the measure of incomprehension Females induces. Its central kernel is not an identifiable position per se, but a meditation on being a contemporary subject of desire. Chu recognises desire’s difficulty, its metonymic shifting that makes it hard to locate and easy to misread. Desire fools the subject, making one unable to consciously realise their own desires, or to understand how their desires play out and are manifested. In this slippery realm that language simultaneously supports and undermines, Chu articulates the seemingly paradoxical relationships of desire’s inscriptions as they appear in instances of culture. For example, ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist’ Janice Raymond and trans-woman icon and model Gigi Gorgeous are not framed as the expected oppositional figures placed either side of a dividing line, but, for Chu, overlap in discussions of how representation can function and becomes embodied.Later in the book, similarly familiar positions are compellingly, convincingly argued as their reverse. A highlight of this is Chu’s concise, well-argued assertion that porn is not degrading to those involved through any sense of mastery on the part of the viewer. Watching porn does not give the viewer control, but conversely induces one into submission, which, according to Chu, is the state we actually desire.
Despite my enjoyment, I frequently found myself getting frustrated with the book. This frustration was primarily due to me wanting it to be something it wasn’t, willing it to perform in a way it refused. Females kept eluding me like this, slipping from my grasp just as I began to think I’d got it pinned down. Chu positions the subject bluntly and confusingly, purposefully encouraging a contradictory position. This is encapsulated by the cover statement: “Everyone is female. And everyone hates it.” Chu defines the ‘female’ as standing for “any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another” (11). ‘Female’ is specific, yet paradoxically, all inclusive. Depending on how one approaches it, Chu’ s position could be seen to align, oppose, or prompt a dialogue with Freud’s theory that the libido is always masculine, or Lacan’s assertions that “Woman does not exist”. Although these latter concepts seem to privilege the phallic subject, Chu joins them in complicating sexual difference by engaging only one active space in which the subject occupies: In Chu’s case this is the female. Whilst contemporary identity-politics pertains to buck against the male/female or masculine/feminine binary of sexual difference, the expansion of identity markers (as seen in the often growing LGBTQAI+ acronym) ultimately serve to maintain difference at the level of signification, precisely through naming what one is and thus, what one is also not. In contrast, Chu problematises sexual difference and, as an extension, the identity-politics trend in liberal popular feminist and ‘queer’ cultural vernacular that aligns recognition with liberation. Purposefully misleading in the phrasing that “everyone is female”, as it will surely provoke reactions that assert we are not all homogenous bodies, might one rephrase Chu’s statement as: “we all occupy the space of the feminine” (and we all hate it)?
It is not just my own engagement with psychoanalytic theory that encouraged me to approach Females with regard to these central figures in psychoanalytic theory. Chu herself draws widely on Sigmund Freud, and particularly his most controversial theories of penis envy and castration anxiety. The Freudian psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, however, remains decidedly absent. Part of my initial dissatisfaction with the book was this omittance that appeared glaring, particularly as I read Chu’s definition of ‘females’ as riffing off a Lacanian theorising of subjectivity, namely, that of alienation produced through the subject’s entry in to language and desire. One of Lacan’s famous aphorisms kept springing to mind: “desire is desire of the other”. Throughout the book Chu seems to suggest that we are all female in the sense that we are all subjects of the other’s desire and, by way of this position, veil submission with the cultural codifications of mastery. If this reading is agreeable, then Lacan’s theory of the subject appears vital, and forms a present absence in the book. But this is not to say that finding illuminating points of theoretical connection satisfies Females enigmatic character. When I ground my understanding of Chu’s central argument through a Lacanian prism of desire, I become more comfortable with the text’s production of meaning, before worrying that in this gesture of excavation that privileges my own academic comfort zone, I misinterpret Chu’s specifically unstable and inaccessible ‘point’. Coming to a coherent understanding of the books aim, whether political, philosophical, cultural, rhetorical or sociological, is to approach the work in a way it works to resist. That is, Females resists my very desire to ‘know’ it.
Females’ memoir aspect, which weaves through the book’s entirety, manages to avoid onanism. Instead of a self-prophesising strategy that might serve to legitimate the (perhaps controversial) theoretical paradigms being introduced and explored, Chu’s recount of herself is rather self-effacing. The art piece they describe making in college, involving a piano, sounds pretty unappealing and pretentious, as well as disruptive to their roommates at the time. They cheated on their girlfriend. They were addicted to porn. And whilst I don’t necessarily consider these personal actions as wrong or bad, it’s worth drawing attention to Chu’s framing of herself which resists appearing as a faux pity party or as a means of bolstering their legitimacy or success. Instead, Chu slides between generic registers with a rhetoric that flows into different environments of discourse, yet thoroughly satisfies neither (and that, I believe, is part of their point).
Viewed as purposeful in its perplexing character, the book itself can be recognised as embodying the discourse of desire that it explores by shifting along chains of signification without giving the reader the fantasy of satisfaction through a neat conclusion or sense of closure. Though “Everyone is female. And everyone hates it” sounds assertive, definite, even simple, it is the opposite. Why use ‘female’? It is a word so loaded, so specific to a cultural meaning of sex and/or gender, and yet that stability is rendered inert by the inclusion of “everyone” into its category. And why do we ‘all’ hate it? And what is the ‘it’ of being ‘female’ that we ‘hate’? Answering any of these questions is a delightful impossibility, and to treat Females as a project of clear theoretical argument would be to have misread the text. Like desire’s negative structuring, the pleasure of Females is located in its very impossibility, its elusive slip.
Females by Andrea Long Chu. New York. Verso. 2019. 112 pp.