“Everyone is female, and everyone hates it.” This is the thesis of Andrea Long Chu’s performatively edgy, frequently hilarious chapbook, Females, which is both a work of queer theory and a satire on its excesses. It’s feminist theory fueled by contradictions within feminism—and it’s also, unintentionally, an indictment of contemporary Christianity.
To be “female,” here, is to be subjected, “to be defined by self-negation,” to scoop out your own desires and replace them with somebody else’s, desiring only to be what he desires. “I am female,” Chu writes, “And you, dear reader, are female, even—especially—if you are not a woman.”
It’s female to be catcalled. It’s female to dress seductively. But it’s at least as female to hand over your customer’s order with a smile and the corporate-mandated phrase, “My pleasure.” Chu writes, “femaleness, while it hurts only sometimes, is always bad for you.” The femaleness of the human condition is “permanent, unchanging…ontological, not biological…the one and only structure of human consciousness…. Women hate being females as much as anybody else, but unlike everybody else, we find ourselves its select delegates.”
This is a light book, cavalier and sometimes self-abasingly funny: “The manifesto is the refuge of the failed artist,” Chu proclaims in this manifesto. (Is self-deprecating humor female?) But guts, skill, and one insight are not enough to sustain even such a short work. Females, like an ’80s career woman’s silhouette, is both slender and padded. The book’s second half feels especially episodic and slack. Some of the digressions are searing; Chu offers the best and rawest description of the anger/self-righteousness/porn-addiction cycle I’ve found. But others show the limits of performative edginess: there might be an insightful way to link a white supremacist’s murder of Heather Heyer to the tropes of “sissy porn,” but you probably shouldn’t look for it, and Chu definitely did not find it. Chu’s joking-not-joking thesis carries the book, and it’s as fascinating in what it doesn’t explain as in what it does.
What struck me about Females from the very beginning was Chu’s inability (or unwillingness) to imagine what could be good about being female. The very first definition of “femaleness” lists pregnancy as an example of subjection, in which “the self is hollowed out, made into an incubator for an alien force.” Don’t people…sometimes want to be pregnant? Chu quotes Catharine MacKinnon—as approvingly as Chu quotes anybody—defining “the female gender stereotype” as “Vulnerability…passivity…receptivity…weakness…softness…incompetence…domesticity.” Don’t some of those sound like good things, at least sometimes?
Chu does admit, with palpable delectation, “I don’t really want to tell anyone what to do; I want to be told.” Later on, she writes, “Everyone does their best to want power, because deep down, no one wants it at all.” This makes even surrender of power just another kind of self-assertion. And it offers no guide for which desires might be best. Desire, in this book, is all-powerful; all people are addicts, helpless to do anything but go after what we want. Describing the movie Don Jon, Chu describes a situation in which two people mutually seek to surrender to one another, and misidentifies them as both acting “male”—self-assertive—when it seems obvious that they’re both acting “female.” “Females” are defined by submission but because submission itself is always treated as a negative term, Chu never has to ask whether it matters whom we submit to.
Christians (of whom more presently) have sometimes found it consoling to remember that we’re mortals, an identity group marked by its helplessness. We’ve often found it consoling to remember that we’re creatures, an identity group defined by its relationship to another party’s love. Without God’s animating desire even the atoms of our flesh could not spin.