Is Everyone Female?

‘Females’
Andrea Long Chu (Kholood Eid)

“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.

Because submission itself is always treated as a negative term, Chu never has to ask whether it matters whom we submit to.

Chu is a trans woman, and Females tells parts of the story of her own gender transition. Perhaps that story, paradoxically, helps explain the absence of any positive valuation of “femaleness.” A discussion of how “gender is something other people have to give you” closes with the startling aphorisms:

The truth is, you are not the central transit hub for meaning about yourself, and you probably don’t have a right to be. You do not get to consent to yourself, even if you might deserve the chance. You do not get to consent to yourself—a definition of femaleness.

If your primary experience of creatureliness, of subjection to an unwilled given order, is the realization that your self-understanding is drastically misaligned with both your body and others’ interpretations of your body, then “femaleness” might look less like humility and more like hopelessness.

Powerlessness devastates—but Chu remembers that power still corrupts. Each chapter begins with a quotation from an unpublished play by Valerie “S.C.U.M. Manifesto” Solanas. If a therapeutic culture has taught us to treat “self-care” as a form of political action, Solanas seems to treat contempt as a form of resistance. Chu wants to reclaim Solanas, just like we once reclaimed “queer”: as a marginal and extreme figure, and for that very reason central to a consideration of freedom’s promise. “This is the root of all political consciousness,” Chu writes: “the dawning realization that one’s desires are not one’s own, that one has become a vehicle for someone else’s ego; in short, that one is female, but wishes it were not so. Politics is, in its essence, anti-female.” Politics is an attempt to reclaim the self, to assert one’s own ego rather than somebody else’s.

Feminism, as both the Catholics and the feminists will tell you, has been more successful at making women CEOs than at reshaping work to serve a woman’s body. Feel free to get your degree, girl, just make sure you freeze your eggs! Abortion and contraception mean that women can enter the halls of power and compete with the big boys, as long as we’re willing to make a few small physical adjustments. A feminism that’s only about gaining power inevitably embraces the abuse of power: Solanas’s heroine Bongi Perez becomes a catcalling caricature, and a woman can be Secretary of State as long as she’s a lady hawk. “To be for women, imagined as full human beings, is always to be against females,” Chu writes. But why does every increase in full humanity look so much like a surrender to the needs of state and capital—or to the tyranny of one’s own appetites?

One of the delights of Females is Chu’s trick of ending each tiny chapter with a sudden swerve, like the volta in a sonnet. Females has an implicit theology, and it’s basically, “What if Nietzsche did Genealogy of Morals with St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the St. Anselm role?” Because there is one group of men, other than the consumers of “sissy porn,” who have often depicted themselves as in essence “female”: male Christian saints.

For these men the soul is appropriately allegorized as a woman because she is, in Chu’s sense, “female.” All human souls are the fiancée in the Song of Songs: seeking her betrothed, beaten by the watchmen, wandering and beautiful and beloved. Cistercian authors can describe Jesus, abbots, bishops, and apostles as mothers, and St. Bernard can insistently describe himself as “nursing” his monks, because they see motherhood as self-gift; and if gift is loss then the loss of self is to be praised. We feed others with our own substance or not at all.

Christians believe that Love died as a spectacle—exposed, displayed, objectified unto death. He prayed, “Not my will but yours be done.” We believe that God came to us as a man, perhaps our most universal symbol of power, so that he could die broken and helpless, serving us and subject to our desires. And in this we must imitate him; which we don’t. Perhaps the greatest indictment of Christianity is that it has induced so few men to become “female” in this sense. For this is the overturning at the heart of Christian ethics: that everyone should be “female,” even—especially?—if you are not a woman.

Published in the February 2020 issue: 

Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker in Washington, DC. She the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith and Amends: A Novel.

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