Cutting Up

Females BY Andrea Long Chu. Brooklyn, NY: Verso. 112 pages. $13.

The cover of Females

In 1988, Valerie Solanas, the author of the 1967 female-supremacist pamphlet SCUM Manifesto, died from pneumonia at the age of fifty-two, in a single-occupancy hotel room in San Francisco. The decomposing body of the visionary writer, who famously set forth her plans “to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex,” was discovered kneeling, as though in prayer, slumped over the side of the bed. The image lends itself to hagiographic depictions of Solanas—as a fallen soldier, a suffering genius, a latter-day entrant into the modernist pantheon of great artists exiled by society. Or perhaps that’s just how she appears to me. I’d rather imagine her within a tragic male tradition than an abject female one—though you’ll soon see why I’ve begun to wonder if there’s any difference.

Consumed with loathing, finding only fleeting euphoric reprieve in her own ideas, Solanas is feminism’s Antonin Artaud. She’d spit at the comparison, of course. By her logic, all artists are female. “A ‘male artist’ is a contradiction in terms,” she states in SCUM, a slender polemic as remarkable for its withering nonchalance as its unabashed biological determinism. “Having nothing inside him he has nothing to say,” she puts it simply.

Andrea Long Chu, author of the SCUM-proportioned volume Females, agrees. All artists are female. Not because men have nothing to say (though she doesn’t deny it), but because everyone, without exception, is female. “I am female,” she writes, closing out her brief, bracing introduction. “And you, dear reader, you are female, even—especially—if you are not a woman. Welcome.” Lest you think this might be good news, she adds, “Sorry.”

Chu finds in Solanas precedent for a semi-comedic strategy of defamiliarization, and adopts her habit of risky reversals to shake new sense into the ubiquitous term female. In SCUM you see the outline of Chu’s future style: Men have, as Solanas writes, “done a brilliant job of convincing millions of women that men are women and women are men.” She sees human history as nothing but a long con in which men claim innately female traits (forcefulness, courage, integrity, objectivity, dynamism, emotional independence, and grooviness among them) as male, and model perverse, violent caricatures of female power to mask their supreme passivity. Chu has a different take: We’re all, as females, cultivating and customizing our passivity actively; or we are laboring, as accidental misogynists, to escape our femaleness through idealistic follies such as feminism. From the madness she wrests a lucid meditation on desire as the force shaping our identities, the paradoxes of liberation politics, and her own gender transition.

Females may be only the second work in a constellation of twenty-first-century efforts to grapple with Solanas—as a consummate performer of female rage, a high-camp satirist, or an accidental Derridean—to take her seriously as a gender theorist. The first such work would be Chu’s earlier, jaw-dropping essay “On Liking Women,” published in 2018, in which she explores SCUM as a conceptual framework, or a rich reference point, for her coming out. Citing Solanas’s intoxicating, petty grounds for her genocidal agenda (i.e., that patriarchal debasement has rendered “life in this society . . . at best, an utter bore”), as well as the suggestion that men, if they wish to live, should seek to “be transformed in psyche, as well as body, into women” via new technologies, Chu writes of an epiphany:

This was a vision of transsexuality as separatism, an image of how male-to-female gender transition might express not just disidentification with maleness but disaffiliation with men. Here, transition, like revolution, was recast in aesthetic terms, as if transsexual women decided to transition, not to “confirm” some kind of innate gender identity, but because being a man is stupid and boring.

It perhaps goes without saying that this vision flies in the face of the dominant understanding of transition as a fundamentally affirmative act, but Chu’s invocation of Solanas is provocative in this context also for SCUM’s not unearned reputation as anti-trans. It can be inferred that Solanas’s chromosomal standard for maleness, which she establishes right out of the gate in her manifesto, offers no exception for trans women, and that her contemptuous characterization of drag queens (“insecure about being sufficiently female, he conforms compulsively to the man-made stereotype, ending up as nothing but a bundle of stilted mannerisms”) prefigures the TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) trolling point that trans people reinforce an oppressive gender binary.

Chu pushes back on the characterization of Solanas as a transphobe, particularly as one associated with second-wave radical-feminist thought (which she disdained). But whether Solanas was or wasn’t transphobic per se, she was a sex essentialist. This is SCUM’s underlying disqualifying flaw, whatever breathtaking observation or fascinating caveat one may find to pivot from in the text. Its considerable charms are not in dispute, but neither is the fact that it advocates holocaust—it explicitly invokes both gas chambers and “degenerate ‘art.’” Sure, Solanas was an ironist, but only sort of. She offered as proof of her seriousness at least one meaningful display of fascist intent—her 1968 attempt on the life of male artist Andy Warhol. Finding this living contradiction in terms on the phone at his studio, she fired five shots; one hit him, piercing both lungs and his spleen, stomach, liver, and esophagus. He nearly died.

But Chu doesn’t want Solanas for her politics. She’d be the first to say that unfortunately for females (which is to say all of us), that’s not the way wanting works. “Most desire is nonconsensual; most desires aren’t desired,” she writes in Females. Chu doesn’t fall in line with Solanas, but she keeps her close, catching sparks off her until the very last page.

Her book leverages the rhetorical triumphs of SCUM—its inflammatory absurdism, its aphoristic deadpan—and it makes related, similarly seductive, similarly doomed, sweeping claims. But here, the failure is staged. Chu’s aim isn’t to build an airtight case. She lets her argument’s smoldering structure flare and fade slowly in a series of profound personal reveals. First-person writing would have been anathema to Solanas’s imperious voice; Chu uses Solanasian bluster as something of a Trojan horse for memoir. But her outrageous central thesis—everyone is female, and everyone hates it—even if it’s not built to last, demands attention as more than a gambit.

Femaleness, as Chu defines it, is “ontological, not biological”; it’s “a universal sex defined by self-negation.” To be human is to be female, “an incubator for an alien force.” And that force is the desire of another, which we compulsively accommodate at terrible cost to ourselves. While this may appear at first to be a familiar, vintage feminist definition of femininity, the twist is that, as females, regardless of gender (more on that later), we’re all in the same boat.

Desire, in Chu’s formulation, is an existential constant. Though she emphasizes the female’s sacrifice in response to external desires, this raises the question: How exactly does this psychic economy of perpetual bottoming, with its surfeit of abdication, work? It must be our own desire, in collusion with cultural forces and interpersonal pressures (all by-products of the female condition), boomeranging back to deal us a punishing blow. Time after time, we objectify, warp, and empty ourselves, anticipating—often wrongly—what the object of our desire would want us to be, while that also-always-female object is likewise desperately projecting her desires and rehearsing a set of people-pleasing contortions. Life’s a hall of mirrors, as well as a bitch.

Yet, while we share a problem—our sex—we are not all the same. How we manage it constitutes the unique pathology of our identities. “Everyone is female,” Chu reiterates, “but how one copes with being female—the specific defense mechanisms that one consciously or unconsciously develops as a reaction formation against one’s femaleness, within the terms of what is historically and socioculturally available—this is what we ordinarily call gender.” To articulate the species-wide sameness of the predicament, Chu selects vivid examples as far-flung as YouTube star Gigi Gorgeous, a trans woman Chu describes as “Kardashian-adjacent,” who built a following with makeup tutorials before beginning to document her transition online; Mike Haines, the incel-adjacent author of the 2016 r/TheRedPill subreddit post “HOW TO GET LAID LIKE A WARLORD: 37 Rules of Approaching Model-Tier Girls”; and Chu herself.

Her meditation on Gorgeous is colored by her compassion for and allegiance to the heavily contoured celebrity, as well as a touch of melancholic envy:

Gender transition, no matter the direction, is always a process of becoming a canvas for someone else’s fantasy. You cannot be gorgeous without someone to be gorgeous for. To achieve this, Gorgeous has sanded her personality down to the bare essentials. She laughs at what is funny, she cries at what is sad, and she is miraculously free of serious opinions. She has become, in the most technical sense of this phrase, a dumb blonde.

Having nothing inside she has nothing to say, a TERF might say, echoing Solanas in a cruel rebuke of Gorgeous’s submission to stereotype. But Solanas was not referring to this kind of emptiness, a Herculean feat of technique, technology, and will; she might approve of the YouTuber. Chu’s real point, packaged in awe at Gorgeous’s accomplishment, is that we all, albeit to less spectacular effect, strive for such blank-canvas surrender. “If sexual orientation is basically the social expression of one’s own sexuality, then gender is basically a social expression of someone else’s sexuality,” she writes. “From the perspective of gender, then, we are all dumb blondes.”

Consider Haines’s dumb seduction advice in “WARLORD,” predicated on the manospheric truism that women want to be dominated (by men, of course) but that they have to, during courtship, determine if the guy has what it takes. “And so transpires an unexpected reversal of roles: in order for a woman to be sure a man’s worth submitting to, she must first dominate him,” Chu summarizes. “The biggest loser—the one most open to abuse, suffering, humiliation—thus turns out to be the biggest winner. Desperate to prove he isn’t a woman, he temporarily becomes one.” Minus the word temporarily, that last sentence, in both content and cadence, might be lifted from SCUM. And indeed Chu’s studied form, provocation layered upon provocation (here, the perilous equivalence of Gorgeous and a misogynist Red Piller arises as yet another antagonism), has even more in common with the confounding text than it seems at first.

Alice Neel, Andy Warhol (detail), 1970, oil and acrylic on linen, 60 x 40".
Alice Neel, Andy Warhol (detail), 1970, oil and acrylic on linen, 60 x 40". © The Estate of Alice Neel, Courtesy The Estate of Alice Neel/David Zwirner/Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

If you haven’t already guessed, Chu’s object of desire, at least for the purposes of Females, is none other than Solanas herself. As a conceit it works beautifully—it’s a fascinating, if somewhat terrifying, experiment to imagine what Solanas would want, and it’s riveting to read about Chu trying to become whatever that might be. Her writing is, in its most insistent and unguarded moments, suffused with authentic unresolved longing. Her desire is not only a conceit.

This is most evident in the raw narrative of her life and transition, which she intercuts with passages about Solanas, pop culture, TERFs, and second-wave and antiporn feminists (Chu is refreshing for her daring appreciation of what movements and thinkers get right, just before they make their fateful wrong turn). She recounts her pre-coming-out unhappiness—her juvenile obsession with the New York School, her abuse of a found piano in the name of art, and the depths of her self-hatred. “I hated being a man,” she explains, “but I thought that was just how feminism felt. Being a man was my punishment for being a man.”

Her discussion of her obsession with sissy porn—a hypnotic genre that introduces watchers, in stark sexual terms, to their essential, empty, female nature—provides another occasion for iconoclastic baiting. Porn, we’re supposed to believe, doesn’t “make” anyone anything, but Chu insists that it can—and that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. “Sissy porn did make me trans,” she declares, her radical candor deployed as a shield against third-wave blowback. And when she mentions learning, as she completed Females, about a pornographic video in which a woman teacher quotes from SCUM to lure two female students into lesbianism, she writes, “This made instant, perfect sense. It’s what Valerie did to me.”

As with many observations Chu offers, these contentious pronouncements are made half in jest. They’re not meant to be taken as truth. Instead, they’re allegorical, and just as importantly, they serve to disarm. Spoiler alert, in the closing shocker, which definitely doesn’t take the form of a joke, I was finally left properly aghast. Chu’s coup de grâce is her use of Solanas’s attack on Warhol as a metaphor for her own transition.

When I think of the shooting, I imagine not the day of it—the accounts of Solanas lingering strangely at the Factory, overdressed for the June heat, and wearing lipstick, which was unusual for her—but its aftermath. Alice Neel’s astonishing 1970 portrait of Warhol, which he sat for, shirtless, just two years later, is a haunting picture of the damage done—evidence of how ruthlessly the author made her mark on a chapter of American art history, in fear she’d never escape from the margin with her writing. The Pop artist is shown resting upright, eyes closed, his torso cut into puzzle pieces by the flabby triangles of his breasts and the deep surgical scars traversing his abdomen. He wears a corset, a requirement of his post-Solanas body for the rest of his life. His shadow against the wall is a patchy aura in baby blue, the couch he sits on is only an outline. The painting, purposefully left undone, stands as gentle parallel for a body subjected to violent undoing.

After a whole book written in various inspired states of Solanas impersonation, Chu performs one last reversal. She tells us her birth name was Andy, and writes, in her concluding fantasy: “Fifty years later, Valerie shot Andy again. This time, he did die, quickly and without hesitating.” Solanas, long after her own death, does destroy the male sex—in Chu.

It is a stunning image of transition as self-negation—tragic, abject, Herculean, female. It’s an act of becoming gorgeous for another, by the desire of another, at gunpoint. Females, in advancing a theory of gender that posits the force of intractable, confusing, undesired desire as its source, represents it as a painful, messy business. There is plenty here you won’t like, and a lot you won’t want. But that’s the point. Nobody wants to be female. Sorry.

Johanna Fateman is a writer, art critic, and owner of the Seagull Salon in New York. She writes regularly for the New Yorker and 4Columns and is a contributing editor for Artforum. She is a 2019 Creative Capital Awardee and is currently at work on a novel.