Andrea Long Chu hovers on the edge of jumping the shark; she does this knowingly, I think, conspiratorially, gleefully, toying with her more than 24,000 Twitter followers on a daily basis. Friends of mine in the left-wing, academic(ish), theory-curious elite – who have followed her monumental rise as an essayist and critic from the beginning – are torn. WhatsApp group members remain divided, huffing with frustration into their phones as they argue the merit of her thinking, typing furious rebuttals from beneath their desks. Chu, though, performs jumping the shark as critique, as tonal affect in all her tweets and, most importantly, in her writing. Following the release of her first book, Females (2019) – in which she takes radical feminist author, and the woman who famously shot Andy Warhol, Valerie Solanas as her guiding force – the liberal queer/gender theory intelligentsia might just cancel her. But, let’s be honest, if Solanas were still alive and had a Twitter account, she would probably already have been cancelled.
Females is Chu’s much-anticipated debut: it is a work of memoir (sort of), a provocation, gender theory(ish), film and art criticism all rolled into one. It is a peculiar book: one that I – and, I think, numerous others – wanted to do a lot of things. In many ways, it is astonishing: a crucial theory looking to sexuality to formulate questions around gender. Yet, a lot of people I know have found Females confusing, a difficult read, an exercise in logic, not what they were expecting, controversial, offensive – especially those who know their theory.
The mantra of the book – ‘everyone is female and everyone hates it’ – is already buzzing around spheres of the internet as a whispered aphorism. It looms on the blurb of the book itself. The affective hatred that Chu establishes in this sentence is crucial. In order to hate, we need to feel an emotional aversion to an object; if femaleness is this object, then we all despise it, according to Chu. However, to be able to hate something indicates an ego developed enough to find object constancy, and finding this object constancy in femaleness has the potential to produce feelings other than happiness, such as disappointment. We think our desires can be satisfied by achieving this object but that is a fantasy; in fact, Chu proposes, to be female is to have our desire projected upon us instead.
In defence of Chu, it is important to understand that, when she is talking about femaleness, she is not talking about gender so much as she is talking about desire, or gender, as an erotic, sexual project. She writes: ‘The thesis of this little book is that femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation.’ She is clear, though: ‘I’ll define as female any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another.’ In this sense, Chu is not discussing ‘biological sex’, though she is not ‘referring to gender, either’. She is, instead, referring to femaleness not as an ‘anatomical or genetic characteristic, but rather a universal existential condition’. This is Chu’s provocation, her premise, her ‘commitment to a bit’, her concept – or, in the spirit of Solanas, writing that is ‘impossibly serious’ and ‘seriously impossible’. This is why understanding the tonal field of ambivalence of Chu’s writing can provide a helpful framework. It is, perhaps, what she admires in Solanas, who had a ‘fierce commitment to her own ambivalence’. In many ways, as Chu herself suggests, this book is about what it means to stand by those ambivalences, to back them.
When I was reading Females, I couldn’t help but return to the gender studies class I teach undergraduate students and to how, when we study Judith Butler for the first time, I emphasize that what she is actually saying is that, as a public action and performative act, gender is not a radical choice or project which reflects a wholly individual decision, nor is it solely imposed or inscribed upon the individual, as some post-structuralist displacements of the subject would contend. I wondered how I might teach Chu’s writing alongside this, how she seems to be asking similar questions about structures of desire and the affects that are produced in the messy contradictions between desire and discomfort, as well as the affective cloud that emerges when our desires don’t necessarily align with how we want them to, or if we put sexuality first.
To be female, Chu argues, is to make room for the desires of someone else, to have those projected onto you. I can get on board with this as a concept, but it is also where I think many feminists are going to take issue, since Chu assigns femaleness as vulnerability, weakness, submission. Judging by the blog posts I briefly scrolled through on Reddit and Medium, many have already expressed their dissent.
Speaking the other day to a friend who could not get quite get on board with Females, I argued that what I think Chu is employing is femaleness as tone, as genre: gender is simply how we choose to deal with the affects that reside in the aesthetic genres and tonal dimensions of femaleness. However, in the vein of Solanas’s 1965 play Up Your Ass – about a lesbian sex worker who commits murder – it is also important to not take Females too seriously. I like to think of Chu laughing to herself as academics feud over this 100-page book. Chu starts with Solanas and works with her throughout, using her as mouthpiece. The book, as a performance, is satire.
This book fits within Chu's wider project on ‘bad politics’ and I anticipate that her PhD will address much of the theoretical thinking that was left cowering between the lines of Females. Yet, Females also gets at the heart of the desire so many of us in academia cling to: the desire for critique to be a political act. We want to believe that what we are doing matters. This is not to say that I don’t think Chu’s interventions are crucial, rather that what her work seems to reveal is how many of us project a fantasy onto her about the potential of political critique. And Chu, sometimes – often, in fact – refuses to play ball. Females will be discussed in every university gender theory seminar and on all corners of the internet, as people from every constituency of the feminist community look to it as an object in which they want to see themselves reflected, that they will drive to do their political work for them. In one review I read of Females, the writer systematically calls out particular sentences, wading through the book paragraph by paragraph to expose why and how Chu’s work is an assault to feminism. This, I think, will prove to be a popular and easy response: to read Females as an exercise in, and revelation of, Chu’s internalized misogyny. Some people will want to see themselves in Females, but Chu’s writing constantly reminds us that they might be left disappointed. When criticism or particular modes of epistemic thinking fail us, we feel deflated and let down. Of course, this is so often precisely how desire works, too.
Bryony White is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, where she is writing about performance and the law. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, and she has written for frieze, LA Review of Books, Artmonthly and the TLS. She co-edits the Tinyletter, close.