Andrea Long Chu: Females: A Concern
by Lauren Fournier
Based in New York City, Andrea Long Chu is an essayist and critic whose writings have been credited with launching a “second wave” in trans studies. Females: A Concern is her first book-length work, which provides readings of contemporary culture— both popular and niche—through female-ness. Only here, “female” refers to self-negation—a state “against which all politics, even feminist politics, rebels.”
While Chu is the book’s author, she has effectively summoned the late Valerie Solanas as a guide. This small book began as an essay on Solanas’ Up Your Ass (1965), an experimental play about a young misanthropic sex worker named Bongi Perez that would not be produced until 2000—well after Solanas’ impoverished death and her posthumous mythologization as radical, as violent. Chu wields the parodic play’s plot, characters and themes as an intertextual ally for her own 21st-century thesis about gender and power. There is a suffused sense of the parafictional, with Chu’s writing moving between the historical and the imaginary, the factual and fictional. Hers is a somewhat comic parafiction, one that is as serious as any well-crafted and considered joke; early in the book she pauses to give the reader insight into her method— that she sets out to “commit to a bit” and to “play it straight… A bit may be fantastical, but the seriousness required to commit to it is always real” (my emphasis).
She incisively reads movies like Fight Club, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s porn-soaked Don Jon and The Matrix. Chu inverts the alt-right Men’s Rights Activists’ (MRA) appropriation of the “red pill” metaphor— where one rejects feminism by “choosing the red pill” instead of the supposedly status quo path of progressive feminist change. Reading through a trans lens this “red pill” meme (that has come to stand in metonymically for the MRA), Chu looks to the original source text of The Matrix and its creation by trans directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski to make the convincing case that, “back in the nineties, prescription estrogen was, in fact, red.” So, to take the red pill here is actually to become female.
This incisiveness extends to Chu’s readings of art historical works, too; the same year Solanas wrote Up Your Ass, Yoko Ono famously performed her Cut Piece (1965) at Carnegie Hall. Solanas, the crass archangel guiding the book, isn’t its only spectre; there’s also the persistent, haunting threat of misogyny—embodied both by the alt-right, beta-male Reddit threads of today and behaviours like that of the young man who, with a sadistic, shit-eating grin, cuts off Ono’s bra straps—to the artist’s clear, yet consenting, disapproval.
Chu’s shit-disturbing style of conceptualizing present-day gender politics has put her on the map. Her n+1 essay “On Liking Women” takes Solanas’s SCUM Manifesto as the grounds for a theory of trans-sexuality as separatism. And just as Chu’s embracing of the word “transsexual” seems curiously anachronistic—even trollish—so too does her use of “female” as self-negation. Yet far from new, the premise of female-ness as self-negation is found across modern and contemporary art, philosophy and literature. From turn-of-the-century psychoanalysis to postwar art house cinema, the cool expression of female-ness as passivity has continued to find life within experimental scenes: “Ever realize that in ‘masculine’ there’s ‘mask’, and in ‘feminine’ there’s nothing?” (a classic nouvelle-vague exchange in Godard’s Masculin Féminin ). It’s a sentiment expressed throughout late 20th-century feminist literature, too; in her foreword to Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick (1997), Eileen Myles writes: “I just knew in a quiet way I was ruined. If I agreed to be female.” In this way, Females: A Concern feels like familiar territory, comfortably at home in the loud lineage of iconoclastic 1990s–2000s theory coming out of presses like Semiotext(e). Written by the anonymous, France-based collective Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl (1999) takes female-ness-specifically young female-ness— as a garbage dump for everything reprehensible about late capitalist culture. (Their thesis is summed up in such manifesto-esque statements as: “The Young-Girl is not always young; more and more frequently, she is not even female. She is the figure of total integration in a disintegrating social totality.”)
Each chapter of Chu’s book is a succinct and somewhat self-contained vignette that connects to the others through Solanas citations—the epigraphs for each chapter are utterances from characters in Solanas’ play. There are thematic resonances with the genre of post-porn, post-punk gender-fuckery à la European artists and writers like Paul B. Preciado (Testo yonqui) and Virginie Despentes (Baise-Moi). Early on in the book, Chu describes a porno in which “a female teacher uses a quotation from the SCUM Manifesto to seduce two female students, turning them into lesbians,” saying that this “made instant, perfect sense” because “It’s what Valerie did to me.” Being done to— this passive and defining status of female-hood—is an oblique way into conversations around failure and “loser” culture. It is one that remains, even in contrast to the theoretical writings of queers like Jack Halberstam, disorientingly ambivalent when it comes down to the physical politics of what Chu is saying. The accelerationist thrust of her speedy treatise is embodied most succinctly in the case of millennial comedian Jamie Loftus, who she describes as “butt-chugging” David Foster Wallace’s famed tome Infinite Jest in a hyper-physical act of critiquing alt-macho intellectual-fetish culture. Is accelerationism the millennial equivalent of mid-century Warholian apathy? Both seem coolly irresponsible, products of their own time.
The writing in Females is sharp, with nary a word out of place. But it’s in the logic of larger argument on female-ness as self-negation that she, at points, begins to lose me. Whether it’s true, for example, that “pussy envy” is more accurately descriptive of our psychoanalytic drives than the Freudian “penis envy”—that “deep down, no one wants [power] at all”—is an intriguing proposition, one that is strangely novel in conversations about gender and agency but also one that slips through your hands when you try to grasp it. This is the case with many of Chu’s hypotheses in the book, which are perversely essentialist. Her stance on sissy porn as “a parodic expression of the alt-right’s most repressed sexual fantasies” is entertaining, for example, but begins to break down when she connects it to a larger, more literal and autobiographically tied argument that everyone wants to be female—in the sense, here, of having a “pussy.” I can only assume this is all part of the joke—the “bit” that Chu has committed to—but how seriously should we take it?
The book is most potent when taken as a thought experiment in theorizing the limits of the possibilities of queer theory. At times it is confounding, like reading Language poetry where the intent is less about some kind of semantic “meaning” as it is a materialist, theoretical play. Its strength, in my view, lies in Chu’s paying due attention to Solanas and her complexities as a 20th-century writer, thinker and activist who exceeds the categories that tend to define her (like “radical feminist”). Solanas, perhaps herself un-nuanced, deserves just this kind of careful, nuanced reading. Chu’s structuring of the book is also effective—an almost formalist sense of structural autonomy from the book’s opening through its end. Her own autos emerges most clearly in the conclusion—to potent effect. Andrea was once named “Andy,” and just as Solanas shot Andy Warhol in 1968, so too did Chu, in a sense, shoot Andy when she transitioned MtF. It’s a connection that, in the context of Chu’s larger, parafictional provocation, makes a certain amount of sense: in 1967, when Solanas was “frequenting the Factory, trying to cajole Andy Warhol into directing and producing Up Your Ass,” Warhol told her that he thought “there were only boys” before he met Valerie—that he thought “there was only one sex.” With Females, Chu re-animates Solanas and these historical scenes, writing a world that is an inversion of the Warholian worldview and is, therefore, _very Solanas_—a world where “there are only girls.” And, maybe for this reason, it is also fated for misunderstanding.