Sissy porn and trans dirty laundry

Louise Perry reviews Females by Andrea Long Chu

Books

When Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol on 3 June 1968, her publisher worried he might be blamed for producing SCUM Manifesto, Solanas’s luridly violent treatise that called on women to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex”. 

“But it was a joke. It had to be!” he later wrote. “She could not possibly have convinced herself that she was about to carry out the greatest genocide in the history of mankind single-handed!” He had, along with so many others, failed to take Solanas seriously. 

Females by Andrea Long Chu, Verso, £7.99

Andrea Long Chu, in contrast, takes her very seriously indeed. The 26-year-old Brooklynite and NYU graduate student is a rising star in the literary world, widely praised as an essayist and critic, and now also as the author of a debut book, Females, a “genre-defying” meditation on transgender politics. Her most influential piece of writing to date was an op-ed published last year in the New York Times titled “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy”, in which she argued that although her impending sex reassignment surgery was not likely to improve her mental wellbeing, she had the right to go through with it. Females has received glowing reviews in left-leaning publications and Chu has been credited with launching the trans movement’s second wave by no less a figure than Sandy Stone, the academic widely considered to be the founder of transgender studies.

Chu has chosen to structure Females around the writings of Solanas (referred to throughout as “Valerie”), in particular the odd and smutty Up Your Ass, a play that Warhol allegedly promised to produce and then didn’t, justifying (to Solanas’s mind) his attempted murder. It is a surprising choice of feminist inspiration, since Solanas’s work is hardly the most lucid of the canon.

SCUM Manifesto, her most famous piece of writing, is a very strange text written by a very unwell woman. Despite her intense interest in Solanas, Chu fails to mention those aspects of her biography that might explain the deep well of rage we see in her writing. The fact that Solanas’s father sexually abused her as a child, that she was beaten by her grandfather, that she was impregnated as a 15-year-old, that her baby was taken away, and that, after her release from prison, she spent the rest of her life shuttling in and out of psychiatric institutions, drug-addicted and trapped in prostitution. She ultimately died of emphysema and pneumonia, destitute and alone, at the age of 52. 

If you replace every use of “female” with “feminine” the claim begins to make sense

Chu does not tell us any of these salient facts. But then they aren’t very sexy, which is another way of saying that they aren’t very interesting to Chu. You see, Chu credits Solanas with persuading her not only that she is a woman but also that she is a lesbian. “Valerie can sound like a dominatrix,” she remarks, before confessing self-pityingly: “I find Valerie extremely attractive which probably means she never would have agreed to sleep with me.” Describing a pornographic video featuring lines from SCUM Manifesto, Chu is instantly enthralled: “This made instant, perfect sense.” Throughout the book Solanas is presented, not as a traumatised woman driven to violence, but as a bit-player in a masochistic fantasy. Chu is quite open about the fact that her interest in Solanas is, to put it bluntly, a sex thing.

Females — a witty, provocative and highly readable book — is about the nature of desire, identity and love. It is also, to a rather startling degree, about Chu’s masturbation habits. Most of the second half of the text is devoted to discussions of her porn preferences, particularly genres concerned with feminisation. “Sissy porn did make me trans,” writes Chu, in a passage that has provoked outrage among a section of trans activists, some of whom object to the candour with which Chu discusses the sexual aspects of her desire to transition (“all I want for Christmas this year is for Andrea Long Chu to get a better fucking therapist,” reads one representative tweet).   

There is a sense that Chu is airing the trans movement’s dirty laundry by focusing so determinedly on sex. Indeed, she seems compelled to express ideas that are not supposed to be expressed. In her essay “On Liking Women”, she writes: “I am trying to tell you something that few of us dare to talk about, especially in public, especially when we are trying to feel political: not the fact, boringly obvious to those of us living it, that many trans women wish they were cis women, but the darker, more difficult fact that many trans women wish they were women, period.”

It is largely due to the tender and confiding tone of Chu’s writing that this is, despite everything, a book well worth reading. The thesis is bonkers, of course. “Everyone is female” we are informed in the first line. “Femaleness is not an anatomical or genetic characteristic of an organism but rather a universal existential condition, the one and only structure of human consciousness.” You are forgiven for being confused, since Chu herself seems reluctant to commit to her argument, suggesting at times that it may all be, pace Solanas, “an elaborate joke”. 

This form of feminism is far more interested in the liberating power of lipgloss and orgasms than improving the lot of women

But if you replace every use of “female” with “feminine”, the claim begins to make sense. No one conforms entirely to gender stereotypes, no man is as macho as he might have you believe, nobody can entirely escape the charge of being a “sissy”. We are all, Chu insists, a little bit queer — a perfectly defensible argument, inexplicably expressed in the obscurantist vocabulary of Literary Theory. But then “Everyone is, to varying degrees, somewhat feminine” would be a less explosive opening line. And also, I suspect, an approach that would offer less psychic comfort to Chu herself. Because, like many trans women, Chu’s conception of herself is not just as feminine, or even womanly, but as, crucially, female: a woman in every possible sense of the word. Yet at the same time Chu writes of the vulnerability of that identity, the constant internal and external threat of invalidation: 

Gender transition begins, after all, from the understanding that how you identify yourself subjectively — as precious and important as this identification may be — is nevertheless on its own basically worthless. If identity were all there were to gender, transition would be as easy as thinking it — a light bulb, suddenly switched on. Your gender identity would simply exist, in mute abstraction, and no one, least of all yourself, would care. On the contrary, if there is any lesson of gender transition — from the simplest request regarding pronouns to the most invasive surgeries — it’s that gender is something other people have to give you. Gender exists, if it is to exist at all, only in the structural generosity of strangers.

The feeling of desperate, conflicted desire is a thread running through Chu’s writing. Where she departs from mainstream trans activism is in vocalising that conflict, rather than wishing it away: “What I want isn’t surgery; what I want is never to have needed surgery to begin with. I will never be natural, but I will die trying.”

It is impossible not to feel compassion, despite the fact that Chu does not spend even a moment wondering what it might feel like for cis women — a little over half the human race — to be the objects of all this longing. To engage with her writing as a female reader is to be constantly coming up against passages that trigger unease: 

I transitioned for gossip and compliments, lipstick and mascara, for crying at the movies, for being someone’s girlfriend . . . for feeling hot, for getting hit on by butches, for that secret knowledge of which dykes to watch out for, for Daisy Dukes, bikini tops, and all the dresses, and, my god, for the breasts. But now you begin to see the problem with desire: we rarely want the things we should.

Reading this, I happened to be sitting in a hospital waiting-room and looked at the women around me: tired nurses, frail elderly ladies, mothers pacifying screaming children, and not a pair of Daisy Dukes in sight. Observing femaleness in its unvarnished reality, I am forced to wonder whether Chu’s idea of womanhood is dependent more on an idealised image than on day-to-day reality: more on Solanas the dominatrix than on Solanas the person. 

But then Chu is hardly alone in her preference for fantasy. Females, and the praise for Females, is the product of a school of feminism now dominant in academia that has abandoned interest in the material aspects of women’s lives and has instead embraced confection and self-obsession. This form of feminism is far more interested in the supposedly liberating power of lipgloss and orgasms than in the difficult business of incrementally improving the lot of women and girls. When a porn-obsessed writer can be lauded as a feminist prophet for describing the “barest essentials” of “femaleness” as “an open mouth, an expectant asshole, blank, blank eyes” we should wonder how on earth we got to this point. Chu’s writing may be funny, engaging and thought-provoking, but this is not a feminist book in any meaningful sense of the term. This troubled and talented writer is in need of a hard-nosed editor and a cold shower.

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