If provocation is the common coin of our tweeting age, Andrea Long Chu should be a billionaire. Twenty-something Chu is a male-to-female transgender public intellectual whose happy place is making everyone uncomfortable by writing quirky theory and poignant revelations in whip-smart prose. Chu’s break-out essays in the online magazine n+1 and the New York Times uttered unspeakable heterodoxies, such as the fact that his “bottom surgery” to resemble a female wouldn’t make him happier, but he should have it anyway, simply because he wants it.
Fellow provocateur Valerie Solanas serves as Chu’s messiah, someone who “lives in my head, like a chain-smoking superego: bossy, demanding, impossible to please.” Solanas, who is most famous for almost killing Andy Warhol, wrote the SCUM Manifesto in 1967. (SCUM briefly meant the Society for Cutting Up Men, but later the abbreviation stood simply for itself, somewhat like NARAL. Still, Chu notes that “The Society for Cutting Up Men is a rather fabulous name for a transsexual book club.”) The Manifesto seemed too outrageous to be taken seriously. As Chu puts it, “This is after all a pamphlet advocating mass murder, and what’s worse, property damage.” The call to violence against men could only be read as hyperbolic good fun—until, that is, Solanas actually shot someone.
But back to Chu. Why, exactly, would he want to be female if it won’t make him happy? Chu gives a book-length answer to this question in his recent book, Females. (Caveat emptor: Females is often quite pornographic.) He redefines “female,” which is no longer a biological category but an ontological universal. Being “female” consists in sacrificing “the self . . . to make room for the desires of another.” This can happen in “a literal pregnancy” or anytime “the self is hollowed out, made into an incubator for an alien force.” By this definition, everyone is female, and everyone hates it, but some—such as Chu—have learned to love the bomb.
This is less original than it may seem. Chu is reiterating gender theories that argue that the personal subject is formed through subjection to others’ desire. So far, so early Judith Butler. But Chu refuses to be typecast. For example, Females has good words to say about the hated “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (or TERFs). Elsewhere Chu memorably defined them as “a rebel alliance of bloggers . . . [who] spend their days shooting dinky clickbait at the transsexual empire’s thermal exhaust ports.” Chu thinks TERFs are bigots who nevertheless see correctly that transgenderism defines women according to male desire. The thing is, for Chu, all gender is the process of being defined by another’s desire. Remember, we are all female. Gender is “the self’s gentle suicide in the name of someone else’s desires.”
The Power of Passivity
Hence—and this is Chu’s prime provocation—transgenderism is not the search for the authentic self but the rejection of reality for artificiality. Chu compares himself to the traitor Cypher in The Matrix, taking his twice-daily blue pill of estradiol, “sending myself back into the simulation.” For this reason, Chu admires trans-woman Gigi Gorgeous, a YouTube makeup star and former male diving champion, who has perfected the art of artificiality. As a male adolescent, Gigi Gorgeous was named Gregory Lazzarato. Poised on the diving platform in an old photo, Gregory appears to Chu as a sad, heroic figure, who is quintessentially male. “He is bracing himself for the angry kiss of chlorine, the plunge into the deep end, the way the water will suck him in, swallow him whole.”
But as trans, Gigi Gorgeous “repels depth.” Chu describes a photo of Gorgeous floating in a pool. Gigi “rests delicately on the surface of things, like a water skipper, never sinking.” This is the secret to Gigi’s strength: the resolute willingness to lie on the surface of things and not be absorbed by the water. “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.” Chu, who is nothing like a dumb blonde, says, “I envy her tremendously.”
What Chu envies is the way Gigi is all-in when it comes to submission, that quintessential female trait. Gigi submits not only to cosmetics but also to “facial feminization surgery, hair extensions, electrolysis, multiple rounds of breast augmentation . . . assembled by a team of plastic surgeons, endocrinologists, agents, and marketers—a walking, talking advertisement. I love this about her.” Gigi gets it: “Gender transition . . . is always a process of becoming a canvas for someone else’s fantasy.”
But in letting someone else’s desire run amok on her flesh, Gigi’s passivity is backstopped by Promethean will. As placid surface, she is in fact less vulnerable than was her former self, the active male Gregory about to be swallowed up by the feminine water. “A female is one who has eaten the loathing of another, like an amoeba that got its nucleus by swallowing its neighbor.”
Thus, female power is found in preceding and outlasting the male desire that it absorbs. In this, Chu echoes sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s insight that we prize fluidity (including, today, gender fluidity) because fluids are strong precisely thanks to their flexibility. You can pierce a solid, and it might break. But the water into which Gregory Lazzarato dove simply flowed out of the way and so absorbed him. Gregory, and Chu, dealt with this power-mismatch by becoming the water.
Masochism and Idolatry
One word for this absorption of desire is masochism, a word that never appears in Females. But there’s this: “I don’t really want to tell anyone what to do; I want to be told. It’s no accident that Valerie can sound like a dominatrix.” Only Solanas transcends, through her sheer outrageousness, the “pathological assimilation” that is the process of being gendered.
Parsing the importance of Solanas to Chu is difficult without this revelation. For all the things to which Chu claims to aspire, none is well represented by Solanas: like Chu, she is about as far as you can get from a passive, dumb blonde. But Chu doesn’t want to be like Solanas; he wants to be liked by Solanas, the savior-figure. Her commandments may be internally contradictory, but that is her voluntarist divine right. In fact, the more arbitrary, the better, because Chu tests his femaleness in how docilely he responds to imperiously random desire. “Valerie would have approved of hormone therapy, I think.”
This interchangeability of femaleness and masochism has already drawn the most feminist protest (and rightly so). But more is going on than appears at first glance. Postmodern philosopher Gilles Deleuze argued that all masochism is a power play, in that it requires the destruction of the father and the triumph of the mother. Whether or not this is true in general, it certainly captures something of Chu’s situation. Chu used to hate being a man, but “being a man was my punishment for being a man. Anything else [such as becoming a woman] was greed.” Embracing the greedy masochism of gender transition means that Chu can expiate the crime of being male, as Deleuze writes: “Is it not precisely the father-image in him that is thus miniaturized, beaten, ridiculed and humiliated? . . . The father is excluded and completely nullified.” Or as Chu puts it, male-to-female transgenders “are separatists from our own bodies. We are militants of so fine a caliber that we regularly take steps to poison the world’s supply of male biology.”
But let’s not forget that Chu’s masochism, which is actually the drive to become the all-encompassing and destructive water that swallows the masculine, does jujitsu on the male will-to-power. Deleuze could be describing Chu when he writes, “The masochistic ego is only apparently crushed by the [dominatrix] super-ego. What insolence and humor, what irrepressible defiance and ultimate triumph lie hidden behind an ego that claims to be so weak.” Deleuze rightly notes the idolatrous contract latent in such a power play: “There is a kind of mysticism in [masochistic] perversion: the greater the renunciation, the greater and the more secure the gains.”
A Photographic Negative of Christianity
Seen in this light, Chu’s worldview is an eroticized, photographic negative of Christianity, in which receptivity to God’s loving action has been transformed into submission to the imperious dictates of desire. Because love is conspicuously absent in Chu’s cosmic vision (although perceptible at the interpersonal level), the task is to negotiate and defeat the power plays of desire by a passive-aggressive compliance.
In order for Christianity to be secularized and sexualized, desire must become an end in itself. Accordingly, Chu doesn’t ever ask about desire’s ends, that is, whether desire wants good things. In Christianity, in contrast, desire is not ultimate but penultimate. The point of desire is to lead us to the good, which is ultimately God, but also to all sorts of intermediate goods along the way.
What is the end of sexual desire? Only in passing does Chu advert to the fact that in only one case does desire quite literally form a gendered body: in the conception of a child. This is the exception that creates the sexed rule: male and female are categories that exist precisely to name the dual reproductive roles for the most developed animal species. As the ancient Greeks already understood, males reproduce outside of themselves, and females inside of themselves. Thus, Chu is not wrong that it is a particularly feminine gift to be an “incubator,” but only the natural process of generation can ensure that she incubates not “an alien force” but her own child. To divorce desire from these natural ends and simultaneously insist that the female remain an incubator—as Chu does—is to write a recipe for submissive abuse to, well, anything anyone can think up.
Of course, many would claim that this is what Christianity has preached to women for millennia. I do not have the space to treat this question historically, so let’s examine it theologically instead. Ground zero for this claim is often Ephesians 5:22: “Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.” Pope St. John Paul II pointed out that the previous verse, Ephesians 5:21, considerably nuances this command: “Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ.” John Paul II called this “mutual subjection,” and it shows, he believes, that the primary submission is always to Christ.
One may certainly call this a kind of “female” stance of the creature vis-à-vis God, as some theologians have done. Here the woman, as the one who reproduces inside herself, is seen as the spiritual model for all human beings, all of whom must be receptive to the word of God and bear spiritual fruit. This idea has a family resemblance to Chu’s female submission. But the difference is starker: submission to Christ is, as Ephesians 5 goes on to make clear, a submission to love, not to undifferentiated desire. Only ordered in this “vertical” way, by prioritizing submission to God, can any “horizontal” mutual submission of one human being to another be a matter of human flourishing, and not human diminishment. Only in this way can human submission rise above the power matrix and be a matter of a particular kind of desire: of perfected desire for a good thing. It can be a matter, that is, of love.
To live the contrary path of secularized desire, the body naturally becomes the battleground. It must be reconfigured and upgraded for the ghost to be happy in the machine. This problem is not new; one could argue that it marked the phenomenon of eating disorders in previous decades. But while something like anorexia attacked the particularity of the female body from the flank, now the assault is frontal.
The female body, in particular, is a lightning rod. This too isn’t new: the outward reproductive power of the male body has never seemed as mysterious as the hidden inwardness of the female body, that “garden closed, fountain sealed” (Song of Solomon 4:12). We can valorize this mystery, as Chu does, or attack it, as most population-control programs do. What we find so difficult is to right-size it, mostly because we lack a larger framework that would give human bodies and reproduction meaning within the whole. Christianity can provide a framework to show how bodies and reproduction are true goods (“God saw that it was very good,” Genesis 1:31), and yet not ultimate (“in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage,” Matthew 22:30). Our receptivity to the ultimate thing, the good God, is truly embodied in the woman, whose “feminine genius” it is to have the spontaneous power—received from the Creator, not made in Promethean ecstasy—to make space for the other in her very body.
Seen in this light, Chu’s performance of femaleness (he used to be an actor) can only be a parody, because no amount of “bottom surgery” will make him into the kind of human being who has the natural power to bear a child. He may come to see this; he is smart, still young, and less than five years into living as a woman. Unfortunately, theories and desires may be transitory, but when they are given free rein to cut up the flesh, the effects can be permanent. It seems to be all hyperbolic good fun, until someone regrets what can’t be undone.