Reading Andrea Long Chu feels a bit like being on the fault line of an earthquake—the ground is undeniably shifting. Her essay “On Liking Women” last year in n+1 kicked off what some have called the second wave of trans studies, challenging the born-this-way ethos of traditional trans identity narratives. Chu offers a daring alternative: What if gender is not a matter of “who one is, but of what one wants?” She suggests that “transition expresses not the truth of an identity but the force of a desire.”
She has since made a name for herself skewering books by Transparent’s Jill Soloway (“self-importance alone could never guarantee writing this atrocious”) and Bret Easton Ellis (a “deeply needless book”), but the mysterious demands of desire remain her most resonant and provocative theme. As she wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times about her desire for a vaginoplasty: “This is what I want, but there is no guarantee it will make me happier. In fact, I don’t expect it to. That shouldn’t disqualify me from getting it.”
I recently met with her in Washington Square Park to chat about her first book Females, which springs from an unsurprisingly audacious conceit: “Femaleness is not an anatomical or genetic characteristic of an organism, but rather a universal existential condition.” For Chu, “femaleness” is the urge to be a vessel for another’s desire. Gender in this conception is defined not only by the self, but also by the other—it is the expression of what someone else wants.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I first came to you, like probably most people, through your n+1 essay. What do you think about that essay now and how has your life changed after publishing it?
I think it’s too long; it clocks in at like 6,300 words. It’s a slightly unweeded garden. But I do still think it’s good. It really changed my entire life. Honestly it changed my life as much as transition did probably. I had been on Twitter doing just some jokes basically for like 100 people, very, very small. And then in the course of a day there was suddenly all of this attention. Then within weeks of that, I was getting messages from agents and editors at major presses. I had not written it intending to break into the business or anything. I was a grad student. I thought the piece was maybe a little too niche and theoretical, but there was this enormous response.
The previous born-this-way discourse was starting to show its age, but at the time it still didn’t seem like there was room to actually offer an alternative.
The personal essay is itself sort of a problem when it comes to transition narratives. The genre conventions of that form forced you as a trans person to be writing a certain kind of coming-out narrative. But my transition didn’t feel like coming out. It felt like just choosing to do something else. It’s not like coming out of the closet. It was just like walking from one room in your house to a different one, or maybe like moving into a new apartment. I hadn’t seen this narrative and it felt like it was a conversation that needed to be had. Now I get emails from people saying that they transitioned because of the essay.
How do you feel this book fits into your evolution of thinking about the subject of desire?
In Females, the metaphor for desire shifts to self-abnegation or submission. My desire originates outside of me. It is external and I am the recipient. But I then take it up as my own, so it doesn’t remain purely external. Insofar as it remains purely external, it’s just coercion, right? It’s just, someone else wants me to do something or society wants me to do something.
It’s not just: “Oh my boyfriend wants me to wear this dress.” It’s: “I want to wear this dress because I want to perform my boyfriend’s desire for me to wear this dress.” So it’s more subtle. I think that distinction is important because it’s not just about external pressure or total alienation from yourself. It’s alienation and coming home at the same time. It was outside, but it is now inside and that’s meaningful beyond a frame of infiltration. It’s that, I assume it as my own.
So there is an external template invited into the inner world.
Right, which I do on behalf of the world or on behalf of another. I constantly find myself in this situation, like when I’m doing a photoshoot for author photos. I show them to my girlfriend or show them to my editor and I’m like, I want to know which one you like. And it’s not actually that I want them to use one that they like, but I don’t like. I want you to pick the one that you like, and then I want for me to like it. I want to know this is what you want, so that I can do what you want. Which is different than just coercion. It is genuine.
Think about these Christian mommy bloggers who talk about genuinely serving their husbands. The whole point is that, when it actually happens, it will not be your husband making you do something, it will be you doing it because it’s already internalized what that is supposed to be. You become a vessel for your husband’s desires.
Another important leg of the theory from your book is that we are all universally female, but that women are the chosen delegates for traits we have decided are “just for women.” Judith Butler has a quote, “The male projects that disavowed and disparaged embodiment onto the feminine sphere, effectively renaming the body as female.” I’m wondering how we decided that passivity was just for women? Or rather, why is passivity so taboo or undesirable that we want to project it away from us?
I think because it’s destructive. You will die. If you were to experience your own femaleness in its pure unmediated state, then you would just be completely flattened out and overwhelmed by the force of experience. It wouldn’t be possible to persist in the face of that.
In the book you write about Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece”performance, where she sits on a stage and people can do whatever they want with a pair of scissors.
Yes, so it would be that with no end to it. It would be annihilating. If you really want to get into it, the existential condition is the condition of being the subject. I am the thing that the world happens to phenomenologically. On the one hand, experience is all mine. I am lord and master of the world in that one particular sense, which is that everything happens to me. This is true of everyone who has ever lived. And at the same time, that is the lowest position possible in the ontological hierarchy—to be that, on which, in front of which, in the context of which, the world is happening. Always a bridesmaid, never the bride.
What would being the bride be?
There is no being the bride. It’s a shadow cast from being an “I” in the world. There is this straw man of agency.
So, ideally, how would you want people to use this book or this theory?
I think that there really is a different model of gender here than the prevailing one in gender theory. For example, the claim in the book that gender is the expression of someone else’s sexuality, is to actually say what gender is, in a substantial way, as opposed to talking about gender variation. You have a whole bunch of scholarship that’s interested in how gender can change and how it is constructed. But those theories do not account for what makes gender gender, as opposed to something else.
I feel like your book is trying to answer the question of why we even have gender at all.
Right, what actually is it? People will tell us that sexuality is socially constructed, race is socially constructed, beauty. Most things are probably socially constructed. Even if that’s true, what is it? It belongs to a category of things called socially constructed things. That means the thing that makes it gender can’t be the fact that it’s socially constructed. There has to be something that differentiates it.
Gender performativity has been mainstreamed and made more or less interchangeable with social construction. It emphasizes gender’s habits and behaviors, so it does shed a little more light. But it still doesn’t really explain why gender is gender as opposed to something else.
I am asking for a different paradigm for gender studies generally and I think this new theory would have downstream benefits if taken as a new paradigm.
So what is gender to you now after all of this?
Gender is the expression of someone else’s sexuality.
Gender is a mechanism for getting the right people to desire you.
Exactly. And without that component, I don’t think you can make it make sense.