Put On a Happy Face: Andrea Long Chu on Trans Women and Other Females

Laura Nelson
22 min readNov 19, 2019


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“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” — Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride


About a year ago Andrea Long Chu published an article in The New York Times entitled “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy (and it shouldn’t have to).” The article raised eyebrows — and hackles — among the transgender commentariat for two reasons. First, it rejected the commonplace that one transitions, medically or otherwise, for the sake of happiness. Her piece begins thus:

Next Thursday, I will get a vagina. The procedure will last around six hours, and I will be in recovery for at least three months. Until the day I die, my body will regard the vagina as a wound; as a result, it will require regular, painful attention to maintain. 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.

Second, both conservative opponents and liberal supporters of Trans medicine miss the point about its worth. Conservative opponents of medical transition view Hormone Replacement Therapy and Gender Confirmation Surgery as a form of co-operation with mental illness that damages the patient; their Liberal counterparts see it as a necessary intervention that helps, or even saves, the patient. But for Chu, this ignores the truth of medical transition: that it gives the patient what she or he desires, whether it “cures” the patient of misery or not:

Both [conservative and liberal] writers engage in what we could call “compassion-mongering,” peddling bigotry in the guise of sympathetic concern. Both posit a medical duty to refrain from increasing trans people’s suffering — what’s called nonmaleficence. Neither has any issue with gatekeeping per se; they differ, modestly, on how the gate is to be kept. Buried under all of this, like a sober tuber, lies an assumption so sensible you’ll think me silly for digging it up. It’s this: People transition because they think it will make them feel better. The thing is, this is wrong.

When I first read this, my reaction was less the common one of shock and outrage than bewilderment. As a trans woman, I thought that few, if any, trans women would think that the sheer possession of a neo-vagina would be the golden ticket to happiness or, as she puts it, something that makes them “feel better”, which anyway is not the same thing as being happy. Many trans women — myself included — have not had gender reassignment surgery and/or hormone replacement therapy, nor have any intention of getting it. Many do, of course, but whatever steps they take in transitioning are geared toward a goal or an end-in-view, to align their presentation of self, in public or in private, with the gender they take to be right for them, the gender they see themselves as, or think they might be. It is this end that matters more than the means, medical and non-medical, which are at the very least messy and ambiguous and at worst fraught with fears and anxieties. What that end actually is for trans women — as also for trans men, mutatis mutandis — varies: for some it is a sense of well-being, or wholeness, for others a relief of misery, for some simply the affectively bland sense that one can present as the gender one perceives oneself to be. The neo-vagina alone is not cause for happiness but — and this varies person-by-person — it can help one finally be at home in one’s own gender, which is the end pursued. Yet for Chu, desire itself functions both as means and end: I desire to be a woman, and satisfying that desire is end in itself; the point of transgender medicine is to fulfill that desire. This is what confused me, and still does.

For a carpenter, every problem is a nail to be driven; for one trained in philosophy, like myself, every problem is an obfuscation to be clarified. On reflection, I think that my own confusion upon reading Chu’s NYT article is due to a confusion on Chu’s part: the failure to give proper consideration to the intentionality of desire. Desires, like beliefs and other propositional attitudes, are directed toward something, a goal or end or object, outside themselves. They are about something: they are desires-to, desires-for, desires-that. Why would one desire to transition between genders? What is that desire about? Nothing? Then is it a desire or an impulse?

Chu doesn’t quite address these issues: in her otherwise quite sound case against stringent and ideologically-driven “gatekeepers”, she takes that question to be its own answer: I desire to transition because it’s my desire to do so. I fail to see how this makes sense as an action. As Alasdair MacIntyre put it once, reflecting about intentional action, the category “intelligible action” is more basic than the category of action sans phrase. One desires to transition — transitioning is the intentional object of that action — but that action is intelligible only in light of an end of which transitioning is a necessary means, a reason for transitioning. That end will fit into a continuum of means and ends — e.g., one transitions as a means toward the end of aligning one’s assigned and perceived genders, which in turn is a means toward the end of being better able to cope with everyday life, etc. But means become intelligible only in light of their fit into this means-ends continuum. Outside it, the desire is unintelligible — indeed, irrational.

To reiterate: what is the desire to transition from one gender to another about? Nothing? Again: then is it a desire or an impulse? And if a simple impulse, why should one take its reflexive satisfaction to be rational? Despair might trigger an impulse to slash my wrists, or drink or drug myself into oblivion, or to join a cult that validates my self-esteem by coaxing me to believe lies. That doesn’t mean I should do any of these things.

I do not mean to suggest that there aren’t irrational, hence unintelligible, desires and/or actions. Freud and Dostoevsky and Sophocles have taught this lesson well. But if desire and desire alone stands behind the transgender experience, I fail to see why anyone should want to sign up for it. Irrationality may be unavoidable, but it isn’t something one should actively seek. Nobody thinks that it was a good idea for Meursault to kill the Arab on the beach because he wanted to (and because anyway he felt hot).

There is irrationality in existence: Nietzsche was right to give Dionysus his due, but only if one also opts for Apollo when it’s time to apply the brakes. Nietzsche also advised one to “become who you already are”, but this is unintelligible if one doesn’t distinguish between the means of becoming and the end of self-completion, if one doesn’t sense a gap between who you know you are and what you need to do to become it. Chu’s lionizing of desire over everything winds up making hash of the concept “desire.” The trans woman who transitions desires to do so for a reason. If there is no reason, what’s the point of the desire? Why go through all that?

My critique of Chu’s voluntarism is not a brief for rationalism. Emerson (one of Nietzsche’s heroes, by the way) was on point when he quipped that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. But that does not make inconsistency and irrationality into virtues.


With this kind of puzzlement freshly in mind, I approached Chu’s first book, Females (New York: Verso, 2019), with a lot of trepidation. I expected something similar to her NYT article. But apart from her desire-centric account of gender transition, Females is a very different kind of work. It is more impressionistic, and weaves together a treatise on being female with an engaging biographical sketch of Valerie Solanas, the author of The SCUM Manifesto and the play Up Your Ass, not to mention the would-be assassin of Andy Warhol. Since Chu’s narrative encomium to Solanas is not, of itself, any kind of argument, I think it deserves its own, separate treatment. It is less polemical than expository, and therefore less likely to confound.

Solanas herself is quite a character, a kind of archetypal late 60s/early 70s feminist radical and all-around political jokester: outrageous, engaging, but above all else, angry and resentful. “SCUM” is, after all, an acronym for “society for cutting up men”:

“The male is a biological accident,” Solanas declares in her opening salvo. “The Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene … In other words, the male is an incomplete female, a walking abortion, aborted at the gene stage.” In fact, she suggests, the entire history of human civilization consists of man’s sublimated attempts to fulfill his repressed desire “to complete himself, to become female.” On its own, this claim might provide the basis for a formidable theory of gender, but Valerie adds another wrinkle. The traditional division of male and female traits — brave, assertive men and weak, dependent women — is an enormous scam perpetrated by men. In truth, the opposite is the case: women are cool, forceful, dynamic, and decisive, while it is men who are vain, frivolous, shallow, and weak. The male has done a “brilliant job,” Valerie admits, “of convincing millions of women that men are women and women are men.”

The idea expressed seems to be: men suck, and women suck to the extent that they buy into the male mythology of being female. The SCUM Manifesto and Up Your Ass both fantasize about the elimination of males through eugenic intervention. A female future is not only one without male oppression but without female capitulation to that oppression:

[The] manifesto’s real enemy is what Solanas calls the Daddy’s Girl: a female who is conned into adopting male — that is, traditionally feminine — traits as her own, devolving into niceness, self-absorption, and insecurity. The true political conflict, Valerie concludes, lies not between males and females but between “insecure, approval-seeking, pandering male-females” and “self-confident, swinging, thrill-seeking female-females” like her. In fact, the mission of SCUM — a select group of “dominant, secure, self-confident, nasty, violent, selfish, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, free-wheeling, arrogant females” — is not simply to kill men and smash the government but ultimately to defeminize the human race altogether. It is only through the genocide of man that the Daddy’s Girls will be liberated from “his maleness, that is, his passivity and total sexuality, his femininity.”

For Solanas, by getting rid of males you also get rid of females: if everyone is female, no one is. Chu readily admits that these ramblings are, well, weird:

If you’re confused, good. So was Valerie, I think — not because she didn’t know what she was talking about, but because of her fierce commitment to her own ambivalence: a sex worker who claimed to be asexual, a lesbian who slept with men, a satirist without a sense of humor, a man-hater who behaved, as often as not, like the men she hated. The radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson, a contemporary, reports that Solanas “had a habit of exposing herself,” having apparently unzipped her jeans and played with her clitoris at one of the SCUM “recruitment” meetings she was holding at the Chelsea Hotel in 1967. It’s simply impossible to square the SCUM Manifesto’s inclusion of “men who intrude themselves in the slightest way on any strange female” on the same list as rapists, cops, and landlords with Valerie’s alter ego, Bongi Perez, a shameless misogynist who opens and closes Up Your Ass by aggressively propositioning women on the street.

Like most trans women and fond readers of Kierkegaard, I am a sucker for irony and paradox. It seems that Chu is as well: you would have to be an ironist devote half a book to Solanas’s antics. But paradox is one thing and contradiction quite another. Because of this I find it hard to view Solanas as anything other than a self-obsessed yet entertaining dilettante.

Chu herself acknowledges this:

Up Your Ass, or, From the Cradle to the Boat, or, The Big Suck, or, Up from the Slime is a weird, fascinating play. The unpublished manuscript reads like a very enjoyable undergraduate one-act — rough, raunchy, highly narcissistic, and so blatantly irreverent that its tone can feel impossible to parse. “I dedicate this play to me,” Valerie writes on the first page, “a continuous source of strength and guidance and without whose unflinching loyalty, devotion, and faith this play would never have been written.”

Dwell on that for a while. I’ll wait.

Put less charitably, Solanas was, frankly, nuts. She made a virtue out of incoherence and it worked marvelously. She sought approval and support from Andy Warhol, a figure who, given her animadversions on the sheer awfulness of the male of the species, should have occasioned from her only spite and aversion. Yet Warhol and his ersatz-Whitmanesque factory crew embraced multitudes, and someone like Solanas could fit right in because almost any misfit could. There is something charming about this downtown pastiche-bohemianism. But there is nothing serious about it. Take the sensibility of, say, an abstract expressionist like Mark Rothko or Clyfford Still: turn it upside down and pull it inside out. This is the ethos and élan of Warhol’s late 60s art-world. And Solanas’s. It has its virtues, but it also has its vices. Not to recognize its shortcomings is to do it an injustice.

Perhaps it’s just my own self-hating baby-boomer sensibilities bubbling to the surface, but “charm” is not what these times demand. We need gravitas — to which, in fact, Warhol returned to in his post-shooting work. As a nostalgic snapshot of the late 60s sensibility, Chu’s precis of Solanas’s life and work does generate some warm-and-fuzzy sentiments. But would we ever want to go back to those days? Should we?


The treatise sections of Females confront the reader with a dilemma: is her position on being female a metaphor or an argument? Or both? Or neither? If a metaphor, is it a good one? If an argument, is it valid and sound?

Females begins with some seemingly preposterous assertions:

Everyone is female. The worst books are all by females. All the great art heists of the past three hundred years were pulled off by a female, working solo or with other females. . . Sex between females is no better or worse than any other kind of sex, because no other kind of sex is possible. Shark attacks exclusively target females. All the astronauts were female, which means the moon is a female-only zone. The 1 percent is 100 percent female. The entire Supreme Court is female. The entire United States Senate is female. The president is, obviously, a female. . . All rape survivors are females. All rapists are females. Females masterminded the Atlantic slave trade. All the dead are female. All the dying, too. . . I am female. And you, dear reader, you are female, even — especially — if you are not a woman. Welcome. Sorry.

This is intended to disarm and disconcert, but I think that Chu inadvertently sets the reader up for an exercise in what Wittgenstein called philosophical grammar: a detailed description of how sound linguistic practice actually uses a word or words, with an eye toward clarifying matters and dispelling perplexities, or projecting words into new and strange environments. For Wittgenstein, we will keep going around and around the conceptual roundabout until we finally stop and describe “what we say when”, and see how the word actually functions in the form of life which is its original home. (Don’t think — LOOK!” (Philosophical Investigations, §66) he cautions.) Looking and describing so does not so much solve problems as dissolve them, “perennial” problems like the relation between body and mind, or what the nature of logic is, or whether one can have a private language, or if one has any knock-down-arguments against the skeptic. It reduces “a whole cloud of philosophy into a drop of grammar.” (Ibid. p. 222)

Given Chu’s reflection on who is female, what does her philosophical grammar of “female” boil down to?

The thesis of this little book is that femaleness is a universal sex defined by self-negation, against which all politics, even feminist politics, rebels. Put more simply: Everyone is female, and everyone hates it.

This thesis demands clarification: what kind of claim is Chu making, a descriptive one or a normative one? If the former, then clearly Chu is describing a metaphor, projecting “female” into a new situation where it can be used. When Shakespeare claimed “Juliet is the sun” he was describing a new, fruitful use for the predicate “is the sun”: sweet Juliet lights up Romeo’s life. Metaphors are projective descriptions. But not all projections work, which is to say, some metaphors are bad. Were I to modify Shakespeare’s metaphor into “Juliet is a lemon-yellow 1971 Volkswagen Beetle” I might, like Romeo, be testifying to Juliet’s wonderfulness for me — I loved that VW I had back in college. But the metaphor bombs: it does not project at all. It fails the Wittgensteinian test of fitting the metaphor into sound linguistic practice.

On the other hand, Chu could be making a normative claim about how we should revise the use of the term “female.” Richard Rorty coined the term “Cultural Politics” as a trimmed-back version of what philosophy can presently be: a kind of persuasive discourse where we suggest it’d be better to use a term or concept or word this way rather than that way. Present dialogues on “What are your pronouns?” is the trans-world are a good example of this. When should “what are your pronouns?” be used? To what audience? Cis, trans, or nonbinary? What is the proper response if one trips up? Anger? Patient and easygoing reminders? Cultural Politics, like politics proper, is something that needs to be worked out, together with members of a language-community, through argument, rhetoric, and sound judgment. But not all Culturally Political suggestions for modifying practices work either. Suggestions for change can be better or worse, destined for success or doomed to failure.

I want to argue that Chu’s thesis, if it is an extended metaphor, is at best questionable: it does not project well for a number of reasons. And if it is an exercise in Cultural Politics, it is also questionable, because it relies on her metaphoric suggestion that “female” is a good word to describe everybody, and that everybody is just sad about it and just putting on a happy face.


“Some explanations are in order,” Chu adds. An understatement to be sure, but she goes on to say what she means:

For our purposes here, I’ll define as female any psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another. . .[T]he self is hollowed out, made into an incubator for an alien force. To be female is to let someone else do your desiring for you, at your own expense. This means that femaleness, while it hurts only sometimes, is always bad for you. Its ultimate toll, at least in every case heretofore recorded, is death. Clearly, this is a wildly tendentious definition. It’s even more far-fetched if you, like me, are applying it to everyone — literally everyone, every single human being in the history of the planet. So it’s true: When I talk about females, I am not referring to biological sex, though I’m not referring to gender, either. I’m referring instead to something that might as well be sex, the way that reactionaries describe it (permanent, unchanging, etc.), but whose nature is ontological, not biological. 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. To be is to be female . . .

So here is Chu’s metaphor: “female,” like Romeo’s Juliet-sun, goes proxy for “being objectified by another and clearing out your own desires for the other’s sake.” Or: “being a vagina-like receptacle for another self.” Or: “passively sacrificing your subjectivity for the sake of another, active subjectivity.” At least this is what Chu’s “females-as-metaphor” strikes me as conveying.

As metaphors go, this one has serious problems. To be sure, vaginas are receptive organs and penises are penetrative. But does this mean that those who possess vaginas (or who desire to possess them, or who wish they were born with them but have no desire to medically get one, etc.) are always and only “letting someone else do their desiring for them”, whether during sex or in life outside sex? Vagina-people desire to be desired, but so do penis-people, and more importantly vagina-people just plain desire on their own.

To be sure, some interplay between men and women falls into the sadism-masochism gambit that Sartre described at length in Being and Nothingness and dramatized in No Exit, but to suggest that this is a blueprint for all gendered encounters strikes me as a pretty big overgeneralization. Are “females” — i.e., all of us in Chu’s metaphorical parlance — simply self-emptyers waiting for another to fill them, who in turn is also self-emptying regardless of their sex? Isn’t this asking the metaphoric “females” to bear more weight than it can? Is this really a good metaphor, given its partialities?

Are females always givers? Can’t they also be takers — often in the same moment that they are givers? The comedian Amy Schumer once had a bit where she, with ample feminist cheekiness, suggested to men that “You are not penetrating our vaginas: we are engulfing your penises!” Does this mean that every metaphoric “female” passive self-emptyer is also — maybe actually — a metaphoric “male” active self-filler?

That’s the funny thing about metaphors: they aren’t straightforward true-or-false assertions. Juliet is and isn’t the sun. And she could be the sun and the moon without infringing on the law of non-contradiction. So if we are all metaphorical females, we might just as well be metaphorical males. Chu’s “females” metaphor needs a much tighter rationale than the one she supplies.

It’s not that Chu doesn’t recognize the problem with females-as-metaphor. “It might be asked”, she says, “if men, women, and everyone else all share this condition, why continue to refer to it with an obviously gendered term like females?” The reason is that “gender” — its grammar if you will — is commonly misconstrued:

Everyone is female, but how one copes with being female — the specific defense mechanisms that one consciously or unconsciously develops as a reaction formation against one’s femaleness, within the terms of what is historically and socioculturally available — this is what we ordinarily call gender. .. . [I]f men, women, and everyone else all share this condition, why continue to refer to it with an obviously gendered term like females? The answer is: because everyone already does. Women hate being female as much as anybody else; but unlike everybody else, we find ourselves its select delegates.

It’s here that Chu’s thesis switches from expanding a metaphor to enacting Cultural Politics. The equation is: female = self-obliterating + that of which women are the archetypes. The cultural-political take-away would seem to be: women should refuse to remain archetypal “females”, i.e., doormats. This is a laudable, if not exactly earth-shattering statement. But Chu then seems to draw back from cultural-politics by suggesting that female self-abnegation is baked into the human condition, for both men and women, and there is no way out of this awful bind:

Everyone is female — and everyone hates it. By the second claim, I mean something like what Valerie meant: that human civilization represents a diverse array of attempts to suppress and mitigate femaleness, that this is in fact the implicit purpose of all human activity, and, most of all, that activity we call politics. The political is the sworn enemy of the female; politics begins, in every case, from the optimistic belief that another sex is possible. This is the root of all political consciousness: the dawning realization that one’s desires are not one’s own, that one has become a vehicle for someone else’s ego; in short, that one is female, but wishes it were not so. Politics is, in its essence, anti-female.

If politics is anti-female, female-ness is anti-political. So much for politics, cultural or otherwise.


“One’s desires are not one’s own . . . one has become a vehicle for someone else’s ego.” This is the proposition that, I think, Chu’s “females” metaphor cashes in to. And while it is a true proposition, it’s not the whole truth, and certainly not the truth in and for all places and all times. It is far too simple, and glosses over the way in which desire transforms itself in the play of sociality, of acting and being the recipient of action, and reacting back in turn.

The key text here, as in many cases, is Hegel’s “Master-Slave” or “Lordship and Bondage” section in The Phenomenology of Spirit. When you follow Hegel’s narrative of consciousness to the stage of “Self-Consciousness”, you come to realize that acquiring a self-identity is not something you can do alone: you need another self, another consciousness that is not self. You need to set yourself against something that is not-self to grasp what and who you actually are. The first stage of self-consciousness is the violent elimination of the other, which does not work since the reality of the other is what makes the self, the not-other, real. If the other is obliterated, you are not acknowledged, and are not conscious of your self. In the Master-Slave dialectic, eradication of the other is overcome and transcended (aufgehoben) through domination: the Master forces the Slave to recognize the Master as master by making the Slave thoroughly dominated and empty of self-determining desire. (To run with Chu’s metaphor, the slave becomes “female”.) But Hegel’s dialectic is cunning: the Master is actually dependent on the Slave for his identity. Were the Slave to die or depart, the master is nothing, an empty shell, a gaping absence without someone to dominate and objectify. The Master, it seems, is in Chu’s terms even more “female” than the slave.

But for Hegel this is but half the story. Slaves recognize themselves in their own self-objectification — their work — which, though alienated from them by their pathetic masters’ acquisitiveness, is their spirit made manifest in the world for all to see. In short, while masters assert their desire only to see it vanish in their dependency on the acknowledgement of the slaves, slaves finally come to see their own desires, and their own self-determining agency in pursuing them, come into concrete existence. So the Slave is both female and anti-female (male?) in a way that reveals Chu’s metaphor to be partial at best, obfuscatory at worst.

In plain speech, Hegel’s point is, I take it, this: the social play of desire is, as all play is, a give and take. We empty and fill our own selves in turn. Sometimes our desires are not our own: they are imposed from the outside, sometimes through domination, sometimes through the mutual, oscillating need that is part and parcel of love. (As an aside, the word “love” appears 19 times in Females, but in only in one location (kindle loc. 262) does it mean anything like philia (friendship, affection between equals), or agapē (charity), and even then it is to support the idea that female self-love originates in female self-loathing.) Sometimes though, in the play of desire our own desires emerge, and find loving recipients, and the play continues. Sometimes you do not know you are enslaved when you thought you were a master; sometimes you break from bondage by realizing how self-dissolving servitude can be. Hegel called this dialectic. A better word might be life — life in full.

I might be misreading Chu here, chiding her for not acknowledging other ways to construe dependency and independence, and how they are dialectically interwoven. But the relentless negativity of her use of “female”, as a universal yet horrible condition from which no one can extricate oneself, leaves me little choice. Her metaphor is as dark as anything in Schopenhauer — and he himself did not think of himself as trading in optional figures of speech.


I would leave my critique of Females there, but I think there are some bitter consequences, for Cultural Politics and politics sans phrase, that Chu’s work entails.

First, her seemingly uncritical reliance on Freud’s musings on castration anxiety and penis envy, as part of his emerging doctrines on childhood sexuality. I am not one to reject Freud root-and-branch, and his observations that children live sexual lives are on solid ground. But the details have been challenged not only from outside psychoanalysis, but from within it — the object-relations schools of Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott being the most important immanent critique of Freud on childhood anxiety. Freud may be right after all, but Chu should not just assume this. Because she does, her uncritical reliance leads her to such pronouncements as this:

Freud had already claimed vanity as one of penis envy’s more unusual effects. Women, he wrote in 1932, “are bound to value their charms more highly as a late compensation for their original sexual inferiority.” What he’s describing is effectively a peculiar structure of narcissism rooted in self-loathing: the female loves herself only because she hates herself. When she makes herself beautiful — perhaps for her boyfriend or husband, perhaps for strangers on the street — she does so not out of self-regard, but because she has emptied herself out and assumed their desires as her own. We might call this a narcissism for the other: vanity as the expression of someone else’s narcissism.

As for women’s “original sexual inferiority”, well, Freud was a man of his time, but that is a whopper of an assumption. And as for self-beautification being a form of hidden self-loathing, I have to ask why Freud (or Chu) assumes that what can be the case always is the case. Anecdotal evidence is not clinical evidence, but it is evidence: in my own case, I make myself “high femme” because it is a trip to have others regard me as such and because it helps me cohere with my own perceived identity, which I had suppressed for a very long time. It’s not a huge issue for me if I get “clocked”: it rankles but does not destroy me. I know who I am and I like what I see. So it’s not that Freud is necessarily wrong in seeing an other-directed narcissism at work here; it is his penchant for overgeneralization that leads him astray. As Freud himself once put it: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes, though, lipstick is also just lipstick. He should have taken his own advice and asked more women about it.

Which leads me to my second, and more substantive political criticism of Females: the book does nothing to help women in general and trans women in particular make their case in a political milieu where there is a concerted political effort to erase them.

Agreed, it was not on Chu’s agenda to write a political book — her view of universal female-ness kind of makes politics self-defeating — and I cannot fault her for not doing what she never set out to do. But as Lenin once quipped, “You might not be interested in the revolution, but the revolution is interested in you.” If one were to literalize Chu’s metaphor of “femaleness” it would be very easy indeed to give support and ammunition to all manner of transphobia. If being female sucks that badly, then only sick people would want to go all the way and assume the socio-cultural archetype of being female, i.e., being a woman. Her book glosses over the differences between the self-narratives of trans women, some of whom are thoroughly binary, some of whom are not, some of whom have a clear perception of their perceived gender not matching with their assigned gender, some of who only vaguely thought they were trans and came around to choosing it, some of whom are ambivalent about it, and some of whom are overjoyed to finally be able to be a female-woman. There is a short section where she takes on the “autogynephilia” nonsense of Raymond Blanchard, but little else that is overtly political in a way that a book on being “female” should at least acknowledge.


To restate Chu’s thesis: everyone is female and they hate it. But if everyone is female, then, as concept and metaphor, the term is empty of meaningful content. If everyone is female, no one is. But there are females — only not the abstract females of Chu’s book, but embodied, flesh and blood women with complex narrative histories to be told and listened to. If “female” means what Chu says it means, it means little, perhaps nothing at all. If it means something else, then there is another kind of work that females, and their non-female allies, should be doing.



Laura Nelson

Writer, philosopher, information technologist,guitarist, neurotic, polite radical, avid and indiscriminate reader, Episcopalian, trans woman.