Jokes can go wrong in a number of ways. Here are two of them. When a joke is told too often, it stops being funny. Humor relies on the unexpected or at the very least incongruous, and once you’ve seen or heard something for the tenth time it’s usually no longer surprising. Second, when one tries to explain the mechanics of a joke, it has already failed. If the audience didn’t get it the first time, it won’t do much good trying to present an argument for why it is supposed to be funny. Explaining your own jokes has the same aura of desperation as another comedic sin, laughing too hard at them. There are, of course, other ways that humor can go wrong. We flatter ourselves in thinking offensiveness is a uniquely contemporary malady, but the real problem with offensive jokes isn’t that they are not funny; it’s that they are too funny. Their issue is, as it were, external to their humor.
Valerie Solanas, the writer, playwright and activist best remembered for shooting Andy Warhol, was something of a humorist. In the SCUM Manifesto, the one piece of hers that people read, her most intense scorn is reserved for failing to have fun—or, in other words, for being tedious. More than the rank injustice of patriarchy, it is our society’s aesthetic failure that bothers Solanas the most. Life in this society is, she tells us, an “utter bore.” It has fed us the lie that the female function is to reproduce the species when it is actually to “groove, love and be herself, irreplaceable by anyone else … to explore, discover, invent, solve problems, crack jokes.”
In almost killing the most famous artist of the day, Solanas didn’t make it easy to see the extended joke that is her manifesto. This is not to say she’s not serious, either in her critique of men or in her proposal to eradicate not just the male sex but death itself. Comedy usually is, at bottom, deadly earnest.
Like Solanas, who is something of an intellectual hero for her, Andrea Long Chu is also interested in jokes. Chu is a writer of essays and criticism who has amassed a large following and a high profile in the last couple years for a series of essays in which she used the narrative of her own transition to overturn some of the basic tenets of what we think it means to be trans. In her debut essay, “On Liking Women,” published in n+1 in late 2017, she argued for a shift in our understanding of transition: instead of thinking of transition as the expression of true identity—innate or otherwise—we should think of it as the fulfillment of a desire. If the idea seems serious, that’s because it is. But to leave it there would be to ignore the undeniable fact that much of Chu’s success rests on her style and, more specifically, on her sense of humor. (The subtitle of “On Liking Women,” in a nod to her hero Solanas: “The Society for Cutting Up Men is a rather fabulous name for a transsexual book club.”)
Chu has also made a name for herself as a book critic, specifically as the author of the kind of unsparing book review whose death has been pronounced every few years since 1959, when Elizabeth Hardwick inaugurated the “decline-of-book-reviewing” genre. Chu’s review of She Wants It, by Jill Soloway, the creator of the television show Transparent, was particularly savage and often particularly funny: “Soloway introduces deep-sounding quotes from other authors like a middle-schooler phoning in a Kate Chopin paper.” But at other times she is able to put humor in service of straightforward polemic. Her New York Times op-ed, published under the absurd title “My New Vagina Won’t Make Me Happy,” called for reframing trans health care to foreground patients’ autonomy rather than doctors’ notions of “good outcomes.” The Soloway review, which appeared online in Affidavit, was pieced together, in part, from a long thread of tweets posted as she read the book, offering her snappy comments page by page in real time. The essay form works well for Chu and shorter forms better still (her nearly 27,000 followers on Twitter are well deserved).
Chu has now come out with a first book, Females. Her essays and reviews derive much of their satisfaction from a kind of manic rush between literary analysis, direct theorizing and personal anecdote that never quite gets resolved into a single thesis; what we get is the satisfaction of associative thinking at its best and the fun of making seemingly improbable connections. Chu presents Females as an argument for a single thesis, namely that “everyone is female, and everyone hates it.” As with her most successful writing, to say that this is a joke is neither an insult nor a dismissal. Nor is it to suggest that it is not also meant in earnest.
In her admittedly idiosyncratic—she proudly calls it “wildly tendentious”—definition, “femaleness” is neither biological (sex) nor cultural (gender). It is what she calls the “ontological” state or “universal existential condition” shared by all humans of being subject to another’s desire. Females is written under the sign of Solanas, whom Chu renders an avatar for her account of not just what it means to be transgender but what it means to have a gender at all. Her contention, picking up on Solanas’s line that men live in terror of “the discovery that males are females,” is that we are all—men and women, cis and trans—female.
The argument would go something like this: At base we are all dependent on others, subject to their passions, at risk of being swallowed in our attempts to satiate their demands. And so if this is what we mean by the term “female”—it isn’t, really, and Chu knows that—we are all female, and no one more so than cis straight men, who have the furthest to fall when the approval of others is withheld. Hence the ubiquity of the phrase “fragile male ego” and so on. Or, in the theoretical register Chu employs most frequently, the focus on castration as fundamental to the psychic structure of females and, even more so, males. There is a satisfying, funhouse-mirror effect to taking logic to its breaking point.
The obvious question, though, is: Why call this state of universal dependence on others “female”? Chu’s explicit answer is that “everyone already does.” Obviously this is not literally true, and to take Chu to task for that would be failing to recognize that her entire claim is, at least on some level, a joke and provocation. But we can ask why the joke works at all, and the answer would be that it seems to rely on the longstanding equation between femaleness (in the usual sense) and passivity. Whether subordination is integral to what it means to be a woman or it is a contingent, if it is a pervasive fact that women are subordinated, the link between “passive” and “female” is surely not arbitrary. But Chu takes things a step further. By claiming that everyone is dependent, passive and unfree and calling this state “female,” Chu has built the equation between women and passivity into the very core of human nature.
I understand why many readers have found themselves uneasy with, or offended by, Chu’s equation of femaleness and passivity. According to many of her critics, both on social media and in reviews, Chu doesn’t just flirt with but entirely embraces the anti-trans commonplace that trans women’s conception of and desire for womanhood amounts to nothing more than a fetishization of the tropes and symbols of traditional femininity. Chu’s anticipatory defense is that this does not characterize trans women’s desire, but human desire generally. (“We are all dumb blondes,” as she says in Females.) That is, she isn’t attempting to make certain offensive strains of trans-exclusionary thought palatable; rather, Chu is trying to show that the allegedly specifically transsexual experience of gender is, in fact, universal. Everyone’s experience of gender—be it their own or the opposite—is constituted by wanting things that are bad for them.
But the problem I’m interested in has nothing to do with the potential offensiveness of the argument (and isn’t it too calculated to allow for any real provocation, anyway?) but the fact that by the time the claim of universal femaleness has been not merely asserted but explained, it has lost whatever force, shock value or provocation it initially possessed. Chu has come up with a moderately good one-liner, but even to fill a book as short as Females, she has to first repeat it many times and then, for good measure, explain it. In short, it is no longer funny.
Let me try to be fair. Females is a book born out of exasperation with the hollowness of a vision of gender as simply a matter of identification, the feel-good slogan that you are who you say you are. Chu is right when she insists that what other people see and think matters, and nowhere is that more evident than the project of transitioning. If gender were a matter of pure interiority, none of the costly, physically painful and, most importantly, socially precarious risks entailed by coming out would be worth taking. At risk of putting too Hegelian a point on it, it is a fact of human life that we all require recognition, that recognition is unequally distributed, and trans people too often get a particularly raw deal.
But Chu does not simply point to the universal need to be seen by others. If that were all, it would be a strange use of the term “female,” but the claim itself would hardly be remarkable. The problem is that in Chu’s world there is nothing to be done about the expectations of others: meet them, or else. It’s not a matter of nihilism, as has been charged, but of fatalism; social change is attempted at one’s own peril. Tragically, Chu ends up falling into the same degree of simplemindedness of which she accuses proponents of gender as inner feeling. Feeling like a woman (or a man, or whatever) is substituted for wanting to be a woman, but the situation is still treated as something one can’t do anything about. Submit, or else.
There is no questioning the origins of our desires, nor how we want to relate to them. They are brute facts, or, in Chu’s terms, “ontological.” And calling something ontological is, it turns out, just another way of saying that there is nothing to be done about it. To take the most obvious example, it is easier to make one’s appearance conform to gender norms than it is to change those norms to accommodate one’s appearance. Any trans woman who has given thought to facial feminization surgery, in particular, will be familiar with the dilemma. (I am writing this while traveling to a plastic surgeon’s office.) But this insight is hardly limited to this demographic. And because Chu’s notion of femaleness has nothing to do with gender, this dilemma is not specific to trans people, but is one of politics generally.
The responsible answer is that we need to approach this from both ends. In the case of trans people—the only end in which Chu actually seems interested—this means we need to, on the one hand, radically increase access to health care, especially for procedures deemed “cosmetic,” which are ironically the ones most legible in the public sphere. And on the other, we need to transform the vision of what it means to have a gender, to place less emphasis on passing, on conforming, on having the right kind of body, voice, behavior and so on. If it sounds like these goals are in tension, even contradictory, it’s because they are. It is a situation that requires thinking, to use an old term, dialectically.
I have already said that Chu is a comedian who also wants, in Females as in her earlier essays, ultimately to be writing social theory. It is unclear if she can do both. The only real motivation for calling the universal position of being subject to other minds “female” is, as far as I can tell, to set up the joke whose thrilling punchline is the claim that, since heterosexual masculinity is, as everyone knows, the most fragile of psychic states, straight cis men are the most female of all. But the result of wanting to be funny and serious at the same time is that, rather than playing humor and theory off one another, Chu ends up achieving neither. The joke falls flat, while the theoretical machinery brought in to back it up provides, at best, a meager philosophical payoff.
Solanas often stands accused of having a depressing, Manichean worldview. At one level this is true. But she was also nothing if not an optimist, albeit of a strange sort. Not only did she think that the male sex could be made obsolete if scientists just worked harder, but that immortality itself is within reach. Maybe it’s because she was writing in a more optimistic moment. The Apollo program may have been the masculinist product of Cold War imperialism, but it was surely an inspiring monument to human ingenuity.
Chu is not entirely to blame for the fatalism of her message. We do, after all, seem to have rather little to hope for. Far from cracking the secret to immortality, we seem increasingly incapable of getting it together to last a few more generations. Nevertheless, dark times can generate humor. They can also produce good philosophy. But perhaps they can’t do both at once.