In May 2019, Alice Hines published an article in New York Magazine about ‘incels’ getting plastic surgery in order to become ‘Chads’, strong-jawed, straight-nosed pretty boys, for whose acute angles, ripped bodies, and broad shoulders women go wild. Strong believers that sexual appeal takes a universal, transhistorical form, these men spent hours discussing facial symmetry, and photoshopping their faces into Chad-like perfection, before submitting to the surgeon’s knife.
I was briefly obsessed with the men in the article, and pored over their faces, arranged in pairs, either pre-and-post photoshopping, or pre-and-post surgery. I thought the men they had picked out as Chad icons had an uncanny plasticky quality, and suspected many straight women would agree with me. I resisted the urge to visit the ‘manosphere’ directly, but found myself asking everyone I knew if they had heard about this strange world of ‘Chads’ and ‘Staceys’. There was something fascinating about seeing this crucial element of the masculine psyche lay bare. Most women have experienced the thin membrane between men’s desire and their misogyny – shun a man who trills out hey beautiful as you walk past and he’ll quickly change his tune to fucking bitch – but it’s rare to see the interior world behind this sinister switch mapped out so clearly.
My mind kept winding back to the central character in the article, a man who has his jaw bones broken and reset, again and again, determined to get it right. He describes a perfect fantasy world in which he lives in his surgeon’s office –“when detecting a tiny deformity, I call the surgeon and he’ll be there immediately, along with his assistant and a knife in his hand to cut me open” – in perfect bliss. A few days after I read the article, I dreamt I was on the operating table, my legs dangling over the edge, and my head in a vice, with steel pincers jutted out from behind my ears and curving back round to clamp my cheek bones, lifting them to create a more acute angle. I was waiting for the surgeon to come in and pick up one of the glinting scalpels beside me, but I woke up before he entered the room.
The incels had got to me. This man’s desires, as repulsive as I found them, had taken up residence in my unconscious. Unbidden – and without my consent – this man, who I have never met and will never meet, had got inside me. I had the sense that my experience of vulnerability to this unknown man’s desires had some lesson in it about gender. It was only after reading Andrea Long Chu’s scorching polemic, Females, that I could grasp what it was. My vulnerability to another’s desires was, in fact, paradigmatically female. But – and here’s the catch – my condition was shared by the incels. By all men. By all women too. By everyone.
In response to feeling inadequate in the face of women’s perceived desires, incels narrate their loneliness and inadequacy as a tale of masculine degradation, humiliation and feminization for which women are to blame and must be punished. That the iniquities of the sexual marketplace might be something women also experience does not seem to occur to them, even as they engage in precisely the same activities, such as plastic surgery, for which women have long been demonised. According to Chu, being female is a universal condition of self-negation, of the crushing of the self to make room for the desires of the other. So every time you put on clothes so as not to get arrested for indecency, or put on a smile so as not to get sacked from your job, that’s because you’re female.
Gender, as we know it, is simply a reaction to the condition of being female – ‘woman’ is one possible reaction to being female, ‘man’ another. Gender is always for someone else. While some are able to skirt the accusation of playing into gender stereotypes, gender really makes no sense without stereotypes. Gender, like language, is social – meaning has to be collectively accepted, hence why you alone don’t get to decide what a word means. Which is funny, really, because that’s exactly what Chu tries to do in this book.
Females is a pithy takedown of every orthodoxy around gender you can name. It’s also very very funny. The book’s humour comes from its central claim — everyone is female. So the repeated proclamations about females are universal claims about humanity. As Chu well knows, however, language is not so easily re-purposed. As a result, the assertion that females invented ghosting, the H bomb and the patriarchy, among other things (literally all the other things) is freighted with a risky, teasing energy. This energy largely sparks off Chu’s interlocutor and inspiration – Valerie Solanas. Solanas is best known for writing the SCUM manifesto and shooting Andy Warhol. Both acts are fiendishly hard to parse for meaning. The SCUM manifesto seems like a joke, yet it is, as Chu notes, ‘impossibly serious.’ Shooting someone is, of course, deadly serious, but shooting Andy Warhol because he lost your play? Well, that seems like sort of a joke. And it’s the play – entitled Up Your Ass, obviously – that Chu mines for its weird contradictions and comic fury. Though the Valerie character is highly compelling, the excerpts from the play sometimes felt like diversions from Chu’s singular vision.
Chu’s crucial break is the one with the tedious and enduring nature/nurture debate — in dispensing with the biological, Chu is within territory well charted by feminists over several decades. But her attitude to the cultural is more expansive. Rather than view it as the source of our gendered indoctrination or the escape hatch to a better world, she simply mines culture for evidence of how the universal human condition of femaleness expresses itself in contemporary life. Chu skips from YouTube videos to psychoanalysis to pornography to performance art in order to make claims about ontology – she’s interested in what it’s like to be a person – anyone, anywhere.
The more autobiographical interludes offer very occasional moments of respite from the caustic tone. Chu describes an art project she embarked upon when she was a student, still living as a boy, and severely depressed. The project involved the slow, careful, and rather pretentious destruction of a piano. Her description of the piano keys as ‘like human teeth… buried in the gums’ with roots like ‘slender rails of soft blond wood’ is as poignant as anything you’ll read in fiction. These moments are few and far between but add to the book’s sexiness. Bar a short detour through sissy porn, there is little in Females directly about sex, yet the text is shot through with the erotic possibilities of our vulnerability to other people. Under the right circumstances, taking the shape of another’s desires can feel helplessly, hopelessly good. I certainly enjoyed letting Females get inside me. Being female might be a negation of the self, but the self, as far as it exists, is probably overrated.