My cat was 2 the day I got my pussy. She had beaten me to it — bottom surgery, I mean — by some twenty-one months. By the time I found her, in a small shelter near the United Nations building in Manhattan, I had nearly thrown in the towel. Three days of leaving the house in the freezing January rain, holding the cat carrier I’d purchased on Amazon Prime; three days of returning after dark, damp and empty-handed. Getting a pussy is harder than you’d think. Cats mate in spring and summer, so adopting a kitten in the winter can be tricky. But on the fourth day, at the fifth shelter, I met a tiny creature, silver and marbled and three months old, freshly fixed by the vet upstairs. She clung to me like a tree, or a hope. They told me she was a boy, but I’d heard that one before. She trembled all the way home.
It was winter when I got my pussy, too. By design, the weeks leading up to surgery were a blur. I recolored my hair from metallic green to silver-gray with a violet undertone. I staggered ridiculously to the end of a book manuscript, tossing it to my editor as if finally clearing from my fridge the bluing leftovers of something I’d always known I’d never eat. I got new glasses. I saw a dentist.
I got my first tattoo, a geometric vulva, on my forearm. A friend held my hand. It would be no novel observation to remark that getting a tattoo is very painful, although it is a peculiar quality of pain that it never really gets old. All bodily pain begins with shock at the audacity of physical trespass, a kind of astonishment at the frankly unbelievable insinuation that one is not, in fact, the center of the universe. I learned this the electric way, during the yearlong depilation of my genital region, as each follicle was individually targeted with several tiny, precise bursts from a hair-thin probe. After months of struggle we reached a cautious détente, the pain and I, acknowledging each other’s presence on the tacit condition of mutual noninterference, like exes swapping nods at a holiday party.
In truth, I was collecting pains, pinning them like insects to the corkboard of my brain, scribbling little labels below. Together I hoped they might testify to a deeper metamorphosis than the mere rearrangement of flesh. In vaginoplasty, the penis is not removed but delicately opened up and turned inside out — think slicing a mango. The scrotum, its tenants evicted, helps to line the vaginal wall and form the labia. I dutifully observed the garden-variety anxieties: that I would have a complication, that I would regain consciousness on the operating table. But really, I wanted to be cut, sawn in two like a lady in a magic show. I feared not that the degree of change would be catastrophic but that it wouldn’t be catastrophic enough.
On the eve of the operation, I held a small celebration on the second floor of a Brooklyn pub. I’d spent weeks looking for a new dress. “Miss Andrea Long Chu asks that you join her and her loved ones at a funeral for her dick,” read the invitations. Funeral attire was advised. When I arrived, I discovered that one guest had combed the party store for all the balloon letters needed to spell out happy new vagina. They now adorned the wall in a lazy swoop, silver foil on exposed brick — the H a little out of place, as if huffy about its new employment. That night we pantomimed the death rites. “I’m sorry for your loss,” said more than one friend, knitting their brow in mock sympathy. Someone gave me a pair of sexy underwear; someone else, a banana cut in half. At the evening’s end a dear friend called me to the front of the room and presented me with a gender reveal cake, which she invited me to cut. It was pink. I was safe.
The situation of the vagina in feminist politics today is, even by optimistic standards, hairy.Tweet
Nine hours later, I was trotting awkwardly down a hall with an OR nurse, hospital booties catching on the floor. I don’t know why, but we were in a rush. I couldn’t see anything without my glasses — I’d been told to leave them behind — so she had tucked my hand tightly under her arm like a football. Jogging, we chatted. She told me that she had recently gotten laser surgery to eliminate the need for prescription lenses. “It’s more convenient for my job,” she told me. “My family was worried about the risks, but it’s what I wanted.” And then we were there: a large door with a porthole, as if we were defectors about to board a submarine. Inside it looked like a film set, probably because the only operating rooms I’d ever seen had been in movies or on TV. They strapped me to the table. People in scrubs rushed to and fro, checking things, taking readings. One of them joked to me that the scene felt like a pit stop. In this analogy, I was the car. Someone went about finding a vein. “I’ve been told I have good veins,” I bragged.
They say that when the anesthesiologist instructs you to count backward from ten, most people don’t make it past nine. I don’t remember counting.
It is difficult to explain why I wanted a vagina. There were technical concerns: tucking is a major inconvenience, and often has to be redone each time you stand up. Sex, too, was a big motivator. Having sex with the body I had was like trying to write on a chalkboard with a lemon — and that was true even before I developed a painful tightness during arousal. The message boards said this was atrophy, a side effect of testosterone blockers. Evidently, your body turns off the gas if you stop paying your bills. But the simplest explanation was that I hoped a vagina would make me feel more like a woman. Unfortunately, this was also the most complicated answer.
The situation of the vagina in feminist politics today is, even by optimistic standards, hairy. One need look no further than the first Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, one day after the inauguration. Two months before the march, inspired by the President-elect’s having bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy,” amateur knitters Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman published a viral design for a simple rectangular beanie that, when placed on the head, buckled into the shape of a cat’s ears. Zweiman has stated that the color pink was adopted in ironic citation of its girly, frivolous reputation. By the weekend, the pussyhat had become the unofficial uniform of the Women’s March; aerial photos of the event, the largest single-day protest in the nation’s history, show a sea of fuchsia dots.
The critique of the pussyhat came to be dominated by two slogans: not all pussies were pink, and not all women had pussies. The first objection, which amounted to an allegation of racism, seemed to turn on widespread but largely unremarked confusion about the multiple senses of the slang word pussy, which can refer either to the vagina, being the muscular birthing canal of the female mammal; to the vulva, which includes all the external genitalia (labia, clitoris, vaginal opening, even the mons); or to both taken together. Add to this the fact that the word vagina is often colloquially used to denote the vulva, and all bets are truly off. Vulvas do tend to reflect skin color, often having a darker hue; vaginas, however, are always pink, as sure as blood is always red. (The same is true of the vulvar vestibule, that little curtained foyer you or a loved one may discover by parting the inner labia with your fingers.) This is not to say that broader critiques of the whiteness of the Women’s March were unfounded — quite the contrary. But when it came to the pussyhat itself, what felt like a pressing political question about coalition building, representation, and feminism’s long love affair with racism could well have been put to bed with a simple hand mirror.
The second objection — that not all women had vaginas — was trickier to address. In the first place, it had the distinct advantage of being true: not all women do have vaginas, nor do all vaginas have women. Then again, the pussyhat was not an artistic rendering of the female genitalia but a simple bit of costuming. Its most literal suggestion was not that the wearer was a woman but that the wearer was a cat. This ensured that the relationship between the hat and the sex organ was, whatever else it was, figurative: a verbal and visual pun that afforded demonstrators a sly bit of plausible deniability in matters of bourgeois decency. After all, it was not as if attendees were required to flash their gash before gaining entry to the Women’s March. The real question posed by the pussyhat was not whether women should be directly equated with an elastic muscle — a laughable notion, espoused by literally no one — but whether the refracted image of a vagina could be trusted to play the role of political symbol for a feminist movement that has largely denied itself the luxury of symbolism.
Doubtless there were transgender women who really did find the hats alienating. There were also those, including myself, who didn’t. In fact, trans women as a demographic had a variety of opinions about the pussyhat; some of us even had two opinions. Yet many cis women appeared to derive a disturbing sense of political satisfaction from projecting onto trans women their own ambivalence regarding the pussyhat (not to mention their actual canals) in the name of solidarity. In reassuring one another that the vagina must be prevented from circulating metaphorically, these women were effectively arrogating the disputed organ to themselves. After all, the pussyhat could be arraigned on charges of biological essentialism only if one had decided in advance that the only possible relationship to the vagina was having one. “Not all women have vaginas,” our defenders seemed to say, “but we do.” At worst, this line of thinking served as cover for the same old transphobic obsessions with our genitalia. Somehow, under the guise of inclusivity, cis women had given themselves the responsibility of reminding us of our dicks. At best, it assumed, with marvelous ignorance, that trans women simply wouldn’t be interested in a vaginal imaginary — as if our basic psychic integrity did not regularly rely, like everyone else’s, on identification with things we do not, in the hollowest sense of reality, possess.
I’m getting worked up. Whatever. The pussyhats were silly and cutesy and looked like your mom made them. For some that was a deal breaker; for others, a selling point — especially, it seemed, for the middle-aged suburban white women whom the defeat of Hillary Clinton had jolted into feminist consciousness. In this respect, the pussyhat came to signify youthfulness as distinct from biological age: a political youth whose identifying trait was a kind of embarrassing rhetorical childishness. The real problem with the pussyhats was that they offered up, with the winsome naivete of the recently radicalized, the promise of a universal category of womanhood, which feminism has long made a cardinal virtue of forgoing. It would not be fantastic to suppose that those feminists who criticized the pussyhat most fiercely did so in part because they saw in its blithe adopters a younger, warmer version of themselves, still ugly-sweet on the romance of political consciousness, not yet having learned to be frugal with their hopes. Embarrassment is usually just pride, later.
Two months before my operation, I dreamed I was a character in a video game. As sometimes happens in video games, I died. When I respawned, I had a new face, the face of another woman altogether. Upon discovering this in the dream, I collapsed into my companion’s arms and told her, through tears, that all I had ever wanted was to become unrecognizable to myself.
I woke up in the recovery room delirious. The general anesthetic was worming its way out of my system slowly, like a parasite that couldn’t be bothered. The pain was intense and sharp, as if I needed to pee but had been forced to hold it for a week. Two rubber tubes slithered out of my bandaged pelvis. I eventually became coherent enough to grasp that one was a Foley catheter, to drain urine from my bladder, and the other something called a wound VAC, which was sucking out blood-red fluid and chunks of something dark. Me, presumably. But what slumbered then beneath those bandages, no one could have said. No one genital seemed more likely than any another — or, for that matter, than a new limb, or the face of the only beautiful woman in the world.
The pitiless beauty of the operation is that it’s all the same nerve endings, reclaimed like lumber from an old boat.Tweet
The doctors had assured me that I wouldn’t be hungry after the operation, as anesthesia gives one out of three patients nausea, so of course I was ravenous. I began demanding food, petulant. The nurse coolly offered me a graham cracker; I ate it with a child’s delight, letting the coarse wheat turn to pulp in my mouth. Soon I was visited by a small parliament of blue scrubs who double-checked with the nurse that I was on a strictly liquid diet. She confirmed this without missing a beat. “Thanks for not saying anything,” she whispered after they left. Now we both had a secret.
I was in the hospital for another five days. My girlfriend slept on the couch in my room. I tried watching a cooking show on Netflix, but the glistening cuts of meat began to feel too close to home. On the third day, I successfully staggered from my bed to a chair. I was immediately nauseated, vomiting athletically into the oncoming trash can in a smooth parabolic arc. Friends stopped by with flowers and gossip. One brought me a garland of construction-paper vulvas she had crafted after getting high in Seattle. Another brought me a pussyhat. The final morning, the surgeon arrived in high spirits to unbandage her creation, pulling a long bloody ribbon of gauze from my introitus like a magician showing off. With the canal clear of tubes and debris, she took out a teal rod lined with small white circles, gave it a dollop of thick lubricant, and slid it into me with the pomp of a woman at a gas station. It was a medical dilator, one of a set of three rigid polyurethane dildos. This was mama bear.
That night, in bed at my apartment, I wept. I wailed, actually, the way mothers do in ancient manuscripts. My voice, which I have over several years trained myself to lift and smooth, grew raw; at a certain point, it broke, like a woman’s water, and something low and hoarse and full of legs crawled up my throat and out of my mouth. The truth was, I didn’t feel any more like a woman. I felt exactly the same. The pitiless beauty of the operation is that it’s all the same nerve endings, reclaimed like lumber from an old boat. This meant my vulva was alive, full of sensation, but it also meant that these sensations were the very ones I had gone under the knife to escape. The ship would always be Theseus’s, no matter how many parts I replaced. I guess I should have known this beforehand. I did, intellectually. You can stand on the beach and spy a sandbar across the water; if you swim, you can stand on the shoal and look back. Your location will have changed, but your position will be identical. You will always be Here, wherever Here happens to be. The tide goes in and out, but distance as such—that is the unswimmable. There, there is only drowning.
In the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Alcyone, queen of Trachis. When she finds her shipwrecked husband’s corpse washed up on the shore, she attempts suicide by throwing herself into the sea. Moved to pity, the gods turn both of them into kingfishers — also called halcyons, after Alcyone. As birds, they stay together. An old man marvels at their love, watching the pair soar across the waves. This is a happy ending, I guess. Still, I wonder about Alcyone, about the theft of her death. Ovid says she tries to embrace the body in her arms as they turn to wings. With her new beak she prods her lover’s lips, convinced she can kiss. What kind of bird knows only how to be human? What is it to be flying and yet unable to believe it?
Feminism never succeeded in securing women as a collective subject of history, as the Marxist intellectual tradition once hoped to do with the working class. On the contrary, contemporary feminism is arguably defined by its refusal of woman as a political category, on the grounds that this category has historically functioned as a cruel ruse for white supremacy, the gender binary, the economic interests of the American ruling class, and possibly patriarchy itself. This has put feminism in the unenviable position of being politically obligated to defend its own impossibility. In order to be for women, feminists must refrain from making any positive claims about women. The result is a kind of negative theology, dedicated to striking down the graven images of a god whose stated preference for remaining invisible has left the business of actually worshipping her somewhat up in the air.
Perhaps the simplest solution to this paradox has been to quietly shift the meaning of the word feminism. In popular culture and especially online, feminism has become the go-to signifier for what the legal scholar Janet Halley calls convergentism: the belief that justice projects with different constituencies have a moral duty to converge, like lines stretching toward a vanishing point. Once the name of a single plank in a hypothetical program of universal justice, feminism now refers, increasingly, to the whole platform — hence the so-called Unity Principles put forward on the Women’s March website, which include calls for migrant rights, a living wage, and clean air as well as the familiar demands for reproductive freedom and an end to sexual violence. “It ain’t feminism if it ain’t intersectional,” tweeted Ariana Grande in March 2019, echoing a viral 2011 blog post by the writer Flavia Dzodan. Dzodan’s original phrasing was “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”; popular variations now include the formula “If your feminism doesn’t include x, then it’s not feminism,” where x might be trans women, women of color, fat women, sex workers, nonbinary people, or any number of other groups. The idea is not that feminists, being desirous of justice, should also commit to antiracism, anti-imperialism, and all the rest; it’s that feminism by definition consists in the making of extrafeminist commitments, such that without them, it would not be feminism at all. This is weird. It is as if, having guiltily assimilated the impossibility of speaking on behalf of all women, feminism has resigned itself to the modest virtues of playing hostess for other, frankly more persuasive political discourses — most of whose constituencies are composed of women, of course, but never simply as women. In this arrangement, feminism describes not a concrete political project but the moral imperative to do politics in the first place.
In other words, a feminist is a good person. If that sounds clichéd, that’s kind of the point. The conviction that it is both possible and desirable to be a feminist, in an ontologically thick way, has no parallel in any other left political discourse, and a wide array of digital media has arisen to guide and instruct initiates: just as Better Homes & Gardens once taught its readership how to cook and decorate like good women, so do Teen Vogue and The Cut offer tips on how to be a good feminist while getting dressed in the morning. The irony is that feminism, having some fifty years ago introduced the radical idea that the personal was political, has today ended up with the laborious task of making politics feel personal. Hence the possessive pronoun — my feminism, your feminism. It’s easy, and foolish, to dismiss this as neoliberalism or corporate co-optation. Digital slogans like Dzodan’s, regardless of their original intention, find popularity not because they are true (even when they are), but because their repetition across social media helps people achieve feelings of belonging, purpose, and importance that allow them to bridge the yawning gap between their individual everyday lives and the grand narrative of political universality. This is, as it were, the women’s work of the political imagination; it is thankless, sentimental, and impossible to do without.
This is the substance of any politics with a hole in it—a pink universal, invisible except where the skin breaks or opens blindly on its own onto risk, or sunlight, or someone else’s tongue.Tweet
I suppose what I’m saying is not that the desire for a universal is politically defensible but, more simply, that the desire for a universal is synonymous with having a politics at all. In a punishing twist, feminism has become both the preferred name for this desire and the very politics which must not claim it. Indeed, the minimal definition of a feminist might be a person who, affirming that women will never constitute a political class, privately hopes it might happen anyway. Can you really blame the Women’s March for wanting a symbol for universal womanhood, if symbols are all we ever have? In anticipation of the march, the Twitter account for the Washington Post’s free daily newspaper, the Express, tweeted an illustration of a crowd in the shape of a circle with an arrow on one side. This was the wrong gender symbol — an eminently avoidable gaffe whose ridiculousness multiplied in proportion to the number of editors over whose desks one imagines it must have passed. But the error was easy to miss if you weren’t looking for it. This may have been thanks to the illustration’s color, a radiant peach pink, or to the fact that it wasn’t even a conventional Mars symbol, the arrow boasting a full triangle reminiscent of the Clinton campaign’s rightward barb. But the mistake may have also owed its endurance to an unconscious editorial assumption that desperation for a political symbol — any symbol — was a condition so persuasively female as to render the specifics of that symbol irrelevant.
In April 2018, Janelle Monáe released the music video for “Pynk,” the third single from her studio album Dirty Computer, to wide critical and popular acclaim. The video features Monáe dancing in magnificent vulva-shaped pants and frequently alludes, both lyrically and visually, to cunnilingus and fingering. (The actress Tessa Thompson, long rumored to be the artist’s girlfriend, features prominently.) Monáe was praised for her inclusivity — some of her backup dancers didn’t wear pussy pants — but there was no denying that she, too, was in hot-pink pursuit of some kind of universal. “Pynk, like the inside of your . . .” begins the song’s first line, trailing off before resuming, coyly, on the word “baby.” For all its visual frankness, “Pynk” is essentially a song about withholding: all the pink things implied by the singer — not just her lover’s pussy, but her tongue, her brain, the quick under her nails — are partially or entirely hidden by flesh, keratin, or bone. “Deep inside, we’re all just pynk,” Monáe purrs during the outro, and she’s right: pinks, the family of flowers from which the color takes its name, are also called carnations, after the Latin caro, meaning a cut of flesh. In the end, “Pynk” may have suggested once again what the pussyhat had proved, if only by accident of controversy: that the universal can only be glimpsed by being cut into. This is the substance of any politics with a hole in it—a pink universal, invisible except where the skin breaks or opens blindly on its own onto risk, or sunlight, or someone else’s tongue.
Women explain things to me. They tell me that no woman feels good about herself; that no one’s actually good at makeup; that it’s very difficult for all women to find clothes that suit their body types; that everyone’s breasts are hung a little off; that everyone’s hormones are a little out of whack; that all women envy other women. They tell me that sex hurts; that orgasms are nothing special; that everyone was ugly in high school; that teenage girls don’t have the kind of slumber parties they appear to have in films, or when they do, they don’t paint their toenails, and if they did, the polish would stick to the bedsheets. They tell me that there is no universal experience of being a woman, except that no woman actually feels like a woman; they tell me that in fact, being a woman feels like nothing at all.
I think they think they are being kind. They aren’t, but that’s kindness for you. This is the germ of feminist consciousness, of course: women telling women that no one’s normal, no one gets it right. But my friends don’t know the cruelty of their confidence, the bladed irony of the implication that anyone who believes that being a woman is possible couldn’t possibly be a woman. They don’t know how much it hurts to watch the object of your desire broken into pieces just because you wanted it. There’s an old story about two women who come before Solomon the Wise, each claiming to be the mother of the same baby. When the king proposes cutting the baby in half, the first woman agrees, but the second woman, the true mother, pleads with him to give the baby to the first. She would rather lose the thing she loves than see it come to harm. I am the second woman. Maybe I will always be.
Cis women hate when trans women envy them, perhaps because they cannot imagine that they are in possession of anything worth envying. We have this, at least, in common: two kinds of women, with two kinds of self-loathing, locked in adjacent rooms, each pressing her ear up against the wall to listen for the other’s presence, fearing a rival but terrified to be alone. For my part, cousin: I don’t want what you have, I want the way in which you don’t have it. I don’t envy your plenitude; I envy your void. Now I’ve got the hole to prove it. I would give anything to hate myself the way you do, assuming it’s different from the way I hate myself — which, who knows. The thing about vaginas is you can never get a good look at them.