What is a Woman, a film from Matt Walsh and the conservative Daily Wire website, was released this week. The 90-minute collection of interviews and commentary on gender identity is well-produced, amusing, and frustrating. It’s a decent, basic introduction to the gender-identity wars for those new to the battlefield. The experts’ responses to Walsh’s calm, measured, and objective questioning also provide an invaluable chapter in the handbook called How to give enough rope.
The organizing question, “What is a woman” – and the apparent inability of highly educated people to answer it – is offered as a gateway into the more general controversy. Walsh does a great service in exposing the incoherence of gender advocates and activists in an easy-to-digest form. And they are truly incoherent. From Walsh’s interview with Dr. Michelle Forcier of Brown University:
…Forcier: Telling that family based on that little penis that your child is absolutely 100 male-identified, not matter what occurs in their life – that’s not correct. …
Walsh: Have you ever met a 4-year old who believes in Santa Claus?….Would you say that this is someone who maybe has a tenous grasp of realty
Forcier: They have an appropriate 4-year old hand on the reality that’s very real for them
Walsh: Agreed. Santa Claus is real for them but Santa Claus is not actually real.
Forcier: But Santa Claus does deliver their Christmas presents.
Walsh: Well yeah, but he’s not real though.
Forcier: To that child they are.
Walsh: But I see a child who believes in Santa Claus…but say this is a boy and he says I’m a girl . This is someone who can’t distingue between fantasy and realty so how could you take that as a reality?
Forcier: I would say that as a pediatrician and as a parent I would say how wonderful my 4-year old and their imagination is.
Aside from the microscope on the gender-affirming professionals, Walsh touches on a few recent controversies: the Wi-Spa incident in California, the confrontation between a trans-identifying male and a collectibles-store owner (whom Walsh interviews), sports, and the conflict in Loudon County, Virginia over sexual assault and school restrooms.
Again, it’s good for what it is, and valuable for exposing what these trans activists really have to say, unfiltered. Aside from the specific gender-issues, the most illuminating aspect to me of What is a Woman is the apparent industrial-level acrylic bubble in which these activists and advocates live. Walsh asks simple, commonsense questions—questions that organically flow from these proponents’ beliefs and assertions. Questions that any reasonable person would ask after hearing the statement, “A woman can have a penis.”
And they are all, to a person, dumfounded. They don’t seem able to process that someone would actually question their dogmas. And they are not at all, as someone once said on another subject, prepared to give a reason for their hope. It is illustrative of the dynamics of that world, but also a warning for any of us tempted to simply expound rather than to engage, explain, and think matters through.
What is a Woman? falls short, however, and it falls short on the gender-critical side. The experts on whom Walsh calls – Deborah Soh, Carl Trueman, Jordan Peterson and others – are helpful, but one would never know from this piece that there is a substantive body of gender-critical work. That work is mostly from British and American women such as Helen Joyce, Kathleen Stock, Abigail Shrier, and Kara Dansky, many of whom who have suffered professionally for their work, which has had this movement under the microscope for years now.
Something else is missing. It is perhaps not fair to critique a work on what it is not, but in this case, the door is open precisely because What is a Woman? intends to open that door to a wider consideration of the gender-identity movement. And that’s what is really missing: gender.
The roots of this current climate lie in the movement to separate biological sex from the constructed presentation of gender. A constructed presentation of what exactly, is fuzzy, since it seems to get more complicated and convoluted by the week. But, in essence, “transitioning” is about making your external presentation and engagement with the world “match” that of the biological sex you are not.
The exploration of a distinction between sex and gender is mentioned by a few of Walsh’s experts, but he gives it short shrift and he completely neglects the intellectual heavyweights behind the notion – Foucault, de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, for example – all of whom are far more important than those he highlights: Kinsey or even the butcher Money.
But even if plunging into these philosophical weeds would have been beyond the scope of this piece, the film still falls short. Walsh establishes that the gender-woo crowd cannot (or does not want to) answer the question “What is a woman?” – but then fails to drill down into the more potent questions for his topic.
Namely, what is this “woman” identity that certain males want desperately to perform as, claim, and be treated as by society and the law? And that certain females want desperately to opt out of? And why?
The responses would undoubtedly be varied and personal, ranging from past trauma to present fetish to serious mental dysphoric illness. But one need only look at images of Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner with his breast implants on the cover of Vanity Fair and the dour, but (we are assured) “euphoric”, Ellen/Elliot Page with her ab implants on the current cover of Esquire to see clearly that to answer this question one cannot avoid matters, not just of sex, but of gender: of how males and females present – and are expected to present and perform as males and females in the 21st-century West.
The gender movement Walsh ably takes on in What is a Woman? is about a lot of things. It’s about money and profit, as female-to-male Scott Newgent says in the program. It’s about intellectual incoherence and the victory of relativism and personal feeling, as Trueman and Peterson point out. It’s about the separation of sex from procreation and the resultant collapse into recreation, pleasure and performance, as, well, I have said many times.
But like it or not, and whether or not that is a part of your worldview, the trans moment is also about gender: misogyny, gender roles, stereotypes, and caricatures. It’s about the appeal of these elements to broken, untethered, confused souls.
What is a Woman? is an important question to ask, so good for Matt Walsh. But why do you want to be seen as one or why do you want to stop? are even more important.
Which is why, to be honest, the first few minutes of What is a Woman threw me off.
It begins with Walsh, interiorly musing on the question at hand while watching a birthday party, apparently for a set of brother and sister twins. The boys are dressed in tones of blue and the girls in pink. The boy opens his gifts of a BB gun and trucks; the girl, hers: a tea set and dolls. Blue and pink, trucks and dolls, while Walsh’s interior monologue is all wow, women are so crazy mysterious, amIright, my dudes?
And then we get to the end of the documentary, when Walsh asks his wife, standing in the kitchen, the question of the hours. She gives the right answer — “An adult human female” — and then finishes the sentence with, “who needs help opening this.” And hands Matt a pickle jar.
Look, Walsh has done good, if basic, work here. His children’s book Johnny the Walrus is well-done, and even better for the tears of outrage it’s caused.
But this weird framing of What is a Woman? works against a coherent, thorough presentation of the issue. It even seems to support the common trans trope of “I didn’t like girly things so I must not be a real girl, so please cut off my healthy breasts!” or “My little boy likes mermaids and sparkly things. Get us the puberty blockers, stat!”
What is a Woman? centers reality, truth, nature, and by implication, natural law. But don’t let that opening montage, which I hoped was ironic (but apparently was not), or Walsh’s neglect of the role of gender performance or expectations in the trans dynamic, give you a mistaken impression. Walsh is Catholic, so it is fair for me to suggest that even in its most traditional Catholic expression, natural law does not envision pink, blue, and jar-opening skills embedded in the natural order and, in fact, offers the antidote to a movement that, in a bizarre way, seems to do just that.
Hard to believe?
Well, just ask her:
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