What Is a Woman?, directed by Justin Folk (The Daily Wire, 94 minutes)
Once in a while, a book or movie comes along that jolts American society and sparks a demand for social reform. Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1965, put the spotlight on the auto industry’s preference for comfort and speed over safety and led to the passage of auto-safety legislation and the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In the early 1990s, an article in Seventeen about the sexual harassment of students, coming on the heels of Anita Hill’s highly contentious televised accusation of Clarence Thomas led to the expansion of Title IX regulations in schools. Will a new documentary, What is a Woman?, one day be remembered as the moment when the tide began to turn on transgenderism? Its distributors seem to think so, and their optimism may not be misplaced.
The movie follows Daily Wire conservative commentator Matt Walsh as he exposes what transgender activism has done to the American mind, and it’s not pretty. The documentary has an almost Socratic feel to it. Walsh seeks out reputed authorities on the subject and, with only gentle prodding, gets them to lay bare the flaws in their own thinking. His strategy is less to debate than to expose—to step out of the way and let his interlocutors frankly embarrass themselves.
Walsh, for instance, effortlessly gets Michelle Forcier, a “gender affirming” pediatrician and assistant dean at Brown University’s medical school, to assert that what makes a chicken female is the fact that we “assigned” it that sex at birth, not the fact that it can lay eggs. Asked to explain what makes chickens different from kids, Forcier insists that chickens don’t cry or commit suicide. At the University of Tennessee, Patrick Grzanka, a professor of women’s studies, avows that he cannot—or will not—define the word that appears in his professional title. When Grzanka asks Walsh why he cares so much about the definition of woman, Walsh responds that he is interested in the truth. Grzanka, a taxpayer-funded employee of a state university with a motto that says, “You will know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” becomes irate. “Getting to the truth,” he asserts, is “deeply transphobic.”
No less embarrassing for the progressive Left is Walsh’s encounter with members of the Maasai tribe in Kenya, who openly laugh at the suggestion that a woman can have a penis and that some people are “non-binary.” It is hard to overstate the obsession of scholars in critical theory with “indigenous cultures,” particularly ones that supposedly recognize the “fluidity” of gender. Just days after the documentary was released, a Canadian scholar took to Twitter to remind us, predictably, that white colonialism has shaped the Maasai’s belief system. Like other paeans to non-Western cultures, this one suffers from lack of context and nuance.
Unsurprisingly, What Is a Woman? has been virtually ignored by the left-of-center media. It received praise from conservative outlets but only qualified endorsement from the “gender critical” feminist crowd. The latter complain that Walsh neglects to highlight their own contributions to the trans-critical project, and to some extent they have a point. It was, after all, Janice Raymond’s 1979 book The Transsexual Empire that launched the “TERF” (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) genre. On the other hand, feminism bears considerable responsibility for our current gender confusions. A movement whose motto is “no social relevance for reproductive capacities” can only go so far before people start to wonder why it is necessary to recognize those capacities as meaningful at all.
Walsh’s conversation with the Maasai underscores a key fact about the post-1960s gender scene in the West. For the Maasai, gender roles seem to be synonymous with sex distinctions. A woman is not just someone with a certain kind of anatomy but someone who uses that anatomy for a particular purpose: to bear and raise children. For Western feminists, being a woman means having certain equipment as well as having the “lived experience” that comes with that equipment—but that “lived experience” need not include, and perhaps should not include, any of the traditionally female roles. One strand of feminist thinking even holds that women’s “lived experience” could be boiled down to their vulnerability to male predation.
We can insist that a woman is someone with XX chromosomes and a certain type of anatomy, but only a fact-value extremist would leave it there. Walsh’s interlocutors are probably right to wonder why he—or anyone else—should care who qualifies as a woman. It is a question Walsh dismisses but perhaps should not. In the last scene of the movie, he returns home to find his wife taking care of the kids and making lunch. “What is a woman?” he asks her. Seemingly baffled by the question, she responds: “An adult human female . . . who needs help opening this” (holding up a pickle jar).
Western confusion about human sex differences—a confusion that exists mostly on the left—is fully on display in Walsh’s interview with Marci Bowers, a pediatric surgeon who has done thousands of gender surgeries, including on minors, none of whom, she admits, will be able to experience sexual satisfaction. Bowers assures Walsh that she is able to create vaginas out of penises and to make them “functional”—as if the purpose of female genitals is to be penetrated (without pleasure, remember), not to give birth. If transgenderism has reduced womanhood to its superficial characteristics, allowing anyone to don it like a Sunday hat, at least part of the reason is that our culture has spent decades divorcing sex distinctions from gender roles. This is not to suggest that we should go back to the 1950s, but neither can we ignore the slippery slope leading from the women’s movement—even in its more moderate iterations—to transgenderism. The challenge for our generation is to articulate a reasonable middle ground between these two extremes. If we do not, we will find ourselves swinging from one to the other and back again.
What Is a Woman? is supposedly about “gender ideology,” though Walsh does not define what this means. Instead, he wants us to understand it by seeing it in action. And what we see is people in a state of profound cognitive dissonance, who readily condemn their own common sense and endorse ideas that they must know, deep down, are absurd. “Gender ideology” turns out to be a form of mass self-delusion. So insular and self-referential is transgender activism, so inflated by faux confidence and saturated with garbled clichés, that it needs little help from Walsh to turn itself into an object of mockery.
But while “gender ideology” may be useful as a rallying point for critics of transgenderism on the left and right, as an analytical concept it leaves much to be desired. Part of the problem is that the word “transgender” itself admits of two opposing meanings. It can mean moving between categories, which are assumed to be essential, even biologically rooted, and objectively real. “Affirming therapy,” as I have written, relies heavily on this essentialist conception of gender.
But “trans” and “gender” also have another meaning: moving beyond gender, which is understood as a system of oppression, not a property of persons. This second meaning, which comes from queer theory, is outright hostile to the first. The identity “non-binary,” for instance, presupposes that, in the formulation of Judith Butler, gender is something that we do, not something that we are. Because we “perform” gender under conditions of constraint, the only way to be “authentic” is to perform it in ways that thwart social expectations and offend bourgeois sensibilities. “Troubling gender” means doing the opposite of what most transgender people are doing when they adhere to the most rigid stereotypes of the opposite sex and demand recognition of “authenticity” on that basis. For Butler, gender cannot be an “identity” in the sense of that used in our current discourse; she even calls “gender identity” a “regulatory fiction.” Butler’s intellectual lodestar, Michel Foucault, was famous for his rejection of the notion that humans have a “true sex” and for his suspicion of the scientific and medical “discourses” that surrounded sex. Foucault would have been horrified at what children are now being subjected to in the name of compassion and gender progress.
What Is a Woman? probes queer theory, but only indirectly. Walsh gets his interlocutors to say that they don’t believe in truth or that they believe in “my truth”—absurd claims, given that in both cases the speaker assumes his claims to be true simply. In this view, whatever makes people feel good about themselves is, for social purposes, true. Thus, “a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman.” This is not “gender ideology,” but faux relativism embraced for its supposed therapeutic benefits.
At one point, Walsh interviews Carl Trueman, a theologian at Grove City College and author of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Trueman summarizes the three core tenets of the contemporary gender movement: the belief, rooted in the American political tradition, that the pursuit of happiness is our chief calling in life; the Rousseauan tendency to understand ourselves in psychological terms, specifically as beings whose fundamental experience is emotion rather than reason and the concomitant need to express that emotion outwardly; and the conviction that no one should interfere with—and this means also to judge—another person’s pursuit of happiness as he or she (or indeed “they”) understands it.
As revealed in Michelle Forcier’s chicken comments, what authorizes the trans-ing of human children is that they cry and commit suicide, not some Butlerian ontology. On the streets of New York City and Hollywood, Walsh interviews young people who tell him, in one way or another, that truth is whatever makes you happy, provided you don’t harm anyone else. He even gets one woman to agree that they might not even be having a conversation at all—if believing so floats Walsh’s boat. As she sees it, Walsh has simply asked her how far she would go to be nonjudgmental.
In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom pointed out that the American Left had accepted relativism not as a philosophical proposition but because of its supposed egalitarian implications. Truth, after all, is an inherently aristocratic concept: most believe they have it, but few do. “My truth,” by contrast, is democratic, and it is an enduring truth that democracy democratizes; anything good, once brought to light, must be made available to all on equal terms.
The real lesson of What Is a Woman? is that the trans movement is fueled less by “gender ideology” than by an extreme form of expressive individualism with a distinctly therapeutic hue. Expressive individualism is the engine; gender ideology, the rudder. Justice, according to our therapeutic ethos, means self-expression, while injustice means forced repression of one’s innermost feelings, and it is in the realm of feeling that we tap into what is most real and valuable about ourselves. There are, to be sure, Marxist themes embedded here, but it is Rousseau and his sentiment of existence that is the true idol of our age. That’s why California representative Mark Takano, whom Walsh interviews, was surprised to learn that Walsh thought the trans struggle was about using women’s bathrooms or playing on women’s teams. In Takano’s view, it is about “the basic right to live.” A man whose feminine feelings are not “affirmed” as evidence of being a woman is, metaphysically speaking, as good as dead.
This therapeutic attitude precedes transgenderism and will surely outlast it. It is responsible for the “repressed memory” scandals of the 1980s and 1990s, and for the excesses of #MeToo. It was even invoked to justify the destructive and counterproductive riots that broke out in the wake of George Floyd’s murder: some progressive elites argued that violence and looting are just non-white, even “queer,” forms of cultural self-expression. The therapeutic attitude will continue to take a toll on our schools, our families, our politics, and our culture. Coming to terms with the distortions of “gender ideology” is obviously important, and What Is a Woman? offers a compelling way to begin doing that. But we should not fool ourselves that it will be enough.
Photo by Gage Skidmore / CC-By-SA 2.0