“Matt Walsh is beefing you: that’s big time.” A friend sent me this message a few days ago, quoting her young-adult son. Big-time maybe—but honestly, the sort of big-time I can do without!
In case you haven’t seen (and honestly don’t feel you have to waste your time), Walsh recently published a short video reacting to a slightly misleadingly clipped section of an interview I did with Michael Shermer quite a while ago, and which I presume Walsh has only recently seen.
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Walsh’s overarching point—and it seems to be the main point in everything he says, honestly—is that it’s all the fault of feminists. Feminists have a cheek complaining about trans ideology, because it is the inevitable result of feminism itself. Without feminism, there would be no gender ideology.
I did actually write about Walsh’s film when it first came out, and I’ve just put that article in front of the paywall. It’s here, in issue 9 of this newsletter, and I think I did a better job than in the short clip from Shermer’s interview (which I remain happy with overall, and it’s not his fault if I made any of my points less than perfectly).
I don’t feel any need to respond to Walsh directly, since I don’t think he is a sincere critic. He is, after all, the man who says “feminism is cancer”. But also, I want to ask: “Which feminism?” By now “feminism” means so many different things, many mutually incompatible. I think Walsh sees every woman who calls herself a feminist, and perhaps every woman who has ever disagreed with him, as part of an undifferentiated mass of interchangeable harpies.
I’m absolutely happy to acknowledge that most of the gender nonsense in academia is produced by women who call themselves feminists. This week New Statesman ran a pair of opposing articles on the meaning of sex, the first excellent, by Richard Dawkins, the second a particularly painful POMO word salad by Jacqueline Rose, a feminist professor at Birkbeck College London. Judith Butler, the high priestess of gender-woo, calls herself a feminist. So do Sally Haslanger and Katharine Jenkins, whose attempts to provide a “trans-inclusive” definition of woman I wrote about previously. By and large it’s not men who churn out this drivel, and the women who do churn it out call themselves feminists.
This stuff is awful enough that some of the women who spend their days working for women’s rights have stopped calling themselves feminists altogether—Meghan Murphy, for example. I’m not willing to give up on the word, at least not yet. But my feminism is sex-realist, as would be obvious to anyone who reads my book.
As I say there:
“Any feminism worthy of the name must offer a strong analysis of how society can accommodate and support motherhood. But it must go beyond that: many women are not mothers, and mothers are many other things as well. This is a difficult balancing act, and no doubt both feminism as a movement, and individual feminists, have toppled off on both sides many times.”
I don’t see why I should defend myself against charges of holding opinions I do not in fact hold. But I also don’t think I’m doing my best at expressing what I was trying to say in the clip Walsh has chosen, and since it’s been doing the rounds in the past few days I wanted to ask myself what an intelligent and good-faith critique of it would be, and how I would respond.
In the interview with Shermer I talked quite a bit about the way the chafing of gender roles is a major factor leading to youthful trans identification. Before teenage girls became caught up in the recent social contagion, this was far and away the most common cause. A young boy with notably effeminate interests and style would conclude by comparing himself with other boys and perhaps by being overtly shamed by his peers or family that something was “wrong” with him. That something, he might think, was that he was “meant to be” a girl or indeed really was on “inside”. As regular readers will know, Richard Green’s book “Sissy Boy Syndrome” convincingly demonstrated that such boys were mostly proto-gay: as they approached adulthood they understood their gender non-conformity as originating in same-sex attraction and ceased to yearn to be girls.
I learned a lot about these boys from Paul Vasey, a Canadian academic who is the pre-eminent English-speaking expert on fa’afafine, the Samoan “third gender” consisting of men who were notably effeminate as children, and who wear women’s clothes, sleep with men and are regarded as a third category, not female or women, acknowledgedly male but not men. To quote from my book:
“Vasey’s earliest work on gender non-conformity in males was a multi-author review of gender dysphoria in children, published in 2000. It concluded that children who experienced distress with their sexed bodies often started out as merely gender-atypical, with the distress developing only as they learned that their feelings and behaviour were unacceptable to others.”
The non-conformity precedes the distress, in other words, and the distress is the consequence of the way others react to the non-conformity. It seems that such boys are a naturally occurring phenomenon, and if a society’s reaction to them is poor, that society is quite reliably going to have gender-distressed little boys who ardently wish to be girls.
The Samoan solution—creating an explicit third category for homosexual men outside manhood—is surely a non-starter in any modern Western country, not least because the suggestion that gay men aren’t really men would be taken as the purest homophobia. But the only other option is to hold your gender roles lightly. That means doing everything you can to ensure that children understand clothes, hairstyles, toys and pastimes as a pick-and-mix, to be chosen from at will and unfreighted with meaning about what is suitable for whom.
If you did this, I’m pretty sure you’d still see some significant on-average sex differences. To pick just one, if evolution hadn’t made women more interested in babies than men are, then evolution would have missed a trick and evolution doesn’t do that. I’m certain little girls are going to be keener, on average, on baby dolls than little boys are. I’m also certain that little boys are going to be more interested, on average, in play-fighting and rough and tumble: men’s bodies bear clear evidence of having evolved to fight.
The on-average differences between the sexes in cognitive strengths, personality types and interests are large enough to be very meaningful at a population level, and are highly consistent in different societies and across time. I’m completely comfortable with the idea that women’s and men’s minds differ, on average, about as much as our bodies, and for the same reason, namely sexual reproduction and all its evolutionary consequences. We count as a “moderately sexually dimorphic” species, and that sounds about right to me for minds as well.
And so holding gender roles, or sex stereotypes, lightly isn’t very easy. Even if you say that there are no such thing as “boys’ toys” and “girls’ toys”, children aren’t idiots and can see the patterns for themselves. But we should try our best to ensure that no shame attaches to being a bit out of the ordinary when it comes to something as harmless as liking a toy or activity that is more commonly liked by the opposite sex, or being not very like what the model of your own sex is held up to be. It’s the shame and feelings of failure, not the non-conformity, that seem to me to be the problem.
And yet I think we’re moving in the opposite direction, and not just because of school indoctrination that explicitly tells children that gendered interests and preferences are literally what make people boys or girls. The gender roles themselves are becoming less attainable and more of a straitjacket.
For girls, this is driven in part by the aesthetics of ubiquitous and ever-more extreme porn. Not only are they growing up into a world where spitting, slapping, choking and anal have become common, even expected, sexual practices; the dominant standard of beauty is high-maintenance and plastic. If you watch teenagers going in and out of a secondary school, you’ll see girls in their early teens with fake tan, fake lashes and lip-filler. I don’t think being a good-enough girl can ever have been harder.
For boys, meanwhile, I think it must be scary to see worthwhile adult life as depending on academic and financial success, even while decent non-graduate jobs vanish and house prices rise ever higher and higher. The internet means they will naturally compare themselves on any metric that interests them with the most successful people in the world, not just in their own school or town. It must be hard to think you’re going to grow up into an admirable or even acceptable sort of man.
I know that gender stereotypes, sex roles or whatever you want to call them have been even more constraining in the past. I’ve lost track of where Walsh says it can’t be tight sex-role stereotypes that lead to trans identification because they were even tighter in the past, when trans identification was unknown. But anyway, it’s a silly point, for several reasons.
The first is the most obvious: the trans craze has many causes. Yes, as I have already said, the sex-difference denialist strain of feminism has played a significant role. But other essential elements include doctors starting to do operations on men’s genitals and telling them that would make them women; governments handing out amended identity documents with the sex changed; LGB lobby groups adding the T as a way to justify their existence and keep donations flowing after same-sex marriage; and the internet, which put children worldwide in touch with each other without adult oversight. I don’t see any way to blame feminists for any of these (though I get the feeling Matt Walsh would give it a bloody good go).
And it’s only recently that children have started to be told that if they don’t like the sex they are, they can change it. You can trace the origins of these lessons back, and yes, along the way you will meet some self-proclaimed feminists, like Judith Butler. But you will also meet men like John Money, the psychologist who proposed that you could socialise a child of either sex into the male or female “gender role” as long as you did it before age two, and who oversaw the castration and non-consensual sex-reclassification of little boys injured by infant circumcision or born with micropenises. May I state the obvious: John Money was the opposite of a feminist.
A less obvious point is that even though sex roles used to be even more prescriptive, I don’t think they were as hard to adhere to as today. I’m not suggesting it can have been nice for a girl to be married off young to a man she didn’t like and have to obey him or else—let alone to have her breasts ironed or feet bound; or for a boy to be forced to follow his father’s trade, no matter how uncongenial—or to undergo a terrifying and dangerous initiation ceremony. I’m sure these experiences were miserable.
But following the path laid down for you was eminently possible; in fact, in a very traditional society it was inevitable. That’s qualitatively different from being told you have to be simultaneously slender and buxom, with the world’s most beautiful airbrushed women as your comparators; or that a “real man” is renowned and financially successful, even as the economy becomes ever more rigged against the young.
If you talk to trans-identified or detransitioned young people, or to their parents, they’ll often tell you that the whole thing starts with the child looking at what they think it means to be a member of their sex and concluding “that’s not me.” For a girl that may be because of revulsion at porn or a body she feels is getting fat; for a boy it may be about fear that he will inevitably fail at being the sort of tough, perfectly competent person he thinks he’s supposed to grow up as, or internalising messages about “toxic masculinity”. The details aren’t what I’m trying to get at here, it’s the feeling of not fitting, together with an off-the-shelf explanation of why and a supposedly guaranteed solution.
A particularly pernicious element of the sex-role stereotype for girls is that girls are stereotyped as supporting actresses rather than the stars of their own lives. As long as women have been writing about women’s liberation, they have pointed out the ways in which men are the default humans and women secondary, defective or “other”. God made Adam first, and Eve second, from Adam’s rib. Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer called their most famous books “The Second Sex” and “The Female Eunuch”. Virginia Woolf wrote about the way in which women are supposed to be “looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”.
So why is it mostly teenage girls who are rushing for the illusory escape hatch offered by self-identification? I think that on top of the influence of porn, the evidence that this group is the one most prone to social contagion, and all the points I and others have made over and over again, it’s that these girls want their future lives to be about them. They want to be the hero, not the sidekick; the Timelord, not the Doctor’s companion. I’m not saying that life is a bed of roses for men, just that the things you’re meant to be as a woman—beautiful, sexy, compliant, whatever—aren’t actually about you. And the things that men are supposed to be, however difficult and unattainable, are.
It’s been good to be forced to look again at the bit of Walsh’s film that really grated with me, and to which I’m responding in the clip he plays in his reaction video. He’s spent the film wandering around asking people stuff, and then comes home to his wife in the kitchen making sandwiches. His wife replies: “An adult human female, who needs you to open this”—as she hands him a pickle jar.
The framing, of Walsh as the Hero on a Journey while his wife keeps the home fires burning, is an exemplar of this “supporting actress syndrome”. Also, I’d be astonished if Walsh isn’t riffing off the standard putdown to women, used endlessly in person and online: “Make me a sandwich.”
In the article I wrote when the film came out, I say this:
“Now, grip strength is one of the biggest physical differences between men and women. Women aren’t being wimpish or silly when they hand jars to men to open—the wretched things really are done up too tight for us. Why, you might ask, is a common product used by both sexes optimised to suit just one of them? What is real and objective (strength differences); what is societal (products designed to suit men and not women); what is a restrictive social role (a wife relegated to making her man a sandwich while he thinks Big Thoughts); what is mere convention (the pink and blue coding at the beginning of Walsh’s film)? Might we want to talk about how women’s bodies differ from men’s, and society is set up to accommodate the men’s bodies, not the women’s? Might it be useful to have words and concepts to analyse all this?
But Walsh is completely unequipped to think this through…”
Two final thoughts. One is that we’re all other people’s supporting actors and actresses, and that part of growing up is accepting that truth. The reality of families, children and the simple fact that other people have their own inner lives mean that a lot of adulthood is doing mundane tasks for the people we love. That’s true for both men and women, though the balance between earning money to keep the show on the road and doing housekeeping and caregiving differs a lot on average by sex.
I’ve been criticised by women I think highly of for speaking in a way they think is contemptuous of the sorts of marriage that most women end up in. It’s not what I meant to do. My husband has always done much more of the childcare than is usual. But I’m also an eldest child of a very large family. Trust me, I’ve done and continue to do a great deal of familial caregiving, and I don’t resent it at all.
We grow into responsibility after leaving our teens behind, and hopefully keep growing into it as more responsibilities are placed on us. That’s a pretty unattractive message for teenagers, however! If you tell them that’s just how it is, I don’t think it’s likely to go down well, especially with the girls.
When I spoke to Shermer I was very focused on the question of what teenage girls think about their future. And I repeat: if you tell them that boys grow up to get out and about and do stuff while girls grow up to look decorative and/or look after the house, the new, illusory escape hatch of trans identification will continue to seem attractive by comparison. You may think it shouldn’t, but good luck with that. I’m more focused on what might save as many girls as possible from a catastrophic error than on lecturing them about what their future holds, and how they should can like it or lump it.
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Well, I didn’t want to write about Walsh this week. I wanted to write about the ICONS Women in Sports conference, and what I learned there. I’ll pick that up next issue.
In the meantime, I was interviewed by Richard Dawkins. Enjoy!