This week I’m going to write about Matt Walsh’s new film, “What is a Woman?”, which I had intended to cover last week before being derailed. My lateness means, of course, that many others have already said their piece, sometimes annoyingly well. My favourite so far is “Mansplaining Womanhood” by Victoria Smith (@Glosswitch on Twitter) in The Critic. So I won’t do a full review, but instead simply say what I think I can add to an already rich discussion.
My first thought builds on the points Smith makes: that Walsh presents only two of the three ways you can think about the relationship between biological sex and gender identity, and neither of those the one I think is best.
Broadly speaking, the progressives Walsh lampoons think that when it comes to biological sex, there is no “there” there. They think sex does not exist in any meaningful sense, and that womanhood, and by analogy manhood, are some sort of melange of feelings, social roles and self-declaration. As he repeats the question “what is a woman?”, they talk about “your truth” and “my truth” and get cross when he responds with questions about “the truth” and “objective reality”.
Some of them terminate the interview at that point. They really seem to think that the only possible reason for seeking something other than their circular non-definitions is to hurt trans people. The main value of the film is in getting them to do all this on camera, so that a wide audience can see how intellectually bizarre and bereft they are.
You don’t have to watch—or pay for—the film to see the best bits: Walsh has helpfully tweeted them out. My second-favourite clip is of an interview with Patrick Grzanska, a women’s studies professor at the University of Tennessee. When asked to define “woman”—a word that, after all, appears in his job title—he responds by asking why Walsh wants to know. Walsh says he is interested in the truth. Grzanska responds: “The truth is deeply transphobic.”
But far and away my favourite interview is with Dr Michelle Forcier, a dean at Brown University medical school. Walsh picks up on her use of the phrase “assigned female at birth”, and asks whether “if I see a chicken laying eggs and I say that’s a female chicken, did I assign female? Or am I just observing a physical reality?” To which Forcier inexplicably responds: “Does a chicken have gender identity? Does a chicken cry? Does a chicken commit suicide? A chicken has an assigned gender but a chicken doesn’t have gender identity.”
This is hilarious, until you remember that she is a qualified doctor—a professor of paediatric medicine, no less. She waxes lyrical about the wonders of blocking puberty with Lupron, which she calls “reversible” (an evidence-free claim the NHS has stopped making). She too walks out on Walsh, in her case when he asks whether the drug is the same as the one used to chemically castrate sex offenders (it is).
But in some ways, Walsh’s own position is similar to that of the gender ideologues—a fact he never shows any sign of recognising. True, he doesn’t subscribe to the radical subjectivity of “my truth” and “your truth”, and he doesn’t think stereotypes or social roles are the definition of “woman”. But he thinks those stereotypes and social roles are indivisible from the definition, all the same.
“Give my son a BB gun and that’s just about all the emotional support he needs,” he says near the beginning of the film, with a children’s party in the background: boys in blue denim, the girls all pink princesses. “My daughter, on the other hand...” Near the end, after a segment in which he wanders pensively around a room filled with mannequins dressed in pink and, for some reason, smashes up some chalkboards, he arrives back at his own kitchen, where his wife is making a sandwich. “What is a woman?” he asks the woman who has borne him four children, including twins. To which she replies: “An adult human female, who needs you to open this”—as she hands him a pickle jar.
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. That means he fails to do justice to his interviewees when they occasionally make sense (to be clear, the idiocy they mostly spout is all on them). Grzanska, for example, talks well about how we are all born into an inescapably gendered world (the film deliberately edits him down in such a way as to make him look as silly as possible). But Walsh is either unwilling or unable to distinguish between a decent point about the ubiquity of gendered socialisation and the unutterable foolishness of thinking that ubiquity offers a basis for a categorical definition. That moment is a fair representative of the entire film, actually: two men talking about womanhood, one liberal, one conservative and both equally regressive.
The same sort of thing happens when Walsh flies to Africa and talks to a Maasai tribe, asking not just “what is a woman?” but related questions, such as “can a woman have a penis?” and “what about non-binary people?” (The stated aim is to debunk the gender talking point about how binary sex is a Western colonialist construct.) It’s reasonably entertaining, if predictable—of course these rural Africans aren’t at all confused about what a woman is, and have no clue about the latest American social-justice fad (the translator’s “come again?” in response to the non-binary question is priceless).
But the segment is highly gendered, again in ways that the film fails to acknowledge. Walsh talks separately to the men and women, and it’s clearly the men who have authority. And though the definitions of “man” and “woman” they give him are indeed grounded in biology, they tag on social roles (the men “provide”). I wonder whether a member of the tribe who breaks its gendered rules is still understood to be a member of his or her sex? But Walsh never asks any question that could help clarify that, such as: “is a woman who doesn’t ever have a baby still a woman?” or “what about a man who wants to cook and mind babies with the women, instead of going hunting with the men—is he still a man?” The elision is clearly so natural to Walsh that he doesn’t even see it.
It’s hardly surprising that Walsh has deeply traditionalist views of men’s and women’s spheres in life: he’s an old-fashioned Catholic who anathemises homosexuality, same-sex marriage, contraception, abortion, IVF and feminism. But if he really wants to get gender ideology out of schools and bring a speedy end to paediatric gender transition, then he needs to start listening to critiques of trans ideology that don’t reify male dominance and female submission.
He clearly either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that gender non-conforming children and teenagers are among those most in danger of being caught up in trans ideology, and doing themselves irreparable harm. Now, some homophobic evangelicals make peace with transition when they realise it replaces a gay person with a simulacrum of a straight one. I write about one such family, the Shappleys, in my book.
But this group also includes teenage girls fleeing the prospect of the objectified, subjugated vision of womanhood packaged up and sold to them by celebrities, social media and online porn. And “What is a Woman?” offers them an (ironically binary) choice. Listen to the libtards who claim sex isn’t real, lop off your breasts and take testosterone—or knuckle under and accept your lesser role as a member of the half of humanity that makes sandwiches and needs help opening jars. If that’s all that’s on offer, I think many teenage girls will continue to plump for the first.
There is, of course, a way out of this false binary. It’s to acknowledge the reality and distinctness of sexed bodies, indeed to regard that acknowledgement as essential to human flourishing, without either treating gender conformity as against the natural moral order or understanding it as some sort of psychic sex change.
Here’s what I’d have wanted to say to Walsh, if he’d asked me “what is a woman?” An adult human female, of course—but let me explain why this is even a question. American progressives think that gender stereotypes make people male or female and that’s false and crazymaking. American conservatives accept that male and female are real, objective categories, which is something. But they regard those categories as inseparable from gendered stereotypes, and that’s false too. Sure, the sexes differ, but neither is inferior to the other, there’s nothing wrong with being sex non-conforming and there’s no way of acting that can cast you out of your sex. Ignore both the Walshes of the world, who want women in the kitchen, and the progressives who think that being relegated to the kitchen makes you a woman.
But I doubt Walsh is at all interested in hearing from sex-realist feminists, who recognise that male and female are distinct categories defined, but not limited, by reproductive roles. We would disprove his claim that the transgender trend is all down to feminists overthrowing the natural male-dominated order. America’s culture wars mean old-school and new-school sexists mocking and shouting past each other. And all the while children continue to be harmed.
A lot of the discussion online about the documentary concerned whether feminists should make common cause with Walsh on the narrow goal of defeating gender-identity ideology. It’s not a tempting prospect. This is a man who has said that “feminism is rotten at the core…There is no good feminism. It’s one of the worst things to ever happen to Western civilisation.”
But it did prompt me to ask myself if I would have accepted an invitation to appear in the film. (I didn’t receive one, and nor did any feminist I know, though Walsh says he asked many feminists and all refused. Perhaps they were all American and working in the country’s captured charities and NGOs). It didn’t take long for me to come up with an answer: of course! I’m focused on the harms done by trans ideology, especially to children, and those hit children from conservative homes as well as liberal ones. I want as many parents as possible alive to the sex-denialism now taught in American schools, and fighting for a return to sanity.
More generally, I’m not in any political camp and that has an impact on where I’m willing to speak. Some of the left-wing women I admire tell me that their aim is to be heard on the left, which makes sense given their politics and also because it’s on the left where this ideology has made the greatest inroads. But I’m keen to get a hearing pretty much anywhere. I don’t think borrowing someone’s platform constitutes an endorsement of any kind.
And the great thing about being invited on, say, Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson or Tucker Carlson—apart from their huge audiences, just think of the book sales!—would be getting a feminist critique of gender-identity ideology in front of people who may not even know such a thing exists. We’d start from a point of agreement on some important things—that sex is real, and matters, and children shouldn’t be sterilised. And that would give me a head-start when it came to explaining why conservative sex roles are part of the problem, not the solution.
Cheeringly, “What is a Woman?” is not the only sign that the debate in America is shifting. On June 15th the New York Times published a long read on guidelines for paediatric gender medicine entitled “The Battle Over Gender Therapy”. Though the language and framing are biased—only someone on the far right, apparently, could possibly think medical transition for minors is an inherently flawed enterprise—the article also includes much decent journalism. And simply doing the journalistic basics, asking probing questions of people with different viewpoints, and quoting from them at length, is enough to reveal the huge problems in the field, even if the author doesn’t spell them out and perhaps doesn’t even see them herself.
The whole article is well worth reading. But for me the standout quotes were from Colt St. Amand, a transman who works as a clinical psychologist and family doctor at the Mayo Clinic. The purpose of assessing a child who seeks transition, says St. Amand, is not to determine the basis of his or her gender identity, because “that just reeks of some old kind of conversion-therapy-type things…people are who they say they are, and they may develop and change, and all are normal and OK. So I am less concerned with certainty around identity, and more concerned with hearing the person’s embodiment goals. Do you want to have a deep voice? Do you want to have breasts? You know, what do you want for your body?”
Further on, the article spells out just how little St. Amand cares about the possibility that a child’s “embodiment goals” might change. “The priority for the collective St. Amand organized, which is working on a series of articles and training materials, is to ensure that transgender and nonbinary youth get the care they need rather than to shield teenagers from taking medication with effects they might later decide they didn’t want.”
That is perhaps the most heartless—and the most American—thing I’ve ever read. This is medicine as pure consumerism, entirely divorced from any considerations of health. It explicitly positions the doctor’s purpose as to help you reshape your body according to desires that may well be transient, without any investigation of why you might seek to do so, or any precautions against regret. Presumably if your “embodiment goals” change again, you are supposed to have further drugs and surgeries. It all sounds insanely lucrative.
One little extra this week: a reflection sparked by hearings before a committee of Scottish parliamentarians, on proposals to amend the Gender Recognition Act. On June 14th my colleague Naomi Cunningham appeared. Have a watch of this clip, in which she says what everyone knows but no one else dares say: that among the male people identifying as women and seeking entry to women’s spaces are cross-dressers seeking erotic satisfaction.
It’s great to have that on the record, though I fear nothing can now halt Scotland’s rush to gender self-ID. But what really struck me was the response of the two transwomen sitting behind Cunningham as she says “erotic cross-dressers”. Their smirks are remarkably revealing, but also sparked some reflection on my part about the idea, repeated again and again by the gender ideologues in “What is a Woman?”, that womanhood is a performance or social role.
Who is “performing womanhood” in this clip? Cunningham has short hair and no makeup, and her plain black jacket and white shirt are not at all “feminine”. She’s a barrister giving evidence in a national parliament—a profession, activity and location barred to women until pretty recently, and all still heavily male-dominated. The transwomen behind her are wearing dresses and makeup. Their hair is long, and they are sitting in feminine silence.
I watched, and thought as I have a thousand times before, how effortlessly we can all read people’s sex, whether they present themselves in a feminine or masculine manner; and how regressive it is to think such trivia have any bearing on whether someone is a man or woman. And then I thought a bit further. In the clip Cunningham is performing an age-old female role: seeking to defend women against the incursion of men and their sexual desires and demands. And the two men sitting behind her are responding as many men always have: sniggering, as if women’s boundaries and right to withhold consent are a huge joke. Perhaps these three people are “performing their genders”, after all—just not quite in the way the gender ideologues mean.