“What Is A Woman?” Is a Feature-Length Exploration of Conservative Ignorance and Prejudice
Nathan J. Robinson
Content warning: quotations of vicious transphobic bullshit
Conservative commentator Matt Walsh believes that leftists have avoided reviewing his new documentary What is a Woman? because they cannot deal with the awesome power of his arguments. “The Left is terrified of the film. It’s that simple. If they thought they could debunk it they would. … [They can’t debunk it so] they cower and hope it goes away. It won’t.” Awards Daily, which covers the film industry, has concluded that “no prominent film critic has either the freedom or the courage to cover this.” The National Review, too, says that “Most critics have refused to review What Is a Woman? because of the stance Walsh takes.” As is often the case with conservative works, the documentary is billed as presenting The Forbidden Knowledge That Politically Correct Types Refuse To Discuss, and is billed as “the documentary they don’t want you to see” posing “the question you’re not allowed to ask.”
Walsh’s documentary, a feature-length attack on transgender people that accuses them of being delusional about reality and posing a threat to women and children, has been praised by those who sympathize with his viewpoint. Nina Power of Compact magazine (whose previous work includes “Why We Need The Patriarchy”) calls it a “searing and unforgettable indictment of today’s gender ideology that should rouse action across the political spectrum.” City Journal compared Walsh with Ralph Nader for his formidable trenchancy as a social critic and said that “once in a while, a book or movie comes along that jolts American society and sparks a demand for social reform. … Will [What Is a Woman?] one day be remembered as the moment when the tide began to turn on transgenderism?”
I have long believed that it’s unwise for those of us on the left to ignore right-wing arguments, or attempt to censor them. Doing so lends credence to the other side’s claim that we have no effective response and are trying to suppress the truth because we are snowflakes who cannot handle the Facts. The tendency of liberal and left-leaning publications to avoid reviewing right-wing books and films is quite real, and in my own view ill-advised. While there are understandable hesitations to “platform” or “give oxygen to” bigoted arguments, or to enter into an academic debate with those who dehumanize trans people or people of color, in my own view there should be clear and persuasive refutations of the right’s propaganda readily available.1 This will at the very least discredit the claim that the inability to respond is behind the decision of most critics to ignore a given piece of work.
I realize that I am somewhat “taking the bait” by debunking the film in response to Walsh’s taunt about nobody being willing to debunk the film. Recognizing this, however, let me lay out for those (like Matt Taibbi) who think the film is something other than bigoted, ignorant trash precisely why it is bigoted, ignorant trash.
The core conceit of What is a Woman? is that Walsh goes around speaking to a bunch of lefties, transgender people, and pointy-headed experts (a gender studies professor, a psychiatrist, a pediatrician, a doctor who performs transition surgeries), and “stumps” them with the simple question “What is a woman?” Taibbi says that Walsh “tries and fails to get trans activists, academics, and medical professionals to offer a definition of womanhood” and in doing so “pranks the pants off America’s silliest intellectuals.” The “experts” are “unable to give a straight answer,” says Spiked. At the end of the film, after failing to get the desired simple answer to the question of what a woman is from any of the lefty kooks destroying America, Walsh asks his wife the question. She gives the simple answer that a woman is “an adult human female,” then asks him to help her open a jar of pickles. (Because as a woman she is weak and needs a strong man’s strong hands to help her open jars, you see.)
The position Walsh takes in the film is that there is a common sense definition of the word “woman,” one that is based in biology, but those who subscribe to Gender Ideology offer conflicting or unsatisfying definitions instead, and therefore have beliefs that do not make sense. There is an implicit presumption, never defended, that the word woman needs to have one simple, satisfying definition. One of Walsh’s respondents points out directly that women may give very different answers to the question of what it means to be a woman. For Walsh, this is apparently a sign of stupidity: he says we had a perfectly workable definition of men and women “up until 15 minutes ago,”2 but now the trans people have gone and made everything confusing, so that definitions differ. Indeed, there are academic arguments among feminist philosophers about how the word woman should be defined. Walsh treats this as laughable, but it’s not clear why it should be. Leaving aside whether Walsh’s definition worked, saying that we “used to” have a simple definition and now people disagree or struggle to articulate a simple definition seems no different than seeing a society shift from having a simple definition of God or justice or race to having more contested definitions.
In fact, it is often as we become more intelligent that “simple answers” to questions, ones we took for “common sense,” begin to seem unsatisfying. “An eye for an eye” is a pretty straightforward answer to the question “What is justice?” but it is not better for being simple, and a philosopher would not be less intelligent just because they don’t offer a satisfying and pithy formula for justice. Walsh is so bored when a gender studies professor starts giving a long complicated answer to a question that the film fades out the audio to illustrate what an evasive and pretentious twit Walsh thinks the professor is. But does the definitions of gender need to be simple? Is an answer to a question better simply because it eliminates the need to think further? The burden here is on Walsh to prove that complexity and disagreement are risible. But Walsh never acknowledges any of this. Walsh seems very satisfied when he visits some Maasai people in Africa, who tell him that men have penises and women have vaginas, and that’s that. But the Maasai men that Walsh speaks to also tell him that men and women have different roles in their society, that men do certain things and women do different things, which raises the question of whether physical makeup really is the most important factor defining gender.
Indeed, Walsh makes a number of comments throughout the film that suggest matters of sex and gender may not be as simple as he would prefer them to be. At the beginning, he is shown giving birthday presents to his son and daughter. The son is given a BB gun, “and that’s all the emotional support he needs.” (A rather uncomfortable statement, in light of the recent massacre perpetrated by a bullied teenage boy.) The daughter is given a tiara and a tea set. She wears pink, he wears blue. Boys like footballs. Girls like dolls. Walsh comments: “I’ve heard people say that there are no differences between male and female. Those people are idiots.” But what are the differences in question? Clearly Walsh believes that they go beyond genitalia, and has a conception of proper gender roles. He doesn’t like drag queens reading to children in libraries, or giving makeup and dance classes to boys, because he sees something wrong and disturbing about Men wearing the clothing he thinks Women ought to wear. But why does he believe certain genitals are properly matched with certain clothing? Ironically enough, the Maasai men he admires for their traditional ideas of gender are decked out in jewelry and wearing clothes that, if sold in the U.S., might be described as colorful dresses. Walsh misses the chance to probe interesting questions about how concepts of masculinity and femininity can vary and to reflect on whether his horror at drag queens giving makeup to children might be based on arbitrary, culturally specific prejudices rather than Reason or Biology.
Walsh makes the same core error as other anti-trans bigots like Ben Shapiro, treating a debate about language as if it’s a debate about biological reality. I have discussed this error several times before, and Natalie Wynn has an excellent explanation in her video on Shapiro. Wynn points out that saying a trans woman is “not a woman” because of biology is like saying adoptive parents are “not really someone’s parents” because they are not blood relations of their children. It is fallacious, pure and simple. It assumes that the definition of the word “parents” is handed to us from on high, that there is some fixed rule in the universe prohibiting us from using it to refer to people who have a social rather than a biological relationship with their children. There is, similarly, no rule saying that the word woman “really” or “must” be used based on the criteria Walsh prefers. Science cannot resolve whether we should choose to apply gender categories based on genitalia, chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics, self-identification, the performance of social roles, or the perception of others. Walsh and others who share his ignorance believe that by using female pronouns, a transgender woman is “denying reality.” But this is a mistake, because a trans woman has no illusions about her biology. (I continually refer to the work of biologist and trans woman Julia Serano, who knows vastly more about biology than Matt Walsh ever will, and is usually ignored by conservatives because she can debunk them and they need to keep insisting they cannot be debunked.) There is no fact of the real world being denied, just a different set of terms being used to categorize the facts. We are not made for the categories, the categories are made for us. A trans woman is not claiming to have chromosomes different to the ones she actually has; she is simply using a word differently than the way Walsh would prefer it be used. It does not follow, however, that the usage is improper or irrational.3
Walsh believes that he has a hilarious “gotcha” moment when he goes to a pro-choice protest and interrogates a woman about her sign saying that “if men could get pregnant we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.” Walsh points out that under the women’s presumed system of beliefs, men can get pregnant, because trans men can get pregnant. He believes that he has shown her to be silly and self-contradictory, but all he has actually shown is that he does not understand how words work. Sometimes words have multiple definitions and are used to mean different things at different times. Since the woman with the sign is apparently not a TERF (that is, someone sees themselves as a feminist but would exclude trans women from being considered women), she clearly intends the word “men” to mean “cisgender men.” There is no contradiction between saying that “men cannot get pregnant” and “men can get pregnant,” any more than there is a contradiction between saying “Socrates has produced important philosophical insights” and “Socrates has never produced a philosophical insight in his life” if I have a cat named Socrates.4
Walsh believes he has produced a documentary exposing the fallacies of Gender Ideology, then, but what he has in fact produced is a feature-length demonstration of the way that conservatives treat their prejudices as “facts” and “common sense” and stubbornly refuse to entertain the idea that perspectives other than their own might be equally legitimate. At one point, Walsh interviews the owner of a Star Wars memorabilia shop, who was caught on video arguing with a trans woman who objected to a sign in the store that said “if you’ve got a dick, you’re not a chick.” Walsh asks the owner why he believes that “chicks” cannot have “dicks,” and the owner replies that this is just “common sense.” Walsh seems satisfied with the answer, even though invoking “common sense” as an argument amounts to saying “I believe it because I believe it.” Elsewhere in the film, Walsh critically questions a gender studies professor who defines a woman as “someone who identifies as a woman,” with Walsh objecting to the definition as “circular.”5 Yet no such similar scrutiny is applied to I believe it because I believe it as an explanation for why trans women aren’t women.
If you want to see why Walsh’s documentary is obviously propaganda, simply note how inconsistent Walsh’s standards are. He highlights the harrowing story of a trans man who regrets his transition, having spent a large amount of money on surgeries that produced complications. (The man also mentions that he can no longer see the doctor who performed the surgeries because he has lost his health insurance, but Walsh does not pursue the implications of the comment.) But if Walsh were interested in the truth, he would give his audience the data on how common this kind of regret is (not very) and be just as attentive to the stories of those for whom transition was a life-changing positive. (See this Current Affairs essay by a trans woman on how the problem she faced as a teen was not that medical providers pushed transition on her, but that she couldn’t get sufficiently affirming care.)
Walsh also pulls the same trick that Abigail Shrier does in her bestselling book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. I noted in my exhaustive review of that book that Shrier talks to parents who object to their children’s transitions, but she doesn’t get the kids’ side of the story. Similarly, Walsh tells the story of a Canadian father who has supposedly been cut off from his child because he refused to accept the child’s transgender identity. Walsh’s film claims that the man has been sent to jail and fined $30,000 for misgendering the child. Because the man is anonymous in the film, I’m not quite sure it’s the same case, but it looks as if this is not true, and the man was actually punished by the courts for going public with details of his child’s case and exposing his child’s identity in violation of a court order to respect the child’s privacy. The “$30,000 fine” was because the man raised $30,000 in an “online crowdfunding campaign that included a link to a video containing his child’s name and picture,” against the child’s will and in violation of the privacy order. (The court ordered that the money be donated to charity.) That’s rather different than being punished for misgendering alone. But equally importantly, because Walsh is a propagandist, he does not present the story from the perspective of the child or the mother who supported the child’s transition.
When Walsh talks to trans people, it is clear that he is trying to mock and humiliate them rather than understand them. According to one of Walsh’s interviewees, Walsh lied to participants in order to secure their consent to participate, going so far as to represent himself as being part of a fake organization called the Gender Unity Project. That interviewee, Naia Ōkami, is a transgender woman who is also part of the “otherkin” community—people who identify as animals. It’s clear Walsh is speaking to her because he wants to expose transgender identities as being as ridiculous as “thinking you’re an animal.”To further mock transgender people, Walsh has written a book about a little boy who thinks he’s a walrus, and his documentary claims that schools are being forced recognize that children who think they are cats are actually cats. But Ōkami actually comes across as quite reasonable, and she has made it clear that she does not think she is physically a wolf. In her review of the film, Ōkami explains how Walsh tried to edit the interview to make her appear insane and bizarre:
I also made it very clear in my interview that I don’t identify as trans-species and that my therian identity and my gender identity are two very different things to me. I vehemently rejected the term transspecies and the comparison being made, but none of that made it into the interview. I recall Matt being frustrated during our interview that I wasn’t giving him any of the “gotcha” responses he seemed to desperately want, so it makes sense that he would focus on what he believes is the more extreme portion of my identity – being a wolf therianthrope. He cut the portion of me explaining this identity was spiritual in nature.
Personally, I think it’s reasonable to call Ōkami a wolf, because I understand that words have multiple meanings. I also think that Walsh, as a practicing Catholic who presumably holds the belief that bread and wine can literally become the body and blood of Christ, ought to perhaps be a little cautious before laughing at other people’s belief in animal spirits. (It was Walsh’s namesake, after all, who relayed Christ’s message to humanity that “with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.”)
It would be tedious to go through every single lie, poor argument, and double standard in the film. There are unsourced factual claims. (We apparently know that “10 years of hormones, you’re giving yourself cancer.”6 ) Pseudo-experts show up to pontificate. (Jordan Peterson—who else?—makes an appearance to rant against “affirmative” care, saying that the job of a therapist is not to affirm the beliefs of the patients, even though that appears to be precisely what he himself does in therapy sessions.) The sordid history of psychologist John Money performing involuntary sex reassignment on a patient is recounted, even though this case actually supports the argument that, contra Shrier, you can’t “turn people trans.” There are sensationalistic news stories treated as representative of nationwide trends (the Los Angeles spa incident, the Loudon County, Virginia school bathroom assault that did not actually have anything to do with transgender bathroom access). The lack of interest in how things look from trans perspectives is galling: Walsh worries about trans women having an advantage in women’s sports, but doesn’t stop to wonder whether they would have a disadvantage in men’s sports, or whether trans men should compete in men’s sports. He thinks trans women pose an assault risk in women’s bathrooms (a lie) but does not care whether forcing trans women to use the men’s room might increase the risk that they are assaulted. Walsh issues flurries of those conservative talking points that might sound clever until you think about them for half a second. (For instance, he says that asking someone to use your preferred pronoun is like asking them to use your preferred adjectives, and that his adjectives are brilliant and handsome. But surely it’s more like asking someone to use your preferred noun, which we already do every day.)
Walsh spends much of the documentary imitating the style of Michael Moore and Louis Theroux, playing dumb and telling the audience he’s a curious dad trying to sort out reality. But toward the end, he abandons his “just asking questions” posture and confronts the members of the Loudon County, Virginia school board, telling them:
“You are all child abusers. You prey upon impressionable children and indoctrinate them into your insane ideological cult which holds many fanatical views but none so deranged as the view that boys are girls and girls are boys. By imposing this vile nonsense… [etc etc etc]”
Walsh, as stated before, misunderstood the facts of the controversial case there, even though he went so far as to rent a house in the district solely so he could berate the school board during a public comment period. But when he pulls off the mask of reasonableness and open-minded inquiry, and reveals how viscerally he despises trans people and anyone who recognizes trans people’s claims to their identity, we can see how What Is A Woman? isn’t just ignorant. It’s also evil, because Walsh is trying to convince the public that trans people are abusers and groomers, that they are a threat that must be eradicated. This is not really a philosophical argument over the word “woman.” It is a Nazi-like piece of propaganda attempting to convince people that their trans neighbors, colleagues, and classmates are insane and menacing. It should be disturbing to us that people like Matt Taibbi, who do not consider themselves “transphobic,” can see this documentary as an enjoyable poke in the eye of intellectuals, and not notice that it is a skillfully-produced attempt to portray a class of fellow human beings as sick freaks.
Debunking this stuff is easy. Men like Walsh, who portray themselves as defenders of Truth, Reason, and Science, do not actually to do the first things demanded by real scientific inquiry—namely to be humble rather than arrogant, to read widely, to fairly consider the opposing point of view, to put forward the strongest rather than the weakest version of the other side’s case, to question one’s own biases. They combine extreme ignorance with extreme arrogance, and while it is a cinch to demolish their talking points, it will be much harder to stop their social crusade. A horrible anti-trans backlash is brewing, resulting in cruel pieces of legislation and hell-bent on destroying the fragile progress that has been made toward LGBTQ acceptance. Slick propaganda like What Is A Woman? will cause real harm to trans people, and while I generally consider censorship counterproductive, we should not understate the toxicity of a film like this.
For clear and persuasive refutations of many other right-wing arguments, see my forthcoming book Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments. ↩
Note that there may be sound reasons for avoiding using the word “men” to refer only to cisgender men. But this is an argument that the value of trans inclusion should cause us to rethink how we talk. It does not mean that there is any conceptual incoherence or confusion. ↩
It is far more reasonable than it may sound at first. For instance, think about the question: “What is an American?” We could answer “someone who is born in the U.S.,” “someone who holds American values,” “someone who holds U.S. citizenship,” or “someone who has lived in the U.S. a sufficiently long time.” There is no “right” answer here, and we might decide as a practical matter to say that our criterion for deciding who an American is will be “whether you declare yourself an American.” We are here establishing a procedure for determining who belongs in the category. How the category is meaningful to those who adopt it is a separate matter, and there will surely be as many answers to the question of what people’s American identity means to them as there are to what womanhood means to different women. Walsh’s interviewee pushed back when Walsh asked for more, saying that Walsh was asking for an essentialist definition. That is precisely what Walsh was asking for, and it was reasonable of the professor to refuse to choose one answer and elevate it as the objectively correct one. Incidentally, the same professor has also been misquoted as saying in the documentary that “getting to the truth is deeply transphobic.” In fact, the professor said he believed in “pursuing truth” but objected that Walsh seemed to be using the word “truth” to mean that trans women are not women. ↩
While transgender women who have received hormone therapy have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer than cisgender men, the risk is still lower than for cisgender women, which means only that transgender women take on some of the health risks that come with being a woman. Furthermore, transgender men have a lower risk of breast cancer than cisgender women, meaning that this is not applicable in cases of female-to-male transition, a fact Walsh chooses not to disclose because much of the present panic is about “our daughters” being turned trans. Furthermore, because many trans people lack access to health care and may thus miss important cancer screenings, anyone concerned about cancer in this population should support universal health care, which would include screening for all cancers. ↩