Matt Walsh’s documentary What is a Woman? focuses on one of the most sensitive and controversial topics that exist today: the transgender issue. This issue has made another topic especially pertinent, a question that is the central theme of the film: What is a woman?
Before watching this documentary, I was aware that Walsh holds conservative views (he opposes gay marriage because he believes it desacralises the institution of marriage) and that he works for The Daily Wire, the conservative news website founded by Ben Shapiro. I had also already heard that there was pushback against the film (although I hadn’t read any reviews).
Watching the documentary, which was uncritically praised by Joe Rogan as impartial (because Walsh is ‘just asking questions’), it was clear how susceptible it was to cherry-picking and bias, owing to the way it was edited. To get a sense of the bias, we see that Walsh interviewed someone who deeply regretted gender-affirming surgery (which is valid and warrants concern) and the high incidence of suicide after the procedure; but he didn’t interview people who felt helped by the transition or research on how the surgery improves mental health outcomes. For many, sex reassignment means that their gender dysphoria – a sense of unease about a perceived mismatch between biological sex and gender identity – decreases or disappears entirely.
(Gender-affirming surgery is also known as sex reassignment surgery or gender reassignment surgery: it involves altering the body so that it appears as the gender someone identifies with, which may mean removing/creating breasts and different ‘bottom surgery’ – creating a penis or vagina – depending on the type of transition.)
It seems many people do well following surgery, but not all do. The suicide attempt rate among transgender people is worryingly high at 32-50%. However, Walsh focuses on the surgery being the problem and not society’s response to transgender people. Gender-based victimisation, discrimination, bullying, and violence; being rejected by family, friends, and one’s community; harassment by an intimate partner, family members, police, and the public; and discrimination and ill-treatment in the healthcare system are all considered major risk factors that influence suicidal behaviour among transgender people. If some people are at a higher risk of suicide following surgery, this does not always mean the surgery is to blame (although regret is a possibility). The way that people respond to trans people after the surgery is relevant, too.
Moreover, while a 2011 Swedish study found transgender people, following surgery, “have considerably higher risks for mortality, suicidal behaviour, and psychiatric morbidity than the general population,” the authors note that “the results should not be interpreted such as sex reassignment per se increases morbidity and mortality. Things might have been even worse without sex reassignment.”
Walsh’s trolling, provocateuring nature comes through in the film; for instance, when he compares trans people’s felt experience of being the gender opposite to the one they were brought up as like people who identify as another species (transpecism) or who feel they were meant to be disabled (transableism). Walsh has also mocked the transgender issue in a children’s book he published last year – covered in the documentary – called Johnny The Walrus, about a boy who identifies as a walrus.
Walsh’s impassiveness and non-confrontational approach in the interviews may be taken as a sign of impartiality, but he is clearly being deadpan and tongue-in-cheek at times, which serves the purpose of the film. And at the end of the documentary, Walsh makes his anti-trans position clear. Also, in an article for The Rolling Stone, which calls What is a Woman? transphobic, we find out that Walsh’s production staff reached out to trans activists featured in the film without disclosing they were connected to Walsh or The Daily Wire. The activist Eli Erlick, who features in the film, says that “to believe what’s in it requires a fantastical hatred of trans people” and that the film shows an “appalling lack of research on the trans community.”
In the documentary, we see Walsh make a trip to Kenya to visit the Masaai tribe to get their (a non-Western perspective) on the whole transgender issue. While illuminating, using this as the sole non-Western point of view seemed purposeful; it was a way to support Walsh’s message: transgender people are worthy of mockery (we see male Masaai tribe members laughing at Walsh’s questions about men who feel like women, who want to become women). This is not to say that their reaction is based on hatred; transgender is just not a concept familiar to the Masaai. But to focus on them and ignore other perspectives perhaps betrays Walsh’s biased angle.
For example, he chose not to visit Thailand, where the identity kathoey or katoey – a third gender identity – is normalised and accepted (at least to a much greater degree than in other countries, due to the prevalence of kathoey). It refers to people whose identities may be best described as transgender women in some cases, although it can also stand for an effeminate gay man. (Kathoey originally referred to intersex individuals: people born with a combination of male and female biological characteristics.) Many kathoey undergo gender reassignment surgery, with Bangkok being an especially popular place to get this done. The often pejorative term ‘ladyboy’ is commonly used to refer to kathoey.
Walsh also decided not to interview any Native Americans about ‘two-spirit’ people: intersex, androgynous people, feminine males, and masculine females who Native Americans have often held in high regard. They have been respected due to their perceived spiritual gifts and practical talents that gender-conforming people lack.
Despite these criticisms, Walsh still brings up valid concerns, as do many of the people he interviews, especially regarding medically transitioning children using puberty blockers, hormone replacement therapy, and gender-affirming surgery (there are ethical issues like consent and possible adverse long-term effects); the issue of transgender athletes; and social contagion (although a 2022 paper published in the journal Pediatrics appears to refute this explanation for the increase in transgender adolescents). Many of the comments from gender transition physicians and paediatricians, the gender studies professor, and the gender affirmation therapist seemed ridiculous (and lacking caution), but again, I have to keep in mind the possible agenda that went into making this documentary (to make one side come across as absurd as possible, and the other side to appear as reasonable and sane).
I think this kind of topic could be handled in a less polarised way (I get that it’s very polarised, but nuanced views, attitudes, and experiences do exist). But it’s still important that these issues are raised. And I imagine a lot of people, probably myself included, would struggle with giving a clear answer to the question, “What is a woman?”
Often the response Walsh got to this question was, “Someone who identifies as a woman,” to which he would say, “but what is that [a woman]?” And no one (at least in the edit we saw) could give a satisfactory answer. Some people would say womanhood is relative and diverse and cannot be essentialised. Some would say it’s a combination of different factors, including how you present yourself to the world (i.e. through your name, pronouns, clothing, makeup, hairstyle, how you talk, behaviour, or mannerisms).
If gender and sex are not synonymous, meaning that males can identify as women, does the ‘woman’ identity just encompass culturally determined – or stereotypical – feminine traits? What is womanhood, if anything, outside of these societal images, expectations, and stereotypes? Is it some essence or approximation of ‘feminine’ energy or some ‘feminine’ archetype? And what do these mean? Any answers may fall prey to simplistic essentialising. Even if this femininity is seen in a positive or neutral light, does it truly reflect a meaningful category we can demarcate as ‘womanhood’? Perhaps no answer can be given at all to the question, “What is a woman?” Is the experience of womanhood simply ineffable?
What I would be interested to see, though, is perhaps more nuanced, informed, and in-depth answers to the question “What is a woman?”, rather than edited interviews that are typical of some documentaries, where we often get only the most shocking bits. The lack of research (and bias) that the film is arguably guilty of was revealed by Walsh when he appeared on the Joe Rogan podcast. He claimed that “millions” of trans people are on puberty blockers, which, by his own admission, is a “guess”. This immediately dubious figure was disproven in real-time (the true number is less than a thousand per year), yet even with this evidence presented to him, he said, “I would guess higher, you know, hundreds of thousands, but I could be wrong.”
I felt myself somewhat agreeing with psychology professor Jordan Peterson when he was arguing there is no need for the word ‘gender’; he says it’s “vague”, adding that “people who talk about the diversity in gender are actually talking about diversity in personality and temperament”. Because of the emotional charge that exists around gender identities, might we be better off discussing differences in personality and temperament, and making efforts to accept, tolerate, and appreciate these differences?
Perhaps gender differences are just personality differences that are, to a certain extent, related to biological sex and that there are, on average, more traits in one sex compared to another (like being nurturing and aggressive, for example). There can also be culturally influenced or inculcated reinforcements or exaggerations of those differences, as well as natural outliers in each sex. While Peterson entertains the idea of doing away with gender in the documentary, saying “I don’t need it [the word ‘gender’]”, he contradicts himself when he adds that there are ‘masculine’ girls/women and ‘feminine’ boys/men, which raises the question of what masculinity and femininity – gendered concepts – mean. But he likely means the temperamental traits most typically found in or associated with each sex.
If Peterson sees some value in focusing on (and accepting) differences in personality, rather than getting obsessed about gender identities, I can see the value in this – and it’s a topic I’ve explored in a previous post. The idea of abolishing gender identities and expectations altogether, though, is not a conservative viewpoint; it’s a pretty radical one, but perhaps it’s the way forward. The philosopher Rebecca Reilly-Cooper makes a case for this position in a thought-provoking essay for Aeon.
Towards the end of the documentary, Walsh is interviewing Peterson, and he asks him, “What is a woman?” – to which Peterson responds earnestly, “Marry one and find out,” as if this simple answer conveys some deep, incontrovertible wisdom. But really, he’s saying only a married man can truly know what a woman is, which doesn’t provide an answer, and it begs the question – marry ‘one’ assumes you already know what a woman is.
After this response, Walsh says, “So I should go home and ask my wife, I guess.” And then we see a contrived and pretty cringeworthy scene play out, where Walsh finds his wife preparing food in the kitchen. He asks her, “What is a woman?” And she says, “An adult human female, who needs help opening this [hands him a jar to open].” So it ends by conflating gender with sex, as if to say, it’s just all so simple and common sense, and people’s lack of answers and vagueness in response to the question is laughable. But it isn’t really that simple, and the fact that the documentary ends on that note sums up the lack of depth and balance throughout the film.