"What is a Woman?" is a flawed attempt at a necessary conversation
Supreme Court nominations have always been newsworthy, but one particular exchange during the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson last March seemed to make far bigger waves than any other in recent memory. As part of her questioning, Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn asked the soon-to-be Justice Jackson a presumably simple one: “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” To the surprise of many, Judge Brown said that she could not. “I am not a biologist,” she admitted.
The incident quickly went viral on social media, with some people agreeing with Senator Blackburn’s assessment that it was a perfect example of critical gender theory’s pernicious influence on our society. Others defended Judge Brown on the grounds that she was not only correct in refusing to answer the question, but “that a competent biologist would not be able to offer a definitive answer either,” because “scientists agree there is no sufficient way to clearly define what makes someone a woman.”
A new documentary film produced by the conservative media outlet The Daily Wire seeks to elucidate the societal forces at the heart of this controversy. Appropriating Senator Blackburn’s question as its title, What is a Woman? consists of The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh asking various types of people to answer the question that Justice Brown would not.
What is a Woman? is a film that you don’t necessarily have to watch to understand its significance. People who articulate even the most careful and well-intentioned criticism of the dominant narrative on gender today reliably face a tsunami of attempted character assassination and career destruction. Senate candidates have been banned from Twitter, academics have been fired, world-famous authors have received death threats. Indeed, this topic is so fraught that even a Supreme Court nominee felt the need to avoid it. Gender just is not worth expressing an opinion on for most people who wish to remain in the good graces of polite society, which explains why critics have largely ignored the film despite its popularity. What is a Woman? gives voice to a widely-held perspective that our popular culture has effectively marginalized—that by itself makes the film a positive contribution.
The highlight of What is a Woman? is Walsh’s skill in coaxing his interview subjects into incriminating themselves. He speaks to a gender studies professor, a therapist, a pediatrician, and “the nation’s pre-eminent sex-change surgeon,” none of whom are able to define womanhood without relying on abstruse academic jargon or circular reasoning. When Walsh gently tries to get them to respond to their detractors, several of them dismiss the very notion that such detractors exist. None seem to have even a passing familiarity with the counterarguments to ideas like the fluidity of gender and sex or practices like gender-affirming healthcare. Meanwhile, Walsh is able to get clear answers from the elderly owner of a Star Wars paraphernalia store, pastoral tribesmen in Tanzania, and, at the very end of the movie, his wife, who informs him that a woman is simply “an adult human female.”*
The movie’s titular question also relates to its secondary theme: a defense of objective truth. Such a defense is laudable; the idea that objective truth exists and is discoverable is central to the Enlightenment values from which all liberal democracies are derived. It is also clearly necessary, as evidenced by most of Walsh’s subjects who insist that the idea of a non-relativistic truth is unfounded and, according to the gender studies professor, “deeply transphobic.”
However, Walsh goes further than defending objective truth as a real concept. Throughout the film, his conservative policy preferences are smuggled in with the facts about gender and transgender healthcare. This alloys a film that could have achieved Walsh’s stated goal of transcending the “conservative bubble” of his typical audience and potentially swayed public opinion.
For example, it is objectively true to point out, as the film does, that the use of puberty blockers and hormone therapy on kids come with serious developmental risks. The irreversibility of these treatments is another fact that the votaries of critical gender theory consistently obfuscate—one blue-haired pediatrician that Walsh interviews claims that puberty blockers only “pause puberty.” On the other hand, puberty itself is irreversible in the same way, which means these gender transition treatments are the most effective the earlier they are given. It follows, then, that puberty blockers and hormone therapy can be incredibly positive for transgender kids who don’t go on to regret their transition later in life.
Families should approach this decision by learning the facts and appreciating the risks. But how they ultimately choose to weigh the risks against the benefits is up to them. A family making a well-informed decision that medical transition is the best plan for their child has nothing to do with them denying “objective truth,” as Walsh condescendingly insinuates. It is just one possible answer to an immensely difficult and emotional question.
Another “objective truth” that viewers are taught in the film is that nobody can legitimately be transgender. Walsh’s descriptor of choice for transgender women is “men who think they are women,” “men pretending to be women,” or one of their equivalents. In one interview, he compares gender dysphoria to believing in Santa Claus. In another, he compares transgenderism to trans-ableism, which he explains is a condition where an able-bodied person identifies as disabled. These gratuitous comments and others like them nearly ruin what are otherwise engaging interviews. It is painful at times to watch as Walsh adeptly probes his subjects, getting them to willingly express their most shockingly absurd opinions, only to reveal himself as a provocateur by inserting some silly and offensive non-sequitur.
A responsible medical professional that Walsh interviews, Dr. Miriam Grossman, explains the importance of distinguishing between the people who genuinely have gender dysphoria and what is happening today, where kids with no history of discomfort with their biological sex seem to be getting swept up in a social contagion, in which transgender people are not merely accepted but lionized. This distinction, of course, doesn’t align with Walsh’s narrative that nobody actually has gender dysphoria, so he simply moves right along pretending that Dr. Grossman never mentioned it.
Perhaps the most ignoble aspect of What is a Woman? is Walsh jumping on the now-fashionable bandwagon of callously labeling all proponents of critical gender ideology as child predators. Towards the end of the film, Walsh sojourns to Loudoun County, Virginia for the sole purpose of speaking at a local school board meeting. The Daily Wire had recently published a story about a transgender girl who sexually assaulted two girls in the women’s bathroom at two different high schools (the story turned out to be misleading), and Matt Walsh wanted to blame the Loudon County school board in person. Predictably, he used the sixty seconds allotted to him to angrily accuse the school board members of being “predators'' and “child abusers'' for their policies on gender identity, which included allowing students to use the bathroom of their self-defined gender identity.
This film would have us believe that we have but two possible societies to choose from. The first is the one for which Matt Walsh advocates. In this society, transgender people are, at best, psychologically unwell; at worst, they are conniving sexual predators. Gender reassignment surgery would be illegal for everyone, including adults. Journalists would be fired (and, of course, accused of “promoting child abuse”) for airing even the most benign stories on transgender kids. There would be no debate around gender identity or transgenderism, because it would be effectively criminalized.
The second option is for us to accept the status quo in Western societies today, where it is considered bigotry to point out that transgender women are different from biological women; where schools encourage kids to interrogate their gender identities beginning in Kindergarten; where puberty blockers and hormone therapy are consistently and erroneously said to be fully reversible; where anything other than unquestioning gender affirming care for children is to condemn them to suicide.
But this is a false choice. We need not abandon biology to respect someone’s transgender identity. We can protect kids and families from unscrupulous doctors without prohibiting the responsible doctors from deciding what is best for their patients. We can oppose radical teachers while recognizing that the vast majority of people on all sides of this issue want what is best for kids. We can acknowledge that there is one objective reality and also remember that each of us is just doing our best to understand and live within it.
Gender identity is long overdue for a deep and nuanced treatment on the big screen. There is an enormous appetite for honest discussion on this issue, and it’s only a matter of time before someone comes along to fill the void. What is a Woman? shows that such a film can be possible, but unfortunately we’ll have to keep waiting.
*Update 06/22/22, 10:39 a.m. ET: This article was updated to correct a misquote.
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