In this three-part series, Alisa Ruddell reviews and responds to Matt Walsh’s controversial What Is a Woman? documentary, and considers the broader topics of transgender and gender identity, and our culture’s struggle to understand, define, and respect womanhood.
The Untold Harm at the Bottom of the Rabbit Hole
There is no end to the number of rabbit holes one can fall down in the search to understand the rapidly growing transgender phenomenon. I’ve spent a long time in a lot of these holes, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface. From social contagion among teens and rapid-onset gender dysphoria to autogynephilia and “transing the gay away”; from the presence of comorbidities like autism, anxiety, depression, OCD, and trauma in gender dysphoric people to queer theory, transhumanism, and neo-Gnosticism; from the profit-motives of Big Pharma and synthetic hormones as “a cure in search of a disease” to the long history of castration cults (content warning) and ritual genital mutilation; from the regrets of detransitioners and the irreversible sterilization of “consenting” minors to female erasure and the making of “mother” into a dirty word—whatever is going on in the world of medicalized gender transition, it seems to be about a whole lot more than affirming personal identity.
The cheerful rainbow banners on mainstream news sites obscure the staggering variety of motivations and the complexity of sufferings that draw people toward gender transition. The “T” within LGBTQIA+ should have its own drop-down list, for there are multiple groups of people taking similar medical actions for highly divergent reasons. Trans kids, trans men, and trans women have less in common than you might think.
People who have woken up to the harm done to them by transgender ideology (and who lament that “nobody protected me from myself”) are just starting to find one another online and tell their stories; they are joining detrans support groups, doing interviews, suing healthcare providers, and attempting to make peace with themselves and their bodies broken by “affirmative care.” Many in the gay community are growing concerned about the things happening under their umbrella. Right into the middle of this tipping point of peak trans, conservative political commentator Matt Walsh (of The Daily Wire) has released the documentary What Is a Woman?
Truth-Seeking or Trolling?
The stated goal of Walsh’s documentary “was to reveal the irrationality and absurdity of gender ideology.” He takes his titular question on the road and starts conversations with people on the street, with medical professionals and psychologists, with transgender individuals, activists, and politicians, and even with an indigenous tribe in Kenya.
Walsh’s schtick is straightforward: after some soft-pitch warm-up questions, ask “What is a woman?” and wait. If a concrete, unambiguous, and biologically based answer isn’t forthcoming, keep poking till the person gets flustered and evasive, or lets loose a juicy, quotable, and ridiculous tidbit for the camera. It’s possible to view Walsh’s approach as being akin to the Socratic Method: ask questions to reveal the inadequacies and inconsistencies in your interlocutor’s beliefs, thus leading them to a state of aporia (the sense of being caught in a contradiction) so that they can grow in wisdom by recognizing their ignorance.
But it’s also possible to view Walsh’s approach as a form of political entertainment aimed at the crowd who likes to drink “Leftist tears,” and maybe even carried out under false pretenses. Furthermore, I doubt Socrates would have described his dialogues in the manner in which Walsh reflects on his interviews:
I discovered—I didn’t know I was this sadistic, but I do take a certain sick satisfaction knowing these people are so uncomfortable talking to me, and just forcing them to sit there with me for even longer. I did quite enjoy that.
The dialogue partners with whom Walsh disagrees do not seem to realize they are talking to a right-wing provocateur who is calmly trolling them until suddenly, they get it. This awkward aha moment is all part of the delight of “owning the Libs,” and it makes for great TV if you consider pranking a legitimate form of discourse. But the love of watching your opponents humiliate themselves is not the same thing as the Socratic love of wisdom and the search for truth. And because of this undercurrent of schadenfreude, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend What Is a Woman? Matt Walsh pushes all my buttons, especially near the film’s close when he drops his I’m-just-curious, nice-guy act.
But I have to give the man his due: Walsh is unrelenting in his efforts to draw attention to the misogyny, child endangerment, and exploitation of the vulnerable inherent in gender ideology. That being said, when I hear the same exact kind of information that Walsh’s documentary and YouTube channel present come from the mouths of detransitioners, former trans activists, and feminists, I have an easier time receiving their message because it comes from personal experience, and the tone is (unsurprisingly) parental and protective. Still, their message and Walsh’s (despite his gotcha tactics) are by and large the same.
If you’re anything like me—a sensitive soul who is politically homeless and hates polarization—Walsh will bother you. But all those in favor of reality over ideology—of mind-body unity over Gnostic body-rejecting dualism—ought to watch his film and decide whether the mind-numbing non-answers of the gender affirmation crowd are worse than the calculated trap Walsh sets for them, and whether we can forgive him for being shrewd as a serpent rather than innocent as a dove.
Without Sex, We Can’t Think or See Straight
Walsh’s interviews with those who claim “a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman” (be they experts or regular joes) tend to devolve into circular reasoning, uncomfortable laughter, nonsense, or silence. Some of those left speechless abruptly pull the plug on the conversation and walk away. What Is a Woman? demonstrates that thought and speech grind to a halt when womanhood ceases to be a given and becomes instead (in queer theorist Judith Butler’s words) “a permanently available site of contested meaning.” If we lose our grasp of Woman and Man as something real—above and beyond our words for them, deeper than any particular cultural expression of them—we risk losing not only our ability to communicate with each other, we risk losing our minds. What Is a Woman? portrays this double loss. If you can’t take some things for granted, dialogue dies.
The way that we perceive and picture reality is through a sex-oriented symbolic structure. Our thought, language, and even perception depend on the intuitive grasp of sexual difference. Sex predates humanity (and thus human language) by millions of years and formed a key component of the environment in which we came to be. This means that the categories of male/female and man/woman are simply too ancient and fundamental to be tampered with without consequences. This is no social construct; we didn’t make these embodied categories—they made us. Our words are an attempt to point to these categories that preceded and shaped us. To wage a war against this sexed symbolic structure which is embedded in language, in perception, and in our very flesh, isn’t liberating—it’s blinding. Smashing the gender binary is as useful as gouging out our eyes.
Some of the people on the street who are tongue-tied by Walsh’s question seem afraid to answer honestly in this polarized climate where once ordinary statements are being recast as bigotry. Some people just repeat a circular slogan rather than thinking (“A woman is anyone who identifies as a woman,” “Only women know what women are,” and “It can mean many things to many people”). One brave man actually admits, “I don’t know.” Others laugh and shrug because, frankly, it’s a stupid question. The answer isn’t too complex to put into words (contra Justice Jackson): it’s too simple for words.
Simple things are transparent to us; they are so obvious that they become the means by which we see, rather than things that we see. “Woman” and “man” are the kind of intuitive axioms that you see with; they are the assumptions that you use to navigate the world. They are not the kind of knowledge you articulate, defend, or deny (until now, apparently). Asking “What is a woman?” is like trying to make your eye see itself. It’s not the kind of Zen koan that makes you wise; it’s the kind that makes you crazy.
Sure, you can give a reductive, straightforward scientific answer, as Matt Walsh’s wife does at the documentary’s close (spoiler alert): a woman is an “adult human female.” But if that’s all that a woman is, if those three words truly summed up this ancient mystery—this inscrutable riddle—in its entirety, then none of this would be happening. “Adult human female” as a definition is both true and necessary, but it’s not sufficient to encapsulate “Woman.” Reductionistic answers are better than circular ones, I suppose, but only just. Walsh knows this—that his film, which begins with a question and ends with the obvious, is a starting point and not the final word. “The obvious is the hardest thing of all to point out to anyone who has genuinely lost sight of it,” Owen Barfield wrote, and Walsh deserves our thanks for pointing out the obvious in a time when the admission that you’re searching for the truth earns you the label “transphobic,” “condescending,” and “rude.”
From “What?” to “Why?”
I spent part of my weekend wandering through the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. I saw Joan of Arc in her armor beside Degas’ ballerinas; a marble Eve hiding herself and a bronze Diana hunting with her hounds; a pensive Mary Magdalene and a swift Atalanta; an Amazon stringing her bow, a girl with her nose buried in a book, and a rosy Madonna nestling Christ in the crook of her arm. I wasn’t looking at flesh and blood “adult human females,” and yet those halls were filled with the mystery of Woman.
Woman and Man as verbal definitions can never be exhaustively accurate: too many exceptions exist at the edges, too many caveats must be made, and they so easily degrade into stereotypes and sexism. (Hence the Left’s critique of “essentialist” definitions of gender.) These truths shouldn’t be discarded; neither should we nail them down into a boilerplate formula. It is actually those things that are the hardest to articulate that are the deepest and truest things, rooted in instinct and symbol and myth, shaping the silence before the spoken word, framing what we see as either masculine or feminine. These truths are best approached through symbol and poetry, which is how (in His kindness) God gave them to us:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them…
And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Gen. 1:27, 2:22-25)
Woman and Man are not arbitrary labels with removable tape that can be swapped at will. “Woman” must mean something of unspeakable beauty and power, or else there wouldn’t be men desperate to identify as one. “Woman” must mean something of unspeakable terror, or else there wouldn’t be children avoiding puberty as if it were poison, or women fleeing womanhood like a house on fire. We need to ask questions beyond the “what” of woman. We need to ask why she is being coveted and medically copied, and why she is being abandoned by her own.
Additional articles in this series will look at issues raised by Scott Newgent, undoubtedly the strongest voice in What Is a Woman? Newgent’s desire to protect children is informed by personal experience of life-threatening transition complications, and the painful realization that there are things about oneself that transition can’t change or put right. I’ll also discuss the profit-motives undergirding the rush to medicalize gender dysphoria, and explore some of the reasons why women and girls in particular are rejecting their sexed bodies—not so much because they want to be men or feel that they are actually men already, but because being a woman in today’s world has become unbearable.
To be continued…