What Is a Woman?: A Half-Answered Question

When I finally got around to watching Matt Walsh’s documentary What is a Woman, I was struck with a sense of déjà vu. The experience was eerily familiar, and it took me a minute to trace the source: a memory of sitting on a Goodwill couch in a one-bedroom apartment, circa 2009, watching the documentary Religulous by comedian Bill Maher. Newly shorn of my natal Evangelical faith and girded with a master’s degree in gender studies, I chortled happily along with Maher at those silly, silly Christians. There is something intoxicating about that kind of humor: to laugh is delightful, and getting a laugh and an ego bump simultaneously is deliciously sweet. Oh how I loved being a progressive because I knew that I was so much smarter than those benighted, backward Jesus freaks. 

What Is a Woman is designed to have the same effect, but with the tribes inverted: here, it is the conservatives who will feel amused and self-satisfied while the progressives are pilloried. Walsh’s interviews with spokespersons of gender identity theory (doctors, professors, therapists, politicians) are interspersed with clips of people who are easy to mock, like a naked guy on the street and a person who identifies as a wolf. When a gender studies professor attempts to respond to Walsh’s titular question, his answer is edited to appear convoluted and unclear—which it may well have been, but we will never know since his words were spun into just another punchline.

The approach Maher and Walsh take to their subjects is a comedic variation of the Pharisee’s prayer: thank God I’m not like these clowns! It is easy to get lulled into that self-satisfied feeling, and I caught myself easing into it myself as I watched. In Walsh’s defense, the glaring incoherence of the ideas being espoused is a prime target for satire. Mocking someone, especially under the guise of trying to understand her, feels oh so good—but that feeling of smug self-assurance is corrosive to charity. Nothing kills the spark of love for one’s neighbor quicker than a laugh at her expense. 

Towards the end of the film, Dr. Carl Trueman makes a late-stage appeal for compassion, stating that we need to “find a better and more humane way” to help people who are genuinely struggling with gender. This crucial point is all but lost, however, because, all throughout the film, Walsh does not seem particularly compassionate toward the queer people he meets, save for the ones who agree with him. 

While I cannot endorse this bad faith approach to people, the ideas and practices of gender identity theory are ripe for critique, and Walsh brings a forceful one. The eponymous question—what is a woman?—is such a good one to ask because it exposes the Achilles heel of gender identitarians: the inability to define “woman” while making emphatic claims about her. Walsh’s interviews, though lacking in goodwill, expose the illogical circularity of the claim that “a woman is someone who identifies as a woman,” and also unmasks the fact that womanhood, without the ground of femaleness, is little more than a drag show. 

In addition to this definitional problem, the film effectively reveals the rampant conflation of sex and gender by those who have appointed themselves as guardians of those very terms. The gender-affirming therapist in the opening scene, for example, describes being “assigned female” at birth as being “assigned a gender,” and uses the compound phrase “sex and gender” without making any distinctions between them. Similarly, Dr. Michelle Forcier, a gender-affirming pediatrician, confusingly describes a chicken as having “an assigned gender,” but not a “gender identity,” and she claims that we can only “assume” that an egg-laying chicken is female. For both of these professionals, “female” points to gender rather than sex. What seems to be happening here is that all sex-related categories are collapsed into the melting pot of “gender,” which has no clear definition and can be endlessly deployed. 

Embracing this amorphous understanding of gender is a self-immolating move for contemporary feminism, and Walsh’s traipse through the Women’s March is perhaps the best scene in the film. There is a deep tension, even a contradiction, between pro-abortion rhetoric and gender identity rhetoric, a tension that seems to go unrecognized by progressives who want to embrace both. Pro-abortion rhetoric depends upon a robust connection between “woman” and “female”; because only women can get pregnant, the reasoning goes, abortion is about upholding women’s rights. But statements such as “trans women are women » depend upon a dissociation between “woman” and “female.” In this rhetorical sphere, saying that only women can get pregnant is deemed transphobic. The Women’s March is a sad emblem of a movement that has abandoned its raison d’etre and devolved into incoherent sloganeering. 

The tone of the documentary is somewhat uneven, shifting several times from ironic jesting to poignant realism and, finally, to battle mode—an abrupt transition that is signaled by Walsh literally throwing a chair. It is now made explicit what we’ve known all along: Walsh was never really attempting to understand the other side; he is not just an aw-shucks-kinda-guy asking an innocent question. No, this is a culture warrior, and he is a denim-clad warrior, taking on the “gutless cowards.” There he is, standing up to the Loudon school board, calling them “poison.” There he is, verbally sparring on Dr. Phil. Yet I prefer this Walsh to the earlier one: at least he is finally being honest.  

This is where the documentary tries, but ultimately fails, to stick a solid landing. Not even Jordan Peterson, in a delightfully cantankerous cameo, has a good answer to the question du jour. What is a woman, Dr. Peterson? “Marry one and find out.” Walsh doesn’t rib JBP about circular definitions; instead, he simply follows the advice and goes home, where he finds his wife in the kitchen making sandwiches. Walsh pops the question, and his wife nonchalantly gives an answer: “An adult human female.” Walsh seems pleased. The film ends. 

Every person I have spoken to about this documentary has found the ending underwhelming, without being quite sure why. When I finally saw the film myself, I understood. Walsh’s answer to his own question, while factually true, is uncompelling. Walsh’s critique is forceful; he easily topples the postmodern totems of gender identity. But what does he have to offer in its place? Any alternative vision is weakly articulated and mired in tired stereotypes: a beautiful wife in a pristine kitchen who needs a jar opened for her; girls dressed as princesses, boys playing with footballs; an opening 1950s montage; scattered talk of “dicks” and “vaginas.” There is little inspiration here. While there are moments when Walsh seems to be ironically invoking those stereotypes, like his A River Runs Through It bit, the entire documentary is nonetheless framed in them. 

This is the flaw of the standard conservative take on gender: conflating cultural cliches with sexed embodiment. Both sides make the same error. The gender-identitarians agree: yes, girls like pink pretty princesses! and boys like sticks and balls! A woman is someone who identifies as a woman, they circuitously claim—and behold: identifying as a woman tends to look like emulating the cultural stereotypes associated with womanhood. Yet, What is a Woman implicitly reifies the same stereotypes. Walsh accuses his opponents of conflating sex and gender (which they do, constantly), but Walsh’s film makes the same mistake by conflating the cultural accoutrements of sex with sex itself.  

Both sides are overly enamored with externalities, especially genitalia. Take, for example, the crass old man who knows he’s a man because he “has a dick.” But if the dick makes the man, can’t someone with a phalloplasty approximate manhood? One can see how this reasoning follows a similar line: a preoccupation with appearance. A better place to anchor the discussion is procreative potential—this is a matter not simply of discrete body parts, but rather the organization of those parts: the totalizing structure of the body as a whole.

This is something that simply cannot be changed, and if the definition of “man” and “woman” is grounded here, the fantasy about being able to transform into one or the other disappears. The procreative potentiality of women exists whether or not it is ever brought to fruition: pre-pubescent girls have it; post-menopausal women have it; women who are infertile have it. This innate potential can be prevented from being actualized, but it can never be taken away—nor granted to someone who does not have it. The very category of “infertility” points back to this fact, naming an inherent potential that is, for whatever reason, unable to actualize. 

In the documentary, only the Maasai people still think along these lines. It is unthinkable to them that a man could be a woman, or vice versa, because “a woman delivers; a man cannot.” The Maasai are aware of sexually dimorphic genitalia, of course, but as external signals of something more important: procreative power. In my book The Genesis of Gender, I make the argument that contraception has reshaped our cultural imagination about what it means to be a man or a woman. There has been a collective forgetting about what sex is for, that it has a clear teleology around which our bodies are organized. When gender is no longer linked to generation, it becomes merely an aesthetic, a signifier without a signified.

And when the signifier bears the full weight of meaning-making, the external signals of gender become intensely important—too important. We must perform and express our gender because that is all gender is now: a performative expression. These gendered signals, moreover, are increasingly shaped by the soulless forces of consumerism and pornography. We are what we watch, buy, wear, and click. Femininity and masculinity have become products, costumes, commodities. 

What is a Woman is a potent critique of gender identity theory, but it fails to give a satisfying answer to its own question. The underwhelming ending reveals our culture’s impoverished narratives about what it means to be men and women. And we are all shaped by them, which is why the polarizing “us vs. them” framing is unhelpful, occluding the fact Christians and conservatives can fall prey to some of the same assumptions about men and women that drive gender identity theory. Yes, a woman is an adult human female. But that is only the beginning, not the end, of what it means to be a woman. There is so much more to say.