Mansplaining womanhood

What is a woman? What are they for? Do they have souls? Men may never know, as that might involve asking a woman her opinion

Artillery Row

At first I wasn’t particularly inclined to watch Matt Walsh’s documentary What is a Woman? I know the answer to that one already. Everybody does.

A woman is someone who isn’t allowed a final say on what a woman is. Pretending not to know this — that defining “woman” is incredibly complex and bewildering — is an age-old tactic deployed by non-women, usually in order to excuse treating us badly. 

Are women fully human? Do they have souls? What do women want? Far greater men than the host of The Matt Walsh Show — Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Sigmund Freud — have tried and failed to answer these questions (they could always have asked an actual woman, but first they’d have had to establish whether women can think, and then they’d have been back to square one).

As Matt himself says at the start of his film, “I like to make sense of things. Making sense of females is a whole other matter”, noting that “even astrophysicist Stephen Hawking” was “completely dumbfounded by women”.

Even astrophysicist Stephen Hawking! Honestly, ladies, if the author of A Brief History of Time hasn’t a clue what the hell we are, what hope do any of us have? 

The thankless nature of the task may be why the twenty-first century version of The Woman Question has now been allocated to those somewhat lower down the male intellect hierarchy: Edinburgh fringe comedians, disgraced MPs, right-wing shock jocks, Owen Jones and Billy Bragg. 

The proposal that a woman is anyone who defines themselves as a woman — and that no woman may say anyone isn’t a woman — has led to a particularly unimpressive stage of the debate, one which can only be described as the Summa Theologica meets incels r us. 

On the bright side, it’s clear the men are bloody loving it. If you’re left-wing, it’s your chance to put those TERFs in their place after years of having to “do feminism” as part of the right-side-of-history package deal. If you’re right-wing, it’s your opportunity to own all those feminists who suggested female bodies weren’t inferior and that pink, fluffy ladybrains were a myth. As Walsh declares of his film, “the movie makes utter fools of educated elite liberals”. I’m guessing that’s the point. 

I confess to having known very little about Matt Walsh up till now. “I’m a husband, I’m a father of four, I host a talk show, I give speeches, I write books,” he tells us by way of introduction. Hey, that sounds nice! Alas, a quick perusal of his twitter account shows that he’s the kind of renaissance man who tweets things like “feminism is an ugly and bitter ideology” and “rapists love abortion. It helps them cover up their crime”.

He’s also the kind of man who, should feminists show themselves to insufficiently appreciative of his recent woman-defining efforts, tells us we would “rather be a victim than win the fight” and that we “just want to sit on the sidelines and whine”. He’s been, like, getting death threats due to his challenge to contemporary gender mores! Would you risk that, eh, feminists? What’s anyone ever done to you, JK Rowling, you massive coward? 

I first wrote about the problematic nature of a gender identity-based definition of women over eight years ago. Other women, such as Julie Bindel, were sounding the alarm far earlier, and with little support. I know we’re supposed to be eternally grateful to Matt for stepping into the breach. What a gent! As the Onion once put it, Man Finally Put In Charge of Struggling Feminist Movement (admittedly it’s a man who thinks feminism is an ugly and bitter ideology but hey, we can’t have everything). 

In any case, I gave in and watched Matt’s film, just on the off-chance I’d missed something (more fool me; I read Gender Trouble on that basis, and look where that’s got me). There was little in What is a woman? that I didn’t already know from the work of feminists themselves, but that’s no reason to discount it. What’s wrong with alerting the normies to the excesses of trans activism too? 

Walsh never acknowledges the role his own rigid beliefs play

Perhaps the most difficult thing about conveying the absurdities of extreme trans activism to anyone who hasn’t yet encountered it, is that you either sound as though you’re making it up (usually in order to “stoke moral panic”) or the person to whom you’re talking concludes you must have missed some essential point (it would indeed be horrific if teenage girls were having their breasts removed due to social contagion and “progressive” institutions were cheering it on, therefore it can’t be happening. There must be something else afoot).

One of the great things about Walsh’s film is that he shows, first, that harmful things are indeed taking place, and second, that there is no hidden meaning behind them. The therapists, surgeons, academics and politicians to whom he speaks don’t suddenly pull back the curtain and reveal, yes, this is the reason why it isn’t total bollocks to claim that no one really knows what sex anyone is. That moment never comes (and believe me, I’d have loved it if it had. Being a Known TERF is a pain in the arse).

Instead they say things like “a chicken has an assigned gender” and that the word truth is “condescending and rude”. Ha! Aren’t liberals ridiculous? At one point Matt interviews someone who identifies as a wolf (or some other animal. I got bored and went to the kitchen for a biscuit at that point). What’s striking is that you sense his interviewees know on some level that they’re bullshitting. That’s why a number of them end the interview early, citing Walsh’s alleged bad faith as the reason why. 

There are some genuinely moving sections to the film, such as the interviews with female athletes cheated out of prizes by the inclusion of males in the girls’ categories. The contribution from Scott Newgent, a trans man deeply concerned about the impact of medical transition on young females, was incredibly engaging. I could have watched a whole film on Newgent alone, as someone clearly driven by both personal trauma and compassion for others. 

So why, overall, did the film leave a bad taste? Am I just an “ugly and bitter” feminist, peeved that a man has come along and claimed a number of feminist observations as his own? Am I a purist, unwilling to accept any support from anyone whose views don’t align precisely with mine? 

I don’t think so. The problem for me is that Walsh never acknowledges the role his own rigid beliefs play in creating and perpetuating the current situation. 

He finds countless people convinced that the only way to avoid imposing harmful social norms on individuals on the basis of their sexed bodies, is to pretend we can’t define said bodies or impute any social meaning to them at all. Yet he does nothing to suggest one shouldn’t impose said norms, or that his own pink/blue fantasies of girlhood and boyhood might be leading those who don’t conform to feel they are somehow “wrong”. 

“Give my son a BB gun and that’s just about all the emotional support he needs,” he muses over a children’s party scene, all boys in blue jeans, all girls pink princesses. “My daughter on the other hand … I’ve heard people say that there are no differences between male and female. Those people are idiots.”

Hmm. I have three children, all biologically male, all of whom have played with dolls houses and worn dresses. Two of them have Frozen-style long blonde hair and I’ve never bought any of them a toy gun (nor have any of them asked for one). 

Women are caught between two forms of misogyny

According to Walsh’s own gender ideology, I’m on the slippery slope towards the erasure of any stable definition of “male” and “female” at all. This is the mirror image of the absurdities of trans activism. Both Walsh and the people he interviews conflate sex difference denialism with the rejection of gender stereotypes. He thinks we should suffer the stereotypes; they think we should suffer the surgery. Feminists believe we shouldn’t suffer either. 

There’s a particularly grim scene where Walsh attends a Women’s March, and delights in harassing female protestors who don’t want to give a precise definition of the word “woman”. Much as this reticence frustrates me, too, I know where it comes from. The polarised politics of the day has told these women they must choose between denying their sex and accepting an anti-choice, conservative vision of what it means to be an adult human female. It’s a vision Matt Walsh shares.

These women are caught between two forms of misogyny but to Walsh, it’s all “own the libs” fun and games. This man is not on our side, nor will he win over the women he lazily misrepresents as not knowing what’s good for them. 

At the end of the film, Matt returns home from his gender odyssey to his waiting Penelope. She is, of course, in the kitchen, and happens to be struggling with a pickle jar. 

“What is a woman?” he asks her.

“An adult human female — who needs help opening this!” she responds. Got it, ladies? He’ll defend our right to exist as a sex class, as long as we can all agree it’s the weaker one. 

In the end, I’m just so fed up with the machismo. Last year I spoke to one of the founders of Woman’s Place UK, who told me sex-based rights will ultimately be defended best by those in it for “the victory, not the glory”. The people, mainly women, often lesbians and women of colour, who do the dull, behind the scenes work of compiling data and challenging unfair practices one by one. The people who aren’t seeking to reimpose other, equally oppressive beliefs about sex and gender. 

It may be that What is a Woman? helps, by showing some still on the fence that the problem is real. Others, it may push in the other direction. Either way, women themselves won’t be thanked for their own hard work and significant risks. 

After all, that’s just what being a woman is.

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