You are all child abusers. You prey upon impressionable children and indoctrinate them into your insane ideological cult, a cult which holds many fanatical views but none so deranged as the idea that boys are girls and girls are boys. By imposing this vile nonsense on students to the point even of forcing young girls to share locker rooms with boys, you deprive these kids of safety, of privacy, and of something more fundamental, too, which is truth. If education is not grounded in truth, then it is worthless, worse, it is poison. You are poison. You are predators. I can see why you try to stop us from speaking, you know that your ideas are indefensible, you silence the opposing side because you have no argument. You can only hide under your beds like pathetic little gutless cowards, hoping that we will shut up and go away. But we won’t. I promise you that.
–Matt Walsh, in his documentary What Is a Woman?
To follow up on yesterday’s post by Steve Novella in which he discussed the current scientific understanding of sex and gender, the many misconceptions about it, as well as some of the anti-trans misinformation based on those misconceptions, we at SBM thought that now would be a good time to review Matt Walsh‘s pseudodocumentary and show how it is every bit as much disinformation as any antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary. The quote above comes from 80 minutes into the movie, when Walsh is shown speaking at a meeting of the Loudoun County School Board, called so that residents could express their views on Policy 8040, which would allow transgender students to use their correct name and pronouns, as well as school bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity. Tellingly, Walsh rented a basement from a friend to qualify as a resident of Loudoun County so that he could qualify to speak at the school board meeting and make the above-impassioned speech.
As it turns out, this Loudoun County School policy features prominently in What is a Woman? which has been widely advertised by pundits, traditional media, and social media platforms opposed to gender-affirming care and especially the use of pronouns, restrooms, and locker rooms by trans people that align with the gender identities. Walsh interviews Byron “Tanner” Cross, a Loudoun School District teacher who spoke out against Policy 8040 because he “can’t lie to children”; “gotta also represent a community that believes in biological facts and scientific facts”; and “can’t do that to kids”. Cross is represented in a lawsuit against Loudoun County Public Schools by the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF. This conservative Christian legal group also features prominently in a case Walsh discusses against trans athletes in CT.
What is a Woman? is the brainchild of Walsh, a conservative political commentator who hosts a podcast on The Daily Wire, and The Gender Unity Project, LLC, his deceptively named organization used to entice trans people into appearing in his film (the website and Twitter account are now, tellingly, defunct). Walsh’s deception during the making of his film is very reminiscent of the controversy surrounding a 2008 propaganda film disguised as a documentary, the anti-evolution, pro-“intelligent design” creationism pseudo-documentary Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed. This film featured interviews with well-known evolutionary biologists and atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, garnered under false pretenses. Indeed, Dawkins and Myers only agreed to be interviewed for the film because they were told that the documentary Crossroads would feature an exploration of the disagreements between “Darwinists” and creationists.
Instead, Expelled! as released turned out to be entirely sympathetic to intelligent design and used the same sort of deceptive filmmaking techniques as other pseudodocumentaries that promote bad science and science denial. For example, Expelled!‘s filmmakers ahistorically and explicitly tried to blame Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution for the Holocaust, to the point where bioethicist Dr. Arthur Caplan called the film immoral and a form of Holocaust denial. Other instances of this sort of bait-and-switch by a documentarian with an axe to grind come to mind, such as the appearance of vaccine experts like Dr. Paul Offit and various CDC officials in the anti-vax film The Greater Good, all of whom had been unaware of the true nature of the documentary being produced when they agreed to sit for interviews.
What is a Woman? was released intentionally on June 1, the first day of Pride Month. Much as the host Ben Stein did in Expelled!, in the film, Walsh presents himself as a curious “everyman” who goes on a journey to discover the “truth” about sex and gender. Notably, this framing technique, in which the documentarian or a stand-in travels around interviewing people and observing events in a quest to answer a question, is a favorite in pseudodocumentaries of this sort, although, in fairness, it is a technique not uncommonly used in legitimate documentaries as well. Another example of a science-denying “documentary” using this technique is The Beautiful Truth, a documentary that promoted the cancer quackery known as Gerson therapy and was framed around the story of a curious 15-year-old boy whose home-schooling father gave him an assignment to study Max Gerson’s book after he had become a widower after the death of his wife from cancer.
So, as the protagonists did in Expelled! and The Beautiful Truth, in What is a Woman? Walsh travels to a number of locales to interview various people and ask the movie’s titular question of experts and laymen. The 94-minute documentary features high production values, interviews, news clips, a trip to Kenya, and about as much balance and accuracy as Expelled!, The Beautiful Truth, or The Greater Good, all coupled with a degree of fear-based campaigning and misinformation rivaling that found in Del Bigtree and Andrew Wakefield’s antivaccine conspiracy pseudodocumentary VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe. Throughout it all, Walsh demands, “For all of human existence, women were understood to be a certain thing. So what changed? One can’t seem to answer the question now.”
There are (at least) two logical fallacies here: an appeal to antiquity and a strawman. The term “woman”(or “man,” for that matter) has never had a single, fixed meaning across cultures and time, and trans people have always existed. It is not that no one can “answer the question now”; rather, the answer to the question is far more complex than what Walsh is willing to believe or accept. Regardless, Walsh is ever so confident that his film cannot be debunked and that “the Left is terrified of the film.”
We’ll bite, refuting as much of the misinformation and revealing as much of the deceptive framing and narrative as we can stand.
The gender divide
The film opens with scenes of two children, a boy, and a girl, opening birthday presents. The boy and his friends, all dressed in blue, excitedly unwrap a football and play with a BB gun; the girl and her friends, clad in pink, have a tea party. The messages here that sex is immutable, signified by the different colors used for boys and girls, are unintentionally ironic because of an unmentioned but little-known historical fact: The use of color to designate a child’s gender is a relatively new phenomenon that only first took hold around World War I. Even less known is that by the end of WWI pink had become the default color for boys and blue for girls, an assignment that was likely the brainchild of marketing specialists. The rationale at the time was that pink, which is associated with red, was considered too harsh for girls, who were instead assigned blue, a color associated with sky and daylight. Before then, up to the age of six or so young children were usually dressed in white gowns, which provided easy access for diaper changes and allowed for bleaching, as well as easy reuse for each new child in the family regardless of gender. (Indeed, children’s clothes were usually all white before the mid-19th century, when industrial dyes became more common, and even after that white predominated.) In a truly strange twist of history, in the 1940s the preference for colors based on a child’s gender inexplicably reversed, with blue becoming the default preferred color for boys and pink for girls. Over the next few decades of children’s clothing, gender-signifying colors vied with gender-neutral colors, and then the “pink for girls/blue for boys” color assignment became truly cemented in the 1980s, likely due to the rise of prenatal testing, which allowed parents to learn the sex of their babies before they were born.
In the voiceover for this scene, Walsh opines that those people who say there are no differences between males and females are “idiots.” This is a strawman. No one is saying there are “no differences”. A trans woman does not claim to have XX chromosomes; she is just using the term ‘woman’ in a way that is not palatable to Walsh. That does not make it incorrect. Additionally, sex is much more complicated than what is presented here. Dr. Miriam Grossman, MD, one of Walsh’s interviewees who will be discussed in more detail later, states: “99.999% of the cells in the body are marked either male or female”. Biology rejects the binary. Another interviewee, Scott Newgent, states that the skeleton of someone assigned female at birth will clearly be designated as female when dug up. There is interindividual variation in secondary sex characteristics on bone and a systemic bias in the sexing of excavated skeletons, and the linked anthropological study was published in 1972, meaning that this is not new information. Without irony, Walsh states, “Nature seems to always tell the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it”. That is accurate; the truth nature tells is not the one Walsh wants to hear. Dr. Patrick Grzanka, Ph.D., one of Walsh’s interviewees, notes that Walsh’s invocation of “the truth” is condescending and mocking in much the same way as Ben Stein’s invocation of “the truth” was condescending, mocking, and ahistorical. Famously, near the end of the movie, Stein “confronts” a statue of Darwin over his supposed “crimes”. Walsh’s speech to the Loudoun School Board near the end of What is a Woman? is very much reminiscent of this Stein’s lecture to a statue of Darwin in that at the end of his “journey of discovery” this protagonist “righteously” takes the film’s villains(s) to task for their alleged wrongdoing. Where Stein lectured a statue as a stand-in for a long-deceased scientist to blame Darwin for the Holocaust, Walsh lectures the Loudoun School Board as a stand-in for those whom he considers to be “child abusers” and “predators”.
Later in the film, when interviewing members of the African Maasai tribe, Walsh is told that in their culture, men and women have separate roles, men can’t become women, and trans people don’t exist. The tribe laughs when Walsh asks, “What if a woman has a penis?” Walsh adds, “In my country, I can’t go a day without hearing that”. The Maasai tribe’s answer to what a woman is, is that a woman delivers babies; a man cannot. Walsh concludes from this encounter, “It’s clear that gender ideology is a uniquely Western phenomenon”. He’s not entirely wrong, but not for the reasons he thinks. “Gender ideology” is a buzzword originated by anti-LGBTQ activists in Europe. It is neither an academic term nor an actual political movement. However, it is presented as a movement led by LGBTQ and feminist activists intent on upending the “traditional family” and “natural order” of society. The fear-mongering of “gender ideology” is grounded in two beliefs: first, that LGBTQ people somehow threaten Christian values and the traditional family, and, second, that men and women should follow antiquated gender roles, lest they corrupt society.
Interestingly, Walsh interviewed members of just one out of 3,000 tribes in Africa and no one else from any other culture outside of the U.S. This comes across as some spectacular cherry-picking that is unrepresentative of the diversity of beliefs and practices involving gender in the world. It is also unclear to us whether Walsh is aware that the Maasai tribe also has a tradition of female genital cutting. Though the practice is, thankfully, becoming increasingly uncommon, the ritual persists in some communities and is used to prepare girls as young as ten years old for marriage. This seems incongruous with Walsh’s mission: as he states in a clip from his appearance on The Dr. Phil Show, “I care about the truth, so basic truth matters, I want to live in a society where people care about the truth, I care about children”. It’s hard not to wonder if Walsh actually approves of a society in which gender roles are so rigidly constrained that girls are required to undergo genital cutting to enforce them.
There are a number of false equivalences in the film designed to provoke maximum fear and revulsion about trans people and gender-affirming care, including:
Trans-Abled: While interviewing Dr. Marci Bowers, a preeminent gender affirmation surgeon, Walsh asks her about Body Identity Integrity Disorder, or BIID, colloquially known as the “transabled” community. He gives the example of a man who has two arms but feels he should have one and asks what would happen if “a man in this kind of marginalized community” went to the doctor and wanted his arm cut off. Bowers responds that this scenario has nothing to do with gender identity. Walsh probes further: “You think this is totally irrelevant?” Not all trans people have surgery, and being trans is not a pathology. In fact, BIID is rare, and we are still learning its neurological and psychological underpinnings. Walsh’s invocation of BIID is nothing more than a false equivalence clearly designed to make gender dysphoria, transgender identification, and gender-affirming care appear not just ridiculous but dangerously ridiculous; i.e., it’s a form of an appeal to extremes, a logical fallacy.
Trans-Racial: Dr. Patrick R. Grzanka, chair of the Interdisciplinary Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of Tennessee, asks Walsh why he is so concerned with not believing a person who asserts their gender identity; Walsh compares someone asserting their gender to other statements someone could make about themselves: “if I were to say that I’m a black man, would you accept that or would you be skeptical?” Being trans is not a choice; identifying as another race is. Someone like Rachel Dolezal, for instance, does not experience racism on the scale that a Black person does. As author and journalist Meredith Talusan noted in The Guardian:
But someone who crosses racial boundaries from a privileged one to a marginalized one is much more likely to do so for political purposes (as Dolezal seems to have done) or to profit from minority culture (as we’ve seen time and time again with white artists, like Iggy Azalea, appropriating black culture). Transitioning doesn’t often benefit trans people politically or financially; it benefits us because it is a way to begin to make our external presentation match our internal perceptions of ourselves, even as it is likely to disprivilege us socially and economically.
This argument is another appeal to extremes.
Trans-Species: Sara Stockton, LMFT, states that kids are now identifying as animals, and teachers are not allowed to question it “because it’s considered a queer identity”. Walsh also interviews Naia Okami, a transgender wolf girl recruited for participation in the film under false pretenses. On a purely biological level, human brains are very similar to each other and very different from the brains of other species (Naia understands this, as her byline is “on all levels except physical, Naia is a wolf!”) Moreover, people who identify as “otherkin” or trans-species are not always queer. Still, they are often used as ammunition for the conservative right to mock trans people. They have become a variation on the attack helicopter meme.
Overall, the above three arguments resemble jokes made by transphobic comedians that take the form of, “I identify as ‘X’; so you have to treat me as ‘X,'” with “X” chosen to sound as ridiculous as possible. Basically, such arguments combine appeals to extremes, false equivalences, and appeals to ridicule in varying proportions.
Fantasy/Delusion: Dr. Michelle Forcier, MD, MPH, a gender-affirming pediatrician, is asked about four-year-olds who believe in Santa Claus. Walsh states that these children have a tenuous grasp on reality and cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality: “should we really let our children define reality?” (This argument is exactly the same one that Bill Maher recently made in a joke in which he likened trans children’s assertion of gender identity to his childhood fantasies of wanting to be a pirate, leading him to quip that he was glad that no one ever scheduled him for eye removal, amputation, and a peg leg.) There is a difference between fantasy play and understanding and expression of gender identity. We accept cis children: a four-year-old girl can state she’s a girl without anyone taking issue. A trans girl says she’s a girl, and she is questioned, scrutinized, and often pressured into recanting. Research shows that trans and cis children understand who they are, so why do trans children bear the burden of “proving” themselves? Walsh is so committed to discrediting trans children that he even wrote a book comparing trans youth to a boy who thinks he is a walrus. More egregiously, the child goes to a doctor who “affirms” his walrus identity and offers him a “simple procedure” to turn his feet into fins. This feeds into the inaccurate narrative of the conservative right that trans children are being rushed into gender-affirming surgeries, which rarely happens. In his film, Walsh is shown reading from his book to children. For someone who claims, as he did on the Dr. Phil show, that “these insane ideas about gender are being foisted on kids and that bothers me quite a bit,” he certainly has no issue foisting his own bizarre ideas about gender on children.
Calling Women ‘Men’: Walsh interviews Selina Soule, a former CT high schooler who asserts that she missed out on much of her high school career by being “forced” to compete against “biological males.” The ADF has championed her case. Walsh mentions the CT case to Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, the Executive Director of NCTE, as the case where “there were two male track runners,” which Heng-Lehtinen immediately corrects: “they were trans girls.” Heng-Lehtinen explains to Walsh that many trans people compete on teams aligned with their identity and do not excel; there is no inherent athletic advantage to being trans. Dr. Bowers seconds this, adding that there may be some slight differences, but that usually does not add to a competitive advantage. Walsh scores these two expert interviews with the song “Man I Feel Like a Woman” while showing pictures of exceptional trans athletes such as Lia Thomas, Terry Miller, Mary Gregory, and Fallon Fox. Tellingly, Caster Semenya is included in the images shown. She is not a trans woman; she is intersex.
In the film, Debra Soh, a former sex researcher and author of The End of Gender: Debunking the Myths about Sex and Identity in Our Society, reviewed favorably by Abigail Shrier, states, “No one seems to care about the safety of women and girls…in a few years, it’ll be men’s sports and transgender sports.” Given that trans men are men and trans women are women, wouldn’t there still be women’s and men’s teams? Binary trans people are not a third sex; transgender is an adjective, just like cisgender.
Predators/Danger: Walsh presents two incidents as evidence that adopting trans-inclusive policies (in his language, “gender ideology”) endangers girls and enables predators. One is an incident at Wi Spa, an LGBTQ/queer-friendly and inclusive bathhouse, in which a trans woman with prior convictions was charged with indecent exposure after customers complained that she was exposing her penis; the trans woman says she was harassed for her identity by transphobes. The incident led to violent protests.
Another incident occurred in June 2021, when a Loudoun County School parent (who was openly opposed to Policy 8040) reported that his daughter was assaulted in the bathroom by a boy in a skirt in May. The story snowballed, spurred on by the conservative right’s fears of trans predators in women’s restrooms. The girl was actually assaulted by a cis boy with whom she had had prior consensual contact. Conspicuously not mentioned in Walsh’s film is that wearing a skirt at the time of the incident would not have allowed the attacker into the girl’s restroom because trans-inclusive policies had not yet been approved. (They were not approved until over two months later.)
Such is the investigational prowess that permeates Walsh’s film. In a comment to Rep. Mark Takano, who supports the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity, Walsh says, “there are people who say the telltale sign of a male is a penis, they don’t want to see naked penises in the bathroom.” Takano responds that the act is about respecting the fundamental rights of trans people to live and notes, “I’m mystified we’re going straight to the controversy around bathrooms”. Takano cuts the interview short.
There is no current evidence that trans-inclusive policies lead to an increase in sexual offenses; about 60% of trans people avoid public bathrooms due to fear of the very real threat from others of denial of use, verbal abuse, and physical assault. Even worse: trans youth in schools with restricted access to gender-aligned facilities are more likely to experience sexual assault. A review of the evidence on the safety of public restrooms, changing rooms, and locker rooms with trans-inclusive policies concludes:
The results show that the passage of such nondiscrimination laws is not related to the number or frequency of criminal incidents in such public spaces. Additionally, the results show that reports of privacy and safety violations in public restrooms, locker rooms, and changing rooms were exceedingly rare and much lower than statewide rates of reporting violent crimes more generally. This study provides evidence that fears of increased safety and privacy violations as a result of nondiscrimination laws are not empirically grounded.
Two individuals prominently featured in Walsh’s documentary are Dr. Grossman and Scott Newgent. Grossman, whose “practice focuses on gender-confused young people and their parents“, coauthored an editorial with Andre Van Mol, Michael Laidlaw, and Paul McHugh on the lack of benefits from gender-affirming surgery. She fear mongers about the dangers of sexual education, says that “when you reject biology, we’re not living in reality“, and runs webinars such as The Truth about Gender, which sources anti-trans websites such as 4thwavenow, GDworkinggroup, and Transgendertrend, among others. She has been involved in amicus briefs arguing against gender-affirming policies.
Newgent, the 48-year-old founder of TReVoices, or Trans Rational Educational Voices, speaks out on the “brutal reality of medical transition“. Newgent recounts a personal experience as a lens to discredit all gender affirmation, especially for adolescents, even though he didn’t actually transition until age 42. To Newgent, gender dysphoria is a mental illness, and trans people are the illusion of the “opposite sex”.
Other blatantly false claims made in the film include:
- Per Grossman, between 1/30,000 and 1/110,000 people are trans. Most statistics that count trans people are unreliable; the above number only includes those binary trans people who access gender-affirming services. The Williams Institute estimates that 6/1,000 people in the U.S. are trans. This translates to over 1.6 million U.S. adults and youth, a number that is not negligible by any means. A 2022 Pew Research Center survey found that 1.6% of U.S. adults—16 in 1,000—are transgender or nonbinary.
- Per Newgent, all studies showing that medical transition has helped mental health in kids have been retracted. This is utterly false. Research shows that gender affirmation improves mental health in youth.
- Per Newgent, phalloplasties have a 67% complication rate. The statistic is false; one study notes urethral complications between 31.5% and 32.8% depending on flap selection. Another notes 4% urethral complications and 10.8% overall flap complications. Phalloplasties are technically challenging surgeries; despite complications, evidence indicates high patient satisfaction rates.
- Per Walsh, “you don’t get your own pronouns, just like you don’t get your own prepositions or your own adjectives“. Jordan Peterson hates pronouns, too, and says the government doesn’t get to control his tongue. We all have pronouns. Basically, this is a false appeal to “free speech” that conflates those advocating policies designed to promote the use of more inclusionary language with jackbooted thugs “suppressing” free speech. This is a frequent rhetorical technique used by science denialists, particularly antivax doctors, who love to invoke the First Amendment whenever consequences are attached to their promotion of misinformation.
The bad science bandwagon
The hits keep coming in this film, though, in particular a lot of appeals to bad science and dubious studies, for example:
Gender-affirming surgery and suicidality: Per Newgent, the only long-term studies tell us that in 7-10 years is when transgender people are the most suicidal after surgery. False. This is a claim promoted by Dr. Paul McHugh, who used his interpretation of the research to close down the Johns Hopkins gender clinic during a time when care was already difficult to access. The primary researcher of the study Hugh references has publicly stated that her research was misrepresented and that gender affirmation is positive for mental health. Studies continue to show that gender-affirming surgeries are a positive intervention.
Manufactured suicidality rates: Grossman reports that many youth were suicidal before they even discovered gender, and threats of suicide are “terrible emotional blackmail”. But who decides when one “discovers gender”, given it is an intensely personal process? Who decides that prior suicidal ideation is unrelated to gender dysphoria or being trans in a largely unsympathetic society? Statistics on suicide rates among trans youth are consistently stark. 52% of young trans people in the U.S. contemplated suicide in 2020. The suicide rate among trans teens is almost six times higher than that of cis teens. With the onslaught of anti-trans legislation in Texas, there has been a 150% increase in trans youth calling The Trevor Project’s suicide hotline.
Trans medicine as experimental: Per Grossman, puberty blockers “have never been used this way in the field of medicine”, and there are no long-term studies on hormone blockers for children. Wrong. As has been argued on SBM before, gender-affirming care is not experimental. It just isn’t, and saying that it is doesn’t make it so.
Conspiracy theories galore!
The film traffics in a number of conspiracy theories common about trans youth and gender-affirming care, including:
- Big Trans Pharma: Per Newgent, every child “that they convince is transgender generates $1.3 million to pharma”. “Big Pharma” is often invoked by cancer quacks and anti-vaxxers alike, with those supporting standard-of-care science-based treatments over quackery invariably accused of being “pharma shills“. Apparently, “transgender ideology” as a boon to Big Pharma has been a brewing conspiracy of the anti-trans faction. This particular conspiracy theory is especially odd given how small the percentage of the population is trans and how small the profit potential for big pharma would be even if all of them were to decide to medically transition and could actually do so.
- Social contagion/ROGD: Per Grossman, “real” trans people are different from today’s kids who, she claims, “never had any discomfort or dysphoria with their biological sex, and then quite suddenly, as preteens or as adolescents, they come out, and they announce that they are gender fluid or they start to question their sex”. According to Christian theologian Carl Trueman, teens “become” trans because “trans is very cool, trans is a way of giving yourself value” and self-worth. Walsh shows clips from the Christian conference Q 2021 Culture Summit of a conversation between the President of the Center for Faith, Sexuality, and Gender and Helena Kerschner, a detransitioner, who claims social pressure led her to transition. Debra Soh argues that teens go on the Internet and decide to be trans to solve all their problems. As we have written multiple times before on SBM rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), is not a medical diagnosis. Several loud, platformed voices do not make for rigorous science. In this case, as in most cases, the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”. Dr. Bowers is asked if she is worried that there may be a social contagion element to trans youth. She responds, “a teeny tiny bit, maybe”. She also adds, “and you know who gets it right? It’s this next generation.” The social contagion conspiracy theory about trans youth was arguably most popularized by Abigail Shrier.
- Silencing the “opposition”: A common tactic of science denial propaganda films is to present the protagonist of the story—in this case, Walsh—and those whose viewpoint he amplifies as “brave mavericks” who are being persecuted and silenced by the scientific “orthodoxy,” in this case, “the Left”. The Pathological Optimist frames anti-vax quack Andrew Wakefield in a similar light; “Burzynski: Cancer is a Serious Business, Part 2” does the same for cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski. The conspiracy theory attempting to recast defense of the current scientific consensus and criticism of science denialists attacking it as an attempt by the very powerful to “silence dissent” is very common in science denial documentaries (not to mention among science deniers and conspiracy theorists of all stripes), be they anti-evolution (Expelled!), antivax (VAXXED, The Greater Good), pro-quackery (both movies about Stanislaw Burzynski); or COVID-19 denial and minimization (Plandemic). This same narrative is generalizable to all conspiracy theories, even those not directly related to science or medicine, such as 9/11 Truth conspiracy theories and Holocaust denial. Indeed, antivax, indeed all science denial, is rooted in conspiracy theories in which “The Truth” is being “suppressed” by a powerful (and, of course, secretive) cabal to further their nefarious purposes and those who try to “wake people up” to “The Truth” are routinely targeted for “persecution” in order to “silence” or “cancel” them. Given the techniques used in What is a Woman? it’s not the least bit surprising that Walsh leans into conspiracy theories about trans people and medicine.
Elsewhere in the film, Walsh interviews a teammate of Lia Thomas, who remains anonymous because she says if she speaks out, she’ll be called a transphobe. Sara Graft, LMFT, shares with Walsh her worry that she can’t have conversations with her peers because they will not speak to her “around these things”. Soh describes an “ugly history” between activists and sex researchers in which sex researchers have been afraid to speak out against trans activists for fear of ruining their personal and professional reputations. This is a profoundly ahistorical narrative.
Contrary to Walsh’s narrative that “trans is cool”, historically, trans people have been subject to pathologization and medicalization by researchers and health care professionals in the larger scope of systemic abuse, human rights violations, marginalization, discrimination, and violence. Soh, who left academia when it became “too stifling”, claims that it is impossible to do good research into gender identity because you don’t want to upset the activists. Soh’s take is that people who agree with activists get attention, are lifted in the media, and are incentivized. (We at SBM often note that we have yet to get our big paychecks. Also, where are our mansions?) When Target removed the book from its online store, Walsh predictably Tweeted, “the canceling begins“. When Walsh’s book was moved from Amazon’s LGBTQ+ Books category and recategorized to Political Commentary & Opinion, he responded with the following tweet:
Amazon has removed my bestselling LGBT children’s book from their LGBT book list. This is an unconscionable attack on gay rights and a horrific example of homophobia and gay erasure. pic.twitter.com/AZeyqp66Ps
— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) December 10, 2021
Of course, just because a couple of huge corporations did not want to be perceived as promoting transphobia and decided either not to sell a transphobic book or at least not to categorize it as an LGBTQ book does not mean that the book is being “canceled”. In reality, an inappropriate categorization was corrected, and ads for the book were pulled as not appropriate for all audiences. No one was canceled or silenced. Walsh himself acknowledged in a later Tweet that, despite this, his book became a number one best seller on Amazon. Clearly, despite Ben Shapiro’s attempt at humor, no canceling happened here. Meanwhile, Walsh’s book has been relentlessly promoted by powerful influencers in both traditional and social media who support his ideology. Worse, a depressing number of self-identified movement skeptics appear oblivious to its nature as a propaganda film. Indeed, prominent skeptic Michael Shermer has even gone so far as to praise What is a Woman? effusively and agree with most of its claims.
At one point in the film, Walsh speaks with a father in Canada who was “arrested and fined $30,000 for misgendering his 13-year-old daughter”. The truth is more complicated. Indeed, a recurrent theme in Walsh’s narrative is misinformation by omission, sometimes also called malinformation, in which verifiable facts are presented in a deceptive fashion lacking context in a manner that promotes a false or misleading narrative. Here’s what really happened. In a family law dispute, the father tried to block his child from medical gender affirmation, aided in part by an affidavit by Grossman. (Unsurprisingly, no mention is made of this fact in the film.) The case upheld the right of Canadian youth to make their own health decisions by allowing the father’s trans teenager to pursue gender-affirming testosterone. The father repeatedly violated court-ordered publication bans, which restricted what he could say about the case. He also refused to refer to his child by the child’s chosen name and male pronouns. Worse, the father went on various platforms and identified others involved in his child’s gender affirmation.
Jordan Peterson, who has become “Internet famous” for a number of unscientific positions, is also interviewed in the film. Frankly, to me, Jordan Peterson is just plain exhausting. He starts by stating that there’s no such thing as a gender-affirming therapist because therapists don’t affirm you; they help you when something is wrong. He then defines gender as “diversity in personality and temperament,” whatever that means, after which he asks: “There are masculine girls. There are feminine boys. What are we going to do about that? Carve them up?” To Jordan Peterson, gender affirmation is like a doctor telling a patient, “Hey man, you’re sick with whatever you want to be”. To be honest, we find it impossible to figure out just what Peterson’s word salad is supposed to mean, other than that he clearly doesn’t like gender-affirming care. In fact, elsewhere Peterson has likened being trans to ‘satanic ritual abuse’ and was suspended from Twitter for a transphobic Tweet aimed at transgender actor Elliot Page, after which he proclaimed—rather comically, although he no doubt saw it as “brave”—that he would “rather die” than delete the offending Tweet. In the same video, Peterson added, “Up yours woke moralists. We’ll see who cancels who“, a vow that has inspired a number of hilarious memes in which Peterson’s quote is attributed to defeated comic book and video game villains and others.
If you don’t like the answer to your question, keep digging until you find an answer that you do like
To his titular question, Walsh inquires, “It’s a simple question. So why is it so hard to answer?” One is tempted to agree that it is indeed a very hard question to answer, but not for the reasons that Walsh claims. (Also, Walsh clearly doesn’t like complex answers that do not conform with his simplistic pre-existing beliefs.)
Bowers answers that a woman is a combination of physical attributes, what one is showing to the world, and the gender clues one gives, and hopefully, those match one’s gender identity. Grzanka states that Walsh is seeking an essentialist definition of gender, adding that sex is a set of biological characteristics, that gender is a social construct, and that a woman is a person who identifies as a woman. Grossman confirms to Walsh that if a man is a male but thinks of himself as a woman, he’s not actually a woman.
In the film’s concluding moments, Walsh takes Jordan Peterson’s advice: “What is a woman? Marry one and find out.” He then goes home to ask his wife the question. Her cringe-worthy response, as she hands him a pickle jar: “An adult human female who needs help opening this”. We suppose that this is an attempt at humor on Walsh’s part.
A propaganda film with nothing new to say
As observed by Dr. David Gorski in his review of VAXXED, all documentaries have a definite point of view; none are truly “neutral” (although some are obviously much less neutral than others). However, having a point of view and a narrative that a filmmaker is trying to convey to the audience does not imply permission to present information and data deceptively or dishonestly. Walsh’s “documentary” not only presents misinformation as fact, but, just as VAXXED cycles through a “greatest hits” list of anti-vaccine false claims and tropes, What is a Woman? plays back a similar “greatest hits” list of the most pernicious anti-trans tropes and false claims, such as:
- There is a “gender ideology” that denies “biological sex.”
- ROGD is real.
- Trans women are not only “not real women” but present an existential threat to children and “real” women.
- Gender-affirming medicine is not just experimental but very dangerous. (This last trope echoes a favorite antivax trope claiming that vaccines—especially COVID-19 mRNA-based vaccines—are “experimental” and “dangerous“.)
The film has already received accolades from numerous media outlets, making it a dangerous and influential piece of propaganda that further fuels the anti-trans movement. It should not be surprising that it utilizes techniques common to all propaganda films designed to deny consensuses based on science and medicine or other areas of academic expertise, such as history.
In the end, Walsh is no more an expert on gender than Jenny McCarthy is on vaccines or Ben Stein is on evolution; all are lay people invoking bad science to support their ideologies. With his film, Walsh clearly did not set out to honestly seek answers to a perplexing question, even if they are complex. Instead, he started with a conclusion and then sought out sources to support that conclusion, no matter how dubious the source, making this film an exercise not in honest truth-seeking but rather motivated reasoning. In making this film, Walsh not-coincidentally fueled the flames of conservative pundits and internet trolls to further mock and degrade trans people using fake experts, bad science, false equivalences, conspiracy theories, and blatantly false claims to reach his predetermined conclusion. We fear that What is a Woman? will still be used by anti-trans activists five and ten years from now, just as VAXXED and Expelled! are still used today by, respectively, antivaccine activists to demonize vaccines and creationists to attack Darwin. That’s because What is a Woman? is an example of the same tool that antivaxxers, creationists, and other science-denying conspiracy theorists use to promote their messages.