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 transgenderism, gender identity, and our culture’s struggle to understand, define, and respect womanhood.
“I feel like I burned my own house down and now I’m homesick but I don’t really get to be.”
“I’m so just, lost. I have no idea who I am. I don’t know what to do or where to go from here.”
“My life is actually ruined and I did it to myself. I will never forgive myself.”
“It’s not that I feel like I want a penis, it’s that I feel like I just don’t want private parts.”
“I hate what my body looks like now and what I’ve done to it. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see myself.”
“Transition hasn’t cured the feeling of being an alien, it only ever seemed to have confirmed it.”
“I’m not trans! I’m a woman who made a mistake!!”
“I had a very negative, destructive image of womanhood.”
“Transition was a means for escape from the trauma I had endured as a child. … [T]here was something wrong and shameful with who I was.”
These are voices of excruciating regret from women who thought transitioning to be a man would fix them, free them, and facilitate the expression of their “true self.” Each story is unique, but the pain rhymes. Testimonies are piling up on the “Detransition” subreddit (43,200 members), post-trans.com, DeTrans Stories, and detransawareness.org. While many of women’s problems are age-old, what’s changed is the promise of a new solution: the promise of escaping womanhood by adopting a new identity. It’s never been easy to be a woman, but no one ever thought that you could actually opt out. Until now.
In his documentary What Is a Woman?, Matt Walsh talks with people who believe the category of “woman” is porous: anyone can opt in by “identifying as a woman.” The bar appears to be as low as speaking the words aloud, though many go on to act the part with clothes, make-up, mimicry, cross-sex hormones, and surgeries. According to Queer Theory, sex and gender have no essential meaning, but are merely a performance. If we are all doing drag, then there’s nothing inherently bizarre about Caityln Jenner winning “Woman of the Year.” (Jenner definitely has better nails than me.) None of us has a gender-specific potential; we simply put on an appearance of sex, and stick to the script society imposes. Within this frame, I’m not a “real woman” (there’s no such thing): I’m just a decent actress, better at passing than a drag queen, but passing nonetheless.
When Walsh travels to Kenya to talk with a Maasai tribe about gender, they give him straightforward answers that have nothing to do with appearances, and everything to do with potential and duty. When Walsh asks a Maasai woman to tell him what a woman is, she says succinctly, “A woman deliver[s]; a man cannot.” Womanhood is, therefore, about embodied maternal potential, not feelings, roles, preferences, or appearances. Women are an extremely diverse bunch, but our bodily potential for the symbiotic self-giving of pregnancy and breastfeeding shapes us all. “If you are female,” says gender researcher Eliza Mondegreen, “you live your entire life in the shadow of your reproductive potentiality” whether you ever conceive and carry a child or not.
The shadow of your reproductive potentiality. This is what so many women are trying to opt out of, for the features that make us able to be mothers also make us vulnerable. Some men adopt the trappings of femininity, for reasons ranging from the truly heartbreaking to the fetishistically perverse (both forms of which are highly fueled by internet content). But a man can never acquire the genuine maternal potential of womanhood, no matter how much he’s rocking those heels. When men transition into women, they aren’t opting in to our reproductive potential and its shadowside: they are treating the female body like a meat Lego or a Mrs. Potato Head, as if a woman were simply the sum of her parts. Some men do this to ease their suffering; some do it because it turns them on. Either way, it’s a skin-deep matter involving purchase and performance, not potential.
As I’ve written elsewhere:
Women’s bodies are intrinsically homes: that’s both “good” and “scary.” To go through puberty as a young woman is to recognize oneself (monthly no less!) as a mammal, as a creature with hospitable and fruitful potential. It is to be forced into the continuous conscious recognition that I have a nature; my very body has a telos of hospitality, and it didn’t ask me how I’d feel about it. To be a woman is to be an embodied self that is fine-tuned to make room for more people.
It is hard to be female, and seeing Dylan Mulvaney (who just scored a visit to the White House) prattle on about tampons feels like a sick joke. To the women and girls who actually manage their periods every month, nothing about our bodies and our experience is funny. For the lucky, womanhood comes naturally, and motherhood, if desired, is a (difficult) delight. But for many, initiation into sexual maturity is the most disturbing experience of their lives, which is often summed up with that universal euphemism: “Middle school sucked!” It still does, but now girls are offered a “grass is greener” fantasy of bypassing female puberty in the hopes that middle school will suck a little bit less.
I Want to Get Out of This Body Now!
Some pre-pubescent girls are horrified by the approach of puberty and cannot imagine themselves becoming sexually mature and maternal women—a reasonable response given the young age at which many kids are exposed to violent and degrading porn in which choking is par for the course. If that’s what it means to be a woman, who wouldn’t try to opt out? At the same time, with ubiquitous contraception having severed the tie between sex and procreation, the primary rationale for a single woman’s “no” is removed: many young women are having sex they don’t want because it feels “rude” to say no, even when their dates’ preferences are shaped by BDSM. “Catching feelings” during sex, for many, is now just as shameful as catching an STD.
And it’s not only unwanted and sadistic sex that is forcing its way into girls’ consciousness: the onset of menarche is encroaching too. In America in 1840, the median age of a girl’s first period was sixteen and a half; in 1995 it was twelve or thirteen; now it’s eleven. Our minds and emotions haven’t kept pace with this biological shift, which remains something of a mystery. Very few meet the diagnostic criteria for precocious puberty (which requires puberty blockers for girls under eight), but there’s an enormous difference between a dawning sexual awareness at the age of sixteen in a world of monogamy and at the age of eleven in a world whose only rule is consent. Can we blame girls for wanting to block it?
But by the same token, why would we think that such a child’s desire to identify as a boy is the revelation of a new “gender identity” rather than an obvious grasping for the fire extinguisher, to douse that which threatens to set her childhood ablaze? It’s understandable and deserving of our deepest sympathies and our most creative problem-solving—but not our unquestioning affirmation of “the real boy” inside. Recognizing the reality of girls’ distress doesn’t bind us to a specific set of solutions pre-packaged by WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health), whose most recent “Standards of Care” removed all minimum age requirements over concerns that physicians would be sued for treating minors (which they are already doing).
At the Tavistock transgender clinic in the UK (which has since closed after its gender-affirming practices were deemed “unsafe” for kids), hundreds of children were coming in with the exact same script about gender identity, which they learned on the internet. They weren’t coming to get help with their many mental health problems; they were coming to get their ticket to puberty blockers, and many therapists obliged. Dr. David Bell, a psychiatrist who exposed this malpractice, describes the anguished Peter Pan-like denial of girls begging for procedures that end in sterility:
These girls don’t say, “I want to be a boy.” …What they say (at another level) is “I want to get out of this body! I want out, and I want out now. … I can’t bear it a moment longer.” You say to such a child, “What do you think it will be like to not be able to have an orgasm?” They will say, “I can’t bear to think about it.” They will scream, “Don’t use that word!” You say to the child, “What do you think it will be like never to have babies?” They react again with disgust, because they can’t imagine themselves as an older female person.
Such children cannot give consent because they do not know what they are giving up. They do not even want to know.
In What Is a Woman?, Dr. Miriam Grossman, a psychiatrist who helps gender-confused youth and their parents, describes her approach, which trusts psychological treatment and puberty itself to bring healing:
I have the utmost compassion for people who suffer from gender dysphoria. It’s a nightmare, for them and their families. The vast majority, up to 90% of kids, if they go through a normal puberty—they’re gonna be okay. They will be at peace with their bodies, and they will have avoided dangerous and experimental medical interventions and surgeries.
“It Sucks to Be a Girl”
Prisha, who started testosterone at fifteen and less than two years later had her breasts removed, describes what happened when she began passing as a male: the catcalls ceased, sexual harassment stopped, men looked her in the eye instead of looking at her chest, and she felt she was taken more seriously by others.
Prisha suffered from borderline personality disorder and an eating disorder, but her doctors and therapists downplayed these once “being trans” was on the table. “Transition was the biggest manifestation of destroying myself,” Prisha says, and her healthcare providers helped her do it. She notes that every single person in her trans support group had childhood trauma. She herself had been sexually assaulted, so a surgery that could close up her place of vulnerability sounded highly appealing: “I never want to have sex again; make it smaller so nothing can ever happen again,” she felt at the time. “And obviously I didn’t want kids at fifteen… I didn’t know what I was consenting to.”
Anna, who socially transitioned but has since desisted, described her mindset when identifying as trans: “It sucks to be a girl these days, and part of me wanted an escape from that. That was one of the reasons that I wanted to be a boy… I thought that me thinking ‘it sucks to be a girl’ is part of me being trans.”
Leigh was sexually abused as a child and raped as an adult, and turned to transition to cope, a decision which she now regrets but is too far along in the process to physically undo. “I hated my female body because I was brutalized, basically,” she admits. “Yes, I was always gender nonconforming, but if I had never undergone sexual abuse it’s possible that I never would have transitioned… We can’t forget that trauma sometimes leads to gender dysphoria.” Instead of receiving proper psychological treatment, gender dysphoria is often used as a marker of “being trans”—as if it were not a cry for help but an identity; not a rite of passage that took a wrong turn, but a calling; not a result of abuse and shame, but a stage of civil rights.
As more women and girls desist and detransition, they are telling us what drew them toward this ideology, and it has little to do with self-expression and fulfillment, and everything to do with suffering as a female. Women’s bodies are becoming the scapegoat for our culture’s many problems: as long as they participate in these medically assisted self-harming behaviors, we as a society don’t have to change our sexual mores to protect them.
Girls are in desperate need of help to navigate this biological transition—not from female to male, but from girl to woman, from child to adult. They need a vision of female sexual maturity and purpose that looks nothing like Fifty Shades of Grey, casual hookups, situationships, OnlyFans, and porn. Without something good and beautiful before you to blossom into, opting out en masse seems like the safest move. What has become known as “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” or sometimes social contagion, are ways of describing what teen girls do when the ship of their future womanhood is sinking into a pornographic sea: they crowd together into lifeboats labeled “non-binary” or “demisexual” (or anything other than “woman”) and hope for the best.
From Lesbian Devil to Straight Man Saint
While some girls and women transition to escape trauma and sexual objectification, some transition because they don’t conform to what the wider world thinks women should be. Annika Mongan transitioned because “I wanted to be the kind of man I wanted to love.” Not finding him out in the world, she tried to create him by inscribing him into her own flesh. She finally found her footing by accepting her gender nonconformity: she was a biological woman with personality traits that are statistically more likely to show up in men, and that’s just fine. She stopped questioning her body, and began to question stereotypes of how women “ought to be.”
There are others whose flight from being female comes out of a deep-seated discomfort with unchanging same-sex attraction. Some sense that they will be more accepted by family and society if they transition to being men. This was the case for Scott Newgent, who describes the switch from “Lesbian Devil” to “Straight Man Saint,” a decision undertaken to appease the conservative Catholic family of Newgent’s partner.
Aaron Kimberly was a butch lesbian with an intersex medical condition who transitioned as “a way of being myself” without causing others social awkwardness. While happier after transitioning, Kimberly notes that transition “places a big, heavy medical and psychological burden on us in order to soothe other people’s anxiety about gender nonconformity.” Kimberly, who lives and looks like a male but still accepts the reality of biology, writes:
I’m not happier now because I medically transitioned into my true self.
I’m happier because I don’t get homophobic slurs screamed at me out of passing cars, like I did as a butch woman.
I’m happier because I fit better into a homophobic family.
The more accepting we can be of women who “show up like men” in terms of temperament, the less pressure they will feel to harm and drug their bodies to avoid social rejection and put others at ease by “passing.” There’s a whole genre of womanhood (masculine women) that is being erased as transition becomes an increasingly viable “solution” to the “problem” of what to do with women who don’t fit stereotypes. Far from being progressive, “gender-affirming care” is both homophobic and sexist: it reinforces the rigidity of gender roles instead of allowing us breathing room.
Barbie and Ken or Saint Joan and Saint Francis?
Jordan Peterson says sharply in his WIAW? conversation with Matt Walsh, “There are masculine girls. There are feminine boys. What are we going to do about that? Carve them up?” Rejecting the body is one temptation, but another is more likely to lure Christians: rejecting gender nonconformity itself as shameful or sinful. What are we going to do about feminine boys and masculine girls? Ideally, love them as they are, and help them find ways to give and receive love that align with orthodox Christian teaching on sexual behavior.
Gender nonconformity is compatible with Christianity and its traditional sexual ethic. We actually have a history of making room for the exceptional and the surprising, though you wouldn’t think so if you only looked at American evangelicalism since the ’80s, the failed experiment of gay conversion therapy, and the creation of “biblical manhood and womanhood.”
Dr. Abigail Favale, author of The Genesis of Gender, says that we need positive and “roomy” articulations of manhood and womanhood that aren’t “cookie-cutter Barbie-Ken garbage.” She believes that narrow-minded traditionalists and postmodern genderists are making the same mistake: defining “Man” and “Woman” through caricatures, and judging real people by this fantasy standard. She writes:
Think of Saint Joan the warrior, Saint Dominic the beggar—the gentleness of Saint Francis de Sales, the fortitude of Saint Catherine of Siena. One quick tour through the halls of the communion of saints reveals motley manifestations of feminine or masculine genius that defy a singular mold.
While Walsh does a good job of exposing the problems with the gender paradigm, he doesn’t critique his own traditionalism. His film opens with an unironic vignette of a birthday party awash in pink and blue, with a girl and a boy acting in stereotypical ways and receiving stereotypical gifts, as Walsh muses in the background: “I’ve heard people say that there are no differences between male and female. Those people are idiots.” He frames the extremely complex and pain-ridden issues he’s about to delve into with strawman terms right off the bat: he’s the smart one (versus the idiots) and his kids are the normal ones (versus the weirdos). This black-and-white framing misses the entire question at the heart of the gender debate which traditionalists need to face: what do we do about the real exceptions, about the people who don’t seem to fit our categories?
While he interviews some who are compassionate toward those who don’t fit gender norms, Walsh keeps up the vitriolic tone, declaring, “Somehow this madness has infected our entire society. Am I the crazy one? I’m done asking questions,” and hurling a folding chair at pictures of the people he’s been talking to. When Walsh “says the quiet part out loud” like this, he undermines what should be the guiding principle of his entire project: love.
From Information to Moral Formation
What Is a Woman? combines the comic, the rightly critical, and the cruel in a way that makes learning from it difficult: you’ve got to sift the wheat from the chaff. We need deeper and kinder resources that aren’t tinged with animus.
Stella O’Malley’s BBC channel 4 documentary, Trans Kids: It’s Time to Talk, is brimming with the compassion, curiosity, and genuine self-reflection that Walsh’s film lacks. It has none of his schadenfreude, and nary an ounce of American political drama. O’Malley is an Irish psychotherapist who works with gender-questioning teens and their families, and who herself felt and acted like a boy for her entire childhood before embracing her womanhood as an adult and becoming a mother. Puberty, though it was painful, transformed her dysphoria into acceptance. As she puts it, “Nature’s bigger than me.”
O’Malley comes to many (though not all) of the same conclusions Walsh does, but the path she takes to reach those conclusions seems more trustworthy to me. Where Walsh sets a verbal trap to catch the confused, O’Malley opens up and holds a charitable space for those who are confused or misled, who outright disagree, or who are simply “having an experience.” Where Walsh remains coolly detached or lets his rage run loose, O’Malley warmly connects. She doesn’t shy away from tough questions or hide her honest reactions, but she attunes to others with a solidarity that goes deeper than disagreement. By empathizing, rather than by triggering embarrassment, she brings those she interviews one step closer to self-awareness.
O’Malley doesn’t tire of asking questions or collapse into truisms. Unlike Walsh’s documentary, which ends with his wife giving us the platitude we’d all been waiting for, O’Malley’s documentary closes with her wiping away unbidden tears, as she worries for these kids who are being led by an ideology into irreversible self-harm and life-long medical dependency—kids who are just like she used to be. If you’re looking not only for information but for moral formation, don’t look to Matt: look to Stella.
The Yes of One Woman Becomes the Fulcrum of Redemption
God knows what a woman is; He knows what it means to recognize, love, and honor women. He relied on a woman’s willing consent and the joyful exercise of her maternal potential for the incarnation to occur: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord,” Mary said. “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). It does my heart good at Christmas to hear angels and men hail that “most highly favored lady” whom all generations call blessed, because she said “yes” to God:
We sing in honor of thy Son, O Mother of God, and praise thee as a living temple. For the Lord who holds all things in his hand made his dwelling in thy womb; he hallowed and he glorified thee, teaching all to cry to thee: Rejoice, for through thee joy shall shine forth. (Orthodox Christian Prayers)
The virgin Mary reminds us that there is glory in being a woman that has nothing to do with male desire, sexual activity, or outward appearances. Mary is the living symbol of what all creation is meant to be like: her yes is “the power of the creature, a power that opens the severed branch to the greening vigor of God—dead no longer but erupting in blooms. Her yes is the door to Eden,” writes Abigail Favale, “where man is reconciled with woman and both are reconciled with God.”
The Annunciation, in which “the yes of one woman becomes the fulcrum of redemption,” is actually a calling for each one of us. Will we make ourselves into a home for God, into a living temple? Such symbolism is the essence of the Feminine, and is the holy pattern for all people. In Mary we see the shadow of womanly potential become a blaze of light that shines on those who sit in darkness. To all those hurting women I quoted at the beginning, women manipulated into losing body parts, women beloved of God yet feeling homesick, lost, ashamed, mistaken, terrified, angry, unforgivable, self-hating, and ruined—I wish I could give them a vision of Jesus and his mother Mary:
O radiant bright,
O mother of a holy medicine,
through your holy Son
upon the plangent wounds of death …
This death you have destroyed
by building life.
(O Clarissima Mater)
The Christian conception of Woman must be shaped by that woman who knew and loved God best, whose body built the very flesh and bone of God. We need to remember not only the Christ-child who was born, but the woman who bore Him; not only the angels who sang to the shepherds, but Gabriel who hailed Mary as “full of grace”; not only the Creator who saves us, but also the beauty, glory, and dignity of the saved creature who says yes to God, and gets to participate in the healing of the world.