Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Having consumed an extraordinary amount of information (and misinformation) about transgenderism – whether through terrific books like Helen Joyce’s Trans and Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage or YouTube videos by transgender “influencers” like Noah Finnce or canny critics of transgender ideology like Mr. Menno, Arielle Scarcella, and Kellie-Jay Keen – I worried that the just-released Daily Wire documentary on the topic, What Is a Woman?, produced and directed by Justin Folk and starring Daily Wire commentator Matt Walsh, wouldn’t offer anything new.
In a sense I was right. My mind wasn’t changed. I went in knowing that transgenderism is deranged and dangerous, and the film confirmed my point of view. But what confirmation! Folk, Walsh, and company have put together a serious and definitive piece of work – at once a comprehensive survey, a chilling indictment, and, strange though it may sound, an often laugh-out-loud piece of entertainment.
Structurally, What Is a Woman? borrows from, of all things, Michael Moore’s debut documentary, Roger & Me (1989), about the effect of GM factory closings on the increasingly bleak economy of his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Moore structured his film around the conceit that he was on a quest to track down, and confront, GM chairman and CEO Roger Smith, the tongue-in-cheek premise being that, if informed about the town’s suffering, Smith would certainly take remedial action. The conceit propelling Folk’s documentary is that Walsh, the 35-year-old father of two boys and two girls, is hopelessly confused by the new concepts of sex and gender, which posit that a man can become a woman and vice-versa, and is traveling around the U.S. to learn from experts on the subject – and to pose one question in particular: What is a woman?
To be sure, his first interviewee, “gender-affirming therapist” Gert Comfrey, is right there in his own hometown of Nashville. How, Walsh asks, do we know that this whole gender thing is true? “I learned it,” replies Comfrey, “by listening to transgender people.” “What,” Walsh then asks, “is a woman?” Comfrey’s reply: “Great question! I’m not a woman so I can’t really answer.” In fact, Comfrey is very obviously a biological female. A perfect start for a journey on which almost nothing is what it seems.
In San Francisco, Walsh talks to Marci L. Bowers, “the nation’s pre-eminent sex-change surgeon.” Bowers, very obviously a biological male, presents as a woman – although when asked to confirm that he’s a trans woman offers an odd reply: “I have a transgender history.” (No, buddy, you have a transgender present.) Asked whether some people who undergo “sex-change” surgery ever regret doing so, Bowers replies, dishonestly, that such occurrences are “really, really uncommon”; asked about the similarity between transgenderism and body dysmorphia (whose sufferers want to cut off an arm or leg), Bowers says that the latter “doesn’t have anything to do with gender identity…..That’s someone who has a…psychiatric condition….Pardon my non-medical language: kooky.”
But of course nobody finds transgender ideology kooky. Asked about its critics, Bowers says that “there aren’t many” and that those who do exist are “dinosaurs” – killjoys in an “exciting” new era of maximum gender fluidity. “You know who gets it right?” Bowers enthuses. “This next generation!”
Brown University pediatrician Michelle Forcier, who helps plop children onto the trans assembly line, also finds the whole thing exciting. She tells Walsh that when first meeting her very young patients, she asks them: “Where have you been in terms of your gender and your gender identity? Where are you right now and, more excitingly, where would you like to be in the future?” When Walsh pushes back a bit, asking her if she’s ever met a four-year-old who believes in Santa Claus – and, when she answers in the affirmative, asking whether this indicates that such a child “maybe has a tenuous grasp on reality” – Forcier replies that “they have an appropriate four-year-old handle on reality” and that the child’s belief in Santa Claus shows just “how wonderful that four-year-old and their imagination is!” Like Bowers, she obviously feels that – along with her pre-teen patients, whom she praises for recognizing that “our antiquated ways just don’t apply to them” and for “rejecting a lot of our social mores” – she’s on the cutting edge of a super-duper social revolution.
Cheery stuff. But things turn dark when Walsh asks Forcier about her prescription to children of the drug Lupron, which is also used to chemically castrate sex offenders. “You know what?” she says, her tone suddenly chilly. “I’m not sure we should continue with this interview.” Why not? Because by using the word drugs and the term sex offenders, “you’re being malignant and harmful.”
Walsh also gets blowback from Patrick Grzanka, director of the program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the University of Tennessee. At first he’s quite the smug, voluble chap, banging on eagerly about how gender “infuses itself into all aspects of social life” and how gender and sex, although “different constructs,” are “deeply intertwined with each other.” But when Walsh asks if a “trans woman” can fairly be categorized as a male, Grzanka is uneasy. “Why are you asking the question? I want to understand why that’s so important.” When Walsh says he’s out “to understand reality,” Grzanka, echoing Comfrey, replies that you should simply trust what trans people tell you. And when Walsh explains that he’s “just trying to start by getting to the truth,” Grzanka declares angrily that he’s “really uncomfortable with that language”: to speak about “getting to the truth,” he complains, sounds “deeply transphobic.” Like Forcier, he threatens to stop the interview. Then, asked to define woman, he calls it “a curious question” before sitting there ruminatively, apparently stunned into silence by the query.
This isn’t the last time in the film that an interviewee freaks out over a simple question. Later on, a gay guy on a San Francisco street tells Walsh that only a woman knows what a woman is. In response, Walsh asks: “Do you know what a cat is?” At once flustered and outraged, the guy stalks off. Then there’s Congressman Mark Takano (D-CA), a pro-trans Harvard grad who’s proud of being the “first openly gay person of color elected to Congress.” When confronted with the fact that letting “trans women” use public women’s bathrooms makes biological females uncomfortable, he hems and haws inanely for what seems like a full minute before finally declaring: “You know what? I think this interview is over.”
Fortunately, the documentary also provides voices of sanity. Miriam Grossman, an adolescent and adult psychiatrist, notes that since gender dysphoria only afflicts “between one in 30,000 and one in 110,000” people, almost all of the young people who now claim to be trans aren’t really trans at all. About the likes of Forcier, Comfrey, and Bowers, Grossman declares: “It’s unspeakable what these people have done to our children.” And she sums up the baleful influence on current thinking of Alfred Kinsey (whose belief “that children are sexual from birth” led him to perform repulsive “sexual experiments on children”) and psychologist John Money (whose quack notions about the fluidity of gender were utterly – and tragically – disproved by his most notorious experiment but nonetheless shape today’s gender ideology).
Walsh talks to many others whose lives have been touched by transgenderism. Selina Soule, a track-and-field athlete, explains that after biological boys started competing as girls, she went from a winner to a loser. Jordan Peterson, who shot to fame by opposing a Canadian law compelling the use of trans pronouns, vents his fury: “There’s no such thing as a gender-affirming therapist. It’s a contradiction in terms….You don’t get a pat on the back from a therapist for your pre-existing axiomatic conclusions. That’s not therapy. That’s a rubber stamp.”
In the one part of the film that I’d have left out, Walsh travels all the way to Kenya to ask Masai tribesmen about sex roles and tell them about transgenderism. The results are predictable: of course they laugh at the idea of a woman trapped in a man’s body. Funny stuff, I guess. But does Walsh really want to imply that the West should turn to African tribes for wisdom about anything? Surely this sequence is all too easy for the pro-trans crowd to dismiss: well, they can say, we’re more scientifically advanced than they are. (Then again, who on the left would dare to suggest that Masai tribesmen are primitive?)
Walsh’s most moving interviewee is Scott (Kellie) Newgent, a pretty woman who went through several operations before she ended up looking like a dumpy guy, and who, regretting all of it, now devotes her life to trying to talk young people out of “sex-change” surgery. “The truth,” she tells Walsh, ”is that medical transition is experimental,” with side effects that aren’t yet fully understood. She notes that there’s a 70% complication rate in female-to-male surgery, and displays for the camera the horrifying rectangular patch on her lower arm from which skin was stripped to create a fake phallus.
No, I didn’t need to see this film to know what I think about transgenderism. But it did bring some key points into greater focus. First, like the promoters of abortion, who’d rather speak about “choice” than discuss in detail the procedures by means of which a baby is forcibly removed from a uterus, the pro-trans community rely heavily on euphemism. Don’t call drugs drugs; don’t say mastectomy, say top surgery; don’t say castration, say bottom surgery. (These people mangle language as eagerly as they mangle healthy sexual organs.)
Another thing: folks like Comfrey and Forcier and Bowers hold important-sounding positions and are supposed to be respected, distinguished experts. But they’re freaks. Comfrey’s a wild-eyed wacko. Forcier has a crazy smile. Bowers (to borrow Truman Capote’s description of Jacqueline Susann) looks like a truck driver in drag. The more they talk – barely able to conceal their glee at the thought of butchering children’s genitalia – the more you realize you’re in the presence of a very special kind of evil and a very special kind of madness. In a sane society, these creatures would be recognized as outcasts, reprobates, degenerates, creeps. That’s what they are: creeps. It’s striking that when Grossman, the sensible psychiatrist, first appears onscreen, you know immediately – even before she’s opened her mouth – that she’s not one of them.
And yet what comes through so clearly in this documentary is that, for the time being anyway, these people have won – and they’ve won without a fight. Their ideas – if you can call them that – have swept society, shaping new laws and policies and school curricula before the sane majority has had a chance to notice and to say: “Wait just one second.” These creeps may blithely pretend, as Bowers does, that nobody dissents from trans ideology except for a few “dinosaurs,” but they know very well that that’s not true – in fact, despite all their boosterism, they have to be aware, with their predilection for circular logic and their allergy to honest inquiry, that they’re selling a lie (hence Grzanka’s astonishing reaction to the word truth) and that there’s a sleeping giant out there waiting to call them on it. Which is why, the moment they realize that Walsh isn’t there to promote their ideology but to compel them to defend it, they’re prepared to call the interview to a halt.