With promo ads saying ‘time to expose the madness,’ a release date coinciding with the beginning of Pride Month, and a presenter who has compared gender reassignment surgeons to Nazis and Leatherface, it is little wonder that The Daily Wire’s online documentary What Is a Woman? has elicited an immense and intense reaction online. First debuting exactly one year earlier to Daily Wire subscribers, the film has now barrelled its way back into the public consciousness thanks to Twitter CEO Elon Musk’s decision to allow its free, unrestricted release on the platform. Thus, what was once only available to almost 1 million Daily Wire subscribers became available to its 350+ million monthly Twitter users, and the increased availability has certainly prompted increased viewership. According to Twitter’s metrics, the film has been trending, viewed more than 160 million times, and elicited innumerable comments and likes. It is fair to say that Walsh and Daily Wire have captured people’s attention. And while the film’s stance on gender could be dissected ad nauseum, there is also a Trojan Horse aspect of the film: its narrative about race.
The premise of the film is that presenter Matt Walsh wants to know the answer to the titular question: ‘what is a woman?’ In fact, while Walsh frequently reiterates the question, the film devotes much of its time to contemplating trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming identities. In practice, the film is less about ‘what is a woman’ and more like ‘who can/should be a woman’? Staunch defenders of the film may argue that launching a criticism about race in a film about gender misses the mark or is ‘woke’ overanalysing. However, just like a person must balance a series of different identities (race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.), so too must a documentary about identity. More than this, Walsh and the writers of the film have clearly devoted considerable time to crafting this documentary and given much thought to its optics (apparent in the choice to debut it during Pride month). They can hardly be called unaware as to the narratives they promote. I contend that this is just as true for its narrative about race as it is about gender. Indicative of what was to come, the title sequence features archival clips of women, none of whom appears to be a woman of colour. This is a film that reinforces racist worldviews without actually saying the so much out loud. That said, what else can be expected from a film fronted by Walsh, a man known to promote the racist Great Replacement Theory as fact?
Walsh makes a point to articulate his concern about gender ideology in relation to what might be characterised as the ‘harm – care’ spectrum; the opening minutes of the film even feature him worrying about how he can parent his daughters if he is confused about the definition of a woman. The film contrasts the threat of self-harm/suicide in the absence of gender-affirming care, with the ‘actual’ harm done by medical treatments, by attacks by trans people in public toilets, and by trans athletes dominating competitions and beating cis women for scholarships, etc. In pursuit of ‘the truth’ about gender, Walsh interviews an subjects across North America – from medical professionals to university professors, from those strolling in New York City and San Francisco to those marching in the Women’s March. These are intended to give the impression that Walsh was speaking to a wide array of people with reasonable insight into the titular question. However, this is far from true.
Walsh speaking at the 2022 AmericaFest
According to research from UCLA’s Williams Institute, approximately 45 per cent of trans adults and more than 50 per cent of trans youth identify as ‘non-white.’ And yet, the vast majority of Walsh’s North American interviewees are white-presenting, and all but one of those supporting transgender rights and gender-affirming care present as white. Further, Walsh interviews a few white-presenting trans people, but never poses questions to trans people of colour; this despite the fact that, according.’ The closest the documentary comes to featuring trans people of colour is in the several photographs they feature of black trans female athletes competing in sports.
The limited inclusion of non-white people appears to translate into blind spots within the interviews themselves. For instance, there is no discussion about how various racial and ethnic communities in North America might answer Walsh’s main question differently. And amidst conversations about harm and the trans community, there is no talk of the serious issue of the particularly high rate of violence against trans women of colour.
That said, there is one extremely notable exception to the absence of people of colour in the documentary. Frustrated by the perceived convoluted non-answers of North American intellectuals – academics, doctors – and activists, Walsh travels to a Maasai village in Kenya. When asked to provide a definition of a woman, they unhesitatingly respond that it comes down to organs and reproduction, i.e. men have penises and women have vaginas; women give birth and men cannot.
Thus answered, Walsh concludes the excursion with a voice over that declares: ‘The Maasai people don’t think much about gender. But they have a firm sense of their identity. It’s clear that gender ideology is a uniquely Western phenomenon.’ Fleetingly stated, these three sentences are the lynchpin of the film’s overarching racist messaging.
On its face, Walsh’s line that the Maasai do not think about gender is both incredibly inaccurate and intentionally misleading. The Maasai have a rich culture that includes many rituals related to transitioning from girls to women or from boys to men, thus very much indicating reflections on the question ‘what is a woman?’. Perhaps he avoids the topic because he does not want to discuss a particularly controversial aspect of how some Maasai define and demarcate womanhood – the practice of female circumcision (otherwise known as female genital mutilation or FGM); this absence is particularly glaring given the extensive amount of time spent highlighting the perceived harm done to people who undergo gender-affirming surgeries in the West. According to various members of the community and international organisations, historically, FGM has been considered a major milestone towards womanhood for many Maasai girls. At the same time, FGM is now illegal in Kenya and Tanzania, recent reports indicate that views about FGM are changing (thanks to advocacy work from within and without the Maasai community), and FGM is less common. Clearly the definition of womanhood is changing for the Maasai, and its people are discussing and debating the parameters of womanhood.
Additionally, why is it that when his Maasai interviewees can answer his question, Walsh characterised them as being fairly unthinking? In theory, the purpose of his long, (allegedly) thoughtful quest is to find an answer to his question, so that he too could answer quickly and clearly. Why not assume that the Maasai people he interviewed can provide an answer because they spent/spend a great deal of time thinking about this topic before reaching a conclusion?
In his closing statement, Walsh asserts that ‘gender ideology is a uniquely Western phenomenon.’ Although he never defines ‘gender ideology,’ it would appear that he means navigating a non-binary definition of gender. If so, the idea that non-binary gender identities exist only in the West is clearly false. There are many non-Western communities do not define gender using a binary. To name only a few, think of the Muxe in Mexico; hijras in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; the Mapuche in Chile; the kathoey in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos; and the Fa’afaine and Fa’afatama in Samoa. A basic web search would have shown Walsh and the film’s writers as much.
A celebration of the 2015 Vela Muxe Fiesta
credit: Secretaría de Cultura de la Ciudad de México
Walsh characterises the answers of his few dozen Maasai interviewees as those held by all non-white people. The proposition that the views of these few dozen individuals are shared by billions of non-Western people across several continents is just wildly implausible.
Walsh never explains why he thinks of these Maasai interviewees as the voices of the entire non-Western world. In fact, he never even explains the logic behind this sojourn to this Maasai village. In a film supposedly concerned with the role of gender within the American/North American zeitgeist, the logic of traveling halfway across the world for a definition hardly goes without saying. Why ask these specific individuals, or even why select ‘representatives’ within the Maasai ethnic group? Why not ask other communities within the US, or elsewhere in North America, or elsewhere on the Western Hemisphere for that matter?
Whether or not the documentary means to promote a racist narrative, its limited representation, logical leaps, and misinformation do in fact promote an extremely problematic set of narratives surrounding race. For one, it subtly elides whiteness and the West. The vast majority of people Walsh interviews in North America are white, whereas the Maasai cohort he interviews is entirely non-white and tokenised as representative of the entire non-Western world. The contrast is thus between the white West and the non-white rest of the world. The film thereby implicitly conflates whiteness and the West, which is a classic talking-point of white supremacists/nationalists who want white ethno-states in the West.
Also, whereas Walsh consults many Western academics and doctors, he never speaks to (or even acknowledges the existence of) their colleagues anywhere else in the world. Further, tonally, the film presents the North American scholars/doctors as either being backed by medical evidence (if they are critical of ‘gender ideology’) or spouting over-intellectualised and convoluted definitions designed to please the progressive agenda (in the case of trans-inclusive subjects). By contrast, when Maasai subjects give a straight answer, Walsh chalks up to them just not thinking much about gender. While Walsh he is clearly more pleased their answer, taking this approach means that the film nevertheless promotes the dichotomy of the ‘intellectual’ (white) West and the unthinking (non-white) rest of the world. White supremacy thrives off of just such a hierarchical articulation of intelligence.
What is a Woman? is ostensibly about contemporary questions of gender. But secreted within the film’s messaging about gender were more subtle ones about race. Whether intentional or subconsciously, the filmmakers reinforce racially supremacist narratives. Among the many questions I have for Walsh and the filmmakers, my first responds in kind to his ‘simple’ question of ‘what is a woman?.’ I would ask: ‘What is a racist?’