Over time, words change. Stretched by the practicalities of real-world usage, our language warps and evolves. It’s an organic, unavoidable, and even auspicious process, but occasionally we’re liable to lose some valuable meaning we can’t easily recover. When that happens, it’s worth consciously deliberating as a society what we’re doing and why, lest the river of language carry us somewhere we don’t want to be.
The phrase “to beg the question” is a good example. As it’s commonly used today, to beg a question is to suggest it by implication. An empty display case begs the question: “Who stole the diamond?” But the phrase’s origin is a poor 16th-century translation of Aristotle’s petitio principii fallacy; what should have been “assume” the question became “beg.” Today’s use may be less complex, but a side effect is that we have a hard time talking about begged questions in the original sense of assertions cloaked in the form of inquiry.
The new anti-trans documentary What Is a Woman? begs its title question, not in the sense of suggesting it, but in the fallacious way of assuming its own answer. Despite mountains of evidence, the movie’s producers and onscreen guide, right-wing pundit Matt Walsh, do not believe that people can change their gender. Actually, as Walsh reveals by the end, he doesn’t accept that humans express gender at all. He hand-waves at chromosomes once or twice, but he leans hardest on common sense: There are boys and girls, men and women, males and females, penises and vaginas. The opening credits feature voiceover recordings from antique sex-ed lessons and they are meant to be authoritative.
By disguising a religious precept as a reasonable question, Walsh and his team have set out to win new friends and encourage existing allies at the same time. It’s an effective strategy, and the majority of us who understand the factual existence of trans people can’t afford to ignore them.
Matt Walsh is a Christian, and he believes that his god is the source of our shared single nature. He also believes that his god is my god and your god and everyone’s god. “God exists. God is existence, God is reality. God is permanent, inexhaustible, unending. God is identity. The origin of our own identity is found in God,” he writes in 2017’s The Unholy Trinity: Blocking the Left’s Assault on Life, Marriage, and Gender. In “transgenderism,” as he calls it, (always in scare quotes), “man achieves his final victory over truth and truth’s God.” Okay.
It’s clear from what we might charitably call his writings that Walsh is a Christian fundamentalist who is personally and professionally dedicated to making sure God’s law is law. And yet, in his biggest, most prominent piece of content yet, Walsh never talks about his god — a curious omission in a movie about reality and identity.
Is Walsh a coward? Has he renounced Jesus Christ for the filthy lucre of his Daily Wire boss, Ben Shapiro? That doesn’t seem to be the case. In Unholy Trinity, he concedes that, by relying on scripture, Christians lost the gay-marriage debate: “We were never going to convince the secular world to respect marriage by quoting Corinthians or throwing barbs from Leviticus. And the more we presented marriage as a matter of religious conviction, the more we vindicated their view that our opinion on marriage was just a product of religious conviction.” By hiding his light under a bushel, Walsh can broaden his coalition to include, for example, the Jungian mystic
Jordan Peterson, who appears in the movie. Walsh’s coreligionists might notice the Chi Rho tattoo when he jauntily rolls up his right flannel sleeve, but it’s an ostensibly faithless movie.
During the George W. Bush years, religious conservatives seemed to lose ground in America despite holding a disproportionate amount of political power. Meanwhile, with only the most marginal support in Washington, the cause of gay marriage steadily advanced. In 2004, buoyed by his unique constituency, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom just went for it and started marrying same-sex couples. Hollywood was an important part of the gay-marriage vanguard, and liberals produced a number of advocacy docs — including A Union in Wait (2001), Pursuit of Equality (2005), and Saving Marriage (2006) — but these earnest efforts were not the most effective weapons liberals had in the culture wars. They had jokes and they had cable.
On programs like The Daily Show, Da Ali G Show, and Penn and Teller’s Bullshit, the Christian right was a regular target for mockery. The Daily Show’s 2004 segment “Queer and Present Danger” jokingly interviewed straight couples “victimized” by the long celebratory lines at the San Francisco city clerk’s office. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Da Ali G Show character Bruno was a naïve and flagrantly homosexual Austrian TV presenter who put homophobes on the spot, like in his interview with an anti-gay pastor. In 2005, Penn and Teller spent a whole episode of their cynical Showtime show debunking “Family Values” from top to bottom.
These are What Is a Woman?’s formal antecedents; the Daily Wire team is trying to do for anti-trans politics what Jon Stewart did for gay marriage. As the straight-man (so to speak) interviewer traveling the country with camera in tow, eager to stump his enemies with facially neutral questions, Walsh resembles no one so much as conservative bugaboo Michael Moore.
Like his predecessors, Walsh lets his opposing subjects make their case on their own terms; he’s not there to argue with them. When I watched the movie, I found the pro-trans voices presented more or less fairly. National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen is especially eloquent on trans participation in sports, for example. University of Tennessee gender-studies scholar Pat Grzanka patiently explains that Walsh seems to be looking for what’s called an “essentialist” definition of woman — a common mistake for students in the first semester of a 101 class. This is a precise critique of the movie’s wrongheaded premise, and if Matt Walsh’s god had only allowed him to understand it, the project could have ended right there. The interview with Grazanka went viral on Twitter under the description: “Lol imagine you seek this discussion out, get absolutely rolled in the conversation, and then STILL put it in your movie. [clown emoji]”
Walsh is obviously not engaging in good-faith inquiry, yet the movie spends a solid third or so of its runtime in these conversations. Why bother? For the movie’s implied audiences, these scenes serve two different functions. For the fundamentalists who find the whole idea of gender roughly as absurd as most of us find the claim that biblical patriarchs lived to the age of 900, these are laugh lines. This audience gets to mock liberals the way liberals once mocked them and their most cherished values, such as transubstantiation and homophobia. But as I read it, What Is a Woman?’s first part is targeted at a second group. These are the garden-variety ’phobes beginning to bulk up the anti-trans coalition, a chunk of the Americans who have never been quite comfortable with trans women but also haven’t been comfortable saying so out loud for a few years. The movie’s neutral, secular, mainstream pose is for them.
What Is a Woman? throws trans women’s existence into question. The form of inquiry can be divorced from its content, and to ask if trans women are really women is not just “asking questions,” especially if a bigot deity has already told you the answer, and especially if you’re spending a pile of cash on advertising. According to Facebook’s Ad Library, the Daily Wire has paid millions to promote the movie on the platform. In May, Vice reported that the Daily Wire had bought between $35,000 and $47,000 in Facebook ads promoting anti–Amber Heard content; that’s about how much the outlet has spent to promote ads for pundit Matt Taibbi’s paywalled newsletter review of What Is a Woman? alone. “Old School Liberal Taibbi Reviews ‘What Is a Woman?’ and Pans the Radical Left,” the ad reads, over Taibbi’s smirking headshot.
If you press play on What Is a Woman? — which I advise not doing — with the accurate, factual knowledge that some women are trans, I have a hard time imagining anything Walsh has to offer will confuse you. Anyone with some background on the topic knows that the anti-trans interviewees, which include a hateful doctor, a regretful phalloplasty recipient, and a sore-loser cis student athlete, are not representative figures. But by pushing the question into the public sphere, they’re activating people like Taibbi. That’s who the first, say, three-fourths of the movie are for. The end is different.
“I’m done asking questions,” Walsh says 78 minutes into the 95-minute runtime. Then he picks up a metal folding chair and hurls it against the bulletin board on which he’s pinned pieces of source material, including pictures of his trans subjects. This is where the film changes tone, from faux inquiry to what I saw as an incitement to violence.
In this conclusion, Walsh takes off the journalist’s disguise and tells the story of how, in September of 2021, he rented a home in Loudoun County, Virginia, in order to get speaking privileges at the local school-board meetings, which he used as a grandstand for his anti-trans rhetoric. The district had instituted a policy of recognizing trans students, and Walsh whipped his fans into a frenzy, spreading the kind of false rumor — a story about a sexual assault by a trans girl that was, in fact, committed by a cis boy — that has led to violence against minority groups for millennia. “You are all child abusers,” Walsh tells the school board, as if he’s reading out of a vintage handbook for hatemongers. “You are poison. You are predators.”
Though religious fundamentalists like Walsh may not feel quite powerful enough for a full attack on secular values yet, they see trans kids as a wedge issue, and they’ve aggressively targeted libraries, districts, schools, and individual teachers, implicitly calling on followers to do their worst. In May of this year, a school district in Wisconsin canceled in-person classes after officials received bomb threats related to their trans-inclusion policy. Right-wing gangs have mobbed children’s story hours around the country. This is the goal of what Melissa Gira Grant describes as a page in a playbook: “Produce local events antagonizing queer and trans people, then go on Fox News, Newsmax, and other right-wing media outlets to put the videos in front of an even broader audience.” With outlets like the Daily Wire, they can even cut out the middle man.
If that’s the anti-trans playbook, then Walsh is a player-coach, leading by example. With What Is a Woman?, they’ve spent millions to take the strategy to a new level. The plan is working: This year’s Pride month looks to have a casualty count. If Walsh and his ilk are successful, next year’s will be higher. They’re begging for it.