Review – What Is a Woman?

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Overview

Synopsis Confused by the current gender ideology movement, a man tours the world hoping to find a simple answer to the question: What is a woman?

Length 1 hour, 35 minutes

Release Date June 1, 2022

 

Rating N/A

Distribution The Daily Wire

Directing Justin Folk

Starring Matt Walsh, Jordan B. Peterson, Scott Newgent

What Is a Woman? is the first film in The Daily Wire’s catalogue to really fulfill the brief as to why they started expanding into the film industry. They wanted to produce content that couldn’t be distributed elsewhere due to the current political climate. As a first-time documentary filmmaker myself, I’ve spent a good part of the year reading through entry requirements for film festivals, and the places where a submission like What Is a Woman? would be accepted are few and far between. A large portion are pro-LGBT+ and state they are actively seeking that content, with some festivals entirely dedicated to the topic. Even women-focussed festivals which are thankfully growing in number are oddly mixed in with LGBT+ issues, which is weird considering women are actually a majority demographic whose potential narratives don’t necessarily have much in common with the world of the LGBT+.

While documentary film festivals enjoy films that tackle controversial topics, few would be willing to brave the backlash and death threats a screening of What Is a Woman? would entail, and although interviewer Matt Walsh has reported legally defined hate speech and threats to his life since the film premiered, it’s only natural the movie found its home on The Daily Wire which was crafted specifically for such reactions considering it flies under the banner of “conservative” within the political spectrum. Some viewers have lamented its limited release—reviews have been mostly favourable with many saying its content was helpful and informative, though they were saddened that the people they felt who needed to engage with the opposite side of the debate were the same demographic that wouldn’t subscribe to The Daily Wire. Essentially What Is a Woman? is preaching to the choir.

While other streaming sites (aside from Netflix) would likely not have distributed the film anyway, The Daily Wire has benefitted greatly on this risky production. On the day of its release, they reported a record increase in subscription sales, and already it is the most profitable movie on their platform. The old formula that controversy breeds curiosity is still true as obviously many are flocking to the site to see what all the fuss is about. But does its reputation precede it?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: None. Although, people are misgendered which some consider to be acts of violence.

Language/Crude Humor: The f-bomb is dropped although it is bleeped out. Male and female genitalia are spoken about frequently where sometimes cruder, more colloquial terms are used.

Drug/Alcohol References: Discussion regarding drugs for medical procedures are frequent throughout the film.

Sexual Content: In news and social media clips there is some mention of sexual assault. A man is interviewed who is standing in the street without clothes, wearing only a sock over his genitalia. Male and female roles of reproduction are mentioned—all sexual content is educational in nature. Women are shown displaying the results of their double mastectomy surgeries.

Spiritual Content: One brief mention of God. The documentary addresses issues around subjectivism and relativism.

Other Negative Content: This is a documentary that tackles the divisive issues surrounding the transgender community—some viewers may label parts of the film to be transphobic. There are two jabs at mask wearing mandates which conflates two entirely different and unrelated issues.

Positive Content: At its heart, this documentary raises concerns for the welfare of children, the healthcare of the transgender community, and the continuation of women’s rights.

Review

Many are no doubt worried about the content within What Is a Woman?. In the lead up to his film, Matt Walsh has freely admitted on his YouTube channel that he is a troll and believes that all ideas should be questioned, be open to criticism, and if they cannot stand up to scrutiny, ultimately mocked. His infamous appearance on the now-deleted episode of Dr. Phil cannot be described as anything other than an utter embarrassment for his opponents as he confidently navigated their arguments with ease, whilst asking some simple yet ultimately hard questions of his own. The most memorable of which was: “What is a woman?” In many ways that interview operated as the ultimate trailer for his documentary of the same name, which released only a few months after that incident.

Like many other documentarians before him, Matt Walsh sets himself up as a character. Multi-millionaire Michael Moore frequently dresses up in frumpy clothes and poses himself as the everyman, while Louis Theroux feigns ignorance in a disarming way, allowing his interviewees to display vulnerability. Matt Walsh adopts a more tongue-in-cheek approach. As he introduces himself as a family man and a father to a daughter, he poses himself as a stereotypical male that admits he does not understand women, and so begins his journey to find out exactly what it means in this day and age to be one. As the film progresses and the topics of discussion become heavier, he sheds this light-hearted persona, and soon blends his fictional representation with his real life exploits, effectively filming an odd dramatic recreation of how he may have reached the point he’s at today, forming both a participatory and performative documentary.

In a surprising move, he actually dedicates the entire first act of the film (roughly twenty-five minutes) to the affirmative side of the gender political spectrum. He also interviews multiple people that hold to that perspective. This makes What Is a Woman? a reasonably balanced documentary. Most films in the genre do pertain some sort of bias—the reason why filmmakers create a documentary in the first place is because they have uncovered an issue they’re passionate about and wish to share it with the world. While Matt Walsh’s journey eventually leads him fighting against the current gender narrative, enough time is given for others to speak their viewpoint in a relatively unhindered way, which is more generous than some other films in the genre. While Walsh lacks the finesse of Theroux and does harbour more of an abrasive attitude, his line of questioning remains mostly logical and respectful, not asking questions that would be out of character of any decent journalist. Unlike his reaction videos on his YouTube channel where he may rip into a TikTok or Twitter feed, he doesn’t deride or openly mock his interviewees; it’s a typical back and forth conversation where he attempts to unpack the other’s worldview.

If there’s any mocking present, then it’s done through editing. To play devil’s advocate for a minute, some critics might argue that Walsh’s perspective is too limited. For instance, to define a woman by her ability to bear children is problematic as not all women are fertile. Some may have a physical abnormality which excludes a part of female anatomy. For every definition based on biology, there would be an exception to the rule. And so that’s what starts people down the rabbit hole of trying to define a woman through other means; the question soon becomes “what is the essence of a woman”?

Some start to lean into stereotypes until they become aware of the habit, before moving into a highly philosophical space that attempts to be inclusive of all the physical and psychological variations present, whilst also trying to be exclusive as a woman by definition cannot be what they’re not, which is a man (although some have given up on the distinction entirely). Then throw in the additional idea that a man can identify as a woman and suddenly there’s not only a whole new layer of complexity, but also a strong desire to not offend, gatekeep, and a desire to be perceived as open minded, inclusive and compassionate. In the process it’s as though a new language is developed, as certain words must be avoided as they can be perceived as exclusionary, as though all the exceptions to the rule have made people forget the original rule in the first place. So when Walsh asks the titular question, the response is mind-numbingly complex and convoluted as the interviewees fearfully try to navigate the English language in a clinical, non-offensive way, rambling about a concept so deep it ultimately loses all meaning entirely. In one interview a montage/time lapse technique is employed to exaggerate the waffle. This is then juxtaposed with a layman who says men have a penis and women have a vagina. The bluntness elicits a chuckle as it’s a refreshing response after five minutes of gobblygook.

Sometimes the contextual framing will throw someone under the bus—after a discussion about mental illness, the film cuts to an interview with a person that identifies as an animal. Yet this is rather commonplace in documentaries and the technique is used to keep pushing the narrative forward. Compared to others in the genre, What Is a Woman? is fairly tame in regards to what film techniques could have been employed to make one side look better than the other. I’ve seen documentaries where the footage of someone innocently struggling with their microphone is used so they can later make the person look like a fool in post-production. That’s the type of tactic I find to be unfair and disrespectful to the people that helped to make the documentary a reality, and part of unethical filmmaking. What Is a Woman? sadly doesn’t need to resort to such underhanded displays—while the interchange may have been edited, the interviewees of their own accord deny reality, deflect innocuous questions, and become offended at the slightest hint of discomfort, slowly digging their own hole as the audience watches on in disbelief.

Matt Walsh interviews a higher than average number of people in his documentary, speaking to people from various fields and walks of life. He covers most issues brought up by the transgenderism debate with the exception of some of the problems that are now transpiring in the judicial/prison system. It’s a wide scope that touches upon the conundrum of women’s sports, the debate over the age of consent for medical treatments, the types of drugs used, the legal ramifications for non-affirming parents, the discomfort of a man’s presence in women’s dressing rooms, the corruption of scientific studies, and the pressure to stay silent. The documentary operates as a decent introduction to most of the concerns present within the opposition to gender ideology although it is far from extensive—after all, some of those topics could warrant a feature length film of their own. What Is a Woman? is a bit of a jack of all trades, master of none. If it does specialise in one area, then it’s the history and progression of the ideology itself. It takes a deep dive into the philosophy and legacy of Alfred Charles Kinsey and John Money which is one of the rarer talking points typically heard within the debate.

In some ways it’s a shame the documentary doesn’t delve into the many different factions present within the transgender community itself, though it does represent it by proxy. Currently it’s a rather fractured group, with debates arising between those that see a clinical diagnosis of gender dysphoria as important and those that see it as unnecessary; transgender, genderfluid, and non-binary communities hold wildly different and essentially incompatible desires and ideologies; and there’s a weird culture war present also between transwomen and lesbians, with some in-fighting occurring amongst the other letters in the LGBT+ community. It’s important to note the “T” in LGBT isn’t a hive mind, and a lot of older generation transgender people have also shared the same concerns Matt Walsh raises.

One such person is transman Scott Newgent, whose passionate testimony steals the documentary. He is the heart and soul of the movie, and his presence brings about a noticeable tonal shift from cheeky discussion to a hard, emotional dose of reality. Speaking from personal experience, his interview gets to the core of the issue, moving away from the definition of a woman and instead questioning the positive and carefree attitude towards transitioning underage persons, which in reality is a serious irreversible medical process involving costly surgeries, potentially deadly complications, and a lifetime of popping pills, where a misdiagnosis is utterly devastating for the patient.

Scott Newgent may drop a large bombshell but it’s not the only one. The second half of the documentary lines up testimony after testimony of disturbing experiences and revelations, which I won’t detail here as I wish to leave the film with some narrative elements for viewers to discover on their own. Suffice to say, these are all heavy, serious issues that are more than worthy of discussion. However, if you have been following the transgender debate closely, then nothing in this documentary should come as a surprise. In a few ways it is a shame the film is only available on The Daily Wire as the movie does operate as a good chance for people stop and re-evaluate what exactly they are advocating. Considering that a portion of the movement arose from a desire to bring more awareness and compassion to those suffering from the horrible effects of gender dysphoria, it is shocking how absent the medical condition is from the debate. It’s not even mentioned in the first act of the film, and the discussion of finding a cure is non-existent. Viewpoints, ideologies, allegiances and goalposts have shifted over time, and What Is a Woman?  offers a good opportunity to re-engage with the topic if one hasn’t been following closely, and navigate where one might sit in an ever-evolving political environment. It’s a friendly reminder to actually have a conversation with various people within the transgender community as What Is a Woman? hints that not everyone is on the same page.

From a filmmaking standpoint, the documentary displays above average production values in terms of cinematography. Considering the film is a series of talking heads, the movie is constantly engaging and the pace perfectly rolls along. It’s a film that will age well. When people talk about the documentary genre, they instantly think of educational content and feel-good stories, and while that certainly is an aspect of the genre, those are typically not the films that win all the accolades. The more hard-hitting movies in the genre intentionally seek controversy and offensive content, i.e., “offensive” as in the subject matter unveils an injustice, which riles the audience into a “call to action”. Documentarians are constantly on the hunt for fresh narratives to tell and the new frontier of topics that will push society’s envelope. As the bravery of transitioning wanes due to its diminishing rarity and the numbers of detransitioners tragically rises as an inevitability, when that demographic reaches an age when they no longer are afflicted by societal pressure, journalists, authors, screenwriters, and documentary filmmakers alike will be attracted to their story, as it’s one that crosses the gender divide and back. At the moment it’s almost too taboo to tell since we’re in the height of the gender culture war: as What Is a Woman’s tagline states, “It’s the question you’re not allowed to ask. The documentary they don’t want you to see”. People in the arts have avoided the detransitioner narrative as there is currently no pathway forward to make the effort worthwhile. Yet What Is a Woman? is an important film, not just because of its content and the pertinent issues it raises, but also how it has modelled a production and distribution route. Watch this space—more will follow.

Positives

+ Broad overview of the debate
+ Decently balanced and respectful for the genre
+ Cheeky
+ Controversial and offensive in the right way
+ Pertinent subject matter

Negatives

- Doesn't dig too deeply in any particular area
- Displays bias
- Doesn't clarify some of the internal inconsistencies within the transgender community

The Bottom Line

Staying true to the documentary genre, What Is a Woman? is the Blackfish of the gender ideology movement, and is a pioneer in this filmmaking area.

 

8.6

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

2 Comments

  1. Thomas White on June 11, 2022 at 3:43 pm

    Thank you for covering this movie and engaging with it in a very thoughtful and balanced way! I’m eager to check it out for myself!

  2. Courtney Floyd on June 11, 2022 at 7:26 am

    As a Christian very interested in the LGBTQIA+ community (with extremely conservative family members), this sounds like a great watch to keep me abreast of the current issues. Thank you for the wonderful review!

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