Matt Walsh Needs to Know: What IS a Woman??

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I’ve been disturbed over the past several years to notice that more and more often when someone in my circle of friends or people I follow on social media mention the name “Matt Walsh,” they’re NOT referring to the comedic genius who founded the Upright Citizens Brigade. They’re NOT talking about the guy who was nominated for several Emmys for his excellent portrayal of Press Secretary Mike McLintock in Veep. They’re NOT talking about the guy who perfectly embodied Joseph Pulitzer in that one episode of Drunk History. No. No, more and more often they are in fact talking about this dumbass: Matt Walsh, AM talk radio host, former contributor to Glenn Beck’s The Blaze, and prominent advocate for the Nazi ideology known as the “Great Replacement Theory,” which I covered in detail a few weeks back because it, you know inspired at least one of America’s recent mass shootings. You can see why I am dismayed at this…well…Great Matt Walsh Replacement. “They’re” replacing good decent funny Matt Walshes with shitty neo-Nazi Matt Walshes. It’s not a theory, it’s happening and it SUCKS.

Recently, Walsh has been making headlines for a movie he made called “What is a Woman?” According to Wikipedia, this is the plot:

The documentary featured Walsh asking the question “What is a woman?” to strangers around the world and to others including a pediatrician, a gender-affirming family and marriage therapist, and psychologist Jordan Peterson. Walsh also discussed the terms “non-binary” and “transgender” with an African tribe.

Impressive that it got somehow less hinged with every sentence. At first I was like wait, what does Jordan Peterson know about gender and biology and then I was like hold on did he just pick a random African tribe and also why and what the fuck?

A viewer recently sent me a message about this movie, writing in part, “So while I’m certain that trans women are women, I hate the hypothetical situation where I’m asked to define “woman” and I spend fifteen minutes throwing caveat after caveat to explain how trans women are women. I was wondering how you would define woman to be trans inclusive in a concise manner? I ask you specifically, Rebecca Watson, because it’s YOU whom I watch to feel comforted and I figured it was worth a shot asking.”

Okay, look: I am not going to sit here and watch Matt Walsh’s braindead documentary. I would rather spend two hours gargling cat piss. I saw back in February that Walsh had pulled a page from the creationist playbook in making this movie, trying to trick trans activists into appearing on camera and probably having their words chopped into bits and used against them: Eli Erlick revealed on Twitter that after some back and forth, a few red flags encouraged her to research the “grad student” she was speaking with about a “self-funded” documentary “exploring the real lives of people in the LGBTQIA+ communities” for the “Gender Unity Project.” Erlick discovered that student was actually Matt Walsh’s producer using her middle name and a friendly-sounding organization to try to trick her into appearing on camera.

This is literally what creationists did in Ben Stein’s 2008 documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed: PZ Myers, Eugenie Scott and others reported that they were told the movie would be called “Crossroads: The Intersection of Science and Religion,” and the producers showed them “a blurb implying an approach to the documentary crediting Darwin with “the answer” to how humanity developed.” Meanwhile, if someone is making a documentary about how evolution is established science, they don’t have to lie to interviewees and edit their answers dishonestly because they have the advantage of, you know, representing reality. So it’s a bit of a red flag, is all.

But I also don’t need to watch this movie because Walsh hasn’t exactly been quiet about what he thinks of transgender people: he’s written articles, he’s been on Dr. Phil, and he’s even written a transphobic children’s book called “Johnny the Walrus” about a little boy who thinks he’s a walrus but he’s not. I’m not going to read that either, but I assume Johnny uses his new walrus identity to infiltrate a walrus-only space and molest them, because trans=bad or whatever.

Walsh is a “gender essentialist,” someone who thinks that gender as scientists understand it doesn’t really exist: your “gender” is whatever sex you are assigned at birth based upon your genitalia and/or your chromosomes and/or your hormones. In reality, the past 50 years of research have led to a higher level, more complicated understanding of sex and gender: to put it very very simply, though, “sex” refers to those biological factors, “gender” is a social construct that describes how our culture expects a person to look and behave according to their assigned sex, and “gender identity” is how a person feels inside and chooses to look and behave. Despite what transphobes like Walsh claim, none of those definitions is controversial and the only real question is over how simply we should put these things depending on whether we’re educated children, or adults, or bozos like Matt Walsh.

We do this with pretty much every scientific concept: in terms of evolution, before society knew any better we taught kids that all animals were made in God’s image, as-is. Once we did know better, we figured that young children can learn about how different animals have different physical features that aid in their survival without understanding things like punctuated equilibrium. Here in the US our educational standards suggest that evolution is too complicated a subject to teach to kids under 12 – the problem with that, though, is that in the absence of understanding evolution, children adopt a teleological understanding of the world: giraffe’s have long necks so that they can reach leaves high in trees, for instance (which was for a time an accepted hypothesis itself). That type of thinking can correctly apply to other areas of their lives, and so it can get stuck in their head and make it more difficult for them to unlearn it later in order to learn the correct story: that giraffes with shorter necks may have died before reproducing, while long-necked giraffes had an advantage that helped them survive and pass on their long-necked genes.

In 2014 researchers at Boston University found that five year olds were actually able to grasp the correct explanation for evolution using a simple short storybook about fictional mammals with skinny trunks. The kids were even able to generalize the concept from those fictional mammals to other animals several months later, and all the 7- and 8-year old kids who were tested were able to articulate that “the reason why…animals changed over time was because individuals with more beneficial traits outsurvived and outreproduced others in the group.”

Why am I talking so much about evolution? Because it conveniently mirrors this other scientific concept and how we teach it to children. For years our society figured males/men have penises and “xy” chromosomes and females/women have vaginas and “xx” chromosomes, and that’s what we taught children. Now we know that’s an overly simplistic understanding, but many people think that that’s all children are even able to learn. Is that true? Probably not! Those BU scientists were able to distill a complicated scientific topic into a 10-page storybook that was able to educate 5-year olds. It’s not mind-blowing that we can come up with ways to teach kids that, say, MOST people have either a penis or a vagina, but not all people. MOST people have “xx” or “xy” chromosomes, but not all. MOST people have sex organs that “match” their chromsomes, but not all. MOST people look and behave the way society expects someone with their sex organs and chromosomes to look and behave, but not all. And MOST people will feel in their hearts that they are the sex they were assigned at birth, but not all. And that’s okay! All of that is okay.

And so when you have people like Matt Walsh marching around demanding random people answer the question “what is a woman,” they are in a sense weaponizing their own ignorance, and also their own terror at the idea of their ignorance. You could (and creationists have) march around demanding people answer “what is evolution,” and then throw an absolute fit because they don’t say “it’s when giraffes grow long necks to reach tall trees.” It’s not the right answer but it’s a simple answer that supports your slightly “off” worldview. You understand it, you don’t have to challenge your brain, and you don’t have to confront the idea that the world is more complicated than you thought when you were five years old. That’s why Walsh, and his fellow transphobes, want the answer to be “a woman is a person with a vagina” or “a person with a uterus” or “a person with “xx” chromosomes” or “a person who produces eggs” or whatever.

But any adult who graduated high school should hopefully see the problem with that: millions of women don’t have those things, and not just trans women. Millions of cis women have had hysterectomies, or were born without a uterus, or a vagina, or fallopian tubes, or “xx” chromosomes. It’s relatively rare, but with 8 billion in the world, relatively rare cases mean millions of cases.

But hey, I get it: as the viewer who wrote to me articulated, what DO you do in that hypothetical situation where a beardy white guy runs up to you like a bigoted Billy on the Street and demands you answer, “WHAT IS A WOMAN?” So here you go, an answer I’m borrowing from a very entertaining YouTuber I subscribe to by the name of Samantha Lux: a woman is a person who our society typically associates with the female sex. There ya, go, a one-sentence answer. Does it fully encompass what a woman is? No. For a more complicated answer, we need a better question. Do you want to know about “woman” as a historically marginalized group? “Woman” as a performative effort? “Woman” as a John Lennon song? “Woman” as a concept exploited by alt-right misogynists to brutalize transgender people? We can really go in any number of directions here.

And again, this applies to every complicated scientific topic: What is a human? Well, it’s a primate with a complex brain in the genus “homo.” But what about homo erectus, which had a complex brain and is in the genus “homo,” is that a human? Well, most scientists say “yes” but the general public says “no, only homo sapiens are human.” Does that make my first answer wrong? No!

“What’s gravity?” “What’s a cell?” “What’s a mind?” “What’s science?” All of these are equally vague questions that can be answered in a variety of ways, either in a single simple sentence, or in an entire four-year college degree. A person pausing, or deciding not to answer doesn’t mean they don’t have an answer. Maybe they don’t know how complicated an answer you want. Maybe they understand that the BEST answer IS VERY complicated and they know that they’re not the best person to give that answer. Or maybe they’re just confused as to why you care so much what they think.

Because ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think the definition of a woman is. If you are a woman, you’re a woman. A transwoman is a woman. As someone who was assigned female at birth, who has all the corresponding parts and hormones and internal feelings, I have a different lived experience as a woman, compared to a woman who wasn’t assigned female at birth, and that’s fine. We can acknowledge and discuss those differences without getting caught up in who “gets” to be called a woman. Ultimately it does not affect me if someone calls themselves a woman, regardless of whether I look at them and think “yep that’s a woman.” Who cares? Who the fuck am I?

 Will any of this matter to Matt Walsh? No. He’s running up to you on the street and demanding you tell him what a woman is because doing that makes him money. No accurate answer you give him will satisfy him. A simplified response will be picked apart. A complicated response will have him wandering away with glazed eyes before you even get to the word “culture.” It’s a vague question asked in bad faith, which is why the actual correct response is to pour a milkshake on his head. Wait, no, that would be a horrific assault, wouldn’t it? I guess the correct response is to laugh in his face, tell him to get a hobby, and walk away.

Hope this helps.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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