Responding to What Is a Woman?, Part 2: You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone
In this three-part series, Alisa Ruddell reviews and responds to Matt Walsh’s controversial What Is a Woman? documentary, and considers the broader topics of transgenderism, gender identity, and our culture’s struggle to understand, define, and respect womanhood.
Read: Part 1
Industrial Capitalism Creates Genderless Humans
Matt Walsh implies in What Is a Woman? that confusion over the meaning of “woman” is entirely the fault of liberals. When it comes to gender and sex, the Left is crazy (he suggests), and the Right is, well, right—they’re the kind of folks who value common sense and decency. This obscures the historical reality that the seeds of our current confusion weren’t planted by the sexual revolution and gay liberation movements: those are merely recent fruits of a root much older and deeper that we all have in common. Rejection of the givenness and limits of the natural world (including the human body) is a widespread American failing, and framing this as an issue of Right versus Left allows conservatives to avoid noticing their own participation in the problem.
The historically traditional experience of gender—separate and sovereign spheres of influence for men and women, each with their unique tasks, tools, duties, assumptions, and expertise—arose universally out of local subsistence living and mutual interdependence. The transition from the medieval to the modern era is marked by the loss of separate “gendered worlds” and the creation, in its stead, of the modern genderless/unisex individual. The credit (or the blame) for this change lies squarely at the feet of industrial capitalism, a system that needs workers to function like interchangeable parts of a machine. According to Catholic philosopher Ivan Illich in his book Gender,
An industrial society cannot exist unless it imposes certain unisex assumptions, the assumptions that both sexes are made for the same work, perceive the same reality, and have, with some minor cosmetic variations, the same needs. And the assumption of scarcity, which is fundamental to economics, is itself logically based on this unisex postulate. There could be no competition for work between men and women unless work had been redefined as an activity that befits humans irrespective of their sex. The subject on which economic theory is based is just such a genderless human.
When subsistence living within a productive household is replaced with a cash economy of consumerism, men’s work and women’s work as such disappears (anybody can do anything). This seems at first glance to be an unmitigated triumph for freedom and progress. Nobody really wants to go back to an era of nigh-universal yeoman farming, despite the romantic pull of Wendell Berry. I’m thrilled that my garden is a hobby, backyard chickens are an aspiration, and having children is a choice—none are a necessity.
But there’s a trade-off here: when the once-separate “world of women” and “world of men” were disintegrated—when we were thrown into the workplace together as if our differences were minor or meaningless—the age-old truce between men and women turned into competition. We traded the relative safety and autonomy of the private sphere (which women collectively ruled) for full participation in the public sphere, with its subsequent sexual tensions, misunderstandings, and #MeToo harassment. The erstwhile world of women was by no means treated as equal to the world of men, but it had its boundaries and benefits. The sanctity of modern female-only spaces—the bathroom, the locker room, the sports team, the girls’ sleepover, the midwife-assisted home birth, to name a few—are small and endangered remnants of this world that even today most women jealously guard (for good reason). Feminism focuses on everything that women gained from this modern bargain, but fails to see what we lost: a primary source of identity, belonging, companionship, safety, and gendered expertise that disappeared when our world became co-ed.
WEIRD societies like ours (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic) inevitably become sexist, because men and women are treated as surface variations of the same basic economic unit. Industrial capitalism elevates the androgynous worker as the ideal. Androgyny—the state of being neither masculine nor feminine—always ends up looking more male than female because the potential for pregnancy is an indelible and exclusive feature of femaleness (androgyns never have a baby bump). Elevating androgyny primes us for female erasure and gender confusion. If the economy is structured under the assumption that all people are impregnable individuals rather than half of us being potential symbiotic family-makers, then it assumes that either “people” aren’t women, or they are women whose default fertility setting is “off.” Because we all participate in this unisex and sexist economy, none of us is immune to its pressures. The sexism women experience now isn’t the leftovers of a bygone patriarchy: it’s actually inherent to our new way of life, making it much harder to address.
Abortion, delaying pregnancy for education and career, freezing one’s eggs for later, the exorbitant cost of childcare, the paucity of maternity leave, the endless pressure women feel to compete with men as if they weren’t mothers with relational duties or potential mothers with monthly cycles—all of these practices reveal how the modern world views women. We are treated as inconvenient and inefficient men who are burdened with periods, cramps, PMS, pregnancy, post-partum recovery, breast-feeding, motherhood, and menopause. The conclusion that the female body is bad for business is a feature, not a bug, of the industrialized economy.
Conservatives in particular won’t be able to creatively respond to our culture’s gender confusion if “sex blind” capitalism is viewed as synonymous with the Common Good. The modern neutered homo economicus is incompatible with traditional gender: it is its replacement. It looks to me like the queers and the capitalists are cut from the same cloth.
When Matt Walsh traveled to Kenya to interview some men from a Maasai tribe in What Is a Woman? his interview perfectly illustrated the traditional gendered world of a pre-industrial people, summed up by the translator: A man cannot do the duty of a woman, and a woman cannot do the duty of a man. Walsh appears to think that in this cross-cultural conversation, he’s making a case for how great it would be if America didn’t have any crazy leftists in it. He’s actually confirming that small-scale subsistence living preserves traditional embodied gender and respect for sexual difference, while industrial capitalism guts it (which I presume the free market fans of The Daily Wire would find inconvenient).
I’m not advocating for a return to the Middle Ages, or even the 1950s for that matter. We have yet to reconcile the tension of honoring sexual difference (an exercise in upholding good boundaries) with feminism’s call for equal dignity and equal opportunity (an exercise in breaking through bad boundaries). That strange child of liberalism and capitalism—the androgynous individual—has gotten us only so far: it was a useful fiction that has both helped and hurt us.
Women can do just about whatever they’d like to now: we have access to jobs, roles, and spaces that were formerly only for men, and as long as we act like androgyns and thus honor the corporate bottom line, we can keep them. But the cost is that part of our culture has forgotten what women are, and thinks that anybody can be one by a simple self-declaration. Some are now eager to enter women’s spaces and sports, and to appropriate and colonize all things feminine—even our bodies. In an economy that has for centuries treated us as interchangeable parts of a machine, we shouldn’t be surprised if men begin to think that they can be women, and vice versa. Being non-binary isn’t new: it’s what the system has been nudging us toward for a very long time.
We Are the New Meat Product
Author Paul Kingsnorth writes with alarm about the aims of the modern world, which he calls “The Machine.” Bit by bit, it sequesters everything natural and traditional, uproots and dismembers it from its relational context, commodifies it, and sells it back to us for profit—all in the name of “progress” and “freedom.” The Machine—whether in the form of industrial capitalism or Silicon Valley—isn’t shy about its Gnostic aims that despise physical limitations and the givenness of the organic world. Kingsnorth says it is
[A]ttempting to transcend the messy horribleness of physical reality so that we don’t have to die, so that we don’t have to give birth, so that we don’t have to be the sex that we were born, so that we don’t have to be anything that’s actually relational and that limits what our “free will” is. That’s the Gnostic promise today; it’s the notion that the physical reality is escapable, except this time we’re not doing it through secret Gnostic religious knowledge, we’re doing it through technology, which is our equivalent of that.
Many of us are on the same trajectory as our trans neighbors. The angle of our slippery slope isn’t as steep, but the dynamic of being at odds with the sexed body is fundamentally the same. To the degree that many Christians have already made peace with hormones and surgery as a workaround for the limits our fertility places on our sexuality, we are partly there. Any argument we make about transgenderism being “unnatural” or “against the integrity of the body” will have to deal with these unexamined facts of our own reliance on the Pill and the Snip to let us live our dream life by “fixing” our bodies that aren’t actually broken.
Without tradition to protect us, our bodies become subject to the dynamics of the market. This means humans are hackable, which is incredibly lucrative. Reactionary feminist Mary Harrington warns us of what’s coming:
The utopian vision is one that frees all of us from our unchosen physiological obligations. The market reality is infinitely hackable human beings who are being privatized as meat commodities by the biotech industry.
Where suffering people see a problem to be solved, a dream to be fulfilled, a self to be expressed, the biotech industry sees dollars and cents. From abortion, hormonal contraceptives, and vastectomies to sperm donors, IVF, and surrogacy; from gene patents, fetal cell research, and CRISPR to cross-sex hormones, mastectomies, and phalloplasties; from nose jobs to boob jobs; from liposuctions to tummy tucks—we are desperate for artificial upgrades. We crave a synthetic “yes” to replace a biological “no”—and not as a form of healing, but as a rejection of the norm, a bypass of the natural.
Gender-questioning teens form a new market ripe for exploitation, and trans is becoming trendy. Trans man Scott Newgent says of transition, “It’s plastic surgery, is all it is. Nobody is ‘born trans.’ You create it with synthetic hormones and surgery. You create, you create, you create.” Such radical self-creation is quintessentially American. Those cultural mantras we’re steeped in—you can be anything you want to be! and you do you!—are not deep truths: they are jingles, the extension of Burger King’s “have it your way” to our own flesh and bone. We are the new meat product, and gender ideology is an advertisement.
When the body has a price tag like this, people start shopping for surgeries. Finnish female-to-male-to-female detransitioner Jenni described the experience of looking online for mastectomies. It was “almost like shopping for a dishwasher,” she said. “What models are out there? What costs and troubles and benefits? And [it was] very removed from, like, this is my actual body going under the knife.” She had unwittingly assented to seeing herself as a product, not realizing how harmful that was until after her breasts were gone and she was undone by buyer’s remorse.
Rae, who identified as trans after a few months of being ensconced in an online echo chamber, came out to her doctor, who passed her off to a specialist in trans health care. This provider immediately and continuously pushed hormones and top surgery on Rae (“Just try it out—it’s trial and error,” he said), despite her painful condition of endometriosis that was wreaking havoc on her mentally and physically. “It is a sales pitch,” Rae says. “I really felt like I was being sold something, and I fell for it. I bought it, and I did it…What other places do you get to walk into and basically design your own treatment?” Rae experienced trans health care as “designer medicine for money” with high hopes but hardly any long-term success and safety data to back it up (an embarrassing fact that her healthcare provider admitted to, but which didn’t stop him from prescribing it).
Only in the world of Joni Mitchell’s “paved paradises” could the question of what is my gender? and the suffering of feeling out-of-sync with one’s sex be answered by the consumer-driven medical marketplace. Any identity becomes possible because it is purchasable. If manhood and womanhood are “permanently available sites of contested meaning” (Judith Butler), then they are also permanently available sites for corporate marketing (the coolest doctor on TikTok and self-described “t*t wizard” Sidhbh Gallagher wants you to join the waitlist now for “masculoplasty”!). YouTube is keeping track of how many trans videos I watch, and it never fails to advertise the LGBTQ+ affirming Folx healthcare to me, in case I want to sign up for an “estrogen membership” or “chat with a clinician” who will write me a prescription to get hormones “delivered discreetly and directly” to my door.
The fiduciary responsibility that doctors and therapists have to vulnerable patients is being undermined by perverse financial incentives. As Upton Sinclair noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” If you’re a plastic surgeon, how are you supposed to feel about the fact that there are more than 44,000 individuals on Go Fund Me raising support for elective “top surgery” (a.k.a. double mastectomy)? Conservatives who are free market advocates and yet are concerned with preserving natural sexual identity over against synthetically constructed gender identities will need to reckon with the exploitative potential of their sacred cow.
Our economy robs us of sexual identity with one hand (by treating us as androgyns) only to sell it back to us as a “gender journey” with the other hand. What our ancestors had for free in the pre-industrial world of traditional gender (which was largely yet flexibly synonymous with sex), we feel privileged to reject and repurchase at a higher cost in the name of freedom and self-expression. This is the same system that sells us the Pill when we’re young and IVF when the clock starts ticking. The best way to make a buck is to create a problem that you can then solve for a pretty penny. As Joni Mitchell sings, “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?”
As American as Apple Pie
The market’s ability to play us on both sides relies on getting us to see our bodies not as a gift but as a prison to be escaped, a tyranny to be rejected. “So you’re saying that non-binary is basically the Boston Tea Party performed on TikTok?” (Benjamin Boyce). The righteous rebel throwing off the arbitrary constraints of tyranny—be it King George or your own genitals—is as American as apple pie, and so is the new booming business of gender clinics and affirming surgeons happy to help you remove those fleshly shackles. In this sense, the trans flag and the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag are really proclaiming a similar message of individual liberty and autonomy. Both Left and Right chant “my body, my choice”—they just differ slightly on the details.
This is why we cannot frame the problem shallowly as one of the Left versus the Right. We are all implicated and entangled in this mess that was centuries in the making, and is very possibly a key component of the American cultural DNA. Given our founding mythos, we just don’t know who we are if we aren’t protesting something, so why not our sex? That’s as unchosen as it gets. We don’t vote for “M” or “F” at conception, but maybe we can start a revolution and unseat that arbitrary identity “assigned” to us at birth.
The only way to approach this issue wisely (besides looking deeper into history), is to reject a politically polarized frame and work together. Scott Newgent—a self-described former lesbian and current trans man who is building a “bipartisan army” to protect children, hold the medical industry accountable, and educate society about “transgender extremism”—is confident that it is actually non-ideological transgender adults who are in the best position to speak truthfully into this fraught situation. Newgent pleads:
We must throw our differences aside for a moment; I promise you, once children are safe, we can resume fighting. But until children are safe, nothing else matters. So, endocrinologists and pediatricians, moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans, radical feminists and evangelicals, lawyers and psychologists, parents and teachers: My hand is out. I will grab yours and turn down no one.
Matt Walsh took Newgent up on the offer, and is doing his part (though he frequently forgets that this alliance comes with an obligation to minimize partisan potshots). They were able to work together in What Is a Woman? toward a common goal of protecting kids and teens from irreversible damage, despite their obvious and deep-seated differences. And more recently, they were both keynote speakers at “The Rally to End Child Mutilation” that Walsh held on October 21 in Tennessee.
In-depth historical analysis and bipartisan cooperation between unlikely allies is necessary, but so is triage. Part 3 in this series will highlight the vulnerability of women and girls in particular to the message of gender ideology, and why teen girls are rapidly becoming the most common seekers of transition.
To be continued…