What is a Woman? (WIAW?) is blatantly anti-trans propaganda. Taking it apart as such is crucial for understanding our world at the moment.
Conservative media outlet The Daily Wire released a documentary at the beginning of this year’s Pride month (June 1) called What is a Woman?. It ostensibly tackles gender and transgender issues, but in reality, is a hit piece on transgenderism and gender identity discourses that demonstrates a willful ignorance on those issues, cloaking a vulgar theological materialism in patronizing secular rationality.
This article will be relying heavily on the work of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, which rippled throughout Parisian intellectual life and consequently continental philosophy in the mid-to-late 20th century. His work explains how sex is best understood as an epestimological zero-point in all human understanding.
Arguably, sexual difference is the same field from which all dialectical human understanding is possible. In other words, gender identity and it’s interplay with a person’s objective sex can never be fully quantized or semantically “filled in” without exception. Hence why Abrahamic scripture needs a God, an unquestionable divine authority, to fill in the constitutive lack of sexual difference. Think of sex metaphorically as a blackhole (I know, bear with me here); it’s only in the distortion at the centre of a blackhole that the intelligible event horizon is possible. The event horizon is not independent of the unintelligible distortion at the center but exists due to that distortion.
Another similar example is the political left and rightness; ask for a definition of rightness versus leftness and the answer is always retroactively already a leftist or rightist answer. An objective “centered” definition is impossible. The very distortion that hinders filling in the two political fields relative to each other is what constitutes them in the first place.
Returning back to the objective impossibility of producing a monolithic explanation of gender identity in relation to biology despite Walsh’s ambitions to say that women are, in all cases, adult human females, let’s look at what genetics have to say.
The SRY gene is the gene that produces phenotypically male characteristics when it hooks up to the Y chromosome in genotypic men. However, this SRY gene can sometimes hook up with a 46, XX karyotype resulting in people who are, chromosomally speaking, female but, phenotypically speaking, are men. The kicker is that unless you’ve had your chromosomes examined, it’s possible this could be you if you are phenotypically male-identifying. There are genetic variations running the opposite paradigm in the case of phenotypic women too.
A genetic explanation for the issue at hand could literally go on forever, producing infinite categorical deviations, which is the hidden imperative of the “+” in LGBTQ2SL+. This brings me back to the Lacanian thesis: it is the zero-point of sexual difference, sexual division as Real, meaning it resists symbolization absolutely, producing the residual “event horizon” of effective human discourse predicated on an economy of differences.
So how does Lacanian theory help us take apart What is a Woman?’s short-sighted agenda?
Let’s return to one of Lacan’s most notorious edicts: “The Woman does not exist.” Women, however, exist in Lacan’s system but “The Woman” doesn’t. It’s interesting that Walsh’s documentary isn’t What is a Man or a Woman?, however a Lacanian reading would predict this focus on the Woman portion. We seem, unconsciously, to understand what the Man is — or it’s at least less problematic — whereas Woman being thought of as an abstraction that can be tacked onto a proper noun worthy of the word is somehow more contradictory; is it the ability for motherhood? Not exactly, because women can have hysterectomies and still unproblematically be seen as women in society; is it chromosomes? Not necessarily, as explored above.
When Lacan says that the Woman doesn’t exist he means that Woman is one of the subjective sites that anchors and therefore produces discursive difference itself, that is Woman is a Master Signifier, alongside things like Money. A Master Signifier is, following pioneer linguist Ferdinand De Saussure’s paradigm of the sign, a signifier (the acoustic element of a sign) without the signified (the material concept that the arbitrary acoustic element signifies).
Basically, women are caught in a socio-representational contradiction, they are expected to be both the sex object and the pure saint, Mother Teresa and Pamala Anderson. Whereas the man, perhaps best epitomized by the hero of Cowboy films as Lacanian Todd McGowan argues, is a monolithic phantasy teeming with power and productive ability, above the law, beyond good and evil, a kind of articulator of difference who is not subject to it.
It’s not a coincidence that God in Abrahamic religions is the one and only, is powerful beyond imagination and disseminates the divine law while being above it. On the other hand, Mary is the virgin mother — an impossibility — in the New Testament, the Quran, the Book of Mormon and other sacred texts.
In this way, despite his many feminist detractors, Lacan articulates femininity as being closer to subjectivity per se than masculinity. Patriarchy is an attempt to impose an imaginary phallic i.e. a singular, localized, positive logic onto “Woman,” as the documentary does when Walsh argues that your identity is your chromosomes like how two plus two equals four.
This equips us to tear down the appearance of secular rationality in Walsh’s crusade against gender expression in this documentary. Exposing it to be just an ignorant paternal vision that attempts to vulgarly claim women’s role is the biological end of reproduction.
In one of the most clipped parts of the documentary, Walsh interviews a gender professor specializing in Women’s Studies. When Walsh finally asks the titular question to the professor after a few uncomfortable moments where Walsh is trying to corner him on an essentialist definition rooted in biology, the professor finally answers that to him a woman is “anyone who identifies as a woman.” Walsh points out the circularity of this argument and the interview basically comes to a stalemate.
Both notions miss the mark on gender identity.
Let’s look at an argument that is not entirely similar to Walsh and the professor but in broad strokes proves the Lacanian point being explored. Leftist Twitch streamer Vaush, presumably as a reaction to the popularity of WIAW?, interviewed a philosophy PhD candidate on the relationship between gender and sex nine days after the release of the documentary.
Vaush argues that there are “infinite definitions” and that language is a power game, so any attempt at a strict meaning of woman must be foreclosed until it reaches a utopian spectrum, or not. On the flipside, the PhD candidate, using deductive logic, argues that if “a woman is anyone who identifies as a woman” is not circular then trans women are not women; if that definition is circular, it forecloses the ordinary historic use of the term which was that a woman is an adult human female. If it’s not a circular definition, then it must necessarily use that ordinary historic meaning as a reference for anyone synchronically — meaning language frozen at a single point in time — identifying as a woman who falls outside the ordinary definition, ultimately meaning that not all trans women can identify as women. However, in the case of a trans woman self-identifying as a woman where the circularity of the definition of woman is conceded, then, strictly speaking, woman is a meaningless term so it doesn’t matter if they are or aren’t.
Here’s how both these approaches function.
To bring in Lacanian categories again, the PhD candidate has an obsessive approach to the void of sex, trying to complete it but always failing to do so. He then uses this failing to say that therefore biology must be at play on some level in order for there to be meaning to the word Woman. He is basically channeling the obsessive charm of Vienna Circle philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who opens his famous Tractatus, a text which attempts to complete all of philosophy’s problems (it doesn’t, even according to Wittgnestein himself!), with “the world is everything that is the case.”
If you’ve ever seen a person obsessively cleaning, you’ve certainly noticed the obsessive phenomenon of always finding something that doesn’t fit, something that’s missing or misplaced and must be properly categorized, so to speak. Conversely Vaush has (again speaking in terms of Lacanian categories) a psychotic approach, meaning he attempts to foreclose meaning in language as opposed to failingly “completing” the symbolic order like the obsessive does. This is why Lacan says it’s our relationship to language that produces our psychical symptoms.
18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, known for being highly influential to the school of European empiricism, articulated this gap in the realm of ethics through what’s now known in deductive logic as “Hume’s Guillotine.” Essentially, this rule of deductive logic states that you can never derive an “ought” statement from an “is” statement. For example, ‘It is raining” can never logically be reduced to “therefore it ought to rain.” Hume says that the “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”
With this in mind, when Vaush or the Professor say that the definition of woman ought to be anyone who identifies as a woman for ethical reasons, then Walsh and the PhD candidate can’t see how their statements about woman — historical or not — will overcome Hume’s Guillotine, they keep the biological factor open. In Matt’s case, he appeals to a dogma that the biological factor is definitely your chromosomes when it comes to gender identity, in the PhD candidate’s case, that this gap exists is enough for him to not accept Vaush and the Professors’ definition on logical grounds.
Okay, so you’re probably thinking that although this Lacanian approach clarifies disagreements and the patriarchal ignorance motivating Walsh’s documentary, it doesn’t do much to make the issue of gender identity more conclusive. So let’s consult the ideas of perhaps the most influential gender theorist of the last couple decades, Judith Butler, and put them in conversation with Lacan. Luckily, this will be rather easy as Butler directly addresses Lacanian theory in their seminal work from the 90s Gender Trouble, a book which argues that gender is entirely performative, is the sum of our actions and therefore infinitely plastic. They write:
“Lacanian theory must be understood as a kind of ‘slave morality.’ How would Lacanian theory be reformulated after the appropriation of Nietzsche’s insight in On the Genealogy of Morals that God, the inaccessible Symbolic, is rendered inaccessible by a power (the will-to-power) the regularly institutes its own powerlessness? This figuration of the paternal law as the inevitable and unknowable authority before which the sexed subject is bound to fail must be read for the theological impulse that motivates it as well as for the critique of theology that points beyond it.”
This is where class dimensions must be brought in. Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, a friend but theoretical belligerent of Butler’s, challenges them on the missing class relations behind this critique (see 13:30). His wager: a contradiction must be addressed between a broad class struggle and the struggle for sexual rights taking place predominantly in the western industrial world. If something as important as gender identity can be infinitely plastic, a mere performative play of appearance, this logic only compliments capitals’ drive to posit us as hedonistic subjects, infinitely malleable to the matrices of neoliberal production. On top of this, how can we formulate class antagonisms if there’s always a particular element not factored in which suspends identity conflicts? Can anyone ever be imminently and unproblematically the exploited or an exploiter in our current capitalism?
A Marxist/Hegelian approach to these questions is crucial because it doesn’t lambast utopian notions of identity. Rather, it states that worker consciousness must be realized before we can realize the universal freedom of identity without exploitation.
If anything, following Žižek, transness thought of in this way is even more heteronormative than the cis dogma that Walsh propogates in WIAW?. Transness says that I feel essentially like a man or woman regardless of what the biology says. It’s like how falling in love is never a choice but is exactly that, a fall that is retroactively taken to be destiny beyond one’s control. However, if your lover asks the cursed “why did you choose me? Why do you love me” and you have detailed, concrete, logical answers — it’s not love. The same goes for our identity Žižek argues. Trans people fall into their identity and feel essentially like it was meant to be, like how cis people feel they are essentially what their biology suggests. It’s in transness that you see the Hegelian notion of contingency turning to necessity.
Trans women are women because they feel essentially that they are.