2 Films Explore a Volatile Question: ‘What Is a Woman?’

For most humans in history—and to the majority alive today, especially outside the West—the notion of “man” and “woman” as beautifully different yet complementary identities, rooted in biology, has been uncontroversial. Yet today, pushing for any definition of womanhood or manhood is so triggering that to broach the subject is considered hateful and cause for cancellation.

It’s good, then, when dissenters speak up. Because as Christians who believe God designed the world—including male and female—in an intentional way, we can’t be silent when these glorious roles and realities are muddled to the point of meaninglessness.

Two recent documentaries have spoken up, offering rarely heard pushback on the sexual revolution’s party line. While you won’t find these films in theaters or on major streaming sites—no corporate entity could survive association with them—they are worth seeking out and discussing.

Asking the Question: ‘What Is a Woman?’

The Daily Wire’s What Is a Woman? has a basic but brilliant narrative concept. It follows conservative commentator Matt Walsh as he asks various “gender-affirming” doctors, therapists, and activists a seemingly straightforward question: What is a woman?

The answers he gets range from long-winded gibberish (a woman is “a combination of your physical attributes and then what you’re showing to the world and the gender clues that you give”) to brief but stumped (“No idea,” says a woman at the Women’s March). The consensus in most responses is that a woman is “a person who identifies as a woman.”

“But what are they identifying as?” Walsh responds to Patrick Grzanka, who should have an answer since he’s a professor of women’s studies. Grzanka replies, “As a woman.” “Can you define the word ‘woman’ without using the word ‘woman’?” Walsh asks. “It’s a curious question,” responds Grzanka, who also tells Walsh that his repeated use of the word “truth” makes him uncomfortable and “sounds transphobic.”

If the transgender movement has science, facts, and truth on its side, what’s to fear from inquisitive journalists and logical questions? The reality, of course, is that transgender advocates don’t have truth on their side, and they know it. “Nature seems to always want to tell the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it,” Walsh observes. Indeed. Yet if nature stubbornly goes against the gender-fluid narrative, the only “progressive” solution is to suppress nature. And that’s where the egregious harm really happens—with suppressions like puberty blockers and breast removal.

Nobody Willing to Talk

The most prophetic—and heartbreaking—voice in the film belongs to Scott (Kellie) Newgent, a biological woman who medically transitioned to appear as a male, yet admits she’ll “never be a man.” Newgent’s rage is palpable as she bears witness to the physical harm being done to children who desire a gender transition: “We’re butchering a generation of children because nobody is willing to talk about anything.”

Though covering a deadly serious topic—especially as it involves potentially irreversible damage done to children—What Is a Woman? also strikes a “you have to laugh not to cry” comedic tone. The joke writes itself, for example, when a therapist named Gert (a graduate of Christian university Trevecca Nazarene who now uses “they/them/theirs” pronouns) asserts with confidence that “some women have penises and some men have vaginas,” or when a trans rights activist says of athletic competition, “There’s not really any advantage to being trans,” as we watch footage of beefy, broad-shouldered trans athletes winning medals in various women’s sports.

The film is rife with easy targets: a San Francisco nudist, a trans wolf therian, various gender-ambiguous people interviewed on the street. And while it’s good to show the absurdity of it all, one wonders if a bit more empathy could have strengthened Walsh’s case. These people are tragically confused, after all. Yet within the film’s first few minutes, Walsh calls “idiots” those who reject differences between male and female. Name-calling is not a great tactic in persuasion, nor in evangelism.

For Christians, the posture of mockery cannot be the way. We aren’t going to shame anyone into reason, let alone into the kingdom. Trans people are broken and lost, and our endgame should not be to rub their nose in their brokenness but to lift their eyes to the hope that can finally heal: Jesus Christ.

Letting Skeptics Speak

The film is strongest when it isn’t poking fun at trans activists or making them squirm with gotcha questions, but rather when trans skeptics are given the chance to speak—something too few platforms are willing to do today.

These include a Canadian dad who went to jail for “misgendering” his daughter as a “she,” a child psychologist who describes herself as “rooted in reality and science,” and dissenting authors and academics like Jordan Peterson, Debra Soh, and Carl Trueman. In perhaps the most enjoyable vignette, Walsh travels to Africa to see whether America’s gender ideas make sense to a Maasai tribe (spoiler alert: they don’t).

Uninspiring Definition

Yet even with an impressive roster of sensible experts and talking heads, one glaring absence in the film is substantive theological engagement with gender. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to make their case on the merits of natural law and logic alone—fair enough. But for a film that invokes “truth” as the ground of its argument, it seems odd to leave God out.

Trans people are broken and lost, and our endgame should not be to rub their nose in their brokenness but to lift their eyes to the hope that can finally heal: Jesus Christ.

Perhaps this is why What Is a Woman? struggles to answer its own question. Even as the film does an admirable job pointing out transgenderism’s utter inability to define womanhood, the answer it offers in the final scene is hardly compelling. When Walsh poses the question to his wife, her response is a dictionary definition: “An adult human female.” Is “woman” reducible to merely that? Without the Bible, probably. But this anticlimactic ending is a true missed opportunity—for the only way to rebuild from the rubble of the sexual revolution is to recover a more compelling, sturdy, and concrete vision of gender and scaffold up from there.

Thankfully, others are taking up the challenge.

Toward an Answer: ‘Eve in Exile’

Based on her book of the same name, Rebekah Merkle’s new documentary (available to watch on Canon+) offers a bold critique of feminism and casts a vision for rebuilding our concept of womanhood on Scripture’s foundation. Feminism hasn’t liberated women, Merkle argues; it’s rather created a boring, monochrome world where “woman” is reduced to a blurry something that can be anything—paving the way for even biological males to claim the word as their own. If robust femininity is like the wise woman who “builds her house,” feminism is like folly who “with her own hands tears it down” (Prov. 14:1), deconstructing the notion of womanhood to the point of utter incoherence.

Featuring footage of both Matt Walsh and Caitlin Jenner in the first minute, Eve in Exile has some things in common with What is a Woman?, including a sharp-edged skewering of contemporary gender ideology. Yet where Walsh’s film stops short of painting a positive picture of “woman,” Merkle’s movie bravely puts color on the portrait—at a time when even picking up the brush is controversial.

Helpful History

Structured in three parts, the film opens (Part 1: Women Dispossessed) by exploring how feminism turned domestic women into a “despised class” and rebranded children as obstacles to overcome (frequently via abortion). A helpful section concisely animates the history of feminism, from protofeminist Mary Wollstonecraft to Susan B. Anthony (women’s suffrage), Margaret Sanger (abortion), Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique), and the current third-wave feminism, which struggles to define its goal because feminists can’t agree on what a woman even is (“Hard to fight for women’s rights when you don’t know what a woman is.”)

Among the fascinating insights here are Merkle’s observations about 1950s technological advances. Whereas “homemaking” for 19th-century women was a dusk-to-dawn marathon of hard but rewarding work, for women in post-war affluence—with all manner of efficient new appliances—it was far less challenging. They felt less essential in the home, and so when Friedan’s iconic question (“Is this all?”) gave them permission to ditch the domicile for the cubicle, many jumped at the chance.

Biblical Definition

As interesting as this historical critique is, Merkle’s best content comes in the middle section (Part 2: What Are Women Designed For?). Taking us back to Genesis 1–2, Merkle unpacks a fourfold definition of the feminine vocation: to subdue, fill, help, and glorify.

Regarding “fill,” Merkle says fertility/procreation “is not a tiny side feature” of our design, and Christians need not apologize for the fact that God created us for this. In her discussion of “help” (from Gen. 2:20 and 1 Cor. 11:9), Merkle says we have been trained to think of “helper” as a negative role—as if helping always implies a status or power differential—when biblically this is not the case.

A standout section is Merkle’s exposition of “glory” in 1 Corinthians 11, as she challenges our common reading of the text as a “chain of importance” with God at the top and women at the bottom. In verses 7–8, instead of reading Paul as denigrating women as being the “glory of man” while men get to be “the glory of God,” what if we saw womanhood as “the glory of the glory,” akin to the Holy of Holies or the Song of Songs (i.e., the most of something). She also helpfully challenges the notion of submission as “inferiority,” observing that Christ’s model of submission in his incarnation is that of an equal freely choosing to submit to an equal (Phil. 2:6–8).

“Women need to stop being so offended by being asked to submit to an equal,” Merkle argues. “Christ didn’t consider it robbery to humble himself and submit to an equal, and neither should we.” She also points out that Scripture never calls women to submit to men as a class. Rather, “One woman is supposed to submit to one man, which is actually a protection against having to submit to other men.”

Putting Flesh on the Definitional Frame

In the final section (Part 3: Living Out Our Design), Merkle wades into the murkier water of what this looks like in practice. Citing passages like Titus 2 and Proverbs 31, Merkle establishes some basic, broad principles for biblical womanhood in everyday life, without getting narrowly prescriptive.

She encourages Christian women—including single women—to “take the principle and then enflesh it.” How can you use your gifts and abilities to bless the people around you? This could look like being at home full-time or it might look like starting a small business. The key is an outward focus. “Feminine glory is fruitful,” Merkle argues. “It produces. It builds. It creates.” It’s “pointed at something outside ourselves.” Contrary to the spirit of the age, Merkle argues, “No Christian should really ever be asking, ‘How can I fulfill myself?’”

I watched the film with my wife (a mom of three who also works in nonprofit fundraising). She generally praised it, but her one critique is that while Merkle says, “It’s going to look different in every instance,” the imagery we see of women on screen is almost exclusively home-based: painting walls, tiling a kitchen, gardening, using power tools, cooking, setting a table. These are monumental things, to be sure, but if there is indeed latitude in how the principles of biblical womanhood can be “enfleshed” differently, it might have helped to show more variety in the examples on-screen.

Still, Eve in Exile offers strong fodder for important discussions. Even if faithful Christians will quibble with aspects of the film, it’s a welcome addition to the “What is a woman?” discussion.

Too Important to Be Silent

It’s a strange new world when films like these are so controversial that few film critics will even review them. It’s frightening that frustrated swimming teammates of Lia Thomas can only speak to Walsh when their identities are obscured, for fear of reprisal. It’s Orwellian that Amazon continues to be pressured to remove any books critical of transgender orthodoxy.

Yet here we are. Will it get worse? Probably. Powerful gatekeepers in education, media, business, and government want very much to silence dissent and stop the conversation. “Don’t be a dinosaur,” they say. “Get with the times. The world has moved beyond your old ideas.”

Yet some old ideas are true. And some truths are too foundational, too vital for human flourishing, to abandon simply because they’re deeply unfashionable and costly to espouse.

Some truths are too foundational, too vital for human flourishing, to abandon simply because they’re deeply unfashionable and costly to espouse.

So much is at stake. Lives are being irreparably damaged. Women are being erased. Souls are being led astray. God’s glory—seen in part through the nature he designed—is being suppressed, sidelined, and sometimes overtly mocked. It’s a travesty. And the church cannot be silent.

For the growing numbers of broken, maimed victims of the sexual revolution, the church of Jesus Christ can be a place of healing and restoration. Only the gospel holds the power of true transformation, taking deformed sinners and making them whole, even if not fully in this life. We must preach the hope of the gospel loudly as we speak the truth of creation boldly, however unpopular that truth becomes.