SPOILERS AHEAD: Michael Moore deserves a lot of credit for this film. Over two decades ago, he personalized the documentary by inserting himself into it, and while that has created a great deal of controversy, it has also provided a template for others to follow that proves to be quite effective. This template takes the form of thought, followed by action, powered by the heart. And with his latest film “What is a Woman”, Matt Walsh replicates the template with impressive results.
In the movie Matt Walsh goes on a quest to answer the titular question “What is a Woman?” It starts with Walsh at his daughter’s birthday party, immersed in thought over this and other relatable questions. Then the film moves to action, as Walsh decides to go fishing. While fishing, he goes further into his thoughts, arriving at a decision to see a therapist.
Thought- decision - action, back to thought. What binds this together is the humour evident in Walsh’s observations. This is the heart of the first act of the film. There is a deeper heart that runs throughout all of the movie, and we will get to that later. For now, humour is the main feeling, tinged with absurdity in respect to the therapist interview.
Throughout the film Walsh repeats the process from thought to action - going to see a different expert based on his reasoning - with heart shown throughout as humour stimulated by curiosity. The action of visiting a therapist and the thoughts that proceed from it lead to him to visit various people of differing walks of life: average people, professors, doctors and surgeons. The action element is further emphasized by Indiana Jones style map sequences of Walsh’s travels.
One action Walsh takes is to participate in a Women’s March. Here we see the thought from Walsh - ask women - to action - march with women - to reaction: anger from the marchers. And while humour is still a part of what’s going on, a hightened element of confrontation is now introduced into the heart of this segment (preceded in part by some of the earlier interviews). This is where the film moves into it’s second act.
One of the most fascinating scenes in the film is Walsh’s interview with the Women, Gender & Sexuality studies professor Dr Patrick Grzanka, in that it shows the effects of a highly polarized world view. At one point every question Walsh asks gets the response of an opposite question; the old switcheroo. This fits perfectly with a polarized defence, treating the reciprocal nature of communication as a thing to be ramped up through constant reversal.
The professor’s reaction to the phrase “start by getting to the truth” also shows polarization, but I’ll try to give him the benefit of the doubt while examining this point. One tactic used in arguments is to start from conclusions in order to put the opponent on the defensive. It could be the professor thought Walsh was doing this here. If you’ve seen the scene, ask yourself what hand gesture Walsh makes when he speaks these words. Then watch the scene again and see if you remembered it correctly.
This in no way justifies the Professor’s views on the subject. It does bring to mind a question. Just how many times has this individual genuinely dealt with such tactics, maybe amongst his peers, so as to automatically react in such a way? Obviously his circular definition is absurd, but may be an emotional mirror of Walsh’s statement, as it is motivated by a similar need for completion. At least that’s how it presents to me in the film. Of course the professor likely already had that definition; the question is how defensive and reactionary in advance such a definition is.
The heart of this segment seems to be a confrontation with absurdity, or a combination of humour, anger, and confusion, much of which is triggered by Walsh’s curiosity and techniques. But he isn't alone in his perspective, with the example of the collectables shop owner and the local transgender politician, showing further confrontation.
While the second act indicates an overall darker turn in the film, Walsh holds off on this for a brief respite to Africa, where he interviews a tribe of Masai for their views on the subject. It’s the same formula: thought preceding action with humour at it’s heart. You may have noticed by now that I’ve referenced the hearts of each segment as driven by curiosity. This is the true heart that drives the entire movie, and until now it’s been Walsh expressing that curiosity. But now you do see a few questions from the tribesmen themselves, and while it’s all rather vulgar, they are at least honest questions these men have for Walsh. He is able to capitalize on the emotion of curiosity as a reciprocal value that extends beyond cultures and borders.
A quick note on critics of this segment with their counter examples of “accepting tribes”. Actions speak louder than words. Walsh did the leg work and so effectively has the legitimacy as a result. Call it unfair if you want to.
The third act takes the heart of curiosity and develops it into a revelation of facts of which many have been kept unaware. The interview with Doctor Miriam Grossman gets more attention here, as well as post transition patient Scott (Kelly) Newgent. The information presented is quite harrowing, and at this point the humour has been replaced by sadness and outrage. Then Walsh takes action again, confronting the Nashville School Board with a speech that most definitely pulls no punches.
The end of the film bring Walsh back home, his hero’s journey completed with himself seemingly no closer to answer the question of what is a woman. And so he asks his wife.
One of the things that stood out to me watching this film is Walsh’s use of “B roll”. From the cheese sticks hitting his face at his daughter’s party, to the conspiracy board that he eventually demolishes with a baseball bat, to the final scene with his wife, Walsh’s use of dramatization seems to reinforce rather than take away from the authenticity of his position.
Why do I like Walsh’s B roll? Maybe it’s because there are no phones being used. He doesn’t phone in his method and so it comes off as sincere. With this film Walsh is showing a way to do artifice that may be genuine, as a part of the presentation format. Good art requires a sincere motivation from the artist, and honest curiosity meets this requirement well. This supports my thesis that the heart of the film is curiosity itself, that stimulates various emotions represented in differing segments - curiosity stimulating humour, anger, confrontation, sadness, and hopefull resolve.
By showing himself as acting on curiosity, Walsh creates an emotional connection, similar to the appeal to curiosity that made people open minded to trans ideology in the first place. It is an incursion upon the same psychological territory that his opponents have occupied, namely the gateway of curiosity. Will Walsh transform from gate crasher to gatekeeper in this regard? His provocative stance is both necessary and risky; desperate times, desperate measures. As Conservatives learn to embrace the artifice of media and culture, time will tell how far they will go in adopting their opponents’ tactics.
Just as Amy Schumer deserves a writing credit for the movie “Joker”, Michael Moore deserves credit for providing the creative inspiration for this film. And maybe some blame, as well. Time will tell.