Review: What Is A Woman? (2020)

This is a short film from Sweden, and is available via Kanopy (check with your local library to see if you get free access to the collection). Note: This is not the 2022 film from Matt Walsh.

There are spoilers in this post. In fact, the post is one giant spoiler. That said, even if you read this post, I highly recommend you watch the short film, because I’ve not included every detail, and the film deals with the subject matter very skillfully.

The film opens in a womens locker room, where three women are showering. The real meat of the movie begins when the scene moves to the changing area, where we find three women in conversation. Most of the women’s names aren’t revealed, so I’ll give people names as we go.

A red-haired woman (“Red”) is saying that she doesn’t think that a blonde-haired woman (“Juni”) should be in the womens locker room, because Juni is transgender. “If I saw you naked, would you be a complete woman?” Red asks. “Do you have a penis?”

A Brunette is standing with Juni, arguing that what’s inside Juni’s underwear isn’t any of Red’s business — that Juni is quite obviously a woman, and belongs in the womens locker room. Juni remains quiet for most of the interactions, letting Brunette do most of the talking for her, and Brunette has a lot to say.

Red points out that lots of women would be uncomfortable seeing a penis in a women’s changing room, while Brunette retorts that nobody is dangling penises in anyone else’s face. Undeterred, Red insists that it is incredibly inconsiderate of Juni to be in the women’s locker room.

This is my worst nightmare, being played out on a screen right in front of me.

Juni remains poised throughout the movie, but the pain is there in her eyes. It’s brutal to witness. Juni knows that she is in an extremely delicate position; protest too much and she will be seen as aggressive, which can be used as “proof” of her masculinity. But the alternative is to slink off like she was doing something wrong, when she isn’t. Thank goodness Brunette is here to be Juni’s voice!

Watching this initial scene, my stomach drops, my heart hurts, and I have an intense sense of dread. I want to cry, and I know that no amount of tears will change Red’s position.

Red tries to make the case that women don’t have periods and get pregnant because they *identify* as women. Brunette is unmoved — “she is a woman. Period.”

Red tries another approach: “what if I say ‘I’m black’?” Juni speaks up – “are you black?”, and Red replies “if I feel black. Is that ok with you?” Juni takes all the piss out of that argument with her reply “it’s fine with me.” Boom! Brunette has Juni’s back “see how tolerant she is”!

Red protests that Brunette is in her own little world, so she isn’t thinking of the other women in the locker room, who don’t want to see a penis. During this part of the conversation, in the background, a Mom is taking care of her naked son, and at one point, they cross the room, with the boy’s completely naked body in full view with no protest from Red (or anyone else). The filmmakers masterfully expose the illogic of Red’s argument without anyone else needing to say a word!

Mom interjects, asking what the women are talking about and Brunette explains that it’s about whether Juni, being trans, should be in the room. Mom points out that there are rules for these things, and Brunette replies that the rule is that womens changing rooms are for women, and Juni is a woman. Mom says she understands that some women might find it shocking, and that people with penises shouldn’t be in the room (while chasing her naked son around the room). Brunette asks if Juni should be sent into the men’s changing room while Juni looks way more womanly than Brunette does.

This draws the attention of another in the room, a short-haired person dressed in somewhat masculine clothing (“Q”), who asks “does it matter how you look? Is that how we decide, on looks?” Brunette realizes she’s misstepped and walks back her statement “that isn’t what I meant, I apologize.”

Mom is back again, with her son still fully naked and showing off his penis to everyone in the room — “but there is something biological.” She says that the words used for trans people feel fabricated, and that people are born either a woman or a man. I’m wishing I could point out the obvious to these women — that transgender women are born women, just with an unfortunate physical I congruity which leads people to not understand that about them.

Mom reveals she is a teacher and that one of the students went from using “she” to “they”, and later back to “she”. Mom laments that it’s difficult to keep up with and she wishes she could just speak more freely (it seems to me that she’s speaking freely quite well!). Q asks why Mom can’t just use the pronouns the kid asks for; after all, if they are able to communicate the pronouns while being a child, why is Mom — an adult — unable to meet the kid where they are? Boom!

Mom protests that she feels judged all the time, that she feels like everything she does is wrong and that parents are afraid of making mistakes. I wonder if she realizes that knowingly calling someone by the wrong pronouns is a mistake, and if she’s worried about making that particular one. Without any self-awareness, Mom asks why we can’t broaden the perspective a little bit; can we just relax and calm down? (Yes, relax and calm down. You seem quite upset with your closed-minded attitude, Mom)

Red is back: “you need more than a dress and make up to be a woman”. (right! This isn’t about clothes and cosmetics!) “That’s fine with me, if you want to call yourself a woman, but you can’t come and demand space in a room for women.” Juni is obviously uncomfortable— she’s pulled a towel from her bag and has it covering her chest and body under her crossed arms. Q protests, “but she is a woman!”

Juni speaks up, “I don’t demand any space. I am here because I am a woman.” Yes! Exactly! Trans women aren’t demanding space *from* women, because trans women *are* women. Trans women just need the space that any other woman gets without question.

Q is tired of this: “Am I allowed in here?”

Red replies “you have a certain genitalia?” Geez! Why is it always about body parts?!

Q is annoyed, “yes, but how do you know?”

Red replies that if men and women could just appear how they please — if men could wear dresses, for instance — this wouldn’t be an issue. You’re so close, Red… so close!

Q points out that while they are a “biological woman“, they have suffered discrimination and violence because they are sometimes read as male. Q doesn’t know what they feel like — sometimes they feel like a man, sometimes they feel like a woman.

Red laments the mistreatment that Q has suffered, and wishes gender roles weren’t so rigid that women must look a certain way. My goodness Red, you are practically there, and you can’t make that last connection!

Q tells the others that their life has already been planned out on the basis of the gender they were assigned, and asks “what if I don’t want to live like that? What if I’m not that person?”

Mom won’t give up. “I’m just saying that we should be allowed to say… that hormones play a part.” I want so badly to point out that if you go there, you have to allow that trans women frequently and routinely change their hormonal profile to be the same as cisgender women. Don’t those hormones also play a part?!

Mom asks if Q would prefer to be called “they”, and Q says yes. Red wants to know why Q can’t just be called “she”, and Q is again irritated, “because I want to be called ‘they’! Like you want to be called ‘she’.”

Red isn’t done yet. “It’s a shame that we’re erasing…”, but Q is having none of it: “it’s a shame that you’re telling us how we should live our lives!” Boom!

But Red doesn’t know she’s beat. She says about Juni, “all I’m saying is that he’s free to…” The camera cuts to Juni, and I want to cry because she’s so clearly hurt by Red’s misgendering.

Once again, Q comes to the rescue. “It’s not ‘he’, it’s ‘she’”. Folks, this is how you be an ally — you don’t let others misgender trans folks, especially in the presence of those trans folks.

Red is on a roll, though. “A woman isn’t something you become; you are born as one.” You’re sooooo freaking close, Red!

Q is a fucking boss: “here is a person with a different experience, while you tell us who we are — exactly like the patriarchy!” “It’s really offensive that you’re telling us who we are!” This is the kill shot, but Red doesn’t know she’s dead yet.

Two more women join the conversation, a Raven haired woman, and a woman wearing Glasses. Raven asks “What on earth is this discussion about?” Juni answers, “whether I have the right to be here.” Raven replies, “you have the same rights as everyone else here.”

Glasses tries to defuse the conversation, “I think this is getting too silly, putting two vulnerable groups up against each other in this way.” Yes! This is so important!

But Red just won’t stay down, telling Q “this has nothing to do with you. You’re a woman.”

Q fires right back, “how the hell do you know?!” Q tells Red, “*I* don’t know what I am!”

The room is silent. The woman trade looks, unsure what to do next. Finally, one of them asks Juni, “what are you going to do?”

For the first time in many minutes, Juni speaks. “Well I was actually just gonna go for a swim.”

My heart is broken. Juni just wanted to go for a swim, and instead, she’s in the middle of a room of 10-15 women all debating whether she even belongs in the room. Juni handled the situation with poise and resilience, and I am so angry that she was placed in a position to have to do so. It is so freaking unfair! At the end of the day, all trans women want is to just be treated and included as women — same as other women. Trans women are just like other women, and that fact gets lost so easily!

If this film is a dramatization, it is masterfully done. It has a realness which evoked actual dysphoria in me while I was watching it. The women appeared to genuinely and spontaneously be having this conversation, but they weren’t ever looking at the cameras, or at the microphones which undoubtedly were hanging over their heads. It’s hard to believe that a group of random women would be so open to having this conversation inside an actual locker room while actually stripping down and getting dressed in different clothes. And yet, I couldn’t detect any pretense. These are genuine things which I have heard countless times from all sorts of people, and I know that they are meant when they are directed at me.

My heart is broken for Juni, and for Q. And my heart is heavy that Red, Mom, and the others are expressing their own genuine emotions and beliefs, and they don’t think they are harming anyone by doing so. They think they are protecting people. But the reality is that they are protecting cisgender people, at the expense of transgender people.

I wish there were easier and clearer ways to show just how harmful those beliefs are for trans people, and how unfounded those fears are. Juni just wanted to swim. She wasn’t there for any nefarious purposes. She wasn’t there to ogle other women or to be predatory. She just wanted to put on her own bathing suit and go swim.

Why does this have to be so hard?!

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