Filmmaker and rs21 member Úna O’Sullivan debunks a film that claims to provide a ‘materialist’ basis for gender essentialism.
Protest against the Tory veto of the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill, Downing Street, 18 January 2023 – photo by Steve Eason
Adult Human Female is a documentary film by two Marxist academics based in England, Deirdre O’Neill and Mike Wayne. It opens with O’Neill speaking about how upset she was to be accused of transphobia. After all, how can one be biased against a group whose existence one denies? The film’s arguments are crude variations on the theme of ‘men are male and masculine, women are female and feminine,’ but O’Neill’s injured tone recurs throughout the film, as a dull procession of transphobic interviewees declaim against the injustice of a left that’s closed to their bigotry.
Some of the interviewees are trade unionists; some are or were Labour Party members. They repeatedly cite these credentials to demonstrate their progressive politics. However, everything they say regarding trans people expresses a deep, insipid conservatism. Other interviewees include a biological essentialist GP, representatives from several NGOs campaigning for single sex spaces, and the author of a book comparing trans people to flat earthers.
The usual transphobic arguments all find voice within the film. They centre around the prison system, competitive sports and toilets. These have become a focal point for transphobes, despite being parts of society whose single-sex regulations are rarely discussed in the mainstream media in other contexts. These spaces enable the simplification of gender in the way transphobes prefer, whilst gender in the outside world is more complicated and open to nuanced discussion, leaving transphobes struggling to provide coherent answers. For instance, the street is a more notorious site of violence than women’s bathrooms. There, we find both cis women and trans people of all genders to be more often the targets of violence than the perpetrators. But this is not helpful to transphobic arguments – so the focus becomes toilets, where a fictional threat of predation by trans women can be conjured up most easily without reference to supporting facts.
In competitive sports, transphobes focus on the unfair advantage that could supposedly be conferred by male biology – and yet, many competitive sports today often involve taking as many performance-enhancing drugs as are legal. The idea that there is any ‘purity’ or biological meritocracy that should be preserved is contradicted by the extent to which capitalism has warped these contests already – making it an issue that feels more like a ‘gotcha’ than a genuine attempt to achieve fairness. Meanwhile, trans women very rarely achieve highly in these contests, making it a moot point in the world outside transphobes’ heads and the pages of the tabloid press.
The focus on prisons also shows the ‘gender critical’ movement’s departure from their claimed leftist politics. Instead of joining in discussions about prison abolition and reimagining justice, a lively discussion in the wider trans-inclusive feminist movement, they instead haggle the terms of our oppression by accepting the need for prisons and obsessing over the genitalia of prisoners – a clear move away from any attempt to imagine a better world in which prisons might play a smaller part.
This is fitting for a transphobic minority increasingly hyperfocused on the imagined danger of trans people to the detriment of any concern about more pressing issues (such as why we are locking up so many women in prison, how women’s trauma is played out in a punitive and violent system, and who profits from that violence). The argument cited by transphobes is that including trans women in women’s prisons is a danger to women, but this is based on the gross distortion and inflation of the most marginal of cases, and disregards the harms done by incarcerating trans women in men’s prisons.
On the few occasions when the 91 minute film breaks from the voices of transphobes, it shows stock footage that is meant to illustrate their points. It is apt that a film which expresses such narrow-minded views leans so heavily on generic footage found online. A further irony is that the footage used to illustrate their ‘feminist’ arguments is largely of patriarchal traditions. A white man in a white coat points smugly at a blackboard, and a close up shot lingers on an old dictionary definition as if to insist that culture must remain as it was historically written, as if definitions in old books are to be revered and have never been sexist, racist, homophobic and colonial.
Perhaps most idiotic is a shot of squirrels mating, meant to demonstrate that nature is simply cisgender. Of course, as Shiraz Hussain eloquently wrote, ‘the study of the living world reveals not only the intricacy and beauty of the forms but a complete disregard of human expectations – penguins who form same-sex relationships, clown fish (and many other fish species) who change from a sperm-producing to an egg-laying form to suit the needs of the school […].’ The transphobes’ appeal to ‘nature’ as proof that our society must adhere to a rigid gender binary is easily undermined. Gender is far more complicated, and based on clusters of biological and social attributes which mean that no one characteristic can be isolated to determine what kind of person someone will become.
The ‘good old days’?
Universities in the film are under fire for quelling transphobic discourse, and the interviewees pine for the good old days when a university’s purpose was simply ‘the pursuit of truth’. Again, the stock image chosen to represent this ideal foregrounds the argument’s delusion. The image onscreen is of a stone carving at the University of Edinburgh, depicting a group of men graduating in academic robes. It was designed at a time before women were allowed to graduate from its halls. The film’s production ethos is well-represented by this image of ‘truth’ bound up with exclusivity and exclusion. Not a single trans person is interviewed throughout the film. For a tendency so frequently making calls for ‘debate’, the film is entirely one-sided and makes no attempt to engage with its critics.
Medical science and academic writings have furnished society with many insights, paradigm shifts and necessary critiques. However, their style of discourse is adopted here to legitimise transphobic bigotry, and endow it with an authorial voice of neutrality, objectivity and power. Adult Human Female may include men in white coats, but this says more about the power structures it tries to affiliate with than its scientific accuracy. White men in white coats also spent centuries denying women the right to contraception and abortion, pathologising homosexuality, and engaging in eugenics founded on racist pseudoscience. The international medical industry is still not free from those legacies, yet in this film a GP’s opinion is cited as indisputable truth. Aside from the fact that the ‘science’ quoted by transphobes is wrong, they also misuse its garb.
To deploy this index of totalised knowledge for ‘feminist’ purposes shows exactly what kind of feminism these transphobes espouse. It is a narrow feminism, and it indicates that ‘left-wing’ people can be transphobic only through cherrypicking from reactionary right-wing discourses. One interviewee goes so far as to say that the Tories are ‘not very clever about much, but they’re clever about this.’ In conflating transphobic intolerance with the name of feminism, this film is poisonous. It forgets the many histories of feminist struggle which recognise difference and fight to build solidarity and liberation.
The production company name under which this film was released is ‘Reality Matters’. This nods to the lie that there is something materialist about dissecting trans lives from a position of hate. The lie depends on biological essentialism and social essentialism. It assumes that what has been pronounced from on high can never change. When tested, it is found to be conservative. Instead of trying to hold materialism to dubious binaries, we need to create and practise a Marxism that is accountable to trans struggle.
In The Holy Family, Marx cautioned that ‘materialism takes to misanthropy‘ if the phrases of science lose a sense of life’s poetic dynamism. This film has lost that and all sense of trans existence and resistance. Fortunately, audiences are aware. Two venues in Nottingham have refused to show it, and protests halted its screening at the University of Edinburgh this month.