Men’s rights activists, or “MRAs,” have long been among the progressive community’s favorite whipping boys — reviled, deplored and mocked as angry, whiny losers pining for their bygone privilege. Right now, they make especially convenient bogeymen in the ugly gender wars of Election 2016. A few days ago, a New York Times article on supposedly resurgent misogyny in American culture singled out the “manosphere” — the male-focused sector of the Internet that includes MRA websites — as a toxic swamp of woman-hating.
Yet at this very moment, a new documentary called The Red Pill takes a mostly sympathetic look at the dreaded MRAs — and it’s made by a woman who began the project as a committed feminist.
The Red Pill (the title, a popular manosphere term, refers to the reality-revealing pill in The Matrix) first sparked controversy a year ago. Filmmaker Cassie Jaye, then 29 and the author of acclaimed, award-winning documentaries on abstinence education and same-sex marriage, lost her potential producers and even some crew because they didn’t like where her new movie was going. After two years of work, the film was in jeopardy; rescue came from a Kickstarter fundraising effort led by men’s groups and by right-wing icon Milo Yiannopoulos. Jaye’s critics were not amused. Anti-MRA blogger David Futrelle accused her of throwing objectivity to the winds and “pandering” to her subjects.
Now that The Red Pill is out in limited release, the reactions have been predictable. It has been panned by the Los Angeles Times, whose reviewer chided Jaye for failing to understand “patriarchal systems,” and by the left-wing Village Voice, which called her an MRA-bankrolled “propagandist.” Meanwhile, men’s movement supporters who attended the film’s New York premiere earlier this month, including many women, warmly thanked Jaye for giving them a voice and a hearing.
So, is The Red Pill a fair and balanced look at a rarely acknowledged side of gender issues, or a paid infomercial for misogynists?
When I spoke to Jaye shortly after the film’s New York opening, she dismissed the idea that the MRAs had bought her with the fundraiser, which had no strings attached. “It is hilarious to me,” Jaye said, “because the three people who funded this film the most — myself, my mom, and my boyfriend — were all calling ourselves feminists.” Eventually, Jaye stopped identifying as a feminist, as she discloses at the end of the film; she says her mother later made the same decision, though she’s not sure about her boyfriend. (For what it’s worth, she does not consider herself a men’s rights activist, either.)
Ironically, Jaye’s journey of discovery began with stumbling on a men’s rights website, A Voice for Men, which has often been denounced as a hate site — and being shocked by its inflammatory language on such topics as rape and domestic violence. Yet, instead of fleeing, she decided to try to understand what motivates the men (and, often, women) who create and read such material. As a result, her own perspective began to change, a process she documents in brief video diaries included in the film.
If nothing else, The Red Pill is a thought-provoking examination of issues that rarely get an airing, from male victims of domestic violence to male reproductive and parental issues to the not-so-privileged side of traditional manhood, such as war deaths and dangerous jobs (over 90 percent of workplace fatalities are men). The personal stories of men who appear on camera are backed by solid statistics and studies. And Jaye has an eye for the provocative tidbit that can illuminate her subject in an unexpected way. Thus, comments from MRAs about men’s limited reproductive options are followed by a clip from The Wendy Williams Show, an Emmy-nominated syndicated talk show: a guest whose husband balks at having a second child says she’s considering going off birth control to trick him, and most of the audience cheers.
The film’s cast includes two fascinating renegades: Warren Farrell, an erstwhile male feminist who turned his attention to men’s issues and male disadvantages (earning him ostracism by many former allies), and Erin Pizzey, founder of the first battered women’s shelter in England, who ran afoul of the sisterhood when she began to argue that women in abusive relationships are often violent themselves. Whether or not one agrees with everything they say, Farrell makes a strong case that the call to free women from traditional restrictions should have included more emphasis on flexibility for everyone, and Pizzey offers a compelling perspective on intimate violence.
Some of the most striking parts of The Red Pill deal with the sadly topical issue of academic intolerance: The film covers disruptive protests on the University of Toronto campus against speakers sponsored by the pro-men’s rights Canadian Association for Equality (CAFE). On video, the protesters not only harass students who want to attend a talk by Farrell — a young man is followed around and berated as “fucking scum” — but shout, clap and bang sticks outside an auditorium to drown out the presenters’ voices at another event. Then, someone sets off the fire alarm, causing the building to be evacuated. (Disclosure: I spoke at two CAFE-hosted events in Canada last fall and was also the target of protests which, while less eventful, included a false fire alarm and a brief evacuation.)
The Village Voice review accuses Jaye of making MRAs’ critics look “unreasonable” by focusing on potty-mouthed protesters. But the film also includes more presentable opponents such as Stony Brook University sociologist Michael Kimmel, a pro-feminist expert on “masculinities.” Kimmel also took part in the question and answer session after the opening-night screening in New York, and received gracious applause for braving the lions’ den and later for acknowledging that divorced fathers do tend to get a raw deal. Alas, he promptly squandered the goodwill by suggesting that instead of blaming men for oppression, we should blame white people.
One of The Red Pill’s most revealing moments is an interview with “Big Red” (Chanty Binx), the Toronto feminist who led one of the anti-MRA protests and became an unwilling viral celebrity. Binx was captured on video loudly femsplaining that men’s problems are caused by patriarchy and that feminism is working to address them, and yelling “Shut the fuck up” at anyone who attempted to respond.
That was then. Now, told that many MRAs feel “feminism doesn’t fight for the rights of men,” Binx scoffs, “Cry me a river. Feminism is a movement about the discrepancies when it comes to women’s equality, because we’re still not there yet (sic). So don’t even start with that whole ‘Oh, but you don’t think about the men’s issues’… Start your own goddamn movement. Which they have,” Big Red quickly concedes — only to dismiss that movement as ideologically incorrect.
MRA critiques of such feminist blinders and hypocrisies are well-deserved: With few exceptions, feminism has not only ignored male disadvantages but openly opposed attempts to rectify biases in such areas as child custody and domestic violence. The men’s movement makes a strong case that in America and other Western societies today, talk of “patriarchy” and men oppressing women is counterproductive for the mutual conversation needed to help everyone.
However, MRAs are on far shakier ground when they apply this reasoning to the whole world and all of human history. Some of Jaye’s interviewees claim that women have always been the privileged sex, or that women have always had power in the sphere of reproduction (presumably even when children were legally the father’s property) and family (presumably even in societies that sanction wife-beating). Jaye told me this is one area where she still finds MRA arguments unpersuasive. But the film would have benefited from some onscreen discussion on the subject.
One valid criticism of The Red Pill is that it soft-pedals or evades the extreme, even genuinely misogynist rhetoric spouted by some of its subjects — such as the prominently featured Paul Elam, founder of A Voice for Men. Jaye defends an infamous post of his proclaiming October “Bash a Violent Bitch Month” (in lieu of Domestic Violence Awareness Month) as a satirical rejoinder to a post on the feminist blog Jezebel that treats women’s violence toward men with humor and bravado. But even accepting that argument, there are other Elam posts that are hard to dismiss as satire, including one declaring that women who “taunt men sexually” are “begging” to be raped.
Another interviewee, female MRA Alison Tieman, has authored a bizarre rant claiming that most women are so sexually selfish and arrogant that it’s a mystery why men bother with them.
This is nasty stuff. Yet none of it is mentioned in the film.
Of course it would help if feminists, from Jezebel bloggers to Australian writer Clementine Ford, didn’t get a pass for equally demeaning and hateful language toward males. But two wrongs, as usual, don’t make a right.
“Following the men’s rights movement made me put a magnifying glass on the dark side of feminism,” Jaye told me. “That’s ultimately why I dropped the label.” Fair enough; but The Red Pill would have been stronger if it acknowledged the dark side of the men’s movement, which often promotes the same victimhood mentality and gender polarization.
Still, The Red Pill is worth seeing, whether at a theater (see information here) or eventually on DVD and online. It is certainly not the last word in the gender conversation we should be having, but it is one that deserves to be heard and considered.