The Red Pill: A controversial documentary about the men’s rights movement

redpillThe latest documentary by sometime feminist Cassie Jaye has caused no small amount of controversy. More so than previous documentaries such as Daddy I Do, where she criticizes purity balls and father’s attempts to protect their daughter’s virginity. Or The Right to Love, which supports the fight for marriage equality.

The Red Pill looks at the men’s right movement, challenging what we think we know about gender issues. 

Tough questions

The film is controversial because of its positive portrayal of the men’s rights movement. Jaye gives A Voice for Men founder Paul Elam a sympathetic hearing without challenging him on his ranting online persona. Also unquestioned is men’s rights activists (MRAs) failure to take women’s issues seriously while demonizing feminists and blaming them for problems men face. And left unexamined is the claim that society is gynocentric.

But Jaye does ask feminists tough questions. They avoid the issue of paternity fraud and stand firm in their opposition to a legal presumption of shared parenting. On the issue of father’s rights Katherine Spillar from the Feminist Majority Foundation says a man’s choice happens before he has sex. Another feminist in the film says men have a responsibility not to put themselves in these situations. Which would be misogyny if someone said that about women. 

Later in the film feminist Michael Kimmel denies that domestic violence against men is a serious issue despite a Centers for Disease Control report (tables 4.7 and 4.8) showing that 5.066 million men have been pushed or slapped by an intimate partner in the past 12 months compared to 4.322 million women. Even with severe domestic violence the CDC found more male victims than most people would expect – 2.266 million men and 3.163 million women in the past 12 months.

Men and gender: It’s complicated

Since the advent of second wave feminism a half century ago men have struggled to proactively discuss gender issues. Today the Internet is the primary medium for MRAs to vent their concerns and anger, often anonymously. And anti-feminism is their focus.

Meanwhile, male feminists advocate men checking their privilege and acknowledging their collective guilt as oppressors. But feminism is a female perspective on gender where men’s issues are usually discussed in terms of how masculinity affects women. It’s difficult for men to speak genuinely about men’s lived experiences when taking their cues from women.

It’s a complex situation without a clear solution.

A movement is born

The central text of the men’s rights movement is The Myth of Male Power, written in 1993 by former male feminist Warren Farrell. His key point that the male role requires men to devalue their lives in the service of others sparked a movement even if it didn’t become mainstream.

Male disposability garners such little concern that few people have even heard of it. But MRAs present several statistics backed by United States government reports, including men being 93% of workplace deaths, almost four in five suicides, and 98% of combat deaths. They note that Boko Haram kidnapping girls generated an outpouring of international concern while the boys they burned alive were ignored.

Male disposability isn’t just about death. High divorce rates have decreased father involvement in children’s lives, reducing men’s value to a child support check. Yet research shows the essential role of fathers in children’s lives – boys especially. And boys are falling far behind girls in school, but little is being done about it.

Anger

MRAs are angry because they feel dehumanized. But feminists feel dehumanized by MRAs. Jaye shows footage of a feminist protest against Farrell without giving the context for why feminists labeled him a rape apologist. In The Myth of Male Power Farrell writes, “before we began calling this date rape and date fraud, we called it exciting.” MRAs respond that this quote must be understood in its larger context. Though Farrell was not advocating rape, flippant comments about rape are always cringeworthy.

Where do we go from here?

Both feminists and MRAs seem passionate about equality and sensitive to gender bias while at other times being anti-equality and promoting gender bias. But this isn’t as inconsistent as it seems. Both feminism and the MRM are primarily about self-interest.

In the end Jaye concludes that she supports gender equality but is neither a feminist nor a men’s rights activist. But she’s not sure what direction that might go in. Despite my criticisms of the documentary, I agree with Jaye’s conclusion.

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Can you believe in gender equality but not be a feminist?

If you believe in gender equality then you’re a feminist. If you doubt that then look feminism up in the dictionary. It’s a popular argument that’s difficult to disagree with without being labeled anti-equality.

But does it follow that if you’re not a feminist then you’re anti-equality? It reminds me of the question, “How can you be moral if you don’t believe in God?” The black or white dichotomy such questions create is problematic.

Another problem is the attempt to define other people’s labels for them. A better questions is, “What do you call yourself?” And, “What’s your perspective on equality?” These questions are open ended and don’t push an agenda.

Feminism advocates for gender equality from a female point of view. This matters because the Seneca Falls Convention was held 168 years ago, but recorded human history stretches back 10,000 years. But men seem inconsistent in finding their voice about gender equality.

Feminism has changed men’s roles because women’s roles can’t change without shifting men’s place in society. But that change happens to men – we don’t have a choice. And that feeling of having no choice is one reason why men’s rights activists are angry with feminism. Feminists sometimes respond by saying that men need to understand that men benefit from feminism too. And while that’s generally true, the patronizing tone doesn’t help.

The men’s rights movement isn’t the answer, though. Their rightwing talking points fail to support women’s issues. Men’s rights activists even claim that feminism isn’t really about equality.

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Beehive Mountain, Acadia National Park

So is being a male feminist the answer? I agree with blogger Ally Fogg that feminism is a movement of women, by women, and for women. Men can’t define the issues or offer solutions. Men can’t even takes sides in disagreements within feminism without it being mansplaining. As a result, a male feminist must take his cues from women. This means avoiding certain issues and having his statements scrutinized for ideological purity, all of which constrain his ability to speak authentically about the male experience.

Fogg also points out that feminism is mainly concerned with issues men cause, not issues men face. And of course, issues that men face are for men to describe.

A return to the pre-feminist past is neither desirable nor realistic. Instead, I write in an attempt to develop a male perspective on gender equality and gender issues without the constraints of male feminism, but also without the anti-feminist and rightwing perspective of the men’s rights movement. This is a male viewpoint that runs parallel to much of feminist thought but which is also free to disagree with feminism at certain points.

Final thought: while I don’t expect people to agree with me (I’m simply defining my personal viewpoint), I also reject the moralistic judgments people sometimes make because I’m not choosing the labels they think I should choose. It is each person’s prerogative to choose their own labels and to define their own perspectives, and the attitude that someone must call themselves this or that disrespects that individual’s choice.