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.

The future of men, according to Jack Myers

Jack Myers has written a book about The Future of Men. And – spoiler alert! – the future of men is women.

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Lincolnville, Maine

Myers writes that male dominance is giving way to female dominance, and men must recognize and respect this. But I question whether one gender must be dominant – isn’t challenging the notion of dominance what equality is all about?

Myers makes his progressive viewpoint clear in the first line of his book, where he declares that, “The male gender as a whole is afflicted by an inborn sense of power and dominance over women that has existed since the caveman.”

He goes on to describe the “shrinking number of heterosexual men who are emotionally functional,” writing that “women view men as helpless and hopeless.”

In contrast, “A woman’s power is in her intuition, experience, common sense, and her inherent desire to collaborate rather than fight. When women say ‘I understand’ they mostly do (unlike men, who are often clueless but won’t admit it).”

Myers supports this view of gender with several quotes from Hanna Rosin’s “The End of Men,” which was published in the Atlantic in June 2010 and later turned into a book.

His gender essentialism is clear. He follows up his assertions about men’s “inborn” and women’s “inherent” characteristics by stating that, “It’s a genetic reality that men are a confused gender.” This, Myers tells us, is backed up by geneticist Bryan Sykes, who says that the Y chromosome is a genetic wasteland.

What’s a man to do?

Myers believes men have much to learn from women. In his chapter on how men can adapt to the new world he advises men to learn to multitask, admit mistakes and tell the truth, learn to ask for help, pay attention to details, show concern for coworkers, think about other people’s feelings, and use more words to communicate.

The progressive narrative of “men bad, women good” sells. After all, promoting derogatory stereotypes is only politically incorrect when it’s directed at certain groups.

And putting women on a pedestal is only considered sexist in specific circumstances. Portraying women as naive or saying women are too delicate to do dangerous jobs like firefighting is sexist. But saying women are smarter, more honest, and more competent than men is not sexist.

Despite Myers’ pandering to feminism, I’m doubtful that most feminists will be impressed. I’m guessing they’ll see right through it.

My op-ed in the Portland Press Herald

Healthy masculinity and femininity reflect our shared humanity by Dave DuBay.

When yet another mass shooting or sexual assault makes headlines, we talk about the role of guns, religion and alcohol. Perhaps because most men aren’t violent, what we don’t talk about is the fact that most violence is committed by men. It’s an uncomfortable conversation…Read more.

2016’s most important men’s book

Philip Zimbardo & Nikita Coulombe step outside the box and offer real solutions.

Philip Zimbardo’s 2011 TED Talk “The demise of guys” became a short IMG_0481
ebook
by the same title. And with coauthor Nikita Coulombe it’s now a full length book called Man Interrupted.

Zimbardo is best known for the Stanford prison experiment where he found that social situations have a far greater effect on behavior than most of us think.

In Man Interrupted, Zimbardo & Coulombe look at challenges facing young men today, and how societal changes contribute to this.


Notice that these are symptoms, not causes. 


The book has three parts: symptoms, causes, and solutions. Symptoms include excessive porn and video game use, drug and alcohol abuse, obesity, and opting out of the workforce. Notice that these are symptoms, not causes.

The causes are absent dads, failing schools, environmental changes, technology enabling arousal addiction, and entitlement versus reality.

Let’s dig a little deeper before I get to their solutions. First, they note that human behavior is complex, and simple explanations won’t do – especially pejorative explanations.

How does a young man contend with female dominated schools that are biased against boys, environmental factors that reduce testosterone levels, a culture that recognizes women’s needs while ignoring men’s needs, and a poor job market? And what if he has no father or male mentor to guide him?

We can judge the easy escape of violent video games and readily available pornography (which fails to depict real sexuality). Or we can try to empathize and support him.


Boys need men – especially fathers – as mentors.


“Knowing that they’re needed motivates [men], and they want respect from…other men.” But Zimbardo & Coulombe emphasize that “respect needs to come from doing pro-social things that make life better…not…from out-drinking their buddies or doing some stupid shit.” But to accomplish this boys need men – especially fathers – as mentors.

Instead, society is alienating young men by devaluing fathers, with a political atmosphere that puts women on a pedestal while ignoring or even mocking men’s concerns, and mass media portraying men as buffoons while also encouraging male entitlement.

Referencing Erik Erikson‘s psycho-social development theory, they note that Western society’s distorted ideals often short-circuit the adolescent task of balancing the ideal self with reality. Anger and entitlement rise when we fail “to come to terms with the fact that we are no more special than anyone else.”

For grown men this discrepancy can be heartbreaking. Often a father’s value is more about finances than love. But compared to mothers, twice as many fathers wish they could spend more time with their children.


“Men’s friendships are based on what abilities they bring to the group – remembering that their life is devalued but their skillsets are not.”


How do we address this? Zimbardo & Coulombe advocate going beyond society’s female-centric conversations, which alienate men. We need to treat father’s rights as equal to mother’s rights. We also need to dispel the myth that mothers or other men can serve as replacements for fathers. We need to make fatherhood a priority.

We also need to acknowledge that men as a group have more power than women, but this power comes with tradeoffs. They quote a soldier’s description of the male gender role: “Men’s friendships among peers in competitive atmospheres are based on what abilities they bring to the group; remembering that their life is devalued but their skillsets are not. Showing concern means that you question their ability.”

That almost four out of five suicides are men and boys – an issue which first appears when puberty begins – should be a wakeup call that something’s wrong. But instead there’s societal indifference.


To “harness the power of young men, society is going to have to care about its young men.”


With a nod to men’s writer Warren Farrell, Zimbardo & Coulombe conclude that true power is about control over your life “and having access to fulfilling personal experiences.” But the traditional male role – earning money for others and dying sooner – doesn’t meet that definition. They warn that “if society wants to harness the constructive power of its young men, society is going to have to care about its young men.”

Now to the solutions. They promote political support for a White House Council on Boys and Men, noting that there’s already one for girls and women. Male mentorship programs are important. There’s also a government Office of Women’s Health, but not for men.

They detail extensive school reforms to help boys succeed. They encourage physical activity rather than medication for ADHD (and learning to dance is a great way to do this).

Boys need better sex education, including discussions about peer pressure, consent, boundaries, and the difference between porn and reality.

Men need to teach boys respect for women through actions as well as words. Boys need to know that it’s not okay to call women sluts or hos, but boys also need to learn to avoid the princess (the entitled woman).

Finally, we need to pressure the media to portray men in a more positive and multifaceted light. Zimbardo & Coulombe advocate a “reverse Bechdel Test” with mature and responsible fathers, honest hard-working men, women valuing men before they becomes heroes, and men who resolve conflicts in creative non-violent ways.

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.

Identity and Setting Boundaries

There are few things that can send people through the roof more than a perceived attack on their identity. I’ve long observed that my atheism can upset Christians who take my disbelief personally.

Recently, George Takei (Lt. Sulu from the original Star Trek) ruffled feathers when he referred to African-American (and arch-conservative) Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as “a clown in black face.” Takei is a gay rights activist, and Thomas dissented from the court’s pro-gay marriage ruling. Implying that Thomas isn’t really black has angered many African-Americans, even if they strongly disagree with Thomas’s politics.

People have reason to feel angry when their identity is attacked. But their anger is misplaced when their insecurities are triggered by someone who is asserting a different identity or viewpoint, but who is not attacking their identity (like Christians who are upset by my open atheism).

A group that has long been marginalized is particularly vulnerable to people failing to respect their boundaries. For example, it’s not surprising that many people don’t think Caitlyn Jenner (née Bruce Jenner) is a real woman.

And it’s not just conservatives. Feminist Elinor Burkett ran a piece in the New York Times asking “what makes a woman?” She doesn’t include transgender women in her identity as a woman.

I think it’s every individual’s right to assert her or his identity, and good boundaries dictate that I have no place questioning others. Jenner identifies as a woman and prefers feminine pronouns, so that’s how I’ll speak of her.

Herein lies the dilemma. I don’t feel like I can tell Ms. Burkett that her identity as a woman has to be more inclusive. But I can say that I think it’s disrespectful for Ms. Burkett to refer to Jenner as “he” and to publicly dispute Jenner’s identity.

The view that there are not two, but rather five, seven, or more genders can bring some clarity to this issue.

However, Burkett brings up a grievance that goes the other way: some transgender activists want to ban the word vagina because not all transgender women have vaginas. Indeed, Mount Holyoke College canceled the Vagina Monologues recently due to such concerns.

Perhaps only a minority of transgender women want to ban the word vagina. Such censorship crosses the line, however, for the same reason that Burkett’s use of “he” when referring to Jenner crosses the line. If a cisgender woman wants to call her body part a vagina then that’s her right we should all respect. It’s not exclusionary toward transgender women, it’s just a cisgender woman referring to her own body as she chooses.

But what to do about Rachel Dolezal, the self-identified African-American who was born a blonde white woman?

It’s been amply noted that race and gender are different. Jenner doesn’t want to be the opposite sex. She was born female with a male body. But Dolezal wants to be black. And I think that’s okay, so long as she’s upfront about it.

The problem is that she wasn’t above board. There may be cases where a person wants to identify with a certain group. And Dolezal, with adopted African-American siblings, an black ex-husband, and a biracial child, has reasons to identify with the African-American community. I must wonder: if she had been open about this, would she have found greater acceptance?

Final example. Peter Moskowitz wrote an op-ed asking heterosexuals to stop overlaying the rainbow flag onto their Facebook profile pics. He feels that he earned the right to wave the rainbow flag after all the homophobia he’s encountered over the years, the social rejections from coming out, not to mention the real danger of physical assault for being gay. Moskowitz asks, “If they were true allies to me or the LGBT community, where were they before Friday?”

It’s a valid question. Of course, no one is trying to co-opt anyone’s identity, nor is Moskowitz saying they are. But he’s concerned that people jumping on the bandwagon after the fact don’t really support his identity as a gay man.

I didn’t change my Facebook profile pic because I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon. Though I have marched in gay pride parades as a social worker as far back as 1996, and voted in favor of LGBT civil rights and marriage equality in Maine.

I’m well aware, however, that I haven’t been through what Moskowitz has. Still, I don’t think rainbow-ifying your Facebook pic is necessarily an infringement, especially for heterosexuals who have supported LGBT rights all along.