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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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.

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
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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.

The Painted Porch

Stoicism is valuable.

Stoicism has a bad reputation. I’ve criticized it in the past. But my misunderstandings were based on the colloquial sense of stoic in contrast to Stoicism as a philosophy.

And Stoicism’s IMG_0307core idea is a good one: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest.

The problem with suppressed passions is that they come back to bite us in the ass. Besides, emotional detachment isn’t self-control. It’s cheating, like painting the exterior of your house without renovating the interior. It looks good until you peek inside.

But Stoicism isn’t about emotional detachment. It’s about how to deal with intense emotions. Don’t lose your cool. Think clearly. Keep a level head.

Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Perhaps the closest modern equivalent is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – solution based psychotherapy focused on becoming more aware of how our thinking influences emotions and behavior. After all, emotions happen. We can’t stop that. But we can control our reactions. Marcus’s claim that, “very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking,” is CBT in a nutshell.

Or as Zeno of Citium put it, “Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” Zeno taught from a painted porch (stoa in ancient Greek) in the third century B.C. The serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous is taken directly from Stoicism – change the things you can, accept the things you can’t change, and be smart enough to know the difference.


You can do what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.


Stoicism is about:

        • Doing what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.
  • Being honest with yourself about how you feel even when it’s uncomfortable. But don’t suck others into your psychodramas. Instead, you should advocate for your needs in a calm, matter of fact way that takes personal responsibility rather than blaming others.
  • Cooperation being your first move. Don’t retaliate if someone fails to reciprocate, but instead keep that person at a distance or simply walk away. Even self-defense should be limited to whatever is minimally necessary to contain the situation.
    • Not playing into someone’s self-pity or enabling others by trying to save them from their self-destructive behaviors. Instead, put the ball in their court by asking them what outcome they want and how they plan to achieve that.
  • Non-aggressively confronting someone who crosses your boundaries and holding them accountable. This means not telling other people what to do. And if someone tries to impose themselves on you, making it clear that it’s your choice to make, and you don’t accept their demand.
  • Non-aggressive communication means approaching with empathy and keeping defensiveness in check. Speaking in the first person and taking responsibility (“My understanding is…” or “What I want to see happen is…”). It means not making it personal. Refraining from accusations, judgements, or psychoanalyzing others, and instead asking someone to further explain their viewpoint.

 

Is IMDB a conspiracy against men?

I have a theory: there’s a conspiracy against men on IMDB because women give higher ratings to shows like Sex in the City compared to Breaking Bad.

I know this sounds nuts. And it is. But hear me out.

The latest viral story comes from fivethirtyeight.com, a site that does statistical analysis of all sorts of things. Walt Hickey’s research finds that (surprise!) men give higher ratings to male themed shows and women give higher ratings to female themed shows. But overall women’s shows get lower ratings (though not bad ratings), and this proves that men are deliberately sabotaging women’s shows.

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The media, ever eager to show just how powerless women are, picked up the story with Elle, the Huffington Post, and Salon adding their two cents. The media’s frequent illustrations of how women are oppressed over subtle things strikes me as sexist, even though it’s presented as speaking out against sexism. The constant media theme of men bad/women good empowers neither women nor men. 

Blogger Cathy Young pointed out that the reason women’s shows have lower IMDB averages is that 70% of people rating programs are men. Because the male:female ratio is 2.3:1 rather than 1:1, ratings have a male bias. But this doesn’t prove that men deliberately have it out for women. 

The real question (which fivethirtyeight fails to address) is why men are twice as likely as women to post a rating on IMDB. To get to the root of the issue, IMDB could ask women and men why they do or don’t post ratings. There may be something about the site itself that needs to be adjusted to balance out the male:female ratio.

Why have we been so slow to develop birth control for men?

The birth control pill just celebrated its 50th anniversary. The pill’s impact on women’s health, reproductive choices, and thus society in general has been enormous. And under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) insurers must cover the pill as well as other forms of contraception such as diaphrams, sponges, IUDs, Plan B, and sterilization (having her “tubes tied”).

Insurance doesn’t typically cover men’s reproductive health, however, and vasectomies are unaffordable for low income men (though Vermont just added vasectomies to the list of contraption that insurers must cover). The only other male contraception – condoms – can be bought over the counter and are relatively affordable. But condoms are also a real bummer.

Why do men have so few birth control options? A huge part of the reason is the cultural attitude that birth control is a woman’s responsibility. Obamacare, by covering female but not male contraception, seems to reflect this attitude.

Related to that is a greater focus overall on women’s health. Though the federal government has had an Office of Women’s Health since 1991, there is no government program for men’s health despite the fact that men (on average) die years sooner than women. For instance, about 12% of women will develop breast cancer at some point while 14% of men will develop prostate cancer, but prostate cancer receives the least amount of funding of any other cancer while breast cancer gets the most funding. The men who run Congress could increase prostate cancer funding, but men are not taught to focus on their health (a social norm that is slowly beginning to change).

But there’s hope on the horizon. Earlier this year the WebMD men’s health newsletter ran an article about male contraception. They identified additional reasons why men don’t have more birth control options. Scientifically it’s a tougher nut to crack (sorry, couldn’t resist a bad joke). Early hormonal treatments failed miserably. And pharmaceuticals, despite making money hand over fist, are reticent to push products not knowing if men will go for it.

But the company developing Vasalgel says it has 31,000 men on their waitlist. Vasalgel is sometimes referred to as a temporary vasectomy. A gel is injected into the vas deferens, blocking sperm’s pathway to the outside world. A later injection can dissolve the gel.

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Other forms of male contraception being studied are retinoic Acid pill, H2-Gamendazole, nestorone gel, and testosterone gel, each of which in different ways decrease sperm production, possibly enough to prevent pregnancy. And EP007, which is non-hormonal and stops sperm from swimming.

Will greater reproductive choices for men transform society the way the pill did for women? I doubt it. Only women can get pregnant, so the female pill had a much bigger impact on women’s lives than a male pill will have on men’s lives. But it will change the conversation. Men’s lack of options will no longer be an excuse. And many women don’t like the pill’s side effects, so male birth control will provide other options, thus increasing women’s choices as well as men’s.

Moreover, I hope that the conversation about male contraception isn’t narrowly focused on men’s responsibilities to women. Instead, I want to see a larger discussion about men’s health, including the establishment of a government Office of Men’s Health and equal funding for male specific cancers.