- This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.
Do we need a men’s rights movement? No, we need common sense, y’know, but if there’s gonna be this women’s movement and this is the movement that’s gonna do all these things, then maybe we need a counterbalance…but I hate to see either one of them. I think it’s a shame, I think it’s destructive.
I’ve been getting a lot of mileage lately out of listening to people and movements about whom I have preconceived notions and finding myself to be generally a least a little way off the mark. I’m also always partial to low-budget independent documentaries, so I decided to check out Cassie Jaye’s The Red Pill, a 2016 documentary about the men’s rights movement. Prior to watching it, I had a vague idea of some of the issues raised by the men’s rights movement—paternity leave, domestic violence against men, custody issues, etc.—but lumped them in as the male equivalent of radical feminism, best represented by the likes or Roosh V or the incels. However, it must be said that I went in with a less negative impression of them than it seems many have.
Jaye begins the film declaring herself a long-time feminist, and says her interest in the men’s rights movement was piqued after having made a number of films on women’s rights issues and marriage equality. The film consists primarily of interviews with the likes of A Voice for Men founder Paul Elam, The Myth of Male Power author Warren Farrell and National Coalition for Men president Harry Crouch, although Jaye does also present responses to a lot of the issues raised from self-described feminists, such as Ms. editor Katherine Spillar and Distinguished Professor of Sociology (and Stony Brook University Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities Executive Director) Dr Michael Kimmel. It’s easy to write off the choice of someone like Chanty
Big Red Binx as an interview subject as an attempt to find the most ludicrously abrasive spokesperson for
the other side, but it’s hard to argue the same of distinguished types like Spillar and Kimmel.
With her reasonably balanced set of interview subjects, Jaye explores a number of the bêtes noires of the men’s rights movement, such as: alleged anti-father bias in the family court system; men making up almost half of domestic violence victims yet having almost no support network; widespread male genital mutilation of children; a societal view of men as
disposable, supposedly evidenced by their representation in almost all workplace and military fatality statistics; and men’s seeming lack of reproductive rights.
I think the most interesting thing I took away from the film is that it gave me a rare taste of just how appealing identity politics can be to people, even someone who considers it antithetical to their complete worldview. As a straight white cis male, society generally grants me no allowance to retreat into my immutable circumstances of birth as a source of pride or as a justification for things not going my way. I think that’s probably healthy in the long run—when the only people preaching identitarianism for people like me are as pathetic as white supremacists, it’s perhaps little wonder I feel uneasy about people who do it for others. As I was watching the film, however, I could feel the tingly draw of an appealingly simple explanation for everything wrong with the world: it’s all because of feminists, you see. This is the same draw that attracts others to view it variably as men’s fault, or white people’s, or black people’s, etc. ad infinitum.
One thing I found when I was looking into the film, trying to work out if it would be worth watching, was that the reviews didn’t seem to be for the same film. It was either a 10/10 masterpiece or a waste of time, and you get no prizes for guessing how those views aligned with the reviewer’s own beliefs. One high-profile review in particular stuck with me—Alan Scherstuhl’s review in The Village Voice. I feel pretty safe in making the assumption that Scherstuhl know what his review would be before watching the film. For example, the third paragraph:
Jaye’s star witness, A Voice for Men’s Paul Elam, plays the part in her interviews of a decent chap alarmed at the evidence of a crisis facing American men: Yes, men commit suicide more than women do, are more likely to drop out of college, and, when men are the victims of violence in a relationship, they do not have access to the same (threadbare, strained) network of shelters that women do.We have video-game addiction, we have pornography addiction,Elam points out, and a propagandist more adept than Jaye might not have included so much comic out-of-gas sputtering.
Following this, Scherstuhl goes on to defend his calling Jaye a
propagandist, and never again returns to those men’s issues that he acknowledges are problems, but doesn’t apparently feel are worthy of any more discussion. Indeed, his argument for Jaye being a propagandist is the following:
I feel comfortable calling herpropagandistbecause of my ownresearch(ie.reading the top search results). Here’s something Elam wrote on A Voice for Men in 2010:Should I be called to sit on a jury for a rape trial, I vow publicly to vote not guilty, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the charges are true.What excuse would any serious documentarian have for not asking Elam to explain that?
Now, in the film Jaye does address, briefly, the controversial nature of some of A Voice for Men‘s more inflammatory articles. She features the article October is the fifth annual Bash a Violent Bitch Month in the introduction as an example of the kind of thing presented as representative of the tenor of men’s rights movement. Later in the film, she points out that the article was a satirical response to a Jezebel article titled Have You Ever Beat Up A Boyfriend? Cause, Uh, We Have. This made me cautious of Scherstuhl’s unsourced quotation and, lo and behold,
reading the top search results produced the article from which it comes, complete with a prominent editorial note describing the nature of the
…unusual article, not typical at all of AVfM content…[as] a provocative piece meant to force people to think about things they don’t like thinking about. Now, that by no means requires that anyone enjoy the article, or refrain from criticising it, but what excuse would any serious journalist have for not providing the context for a quote, or even a link to the source? The editorial note was clearly in place well before the publication of Scherstuhl’s article.
By contrast Jaye, being a
serious documentarian, follows up an interview in which Karen Straughan bemoans the relative lack of attention paid to the attacks of Boko Haram prior to their kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls with a month-by-month timeline of articles about prior massacres, primarily of men. When one article even contains the phrase
106 people killed, including an old woman, it’s hard to argue with Straughan’s thesis that female victims are granted disproportionate focus.
What are we going to do? asks Straughan.
Start a campaign
Bring Back Our Boys? Oh wait, they’re dead. Never mind.
There are a handful of other times in which an interviewee refers to a court case, or a news story, where I would have liked the source to be displayed, but by and large Jaye does appear to have fact-checked the activists’ claims, stating that her feminist views were being challenged by
…hearing what the MRAs are saying and…finding the sources to support what they’re saying. In a subsequent appearance on The Rubin Report, she even described a story about Rhianna that she left out of the documentary after being unable to corroborate it sufficiently. All this said, Jaye could have certainly challenged some of the men’s right activists she interviewed, even if only to present their explanations for some of their more choice articles.
I do want to give the
other side their due, however. Whilst a lot of their responses to the issues raised by the activists seemed to be predicated on a misrepresentation of the activist’s views—Kimmel’s apparent belief that drawing attention to the dearth of support for male victims of domestic violence comes from a desire to reduce support for female victims that is never suggested by any of the activists stands out as particularly egregious—but I did think that Spillar made a compelling case for the apparent lack of reproductive rights for men. Having produced flow charts of all the outcomes for both men and women in the event of a surprise pregnancy and concluding that men’s options are overwhelmingly constrained by the wishes of the woman, Jaye concludes that men have a pretty rum deal.
Spillar, however, points out that the man’s right to choice comes before the pregnancy with whether or not to have sex, or whether or not to use contraception.
Once he’s impregnated her, however,
she’s the one faced with continuing the pregnancy, faced with the health risks that accompany pregnancy, so his rights have to be exercised early, but once she’s pregnant, all decisions must be hers, because ultimately she is the most impacted…and ultimately she has responsibility for the child. That strikes me as an entirely reasonable distinction, and in light of it the apparent lack of men’s reproductive options appears to be more a consequence of ejaculation presenting a pretty natural bottleneck which one can control with only one or two methods, rather than any sort of conspiracy.
The last interesting point the film made was the similarity between feminism (and here I mean feminism in the sense of a genuinely chauvinist pro-women stance, held by a small but existent minority, rather than the misnamed egalitarianism that I would argue most self-professed feminists actually express in practice) and religious belief. Straughan points out that, with all its talk of a great evil force in
it sounds like a religion, whilst another interviewee
…believe[s] it’s dogma, it’s zealotry. It’s hard to argue with that characterisation when
Big Red is asked how long she’s been a feminist. It was impossible to hear her response—
uh, it was probably about three years ago, I guess you could say; I’m relatively new, yeah, but I’m pretty loud, so…—and not be put in mind of the comparative zealotry of the born again Christian.
Ultimately, as you may have guessed by my choice of introductory quote for this article, I think it’s a shame that the men’s right movement has to exist. At one point, Straughan complains that an article on the Boko Haram attack in which 100 men and one woman were killed referred to the victims as
people, and it strikes me that that is exactly what we should be doing—focus on their common personhood, rather than unnecessarily bringing gender into the mix as though a man’s death is more or less tragic than a woman’s or vice versa, or really pertinent to the tragedy of the event at all. However, this appears to be the exception rather than the rule, and whilst that remains the case I can see why a men’s rights movement could be a necessary evil, or a counterbalance. The representatives of that movement (and of its opposition) who Jaye features did not come across as malicious (although, of course, on the fringes of each we would expect to find their monsters), and where I disagreed with them one could nonetheless see how they may have made such a confusion. As is so often the case, the disputes seem to arise from neither side understanding the others, which is always a disappointment.
As for the film: it was a competently-made independent documentary that made an admirable attempt to feature both sides of an prominent contemporary debate and presented a number of sources to back up interviewee’s claims, produced by a directory who appears to have genuinely engaged in a good-faith exploration, but who may perhaps have been less disposed to confrontation than would be ideal and who could have challenged both sides better. It has somewhat of an overreliance on filler imagery of Jaye typing things into Google and glosses over some of the more fringe elements of the men’s rights movement, such as the incels and MGTOW. Your mileage may vary.