I’ve just watched Cassie Jaye’s documentary The Red Pill and I think you should, too. A superb interviewer who knows how to draw out her subjects’ deepest beliefs, Jaye takes viewers on a tour of the Men’s Rights Movement (MRM), by talking to some of its main proponents and detractors. She also charts her own changing attitudes through a series of moving miniature video diaries. She comes across as highly intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic throughout.
I’m a lifelong feminist and approached the movie with the expectation of finding the main figures in the MRM unsympathetic, misogynistic or puerile. In fact, it was the controversy surrounding the film which first drew my attention to it. The film itself shows footage of protestors drowning out talks by MRM activists with shouted chants and noisemakers. Once released, life echoed art when protestors in Australia, in particular, tried to shut down performances of the documentary. These attempts at censorship made me all the keener to see it for myself. When people try to shut down a speaker, it’s generally because they have something disturbing, but important, to say.
Surprisingly, what most struck me about the film were the many similarities – in both their strengths and shortcomings – between the MRM and modern Western feminism. Towards the end of the movie, a feminist activist called Big Red is yelling at an MRM campaigner, telling him that the MRM is unnecessary because feminists share all their aims. Once stripped of its hostile vitriol, her speech basically states that she fundamentally agrees with him – and yet she’s branding him a misogynist and an enemy. This clearly has more to do with tribalism than with a genuine difference of views. Unfortunately, this refusal to listen with empathy was characteristic of the feminists portrayed in the film.
I do have some problems with some of the MRM’s statements and arguments. Like many feminists, the MRM tends to argue on the basis of statistical outcomes, without really examining the reasons for those outcomes. We know that only 4% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women, for example. But is that because women are discriminated against in business or because many women do not choose to pursue high-pressure careers? We should ensure discrimination is not a factor, but there is no need to aim for a specific proportion of each sex in any field.
Similarly, some of the statistics the MSM cites as evidence of society’s mistreatment of men – such as the fact that men are more likely to take on high-risk jobs which may result in workplace injuries and deaths or that men live, on average, six years less than women – may be the result of testosterone and its related biological and psychological effects, rather than social oppression. The parts of the film I found least convincing were those arguing that men and women are equally prone to violence. I felt especially squirmily uncomfortable during the interview with Erin Pizzey, a prominent social campaigner and activist for both women’s and men’s rights, who argued that most domestic violence is a consensual struggle between equally violent men and women. These and other sexual blank-slateism claims go against everything I’ve learned from evolutionary biology. I remain skeptical about them.
Having said that, the film outlines some clear injustices against men. These include the widespread acceptance of male circumcision in the United States and among Jewish and Muslim communities worldwide. While female genital mutilation is rightly deplored, circumcision is permitted. We allow people to perform what is in effect a cosmetic surgery with no medical benefits and which causes significant nerve damage and lasting reduction of sexual pleasure on male babies, who cannot consent. This is a clear violation of the Hippocratic oath.
The other major injustice against men takes place in the family courts. At the film’s heart is an interview with MRM activist Fred Hayward who was denied access to the son he loves through an egregious miscarriage of justice. He was the most sympathetic character in the documentary. His affection and care for the son who is now lost to him were so palpable that I watched that section through tears. We rightly complain when men neglect their duties as fathers. We should therefore be encouraging, not persecuting, those divorced or unmarried dads who want to take a full role in their children’s lives.
Beyond legal discrimination, there are also societal attitudes to combat. I firmly believe that a sexist society benefits no one. It forces individuals into roles based on the contents of their knickers, roles which may make them very unhappy. When we talk about harmful aspects of society’s conception of masculinity, we often focus on their knock-on effects on women. But men are also victims of imposed and internalized stereotypes about maleness.
One example of this is the continued expectation that men will be the family breadwinners. Perhaps, the film suggests, men’s overrepresentation in stressful careers is not a sign of their dominance. Maybe we should re-evaluate our fetish for these outward signs of wealth and status and reconsider the importance of free time and relationships with friends and family. We only have a limited time on this planet. Personally, I’m glad I’m not spending it supporting a wife and children through some unfulfilling and empty money-making activity.
But perhaps the most striking example of these pernicious attitudes is that we tacitly expect levels of self-reliance and physical courage from men that we would not ask for from women. We often behave as though we valued men’s lives less than women’s – at least, in the secular West. A powerful section of the film showed news coverage of Boko Haram’s killings, illustrating how the press places more importance on female deaths than on male ones. Women and children are first into the lifeboats. Men are first on the battlefield. As a society, we do not encourage men to express fear, vulnerability and loneliness. We expect them to tough it out. I believe this may be part of why so many more men than women commit suicide. In fact, his internalized perception that as a man he should be a success, a provider, self-reliant, was a major factor in the suicide of one of my dearest friends six months ago.
The film left me feeling that feminists and MRM activists should work together. Sex is an accident of fate. Most of us do not choose to be male or female. It is pointless to demonize everyone who shares a heterozygous set of chromosomes. It is divisive and harmful to both sexes to engage in competitions as to who is most victimized. As Hayward puts it, “we can’t compare suffering, we can’t quantify [it].” Instead, we must work to ensure that everyone has an equal chance at happiness. If women’s rights are close to our hearts, men’s should be too.