Calls to ban a controversial film about men’s rights activists serve only to lend a substandard work gravitas. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
The misguided bans on men’s rights film ‘The Red Pill’
In October last year, a young American filmmaker, Cassie Jaye, premiered her documentary, The Red Pill, about men’s rights activists. What would have otherwise been an obscure film was transformed into a cause célèbre for feminists, who, arguing the film was misogynistic propaganda, picketed the few cinemas screening it. Indeed, as Jaye struggled to finance her movie, men’s rights groups offered their own cash to help her complete the project, raising questions about her independence.
The outrage was repeated in Australia, when an online petition urged a Melbourne cinema to cancel a screening for November. The petition, in part, read: “Kino Cinema is scheduled to screen misogynistic propaganda film ‘The Red Pill’ in just over two weeks … This is the kind of disgusting, violent message that is totally out of line with Australian values and law … Please do not associate your cinema with the kind of people who teach men how to violate women physically and emotionally. Please stand with the women everywhere, and do not promote misogynistic hate. Please CANCEL your screening of ‘The Red Pill’.”
Fearing a public relations disaster, the cinema obliged.
In recent weeks, the controversy has been revived thanks to individuals seeking private screenings. Organisation of these screenings has sometimes been covert, with dates and locations exchanged in online forums. Meanwhile, the boycotts have continued – Dendy cinemas has cancelled at least two screenings, and the University of Sydney’s student union has vowed to block a screening scheduled for this week. Of the film, the union said it was “rooted in an ideology which ultimately dehumanises women, seeing them merely as sex objects who exist primarily to purposefully negatively impact the lives of men”. The statement said the film had the “capacity to intimidate and physically threaten women on campus”.
Jaye opens The Red Pill with a personal voiceover: “Have you ever been through something and you don’t know what just happened but you know it was important to go through? This is that journey for me.” It’s not a promising start.
Jaye tells us early on that she had long identified as a feminist, a position reinforced by the sexism she encountered during her brief spell as an actress in Hollywood. So when she first approached men’s rights groups for interviews, she expected to be repulsed. As it is, over the course of filming, Jaye finds their arguments persuasive.
Jaye is a guileless tour guide to the anxieties of men’s rights activists – custody law, male suicide, the unreasonable expectations of masculinity. She feels sympathy for whomever it is she’s speaking to – mostly men’s rights activists – and so by film’s end she declares, “I am no longer a feminist.” Perhaps the arrival at this position is borne out in the hysterical opposition to her film, but it is difficult to understand in the face of her subjects’ testimony. So incapable of assessment is our filmmaker, so unnervingly credulous of her subjects, one feels that if she had spent most of her time with Boko Haram extremists, she would have emerged their grateful spokesperson.
This is not an objection to the content of the film, or its maker’s intentions. It’s a criticism of Jaye’s skill. Her film is difficult to examine, because she has examined so little herself. Facts, conspiracy and personal anecdotes are treated equally; they swirl together bewilderingly for two hours. No effort is made to separate the strands. There is no coherent grasp of history; it’s treated as a grab bag for rhetorical gain. On the screen are men’s rights activists who grandly theorise, via their own toxic relationships, the existence of an inverse patriarchy; they share the screen with opponents who substitute a self-conscious profanity for argument. We learn nothing about these people, other than their felicity for spitting their tribe’s talking points.
When it’s put to Paul Elam, the founder of A Voice for Men, that the power of women might be challenged by the fact that most members of congress are men, his response is that the burden of the politician is great and that more men than women are willing to subject themselves to such noble duress. It’s a stunning and patronising non sequitur, but apparently not to the filmmaker, who lets it hang. Also unaddressed is Elam’s history of violent pronouncements on women. When one female supporter of the MRA movement makes the surprising claim that the murderous Boko Haram are “chivalrous” in that they merely enslave women but murder men, our filmmaker, instead of examining this, cuts to newspaper clippings describing Boko Haram’s atrocities against men overlaid with a syrupy soundtrack.
If all of this sounds confusing, it’s because it is – the film is a mess. But the filmmaker is at least baffled herself, and is brave or stupid enough to commit her own confusions to tape in a series of filmed “diaries” shown throughout. “They say women have the easy way out,” she says to camera. “I believed for so long that I’m at a disadvantage for being a women … But the MRAs are saying this is all a lie, and say it’s men that are discriminated against. The more I think about it, the more I think, ‘Thank God I wasn’t born a guy’ … I don’t know, I don’t know. Sometimes I think the MRAs are just duping me.”
In the film’s defence, its confusion about gender politics probably reflects society’s confusion. Indeed, the utter mess of the documentary might plausibly reflect the greater confusion that comes from wading into the toxically segregated tribes of the internet. Our young filmmaker understandably suffers a crisis of intellectual confidence.
In The Red Pill, the camera moves in on a poster on the wall of a lawyer’s office. He is a men’s rights lawyer. The poster lists the gendered percentages of certain deaths. The following, of course, are male: “99.9 per cent combat deaths. 94 per cent workplace deaths. 73 per cent murder victims.” Which is true, but nowhere on the poster or in the film is there mention of the corresponding percentage of male military leaders, bosses or killers. “Virtually every society that survived did so by socialising its sons to be disposable,” says men’s rights guru Warren Farrell, who features as a sort of ideological godfather in this movie. But it is not men who are disposable, but humans.
It is too much to ask of Jaye to be history’s epidemiologist, but it doesn’t seem too much for her to consider that opportunities for women to join mortally risky professions were negligible, and that it was men who made that so. Men have both built the world and destroyed it, and they have both flourished and died doing it. For today’s man to bitterly interpret this fact as some conspiracy against him is bizarre. Farrell’s acolytes grasp history as a male abattoir; they recall the sacking of Rome, but not its pleasures.
What I would love to know is how many of these men have served, or worked in coalmines or construction. How many of these men have been maimed in their work or lost friends? Having spoken to a few, I think I can guess the answer: their injuries come from elsewhere, from family courts and the family room. I’m of the opinion that MRAs simply want someone to agree with them that women can be cruel and vindictive, and they summon history in weird and sophistic ways to achieve this.
Perhaps the strangest thing is that, at least in their professed ideals, the MRAs and their feminist opponents – in as much as I can generalise them – agree on one profound thing: that an individual’s ambition, opportunity and sense of self is intensely, and destructively, gendered. But very few seem to recognise this shared ground. I suspect that’s because the MRAs aren’t honest about their grievances, and their opponents are too convinced of their own rectitude.
One casualty of this cultural warfare is the recognition of class. The recognition that certain men, of a certain class, might be conscripted to jobs more likely to kill them. In The Red Pill, the MRAs seem as ignorant of class as the Hillary feminists who curse misogyny and the FBI for their leader’s failure. It is a profoundly limited view, but confers the pleasure of righteousness. There is no warmth in doubt.
Not all of the film’s claims are vexatious. Far from it. We learn – if we needed telling – that 75 per cent of suicides in the United States are men. It’s not helpful that MRAs insist on this as a gendered disproportionality, though, while dismissing the equally observable disproportion regarding the victims of family violence. Regardless, male suicide remains an important question that is not served by shutting down the movie.
There’s a scene in the film of men arriving at a building to watch a Warren Farrell lecture. Furious protesters confront them. The camera lingers on the livid face of a woman who is screaming at a man. “You’re fucking scum,” she repeats, while the subject of her rage stares awkwardly elsewhere. “I just want to hear someone else’s opinion,” he says. “I’m not even on a side here.” It’s hard to see what’s achieved by the woman’s blind vehemence, other than the reinforcement of the men’s prejudices. It’s hard, too, to see what is achieved by the censorship of this film.
That such a confused, and confusing, film would cause panic and inspire censorship is laughable. As it is, the boycotts and moral blackmail of cinemas has only established the infamy of a film that would have otherwise been ignored.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2017 as "Faction movie".
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