Content warning: domestic abuse, gender-based violence. Contains Spoilers for The Red Pill
I’ve been waiting for a decent documentary about Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) for a while now. Because I prefer not flying into fits of rage, I’ve avoided MRAs on the internet like the plague. What I know of them are second-hand accounts and logically baffling retweets. An impenetrable layer of laziness and self-preservation means that I have been waiting for someone else to do the hard work of getting to the core of what MRAs believe, why they believe it, and whether or not I should take it seriously.
The Christmas before last, I was excited to see Reggie Yates tackle the subject in his show Reggie Yates Extreme UK, Men at War. But, like with everything on TV around Christmas, I was pretty disappointed. Yates only touched on what we all already know about MRAs and didn’t really delve much deeper. On top of that, though Yates is personable, his interview style let me down. I felt he didn’t challenge the rape-profiteer and professional sack of shit Roosh V enough, and was then too combative with the teenage YouTuber with toilet roll next to his bed. Not that the kid didn’t need a bollocking, he was after all being quite sexist as well as frequently masturbating and/or crapping the bed, but I felt the journalist’s approach was all over the place.
Enter: The Red Pill.
On reading the blurb for the flick, I was dubious:
“When a feminist filmmaker sets out to document the mysterious and polarizing world of the Men’s Rights Movement, she begins to question her own beliefs.”
In one sentence I was moved from the assumption that its “feminist” agenda would bias the documentary to confirm my existing politics, to the opinion that it might not even be a documentary at all, and rather some weird MRAs propaganda piece. But hey, may as well give it a go right?
Turns out the blurb was to be taken at face value. Feminist filmmaker Cassie Jaye does a pretty good job at setting up her own quest. Like Yates, she starts off on the message boards before going on to meet leading figures in the MRAs community. Alongside her interviews, she inserts footage of her own video diaries wherein she earnestly struggles with what she is learning and how she feels herself react to it.
I’m not gonna give you a blow by blow account of what happens and present the case for MRAs as offered up in the documentary – as previously stated I’m pretty lazy – I am however going to recommend that you watch it. It was genuinely insightful and looked at the human side to MRAs and presents some convincing arguments. But there are caveats.
Cassie becomes a character who moves from one state – a proud feminist – to another…
Because of Cassie’s journey through the story, which is an excellent way of personalising the debate, we do end up with something of a narrative. Cassie becomes a character who moves from one state – a proud feminist – to another, namely declaring she can no longer call herself a feminist. But the problem with this is that by design or even by accident, the documentary functions to take her on that journey.
Either at conception or in the edit, the documentary justifies her conversion. For example, at the top of the doc, we are presented with a Paul Elam article declaring October to be…(sigh) “Bash a Violent Bitch Month”. For the audience, this sets up the stakes of why MRAs are so dangerous. Throughout the documentary, we are presented with some worrying stats about domestic violence towards men, and the lack of help they have access to. Then in the final act, it’s revealed that Elam’s article is a satirical response to one posted on Jezebel arguably trivialising women beating on their fellas.
Similarly, after witnessing sincere and heart wrenching stories about fathers being wrongly denied access to their children we cut to Ms Magazine editor Katherine Spillar coldly telling Cassie that reproductive and parental rights are solely that of women since they undergo the pregnancy. And finally, the piece of trickery that I fell hardest for: showing feminist demonstrators setting off a fire alarm to stop a lecture on gender theory before having the most obnoxious of them, Big Red (really), tell a counter-protester to ‘shut the fuck up’ while she tells people what she thinks.
All of this works as an attempt to frame the arguments in a more favourable way, by bizarrely and unfairly, showing poor criticism from feminists. Cassie’s own confusion seems to stem from some idea that feminism as an ideology is incompatible with her own sympathy for the personal stories of the MRAs. Whilst looking at the genuine problems that men face in terms of parental rights, suicide rates and social dispensability, she ignores the horrid elements of the movement.
A lot of people are talking about the polarising effect of politics at the moment, and I think that this documentary subtly suffers from that. Cassie’s shift, while in all honesty is entirely innocent, is also tribal. She begins as a feminist, encounters the MRA tribe with their own, specific issues and claims that feminism is the cause, then justifies joining MRAs through finding isolated examples of criticisms of feminism.
Towards the end of the film there is a sense that she’ll break through and leave us with the question of how we make feminist and male activist ideas come together. How do we find solutions rather than someone to blame? But all of this is left unanswered. For me, men’s issues I hadn’t considered previously now feel a little more important, but that’s in addition to, not instead of women’s issues. Frustratingly she comes so close to finding a shared or root cause to men and women’s problems (psst, it’s capitalism) but ultimately fails because of all or nothing, tribal philosophies based on crappy metaphors.
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