For nearly 25 years I have been concerned about an issue that has received scant attention in the academy or the media: the problems faced by boys and men in our society. My own work on this started with a piece I wrote in 1993, titled “Loving Pale Males,” which talked about the dilemma I found myself in, as the liberal father of three boys, when men—especially white men, but really men in general—were being attacked by a growing feminist movement.
The piece came very close to being published in the New York Times magazine, but didn’t, and I couldn’t find a publisher elsewhere. Naively, I didn’t realize that with so much attention being paid to girls and women and their struggles, there was little room for anything dealing with concerns about males of any age.
In the years since, while I have found that I have a lot of company in my concerns, they have not hit the mainstream. But finally that may all be changing, with the release of a documentary by a young and courageous filmmaker named Cassie Jaye. The Red Pill is a look at the men’s rights movement by a self-identified feminist, who started out wanting to do a documentary about “rape culture,” but found herself suddenly listening to the voices of men talking about their pain. (The movie’s title comes from the 1999 feature film, The Matrix, where taking the red pill meant that you would now be able to see the unvarnished truth. It’s a term that has been widely used by men’s rights activists (or MRAs).)
Marty Nemko has already written a review of The Red Pill, so I’ll do something a little different here. After a brief overview, I’ll discuss just a few highlights from the film, ones which particularly touched me emotionally. (And I am writing this without reading Nemko’s piece.)
The Red Pill is the story of a young feminist who did something few feminists have done: She listened, as non-judgmentally as possible, to men and women in the men’s rights movement. And she found, as anyone who has been immersed in the study of boys and men already knows, that they are suffering, victims of a feminism which is often misandrist about men, and relatively uninterested in the needs of boys. And she found, and showed in the film, the ways that men are disposable (e.g., engaging in jobs which are much more dangerous than those women engage in), much more likely to commit suicide, and often victimized by the courts in custody battles over children. She interviewed major figures in the movement, such as Warren Farrell, Paul Elam, and Dean Esmay, with special attention to Farrell’s story—since he is the acknowledged pioneer in the movement, after being perhaps the most well-known male second wave feminist well into the 1970s.
What first comes to mind are not the words of anyone in the men’s rights movement, but rather those of a feminist, Katherine Spillar, who is executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms. Magazine, whom Jaye interviewed. Spillar says, “Really, the men’s rights movement is a part of the backlash…The men’s rights movement really got going as women made gains, and some men have felt threatened.” I will have to confess that when I see the word “backlash” (the title of Susan Faludi’s 1991 bestselling book about this very topic), and the often heard sentiment that “some men have felt threatened,” I feel angry. And feelings are reflexive responses. Actions are not, but feelings are.
Then when Spillar comments, with a kind of smirk, that maybe they feel threatened because “a woman or a girl can get into better schools because she has better grades,” I feel anger on behalf of my grandsons, because the reason there’s a need for the “red pill” is that whether feminists are a true majority or not, they have for at least the last 25 years, had a powerful influence in the media, government, and the academy. With a tremendous amount of attention being paid to girls, boys’ needs have been more or less left out. True, Jaye’s film is about men; but that’s what my grandsons, and everyone else’s, are on their way to becoming.
That’s not to say boys themselves are totally left out of the film. In one of its most powerful moments, following a replay of newsfeeds showing the outrage over Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of girls in Nigeria, including Michelle Obama saying that this was an attempt to deny girls an education, Karen Straughan, a leading men’s rights advocate, says, “They [Boko Haram] are not against girls getting an education; they’re against anybody getting a secular or Christian education.”
She goes on to say, “In the initial attacks, there were a hundred men killed and one woman killed, and the victims were described as ‘people’ or ‘villagers.’ And in the previous attacks on the schools, they let the girls go…and then they burned the boys alive. There was really no outrage. It was barely reported on.”
Straughan makes the point that Boko Haram wanted attention, and got little of that by killing men and boys. But kidnapping girls got a huge amount. Maybe, she adds, if we had gone into action after boys and men were killed, they wouldn’t have been able to kidnap girls; and in a moment of bitter irony, she says, “What are we going to do? Start a campaign, ‘Bring back our boys’? Oh wait, they’re dead.”
Another notable segment of the film concerns domestic violence directed against men. While it is difficult to find data on this, what is available shows that it is not at all uncommon. Is it as physically injurious as DV directed at women? Very likely not. But it happens often, and gets almost no attention in the media. It does in The Red Pill, and that alone makes the film worth seeing. I personally know of at least three cases of domestic violence directed at husbands by their wives, and that’s just me.
Finally, in a film filled with so many memorable lines, one that stands out is what the filmmaker Cassie Jaye says in her video diary, which traces her evolution from a strong feminist to one who really starts to see men in an altogether different light. Near the end of the film, Jaye says, through tears, “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”
But it is that truth that almost any “-ist” is unwilling to face. As a progressive, who has often listened to the other side, I know how lonely and uncomfortable that can be. But it is the place we must all try to reach. Maybe the physical sciences present virtually undeniable truths—such as the reality of climate change—but the social “sciences” rarely if ever do. We’d best heed the those words of this young filmmaker, who did what so few of us do when faced with people who see the world so differently from the way we do: She listened. And she learned.