The Sweetened Red Pill

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Alexandra O'Sullivan

I’m not cheap, I’m free.

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Soon after I discovered feminism, I also discovered – through my internet research – Men’s Right’s Activism. ‘How wonderful!’ I thought, ‘men are doing things too! We can work together!’ I started reading through the comments on one of the MRA pages. ‘Oh!’ I thought a moment later, then ‘Oh! no, no, no, no!’ I backed away and shut a lid on the site, and the horrendous sexism it was spouting. Then, years later, I watched The Red Pill, a documentary which took me back into the Men’s Rights movement.

‘The red pill’ is a term from the film The Matrix, referring to the ‘truth of reality’ (red pill) and the ‘ignorance of fantasy’ (blue pill). According to this documentary, the ‘truth’ is that we live in a ‘blue pill’ (feminist) world where male issues are silenced by the misguided (or evil) status quo. Unfortunately, when feminists protested the screening of this film, MRA’s took it as further ‘proof’ that their issues are being silenced. It was also unfortunate that these protests gave MRA’s more ammunition in their argument for being a ‘silenced’ population, and I generally believe in an open discourse, but there is a difference between expressing anger about a propaganda film, and silencing men. And this is a propaganda film.

‘Women and feminists are untrustworthy bullies’ is the general theme of the film. The first ‘feminist’ to speak is a man at a protest rally. ‘Don’t confuse suffrage with oppression,’ he smirks at the camera. Obviously he meant suffering, not suffrage, an ironic mistake that was intentionally not edited out. This captured moment is the documentary’s lead into the feminist movement. Loud, brash and lacking in insight or integrity. Countered to this are the seemingly extremely mild-mannered MRA’s, kicking back with Cassie (the filmmaker) and discussing all the things that make life hard for them. It is a masterclass in cherry-picking.

I watched The Red Pill twice, and was almost sucked in the first time. Let me explain – beneath the hostile misrepresentation of feminism, there were real issues important to men being discussed. Issues such as male disposability, the women and children first mentality stemming from the concept of ‘chivalry,’ which as a feminist, I also oppose. Men are unfairly expected to play the role of ‘provider’ and ‘protector.’ Men take the risks, women reap the rewards, is the message here. While this might be over-simplified, and dismisses the fact that in a capitalist society, the person earning the money still ultimately has the power, the specific ways that male disposability is toxic for men is a vital discussion. If only it were done in a way that didn’t intentionally blame feminism and instead cited it as a result of the historical patriarchal ideals that assumed women were less capable and kept them out of the workforce and the army.

These same ideals are at work in the way male victims of domestic violence are often viewed by society. Toxic masculinity dictates that men can’t be vulnerable and this leads most to to assume men cannot be victims of assault or domestic violence. It is also sexist to assume that women can’t be perpetrators of domestic violence, ignoring that women are also human beings with human flaws, like the ability to lash out in anger, or be jealous and controlling. I do think male victims should be included in the discussion of domestic violence, and, I don’t know how they will achieve this inclusion if they continuously attack feminism for not including them.

This is the crux of the problem. The MRA’s in this film view feminism’s increasing popularity as a direct threat to men, as if multiple issues can’t co-exist and can’t be addressed by different groups. Many feel they must attack feminism because it’s not supporting them enough. Sorry to say, but it is not up to feminism to fight for specific men’s issues. There is a reason feminism has gained traction. It is because feminist groups have done the hard yards, working tirelessly for decades specifically against sexism and the oppression of minorities. Men could do the hard work to help men instead of complaining that feminism isn’t doing it for them. Male issues are worthy of discussion outside the polarisation of feminism vs. men’s rights activism.

That is not to say that feminism is beyond critique, and beneath the hostility and propoganda, this film raised one or two valid points about callout culture and ideological rhetoric, issues that concern every social movement. But it gave the impression that these flaws were all there is to feminism, and expressed the idea that because there is not perfect unity between the feminist ideology and the execution of that ideology, feminism should be shunned entirely. There’s always a slight disconnect between theory and practice, yet this documentary showed MRA’S calmly theorizing and only the feminists practicing a militant style activism – and badly. Cassie does not show the MRA’s at their worst, with the sexist trolling that she only mentions briefly at the beginning of the movie, and that I continue to see online. She doesn’t even challenge them about it, beyond excusing a satiric article by Paul Elam, as a response to a terrible Jezebel article. This omission means she’s showing the worst side of one movement (Feminism), and the best side of the other (Men’s Rights Activism).

I want to still believe in my initial reaction of how wonderful it would be if we could work together, but it’s a faded hope. Cassie Jaye has merely sweetened the ‘red pill’ and soured the ‘blue pill.’ I like that she embraces her doubts – because doubt allows for growth, while certainty is limiting. But it’s hardly the unbiased, balanced exploration of the culture wars that many fans claim. It’s much more like a recruitment film for MRA’s and an over-simplified smack-down of feminism. I’d love to see a movement specifically for men grow out of its own accord, and not be positioned as an opposition to women’s rights. Then, there might be less hostility all round, and there might be a chance to really help men.


Cover photo: Poster art from the documentary ‘The Red Pill’.