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Thursday, February 09, 2017

Review: The Red Pill

Surely the most important documentary released last year is Cassie Jaye's The Red Pill. I mentioned before seeing it that I'd write a review, and now I've seen it twice.

I learned of it two years ago, while it was still being made, after some of the online comments under an NPR story pointed me toward the website A Voice for Men. The story was about the "red zone," a period early in a college semester in which freshmen women are allegedly especially vulnerable to sexual assault. The emphasis on the role of alcohol particularly drew my attention and desire to comment, since I'd noticed logical inconsistencies in the most prevalent feminist narrative about this for decades, since the notorious "ATO incident" that occurred at Penn in 1983, while I was attending school there.

While my initial reaction to reports about this alleged gang rape was the intended queasiness, after a few months of coverage in the campus paper I was wondering: why did (most) everyone seem to think that drunkenness, while still conscious, made a woman unable to judge whether she wanted sex -- but didn't make a man unable to judge whether a woman was too drunk? For that matter, I wondered why a person's desire in the moment, even if influenced by a substance they'd knowingly ingested possibly for the precise purpose of becoming less inhibited, should be considered less important than how they might feel about it later, or even whether they would remember it.

It was even more disturbing that -- when the faculty member appointed to adjudicate the matter ruled there wasn't proof of rape but only of "multiple seriatim sexual intercourse," yet still penalized the fraternity with expulsion because he found this to be "inappropriate conduct" -- campus "liberals" objected only to the fact that the sanctions weren't heavier and not to the fact that the university was treating its students like children (quite literally, invoking the in loco parentis doctrine).

Such thoughts were amplified a few years later after I got back in touch with a slightly older woman I'd known while I was in the Young Socialist Alliance; we'd been pretty close, talking at length on the phone most days about this and that, particularly what was going on in the group. When I brought up my thoughts about the ATO case, Amy (who, by the way, identified quite strongly as a feminist) shared her opinion that "many women just aren't willing to take responsibility for their own sexuality." She proceeded to describe a few incidents from her personal experience. In one, a couple had been on the other side of a thin wall, allowing her to hear their hot and heavy lovemaking very clearly; in another, a couple had been in the back seat of a car while she was in the front seat, able to see as well as hear what was happening. (This was during a period when she was doing a lot of partying.) When I asked if it was clear the sex was consensual in these cases, she said it was "enthusiastically" consensual --  and this conversation was long before that became a catch phrase. The kicker was that in both cases, on the following day the female half of the couple complained to Amy about how she'd been "raped."

In a third instance, the boyfriend of a woman who went to the same class as Amy approached her out of concern over his girlfriend's having been raped by a man in the same class. Amy hadn't heard about this from the woman and asked him for details. He gave a description of the assailant that didn't correspond to anyone taking the class. Amy's opinion in this case was that the woman had invented the story to evoke a protective response from the boyfriend and thereby secure his attachment to her. (It's interesting that the primary assailant described by Jackie Coakley in her UVA rape hoax appears to have originally been invented for a very similar purpose.)

In the intervening years, I'd noticed some other seeming inconsistencies and hypocrisies exhibited by feminists, but was never focused on them because my own activism was in different areas. Still, this made me receptive when for the first time I actually visited a men's rights site, and soon discovered that it seemed to offer a pretty coherent alternative view about gender relations that was more consistently opposed to sexism regardless of whose ox was gored, and also articulated better with evolutionary theory. And, as it happened, the very first article I saw on AVfM, when I first visited it, was about this movie that was still being made called The Red Pill, which would be the first documentary ever on the men's rights movement. I was favorably impressed by the fact that the author, Paul Elam, seemed willing to believe that Jaye was trying to make an honest, even-handed documentary, notwithstanding her identification as a feminist (although some commenters were certain she wasn't).

So I started paying a lot of attention to the men's rights movement, particularly as represented by AVfM and the Honey Badger Brigade, and soon was starting to think of myself as an MRA and not so comfortable with the label "feminist," although for a while I was still thinking it might be possible to salvage a consistently anti-sexist version of it. I learned about other issues than those I mentioned above, such as the ideologically motivated belittling and "disappearing" of male victims of domestic and sexual violence, and the double standards concerning genital mutilation. And so it was saddening, though none too surprising, when about a year after first hearing of it, I learned the film was in jeopardy of not being completed because foundations that had previously supported Jaye's work had demanded she concede creative control if she wanted funding -- something they hadn't done for any of her previous works. I read on the Honey Badgers' website that a Kickstarter had been launched, but it looked unlikely that she'd reach the goal by her deadline. And I didn't feel I could afford to contribute anything myself, which made me even sadder. It was with great happiness that I learned several days later that the film had been saved by a sympathetic article by blogger Milo Yiannopoulos and a flood of donations from his readers and others that followed, literally overnight taking the Kickstarter from something like 27% to over the goal.

With this backdrop, you can understand my eagerness when I learned the film was completed and a world premiere announced, on 7 October in Greenwich Village. Although I'd never left the Philadelphia area just to attend a movie before, I felt that I absolutely had to be at this historic event --  and the possibility there might be disruptive protests, as by now I well knew from things I'd seen on Youtube, only made it more essential that I be there, to help defend the public's right to see it.

So I purchased a ticket for the very first screening (1:15), on the first day they became available.(That day was 26 August, also known as Women's Equality Day; I don't know if this was intentional.) As the date approached I learned there'd be a Q&A after the 6:15 screening, too late to get a ticket for that; fortunately the management said they'd let me in for it once the film itself was over. In the meantime, the small crowd (of five) for the 1:15 (unlike the 6:15, which was packed) meant I actually got to meet the producer, Nena Jaye, before even seeing the film.

So, for the film itself: I definitely think director Cassie Jaye made the right choice by framing the film with her own journey into the subject. Especially for those with a feminist background, this should make it easier to open their minds to a different perspective on current gender relations. It shows her going back and forth between MRAs and feminists, hearing unfamiliar (but well-documented) information about all kinds of issues from the former, and little more than summary dismissals from the latter, usually in a way that conveyed they knew nothing at all about the actual MRM, instead basing their statements on negative stereotypes. And we're not talking "coffee shop feminists" here -- we're talking prominent, presumably informed figures like scholar Michael Kimmel and Feminist Majority leader Katherine Spillar. And the information from the MRAs isn't just dry data -- there are also several individual cases of outrageous injustice, some of which she learns about directly from the men affected. (As well, there's a clip from an instructional video about circumcision that may have some averting their eyes.)

And since Cassie Jaye had identified strongly with feminism for many years, this means we also see her struggling with great difficulty to absorb the new information, and with the quandary of her own resistance to it. Again, showing that this can be a challenging thing to confront, but also that it's possible to own that difficulty and work through it, should make it easier for others to do the same. She models real strength by wrestling with what challenges her instead of shrinking back into a comfortable ideological shell.

It's no longer a spoiler to mention that, at the close of the film, Jaye announces that she no longer calls herself a feminist, because she finds that that ideology is incapable of looking at gender issues as they really are in a balanced and intellectually honest way. Given the chronology, my evolution on this was probably over approximately the same period, although mostly just from reading and hearing MRAs online, not traveling to interview them in person. When I started preferring the designation gender-egalitarian over feminist, I explained it purely in terms of wishing not to be misunderstood: I no more wanted to be thought an endorser of "affirmative consent" laws or Twitter mobs against someone for a shirt his woman friend made for his birthday, by calling myself feminist; than to be presumed an opponent of abortion rights or employment opportunities for women, by calling myself anti-feminist.

But a few weeks before seeing this film, I learned a Meetup group I belong to called the Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society was going to have a meeting on the topic, "We should all be feminists." This forced me to think a bit harder in preparation for defending my position, and I came to this understanding: it doesn't do merely to insist that feminism live up to the dictionary definition it always trots out in self-defense, the gender-neutral "equality of the sexes." Even if someone who self-identifies as a feminist sincerely believes that that's what they're supporting, the very fact that it's called feminism will get in the way of their being consistent about it. To say you have a movement for gender equality, and then name it "feminism," is to imply that being for gender equality is fully satisfied by "carrying a brief for F," as I saw it defined once in a philosophy journal. And that would be true if and only if the gender system were really all about one group having supremacy and across-the-board advantages over the other, as is more or less true for some other categories such as class and caste.

But that's actually not true at all about gender, and so to name a movement that purports to simply be for gender equality after just one gender, is to mentally blind oneself to all the information that contradicts that one-sided view of things. One can very much, in other words, be both "an MRA and a WRA," as a fellow attendee at the world premiere put it. But one ultimately cannot be both an MRA and a feminist -- to which it should be added that one can't really be a feminist and a consistent WRA either, since feminism has a systematic tendency toward infantilizing women rather than really freeing them. So, by the time I heard Cassie Jaye saying she no longer calls herself a feminist, I was on the same page with her on that.

To summarize: The Red Pill is a powerful film that I strongly recommend to anyone who cares about the state of our society.

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