"I'm not a men's rights activist," filmmaker Cassie Jaye told me several times during our half-hour chat. "Nor was The Red Pill funded by MRAs."
For many of the controversial documentary's critics, these are both dubious statements.
The Red Pill is a documentary about men's rights activists, a largely online community often hostile to modern feminism that advocates action on and understanding of the challenges facing men. The doco interviews several of the movement's leading men and women, examining their arguments and grievances. While feminists and others who disagree with the movement are given space to rebut the arguments raised, the documentary gives MRAs the chance to explain for themselves, at length, why they're attracted to the movement.
It launched last month, but it has not been reviewed much in the mainstream press. The LA Times described it as an unbalanced effort in need of a vocabulary lesson. Village Voicedescribed Jaye as a propagandist. Two weeks ago, a change.org petition started by someone who couldn't yet have seen the film garnered 2369 signatures and successfully got The Red Pill's Australian premiere cancelled. Melbourne's Palace Kino cinema pulled the planned screening even though it was a private booking, saying it didn't want to be associated with what was described in the petition as a "misogynistic propaganda film". Men's Rights Melbourne has since organised another screening at a yet-to-be-revealed location, after a rival petition got 8000 signatures in support.
The documentary itself, which I have seen, starts with discussions of the dangerous work undertaken by men in trades and the military, and goes on to examine the role of work -- men are described as "success objects" expected to give up their hopes and dreams to bring in good incomes for their families, sometimes at the cost of long hours and poor relationships. It notes that men serve far longer prison sentences than women for similar crimes. It looks at men's treatment in family court decisions and reproductive rights, as well as domestic violence against men, who often lack access to shelters and institutional support. The doco also interviews an MRA who says he was sperm-jacked -- his then-wife got pregnant with his sperm without his knowledge (MRAs talk about this being done by women who want children and want a man they can then require child support from, leaving men financially obligated to support children they never agreed to have). It examines media coverage, which those interviewed claim is far more sympathetic to women than men (the example given is the Bring Back our Girls campaign, which gave little attention to the thousands of boys killed by Boko Haram in previous months). It looks at the issue of (male) circumcision, including a frankly stomach-churning video of it happening to a baby boy.
"Suffering is not the same as oppression -- everyone suffers," a male feminist says at a rally towards the start of the film. But this is no fly-on-the-wall doco. Jaye's video diaries and voice-overs form the narrative scaffolding of the two-hour feature, and she seems less and less convinced by attempts to absolve feminism of responsibility for these issues as the documentary goes on. Feminist theory has always held that the patriarchy hurts men too, but according to many of those Jaye interviews, feminists are more interested in vilifying men than in correcting the harm rigid gender roles do. Jaye insists she's no men's rights activist. But by the end, she says: "I no longer call myself a feminist".
The film has screened without mishap in many American cities. American sociologist Michael Kimmel, who is interviewed in the documentary and has written a book highly critical of men's rights activism, even took part in a live debate with men's rights activists after one premiere. From her home in California, Jaye told Crikey she was shocked about what had happened in Melbourne. "Especially as no one signing that petition had even seen the film," she said. "And all the news and controversy since the cancelled cinema screening, everyone is just speculating about what the film is about, and what I am about ... It’s been difficult to try and debunk each and every lie because they keep on compounding on top of each other."
"There’s a lot of weight to making the first film about men’s rights activism and issues," she said. "I think there is a discussion to be had about men’s issues. Unfortunately the discussion devolves into this tit-for-tat, what cherry-picked quote makes them look bad, and using that to represent the whole movement and the whole platform of issues. You can easily do that to feminists. I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole in the film."
The rabbit hole she is referring to is largely the writings of Paul Elam, who runs the notorious A Voice for Men website. His writing has been prominently quoted in petitions and campaigns against the documentary. Elam comes across well in the film, but Jaye does not ask him about some of his more controversial statements, which has led to accusations of "white-washing". Jaye touches on the subject just once, towards the end of the film. Elam has for years been republishing a piece that suggested making October "bash a violent bitch month" (to use an example -- the website is full of this type of rhetoric).Jaye says in the film Elam isn't being serious -- he was trying to make a point about the acceptance of female-on-male violence.
"I only had two hours for this film -- even two hours is stretching the limit on a feature documentary -- and I found men’s issues to be the more important story to address than cherry-picked quotes from online articles," she said. "It could have been a 100-hour series breaking down every cherry-picked quote. Most of the time, the Paul Elam quotes and the A Voice for Men quotes were satire, and actually had a lot of truth behind the point they were trying to make.
"I don’t agree with their approach. At the same time, I have to give them credit -- that’s what got me down the path of making this film, it was reading their shocking headlines. So I don’t condone it, but I also see the brilliance in what they were doing, because it makes me read further than just scoffing at the idea of men’s rights and clicking the next web page."
The men's rights movement Jaye depicts includes a former feminist ally of Gloria Steinem, a woman who started a domestic violence shelter before being barred from it for talking about violence against men, and several other female men's rights advocates, who go by the moniker "the honey badgers". All point to various levels of ostracism and condemnation from the mainstream feminist movement for their views. Jaye can certainly relate.
Jaye was an actress who turned to filmmaking and feminism because she was sick of being cast as the disposable blonde, and her first two major projects were well-received features on LGBT and women's issues. She self-funded her first feature, Daddy I Do, which received positive media support upon release. Her second, about a gay couple whose marriage was declared void when Proposition 8 was passed in California, was funded through angel investment. Her attempt at what she calls a "balanced" look at the men's rights movement, however, met with far less support.
Jaye self-financed the travel and equipment needed to film the interviews, but she needed financial support for the editing. Applications for funding grants led nowhere. And the media and angel investors she used to deal with, she says, weren't interested. "All my previous angel investors said they do not want to see a film about the men’s rights movement ... They think giving MRAs a platform to speak is a horrible thing to do, it’s giving them exactly what they want, which is media attention." One feminist group Jaye had been in interviewing for the feature was keen on funding it, but Jaye felt this would compromise her independence.
She turned to crowdfunding, initially with little success. The men's rights advocates interviewed did their best to encourage supporters to get the film funded. But in two weeks Jaye raised only $20,000 of the $97,000 she would need to complete the film. Enter Brietbart. Notorious troll and alt-right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos, who has since been banned from Twitter, interviewed Jaye and wrote a piece for the far-right blog about how she was being silenced by feminists who would rather the film never saw the light of day. In the following two weeks, Jaye raised double the figure she had initially aimed for. She spent a year on the final edit.
She says many of those who supported the crowdfunding campaign left comments saying they'd never heard of men's rights activism but believed in free speech and wanted to see what MRAs had to say. Feminists supported the project as well. Kickstarter gives donors no say over the final product, Jaye adds.
"In the end, I made the film I wanted to make, and I can sleep at night knowing that I have always been true to my journey and how I felt the film should be made."
"I’m not an MRA. I’m a filmmaker. I made a film looking at the men’s rights movement, which has never been explored before in a film. I’m hoping the controversy eventually leads to having a more open discussion about gender equality."