A feminist press release for this film could trumpet Cassie Jaye as a Hollywood actress who refused to subscribe to patriarchal gender roles. A mother and daughter team who took on the male Hollywood establishment and won. A woman who refused to be objectified – and stepped onto the other side of the lens.
Instead feminists tried to stop the film being funded because they believed the film could pose a threat to feminism itself.
The film has been portrayed as a Damascene conversion. It is not. It is about the pain of the loss of faith of a card-carrying feminist, and her journey into the unchartered territories on the other side.
Cassie begins by explaining how she became a feminist. As a teenage Hollywood actress she was always put into roles where she had to play the vulnerable, objectified, air-headed female. She found the roles she was given bore an uncanny resemblance to those she was expected to play in real life.
So, she decided to buy herself a camera and get on the other side of the lens where she builds up a formidable reputation for making films on contemporary, usually gender-based, but politically divisive issues. Confronted by the horror of the Steubenville and Delhi rapes she becomes interested in rape culture, this leads her to the so called ‘rape apologists’ – A Voice for Men. It is here her story takes off.
An open-minded feminist, Cassie is intrigued by how such an allegedly nasty group of men can have such a large following. She decides to explore further, but was not prepared for what happened next. The ogres of the men’s rights world turned out to be compassionate, intelligent people, often in loving relationships. Their facts and figures stacked up with the data available, and confusingly, their arguments made a great deal of sense.
She heard the litany of male disadvantage. These help Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) get their foot in the door. Men are more likely to die at work, less likely to go to college, more likely to be homeless, lose custody of their children, work longer hours, less likely to go to the doctor, die earlier, receive significantly longer sentences or commit suicide.
More importantly, she is introduced to a completely novel perspective – the male point of view. Men work ten hour days in hard, unpleasant and often risky employment, they carry the lion’s share for what it takes to run our society, they give up their time and give away their money not because they want power and control. But, just as women feel burdened with responsibility for children, men feel the weight of traditional obligation, they feel compelled to provide. And whether we acknowledge it or not, women expect them to. The idea that men invented the rules to benefit themselves simply doesn’t hold up.
When it is suggested to Cassie that patriarchy did not create women’s reproductive roles, but women’s reproductive roles shaped patriarchy, it makes a lot of sense.
However, the real horror we discover, is how disempowering for men women’s reproductive roles really are.
Katherine Spillar, one of the more articulate feminist voices in the film explains that once a woman is pregnant all the decisions must be hers as she is the one most impacted by pregnancy. However, when we see the 20-year-old crying because his daughter, who he has looked after from birth, is removed from him (because he is male), the man who spends many years’ worth of wages and sacrifices his health to fight for custody of his child, the man who blows his brains out because he loses the custody battle, we wonder if Spillar’s statement about who is most affected really stands up.
Women have control over pregnancy, and can choose whether to opt for abortion, adoption, or full custody. They can commit paternity fraud and deny men DNA testing, but demand child payments all the same. They can use children in custody battles. Men can get women pregnant. Sometimes this is consensual, accidental or they can be tricked into it. But then their rights end.
While Cassie struggles with what she is learning the viewer wonders in whose interest the system is really set up.
As her feminist faith weakens Cassie tries to restore it, seeking solace in those rituals of feminist belief. She attends groups, marches and rallies. She listens to mantras about female subordination and the FTSE 100, the lack of women in politics and the gender pay gap. She even makes videos to remind herself of the burdens of housework, and how she has to dress.
No matter how much Cassie tries to submit herself to feminist indoctrination, it is unable to hold her and this causes her much distress. She turns to feminist gurus including Spillar, Kimmel and Messner. However, they have never encountered challenges to their ideology and appear surprisingly ignorant. More importantly, they are ignorant of their ignorance, which leaves them singularly unable to convince.
In terms of the cultural slogan borrowed from the Matrix, Cassie has taken the red pill.
When Cassie moves from the perceived injustices of feminism to the world of men’s issues she is guided by pain. The pain of being unable to see your children, of being assumed to be the perpetrator, or of being persistently disbelieved.
The power of feminist platitudes dissolves when touched by real suffering.
Although Cassie’s journey structures the story, the film does so much more. It is the first time that I have seen an alternative explanation for men’s dominance in the public realm articulated on screen. And although on the face of it Men’s Rights and Feminism have interests in common – a belief in gender equality, shared childcare, flexible employment – the cure cannot come from a movement which is based on the assumption that women are victims and men are bad. This could never allow for men’s suffering to be of equal value because then it would no longer be a question of gender, as Michael Kimmel reveals in an accidental moment of truth.
The film is pregnant with the untold stories of suffering and every day, gross, inhuman injustice. But I believe the film will also be a crucial episode in an as yet untold story – the rise and fall of feminism itself.
The Red Pill can be seen at UCL on the 8th of December
(Image: Charlotte Cooper)