The Propaganda Pill and Why You Shouldn’t Swallow It
Frances Roberts assesses why Amazon's 'The Red Pill' is propaganda for Men's Rights Activism and why making feminism the enemy is not the answer.
During lockdown, my screen watching took me into the depths of the Amazon Prime rabbit hole where I came across ‘The Red Pill’, a documentary about the men’s rights movement released in 2016. The name comes from an analogy in the film ‘The Matrix’ where the central character is given a choice between a blue pill, where he can forever exist in the bliss of ignorance, or the red pill, hurtling him down a rabbit hole of his own where uncomfortable and shocking truths will be revealed. The MRA and founder of ‘A voice for men’, Paul Elam, claims that feminism is the blue pill, the woke status quo that we’ve been brainwashed to believe.
An Amazon review perfectly articulates the film's fundamental flaws, arguing the documentary “plummets down a rabbit hole of bad information and fantastic stories”. The Red Pill seems to blur lines between fact and fiction to such an extent that it’s more accurate to describe it as a piece of propaganda than a documentary.
The film maker Cassie Jaye has made documentaries focused on women’s rights for over a decade and starts the film by looking back at her route into feminism, as a young actor being cast in stereotypical roles. However, her feminist credentials are put into question as we watch her frustratingly vague video diaries and interviews where she passively listens to the MRA, nodding and smiling on numerous occasions.
She later explained in her Ted Talk that the “number one rule of a documentary filmmaker is to not interrupt” but the job of an interviewer is also to ask the hard-hitting questions, rather than just ones that provide an ample opportunity to further their agenda. Paul Elam, for example, is a highly controversial figure writing articles like “When is it ok to punch your wife” and “I’ll decide if you were raped”. She did not live up to the immense responsibility of a divisive documentary maker; if it had been made by a different feminist, it would have been an entirely different film.
Many of the themes seemed to treat men as a homogenous group, ignoring disparities. For example, in education where only a third of white working-class boys pass their maths and English GCSE and 9% will go to university, compared with around half of the general population. Or in the workplace where it was recently revealed that men working in the lowest skilled occupations had the highest rate of COVID-19 death, with security guards, taxi drivers and bus and coach drivers having a raised rate of death; these jobs are disproportionately held by BAME men with low socio-economic status.
Until the men’s rights movement acknowledges its naivety, it will continue to swallow the blue pill and will never be taken seriously. There is method in their madness but it lacks the nuance to implement change.
The disposability of male lives, was a central argument to the film portrayed in the further example of soldiers who are sent into battle and almost certain death which again, ignores class structures. Young working-class men were sent off to war by powerful generals and politicians (which continues to be the case in modern warfare), removed from any danger but often accountable for fatal mistakes. They were the ones making men’s lives disposable, they are the ones responsible for the millions of lives lost. Women also had to bear the brunt of the war effort without any concrete recognition, doing dangerous work in factories and being victimised by society for being raped by soldiers.
Dr Warren Ferrell, author of “The Myth of Male Power”, describes a historical tale of woe where men have to die to receive recognition in history books and statues. Firstly, that’s fundamentally incorrect as there continues to be a huge gender gap in awards with women winning 27% of science prizes and receiving just 14% of nominations in the Oscars. Statues have been dominated by male figures not because we view male lives as disposable but because we celebrate them to the highest degree. They are a physical symbol of honour and respect, qualities that women are still fighting for.
As a history student, his attempt to rewrite history (a practice enacted by many right-wing governments across the world) to portray men as the real victims of patriarchal forces was shocking.
The Domestic Violence argument that the issue affects men almost as much as it affects women was a shocking revelation, but once my research directed me further down the rabbit hole, I discovered that the statistics don’t tell the full story. 1 in 3 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime but 1 in 4 men will too. The MRA’S in the documentary were very vocal about the injustice in the lack of men’s domestic violence shelters; in the UK 20 out of 3,600 beds are reserved for men (0.8%). There’s no question that their argument has value but where Men’s Rights activists fall short is in their constant complaints but lack of action.
The first women’s shelters were only established 50 years ago and it’s only much more recently that they’ve begun to receive significant government funding. Almost half of women killed in the UK are murdered by a current or former partner and during the first two months of lockdown this saw a 27% increase on the year before. Unfortunately, it is difficult to draw comparisons with men, as the equivalent statistic doesn’t exist.
It’s a feminist issue that there aren’t more options for male contraception and as women we need to be able to put trust men to use them. It’s a feminist issue that family courts have become bias towards women, reinforcing the domestic stereotype of the caring motherly role. It’s a feminist issue that women’s lives are portrayed as more vulnerable and death’s more shocking than men, implying we are weaker. So making feminism the enemy is not the solution.
While the film is documenting the views of MRA’s, it’s also portraying a personal journey for Jaye at the end of which she renounces her feminism. This is where my fundamental issues with the documentary lie: It’s treatment of experience and opinions as fact. It’s propaganda.
Perhaps most interesting of all is the political hindsight which viewers now possess. 63 days after the film was released, arguably America’s most misogynist president, Donald J Trump was elected into the White House. An exceedingly wealthy man with no previous political experience, now holds one of the most powerful positions in the Western world. He claims he has “tremendous respect for women” but has been accused of rape and is famous for joking that “grab[bing] them by the pussy” is “locker room banter”. In the last four years of his office he has banned international organisations providing abortion access to federal money and attempted to block legislation ensuring equal pay. The Red Pill’s timing couldn’t have been more misjudged.