Film, News & Commentary, Screen

The Red Pill: I watched it, so you don’t have to

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Every once in a while somebody a great deal saner than I asks me why I sat through a film or TV program that was widely anticipated – and indeed turned out to be – terrible. I have a standard response, delivered way too many times over the years to count. I say “so you don’t have to.” I said it for Human Centipede; I said it for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.

There are limits, however, to this poison-tasting, take-the-bullet approach. When watching director Cassie Jaye’s controversial documentary The Red Pill, a propaganda film about the men’s rights movement in America, that limit arrived at a specific moment. Ninety minutes and 25 seconds into the running time, to be precise.  

It wasn’t a single, unreasonable, offensive argument or comment – though the film is full of them – that pushed me over the edge. It was the return to the screen of two ‘experts’, for want of a better word, who are regularly brought back, for reasons that elude me, to do their thing: complain about women and attempt to solicit sympathy about the apparently oppressed male populace.

One, who speaks with closed and squinty eyes, as if trying to ignore demons streaked across his vision, speaks about how “men need compassion.” He says that for men there is “an ocean of pain out there” and “nobody listens, nobody cares.” He says many other things throughout the documentary, including asking women to “stop pretending that you’re oppressed.” 

The director’s central hypothesis is that, in the present day and age, women have it better than men. It is an argument often made by taking a single example of injustice (for example, a father unfairly losing custody of their child) and insinuating it applies across the board. Or at least is evidence of systematic prejudice directed at my male brethren.

Jaye’s primary objective isn’t to unpack a series of complicated issues, but to humanise – and flatter, in no small measure – controversial figures in the men’s rights movement. Perhaps this is unsurprising given The Red Pill was funded by Kickstarter, bankrolled by the activists themselves.

One who appears regularly in the film is Paul Elam, the face of the modern men’s rights movement, and one of the talking heads who compelled me to turn this wretched, morally bankrupt documentary off. He is, to put it lightly, a deeply controversial figure with a long history in making – again, to put it lightly – extremely unsettling statements.

Here’s just one, and by no means the worst: “Should I be called to sit on a jury for a rape trial, I vow publicly to vote not guilty, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the charges are true.” 

Instead of rigorously scrutinising Elam (who appears to have even inspired a page on Urban Dictionary) Jaye pops over to his place for a friendly chinwag. Their conversation is Kitchen Cabinet-esque, but even less probing than Annabel Crabb’s home-cooked how-de-do. The director asks a series of Dorothy Dixer type questions, smiling pleasantly with her feet up on the couch.

Elam explains the significance of the documentary’s title; Jaye has named it in his honour. The Red Pill is a reference to the famous scene from The Matrix, in which Morpheus offers Neo a choice between living in blissful ignorance or being exposed to the hard-to-stomach truth of the real world.

This is how men’s rights activists view themselves: as heroes fighting the scourge of feminism for the betterment of humankind, sacrificing themselves for the greater good. As they say, to the crazy person the normal person is insane.

“The Red Pill should not be laughed away or derided as benign flapdoodle. It is a dangerous film.”

The circus came to town this week, with Jaye landing in Australia and generating headlines following bumpy interviews on Weekend Sunrise and The Project. An encounter on the latter, involving hosts Waleed Aly and Carrie Bickmore, gives us some indication of the filmmaker’s mindset.  

Conversation touched on former Australian of the Year, Rosie Batty, and the tragic death of her son, who was killed by his father during a domestic violence incident. “That’s interesting,” the director responded, “because it shows that there are male victims of domestic violence.”

Huh? The lesson the director took was not about the presence of a male perpetrator, but the presence of a male victim. Both exist, of course: there was a male victim and there was a male perpetrator. But rather than address the root of the problem, which is male aggression, Jaye reframes it as a case study about how men suffer – a way of both taking gender out (in the identity of the killer) and putting it back in (in the gender of the victim).  

A similar mentality is reflected in the film. Instead of exploring in a meaningful way the question of why there is such striking gender imbalance in the military (from the expectations we place on men to well-documented misogyny in armies around the world) Jaye focuses only on the fact that many more men die serving the country than women. Thus, another reason why women have it so good. 

Reality, in other words, can always affirm the narrative you built in your head. You just need to know where to look and how to cherry pick. Telling the truth is something entirely different.

Constructing a counter argument to the director’s retort on The Project, or to the statement that men die in war more often than women, generally involves articulating a wider context. But an individual story that can trigger strong emotional responses is a much more powerful way of affecting audiences. This is not something exclusive to one side of politics. Michael Moore, on the left, is a master of it. 

Not that Jaye is in Moore’s league; the veteran firebrand at least makes entertaining suppositions. She is far from a great artist and clearly not well informed. In one scene the director even films herself googling “what is rape culture?”  

Nevertheless, The Red Pill should not be laughed away or derided as benign flapdoodle. It is a dangerous film, in that it presents men going through hard times a convenient catch-all narrative; a panacea for their woes. From a moral perspective, this is where the documentary – perhaps also the broader men’s rights movement – falls down so terribly. The message isn’t that men need more funding and resources; it’s that women ought to have less.

At this point one might ordinarily say, “watch the film and make up your own mind.” That is not my recommendation; it is simply not worth your time. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I watched it, so you don’t have to.