How this feminist found herself sympathising with the men's rights movement
It may be 2017, but the fight for gender equality is as prominent as ever.
On 21 January, millions of people around the world marched for women’s rights.
The 30-year-old filmmaker Cassie Jaye has spent the last decade exploring feminist issues, from sex education to abortion rights.
But her latest film, The Red Pill, took her on an unexpected journey.
She set out wanting to expose the misogynistic voices driving rape culture. Instead, it led to her questioning her own feminist views.
Cassie moved to Los Angeles from Las Vegas aged 18, inspired by films like Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Monster (2003), to try her hand at becoming an actor.
“I realised very quickly that I was being typecast,” she says “I had blonde hair, a round face, big cheeks. I looked the part of the dumb girl who always died in horror films, and that’s what I was cast as.”
Sometimes, things got really seedy.
“I would go in for auditions and not get the part, but be hit on by the producers,” she says. “A married producer forcibly kissed me at one point.”
She started reading feminist sites and, she says, “really found my home there. All the things I was frustrated with were being expressed on these sites.”
She decided to move behind the camera and start making documentaries.
Daddy I Do, her first feature film, looked at sex education in the US. The Right To Love, Cassie’s second film, followed a same-sex married couple and their family.
“My films have always been around gender and sexuality,” she says.
In 2012, while Cassie was looking for her next film project, two horrific stories broke.
Both cases sparked debate, with some commentators arguing the women had some accountability for what had happened to them.
“I couldn’t believe that this was happening in this day and age,” Cassie says.
This led Cassie to start exploring 'rape culture', a state where society's outlooks are seen to normalise rape. She came across a 'men’s rights' website called A Voice For Men.
“These were the rape apologists that I’d been hearing about,” she says. “These were the victim blamers that perpetuate rape culture.”
Cassie had found the focus of her next film, The Red Pill.
The idea of a red pill when referring to men’s rights activism comes from the 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix, in which the character Neo is given a choice of two pills. The blue pill will send him back into a sleep-like state, leaving him ignorant to the ‘real world’. The red pill, however, unlocks Neo’s mind to life’s true state.
A Voice For Men was created by Paul Elam in 2009. (As one of the Red Pill contributors notes to Cassie, “’Elam’ is ‘male’ spelled backwards. But apparently that’s his real name.”)
Some of its mission statements include, “to denounce the current institution of marriage as unsafe and unsuitable for modern men,” and “to push for an end to rape hysteria”.
“I had never heard of the men’s rights movement, and neither had most of the other people in my life,” says Cassie.
She interviewed 44 people over three and a half years, from the most extreme men’s rights activists (MRAs) to prominent feminists such as Katherine Spillar, the Executive Editor of Ms. magazine.
“I thought that it would just be these ridiculous frumpy guys going around with picket signs saying ‘men are oppressed’.”
There are, in fact, a lot of frumpy guys going around with picket signs in The Red Pill.
“Each of these issues made me start to view the world in entirely new ways,” Cassie tells me.
What the MRAs call “male disposability” had an especially big impact on Cassie.
“It’s common sense that the majority of war deaths in the US are men, because the majority of soldiers are men,” she says. “But in the US we still have selective service and we don’t think of that as gender discrimination.”
Selective service in the US requires registration from almost all men aged 18. This does not necessarily mean that they join the military, but rather that they could be deferred there in the case of “a crisis requiring a draft”.
In her film, Cassie meets Warren Farrell, an MRA and the author of The Myth of Male Power. Warren argues that, just as women are frequently reduced to sex objects, men are often seen as “success objects”.
Part of the traditional male provider role is the idea of male strength: the self-sacrificing, stiff-upper-lip father who never shows weakness or emotional vulnerability.
“Men don’t necessarily want to voice their problems because they feel they should man up and deal with it,” Cassie says.
This can have dangerous consequences including an increased likelihood to turn to drugs, alcohol, or even suicide.
“Men tend to use more violent means that are less survivable,” Joe Fearns, the Samaritans’ Executive Director of Policy and Research, has said. “All of us in suicide prevention are most concerned by men.”
Cassie suspected part of the problem revolved around communication.
“I realised it was very hard for men to actually talk about their issues,” she says.
Cassie had begun to find the assumption that men are the privileged gender “problematic,” she says. “I was learning about what men deal with, like the higher suicide rate, and realising that men’s issues should be addressed, too.”
But the MRAs don’t just raise these issues - they question the feminist narrative that men have historically held the balance of power.
In the film, Warren Farrell claims that, “we’ve been focusing our binoculars on the issue of discrimination against women.”
Paul Elam reiterates this point when he says that, “most of the discrimination is faced by men. The fact of the matter is that men are suffering.”
Everything Cassie learned about the men’s rights movement had a profound effect on her.
“I wanted to quit filming so many times because it was so difficult to question my own beliefs,” she says. “I would be so dismissive and resistant to learning about these men’s issues. I always wanted to bring it back to the fact that women have it worse in some way.”
The gender pay gap runs all the way from the shop floor to Hollywood, with Natalie Portman becoming the latest celebrity to reveal that her male co-star was paid far more than her.
But, according to the MRAs, society favours women.
Camilla Swain, an active feminist living in London, disagrees with this.
“Young girls are read stories about feeble princesses rescued by heroic men, teens are bombarded with unattainable airbrushed images that confirm they can never look ‘good enough’, and women work hard for less pay than men,” she says. "From first breath, boys and girls face pressures unique to their gender. However, to deny these exist for women does them a devastating disservice.”
Many angry MRAs find solace and camaraderie when they turn to the internet as a platform for expression. Online communities, such as Reddit and Voat, are rife with anonymous users posting deplorable content.
“A Voice For Men is absolutely the most provocative of all the men’s rights activist sites out there,” Cassie says.
And she’s right. A lot of their headlines are incredibly shocking: “October is the fifth annual Bash a Violent Bitch Month”, “If You See Jezebel in the Road, Run the Bitch Down”, and “Accept it, women do lie about being raped”.
But Cassie now thinks she was too “easily offended”.
She explains, “I wasn’t trying to understand where the MRAs were coming from. I would jump to the conclusion that they were being misogynistic. But that’s not what they were actually saying in their articles.”
Cassie does not agree with the click-bait approach Paul uses on his website, which at first she did think encouraged misogyny.
“There are some people that can’t separate their anger from their activism.”
She points out that equally shocking language is used by some on the feminist fringe, too.
“There was a hashtag called ‘KillAllMen’ that was trending on Twitter a few years ago,” she says. The hashtag’s source is difficult to trace, but its surrounding conversation, from both feminists and MRAs, is plentiful.
At one point, after hearing the MRAs talk about losing child custody, workplace deaths, male suicide and addiction, Cassie declares, “Thank God I wasn’t born a guy.”
“I still believe that,” she says. “I’m happier being a woman in today’s society, because I feel like my issues are heard and acknowledged.”
In the final line of narration in the film, Cassie states that she no longer calls herself a feminist.
“I really thought long and hard,” she says. “I dropped the label because I stopped seeing feminism as a movement for gender equality, including men’s issues. It seemed like it was really just for women’s issues.”
Camilla Swain sees feminism in a different light.
“To me, feminism is for women, for men, and - above all else - for a basic human right to equality,” she says. “To separate the unique issues that confront men from those faced by women, feels a betrayal of both genders. They are clearly deeply intertwined.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Red Pill has led to a bit of an uprising against Cassie from certain feminists.
“Some feminist bloggers have gone on direct attacks to try to smear my name and my film,” she tells me.
One petition has been created to try and stop Cassie from entering Australia altogether.
“The film was pulled from cinemas in Melbourne and Ottawa, and there’ve been various petitions to have it banned,” Cassie says. “I didn’t realise this topic would be so controversial.”
“I’m so innately passionate about women’s issues,” Cassie says. “But I’ve realised that everyone wants to be heard, respected and appreciated. Nobody should experience discrimination based on their gender, race or sexuality.”
I ask Cassie if there aren’t perhaps some similarities between MRAs and feminists.
“That’s the thing, there are a lot of mirror opposites going on with these movements,” she says.
Cassie tells me that she is still passionate about women’s issues, and is sad that making The Red Pill has branded her a traitor of women.
She feels that men’s issues do not get as much attention as they deserve.
“I really tried to make The Red Pill a starting point for conversations about these issues,” she says.
The Red Pill will be available on various streaming services in March 2017.