How can men help?
Just looking at that question, your gut reaction might be that we must be past the point where this is a valid line of inquiry. Let them figure it out. Let them be allies. Or better yet, turncoats. Do what the people with common sense say already. In any case, if a man wants to be woke, he can do the legwork. The internet exists.
It tends to be agreed, though, that the best direction in which feminist men can direct their energies is within themselves, and at other men. They can locate and nix their own misogyny, advocate for change in their workplaces, call out sexism where they see it – do any of the myriad things that women have had to do by default.
And in this men have one ironic, unfortunate advantage: other men are more likely to follow the advice and example of men than women, including when it comes to emotional vulnerability, progressive workplace reform, and so on.
It’s for a collection of these reasons, along with a dose of personal need, that I founded a website dedicated to discussing masculinities and changing the idea of what it means to be a man. I want the site, Homer, to act as a bridge between the gender-equal world I want to live in and the men who have yet to see the virtues of that world.
Ever since I began making plans for Homer, though, I’ve been preparing for the idea that it would attract submissions from people who are confused about or opposed to its politics. It makes sense, then, that my initial reaction to a recent submission was like jumping into a pool that I expected to be cold, but not that cold.
The phrases “fighting to end women’s violence against men” and “genuine masculinity” jumped out at me. Huh, I thought, a men’s rights activist.
For a moment I was proud. Homer was designed to reach men like this. The submission had a calculated, hardened misogyny, though, so I politely rejected it.
And I loved the author’s response: “Your bigotry, hate speech and sexism is disgusting.”
I had a second’s regret. I was sorry that I hadn’t tried to engage him. If I’d just reached out, what might have come of it? It’s that feeling – that question – that explains the appeal, at least to anyone who still feels it’s worthwhile to make time for this stuff, of the idea at the heart of controversial new documentary The Red Pill, the Australian premiere of which was cancelled last week following a petition.
The Red Pill bills itself as an intrepid yet open-minded foray by a self-proclaimed feminist, Cassie Jaye, into the world of men’s rights activism, where men fight to draw attention to the ways society disprivileges men – more, they argue, than women.
The appeal is that maybe – maybe – there’s common ground here, or even just misunderstandings that could be resolved, if only we’d listen to each other.
Although protests against the screening faced opposition from some feminists, the view that the dialogue the film opens up is a useful one is hard to defend. Cancelling the screening, though, may only have fed the trolls (read the top comments on the petition page, if you dare).
David Williams, founder of Men’s Rights Melbourne, who were hosting the screening, expressed disappointment – with both MRAs and feminists – at the “polarisation” of the debate that led to the cancellation.
“I’m trying to be a centrist men’s rights activist,” he told me. But I’m not convinced such a thing is possible. Williams told me he felt exposing society’s “unfair negativity” towards men, which would validate MRAs’ views and discredit feminists, gave Cassie Jaye’s transgressive filmmaking the character of “a lightning rod”.
MRA beliefs proceed from the idea that society now perceives men solely as people who use, depend on and abuse women, and that this is feminists’ fault. MRAs miss that, among feminists, new schools of thought are picking apart masculinities and men’s lived experiences at a rate of knots.
That’s where a site like Homer comes in. It might be able to reach out to men in ways women often can’t (or shouldn’t have to). For this to work, though, it requires that those men wedded to “genuine” masculinities find a place in the conversation, meaning we need to avoid both alienating them and validating their regressive beliefs.
One approach here is epitomised by Men’s Sheds and the new ABC series Man Up, presented by a burly Aussie bloke who’s not afraid to shed a tear – but that seems to be trying to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. Saying “it takes a real man to cry” is affecting, but “real man” stuff is got us into this mess. I just think masculinity is more complicated than that.
The author of that submission, for example – his masculinity is as complicated as mine. As are the masculinities of the MRAs hosting The Red Pill at cinemas around the world. And if there exists an obligation to engage with this complexity, it rests with men – we’re the ones with the social capital to bring it out of the dark.
Even feminist men, though, should only reach so far. MRAs make claims that they respect women, that they just want a place for men and boys in gender discourses. They have a responsibility to prove this – to display solidarity when feminists advocate (as they very often do) for the improvement of boys’ and men’s well-being. Too often the discourse is little more than abuse.
Yet many of the gripes men have about their role in society are addressed through feminism. Men as a group may lose power as women gain equality, but we also gain freedom – and there is power in that, too. I’d like to see an increase in emotional labour by men, espousing the benefits for all of us of a gender-equal world.
When it comes to opening up difficult conversation, however, someone always has to go first. I’m trying – and I’d like to invite men who identify as feminist – and MRAs too – to join in, respectfully.