The Men’s Rights Movement (MRM) is a growing and disproportionately vocal group that believes Western culture and its institutions are contemptuous of men. Men and boys, they argue, are systematically disenfranchised and discriminated against by feminists and their allies. Once dismissed as the looniest and fringiest of the lunatic fringe, men’s rights groups have “gone mainstream” (Salon) and become “frighteningly effective” (Slate), influencing family law and domestic violence legislation, and imposing their views on our national conversations around gender and a host of other social issues.
Today and over the next week, the Good Men Project Magazine will be taking an in-depth look at this controversial movement. Despite the attention they’ve drawn and their relentless effort to make their voices heard, their ideas have yet to receive a thorough and fair hearing by mainstream media. That is, until now.
We’ve invited leading voices in the movement, as well as its outspoken critics, to help us better understand what men’s rights activists believe, why they believe it, and whether we should take their claims seriously.
Men’s rights activists (MRAs) can be easy to dismiss as crackpot extremists. Perhaps best known for descending like outraged locusts on the comments section of your favorite online magazine, newspaper, or blog, bewildering readers with esoteric epithets like “mangina” and “white knight,” they tend not to make a favorable first impression. But if you have the curiosity and thick skin to engage these guys, you’ll find that beneath the hysterical, dogmatic rhetoric lie some valid complaints.
It’s impossible to have a complete discussion of masculinity in the 21st century without acknowledging the men’s rights point of view.
So strap in and leave your delicate sensibilities at the door—it’s time to meet the Men’s Rights Movement.
Men’s rights and other men’s movements have been kicking around since the 1970s. Many sprung up in response—some sympathetic, some hostile—to second-wave feminism. Like feminists, these movements have taken various forms in the pursuit of various, often contradictory goals.
Broadly speaking, they fall into three categories:
- The weekend-warrior, drum-circle, pass-around-this-wooden-phallus-and-talk-about-your-dad movement, popularized by poet and author Robert Bly. Known as the mythopoetic men’s movement, these groups tend to focus inward, on interpersonal issues around their own manhood.
- The pro-feminist Men’s Studies guys, who like to question and re-imagine standards of masculinity and gender roles. Their conclusions have often led them to take political positions, but their focus is primarily intellectual and academic.
- And the men’s and fathers’ rights activists, who believe that men have been oppressed since, well, a really long time ago. They focus on political, legislative, and cultural reformation, from the unjust family court system to entrenched media bias. It’s these guys—the MRAs—who are making the most noise these days. (The “A” in MRA can also stand for “advocate,” depending on which MRA you talk to.)
According to movement leader Paul Elam, whose website, AVoiceforMen.com, is among the most popular online MRA hangouts, the MRM is largely comprised of “men who have been screwed over by a corrupt and oppressive family court system—and those [who] don’t want to be.” Thus anger and frustration—at the courts, at their ex-wives and women in general, at pervasive injustice—tend to be the animating emotions behind the MRM. The down economy, which by all accounts has hit men hardest, continues to boost MRA recruitment and sympathy.
Dan Moore, the publisher of Menz magazine, has been active in the movement for nearly 20 years. He’s “bullish” on the immediate prospects of social change. “I think it will be less than a decade before these issues are resolved. And yes, that’s largely because of this recession,” he said. “But honestly, I think we’re changing the world.”
MRAs are well known for their tactical assaults on the comments sections of offending feminist and “misandric” (man-hating) blogs and websites. “If you write about them, it’s like feeding a stray cat tuna fish,” a feminist blogger warned me as I was soliciting stories for this package. “Except more like if you feed 100 cats tuna fish—they just show up and hang out and mewl and will completely swarm the place.”
That warning came too late. MRAs haven’t had many nice things to say about the Good Men Project Magazine since our launch last June. Here’s a representative appraisal:
I believe this site, and the viewpoints expressed within it, are toxic, and EXTREMELY harmful to boys and men. And I find the cynical attempt to paint yourselves as helpful in any way to be most disgusting of all. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
Toxic, cynical, disgusting, and shameful. Actually, that’s one of the nicer ones. (A healthy percentage of the comments we get from MRAs aren’t fit to reprint here.) When we started getting comments and emails like this one, we were surprised. We were aware of the existence of men’s and fathers’ rights groups, but we had no idea how angry they were, and we certainly didn’t expect to be targeted as feminist “mangina” conspirators, bent on destroying the lives of men and boys everywhere.
Initially, I wrote these people off as insane. It was difficult for me to imagine how anyone could believe they were systematically oppressed by women. Put off by second-wave feminism? OK, I get that. Fed up with political correctness? Though this strikes me as very 1994, I know and love men who still feel that way, so sure, I get that too. But under the thumb of the Great Feminist Oppressors? That’s just hard to take seriously.
But to understand MRAs, their fury, and their almost pathological certainty, you have to understand their definition of the word feminism. MRAs believe Western culture is feminist culture, and that culture, whatever you call it, is oppressive toward men. Thus a feminist is anyone they don’t agree with, regardless of gender. And that’s pretty much everyone.
Last week, when Paul Elam launched his A Voice for Men Radio podcast, he put it this way:
Let’s be clear—this show is not and never will be about the hateful bashing of women, and to be clearer, we’re going to often speak harshly of men … [But] our current gender zeitgeist is one that has promoted and enabled such a degree of female narcissism and entitlement that it has now produced two generations of women that are for the most part, shallow, self-serving wastes of human existence—parasites—semi-human black holes that suck resources and goodwill out of men and squander them on the mindless pursuit of vanity. Is this all women? No, of course not.
Not all women are semi-human, just most—and even if you don’t identify as female, you still may be complicit in maintaining the status quo.
MRAs commenting on this site and elsewhere around the Internet interpret the most radical feminists as speaking for women and governments the world over. No one, for example, takes Valerie Solanis, author of the satirical SCUM Manifesto, quite as seriously—with the possible exception of Andy Warhol, for a split second, in 1968—as men’s rights activists.
They see everything through the lens of a zero-sum gender war. Everywhere, men get a raw deal at the hands of women. Anywhere women have made advances, it’s at the expense of men. In their complaints, across gendered lines, about the draft, civil service, sentencing, and suicide disparities, they appear to ignore salient issues of class and race. To be sure, it’s more powerful men, not feminists, who are the ones sending men off to war and prison.
But for MRAs, everything comes back to their definition of feminists: anyone who supports or tolerates the oppressive culture we live in; thus, powerful men are covered by this definition. They’ve set up a tautological circle from which there is no exit—only progressively deeper certainty.
It would be easy to write these guys off as nuts and not give them a second thought—if they weren’t so damned persistent. As hard as it is to imagine a Vast Feminist Conspiracy, it’s equally hard to see how anyone could be so invested, so irrepressible, if they didn’t have some skin in the game. Like that blogger told me, these guys hang around. There must be some basis for their tenacity.
There can be little doubt that at least some of these guys have been victims—of physically or psychologically abusive women, the family court system, or other painful circumstances. It’s therefore understandable why they don’t see the benefits of being in the “patriarchy.”
Removed from the hysterical rhetoric, MRAs have some valid complaints. Several movement-affiliated organizations—some more legitimate than others—fight for the rights of male victims of discrimination. Glenn Sacks’ Fathers & Families, a lobbying, PR, and advocacy group that has influenced family law policy around the country, is one. Another is RADAR (Respecting Accuracy in Domestic Abuse Reporting), a nonprofit group that argues that domestic violence is perpetrated equally by men and women.
Fathers & Families, like many men’s and fathers’ rights groups, want men to be recognized as good parents who are equally capable of raising children. They want the courts and society to acknowledge that men can be caring and nurturing dads, and that assuming traditionally female roles is not only not creepy, weird, and emasculating, but can be respectable and, yes, even desirable.
Society seems to resist this acknowledgment, if not by word then by deed.
Consider, for example, this post from The New York Times’ Motherlode blog from December, in which Nicole Sprinkle described how, in looking for childcare for her 3-year-old daughter, she found a friendly, well-spoken applicant from her neighborhood who was studying to be a paramedic. His mother owned a local daycare center. He had worked as a summer camp counselor at the preschool her daughter attended, and “got rave reviews from his supervisor there.”
But he was a man, and that was just too dangerous:
I told him frankly that I liked him best of all and yet still wasn’t sure I could make the leap of letting a man watch my daughter: one who might have to help her wipe, clean her up in case of an accident, who would be alone with her every day for several hours.
I also told him that I felt really awful about having to feel this way, and that it was such a shame that society forced us to discriminate against kind, competent men as caregivers for our kids.
Of course, society didn’t force her to discriminate—she made the choice to discriminate. But it illustrates the point: it’s not just that men are refusing to adjust to new roles, as Hanna Rosin argued in her now-famous “End of Men” article in The Atlantic. When it comes to survival, or the survival of their children, men and women will scramble to adapt. It’s society and its institutions that lag behind.
There are plenty of guys out there who would like to see gender roles not simply reversed—a prospect that has Hanna Rosin twirling with glee and MRAs blitzed on rage-ahol—but obliterated altogether.
In a recent column for The Wall Street Journal, Lenore Skenazy detailed the very real “Eek! A Male!” phenomenon: “almost any man who has anything to do with a child can find himself suspected of being a creep,” she wrote. “Gripped by pedophile panic, we jump to the very worst, even least likely, conclusion first. Then we congratulate ourselves for being so vigilant.”
In this culture, men who choose to work among (or even just near) kids are suspect. Among the handful anecdotes she presents as evidence: an Iowa daycare worker who isn’t allowed in the room when diapers are being changed and a guy who sent kids running and screaming when he rolled down his window to ask for directions.
Then there’s Timothy Murray, the Massachusetts Lt. Governor, who, while pulling two small children from a burning minivan, narrowly escaped the wrath of their grandmother. She thought he might be a kidnapper. “I was gonna smack him,” she told a local TV station. “I yelled, ‘Get away from my car!’”
MRAs rightly point to this as a troubling phenomenon. But is feminism, as many MRAs suggest, really the prime mover behind it? I suspect we’ll have the chance to debate this question in the comments section, below.
For “The End of Men,” Rosin interviewed a divorced dad named Darrell—he’d lost his job laying sheet metal, fallen behind on his child-support payments, and was attending a fathering class in order to avoid jail time. Despite getting trucking and bar tending licenses, he couldn’t find work, and lost his house and car. He described sitting at a bus stop, watching his wife drive past. “‘[She] looked me right in the eye,’ he recalled, ‘and just drove on by.’”
Darrell, like so many other casualties of this recession, must feel blindsided by circumstance. And as Hanna Rosin will tell you, he’s representative of a growing number of American men.
We have to expect that there will lots more disaffected, disillusioned guys out there in the years to come, struggling to understand how they fit in to a changing world—which means we can expect interest in men’s issues to grow.
The Good Men Project Magazine is in a unique position to help guys grapple with their evolving roles and what many men see as conflicting and even impossible societal expectations. Our mission has always been to challenge men to think deeply about themselves and their place in the world, and that’s the goal this week.
Starting today, we’ll be featuring articles by leading MRAs about what they see as the central goals and concerns of the movement. MRA Blogger Zeta Male presents the results of a poll he conducted to determine the Top 10 Goals of the Men’s Rights Movement. Paul Elam from A Voice for Men breaks down the critical MRA notion of misandry.
We’ve invited some frequent MRA critics to offer measured criticism. Regular GMPM columnist Hugo Schwyzer—whom Menz magazine publisher Dan Moore calls “the Darth Vader of men’s issues”—argues that MRAs misdiagnose both the sources of, and the solutions to, common MRA complaints. Double X blogger Amanda Marcotte argues that what these guys need is more feminism.
Later in the week we’ll feature stories by Swedish MRA Pelle Billing, men’s rights lawyer and GMPM contributor David Pisarra, men’s studies professor Kaelin Alexander, and journalist and Man Boobz editor David Futrelle.
Dan Moore will fill you in on the State of the Movement, explaining, among other things, what MRAs have to say about feminists, and why they’re determined to “go their own way.”
We’re looking forward to some spirited, good-faith debate. We encourage everyone to comment, but please keep the discussion respectful and on topic. Please consult our commenting policy, here.
Other stories in in this special package: