One of the more ironic aspects of entrenched male opposition to feminism is this: living by feminist principles could genuinely improve things for men. Yes, male power and privilege will be surrendered when patriarchy recedes, but so will outsize expectations about masculinity. In fact, a lot of the complaints that MRA types clutch to their chests about an allegedly unfair world would be irrelevant in a feminist utopia.
In particular, the values of feminist relationships necessitate the prioritizing of partnership and communication, as well as shared burdens and decision making. Principles of equality dictate that both partners, whatever their gender expression or orientation, are afforded the chance to explore their intellectual or career-oriented sides as well as their nurturing or relational sides, the chance to be honest about their respective strengths and weaknesses and find a balance.
And for men, real feminism — the erosion of gender roles as controlling factors in our lives — means that expressed emotions are not associated with “wimpiness” or “femininity” but with humanity. In a world where we can all be our authentic selves, everybody wins, right? “In patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity,” bell hooks writes. “Their value is always determined by what they do. In an anti-patriarchal culture males do not have to prove their value and worth. They know from birth that simply being gives them value, the right to be cherished and loved.”
Oh, how helpful a feminist lifestyle — and that innate sense of being cherished and loved — might have been for MRA leader Paul Elam, the subject of an incredible BuzzFeed profile by Katie J.M. Baker and Adam Serwer. Because in this profile, as happens with so many looks at professional misogynists, Elam appears to be just as needy and pathetic as he is nasty.
The most widely circulated part of the profile is Elam’s “MRA origin story,” which involves refusing tummy meds at age 13:
Men’s rights activists often cite the first time they realized it’s a woman’s world. They call these “red pill” moments, after the scene in The Matrix when the main character is faced with the decision to swallow a red pill and recognize the true nature of the world or take a blue pill and continue living a lie. For Elam, that revelation came at age 13, when his mother tried to force him to take his diarrhea medicine.
Elam’s brothers held him down on the kitchen floor while his mother screamed and hit him with a wooden spoon until a concerned neighbor knocked on the door. “I felt like I was engaged in the battle of my life,” Elam said.
I don’t want to get too Freudian about this odd anecdote — there’s plenty of that speculation happening on Twitter — except to say that this is certainly the sort of moment that would be better worked through with a good therapist than in an ill-conceived public movement that ends up threatening women’s safety. But that unwillingness to go deeper, the classic channeling of hurt or resentment to external, even violent impulses is the stuff of constructed masculinity.
Indeed, all the issues that Elam admits to in the piece, including growing anger over time, an encroaching sense of emasculation, and a fear of taking responsibility for his own family, are worsened by prescribed gender roles that demand strength, toughness, and independence.
Elam’s daughter Bonnie is one of the major subjects of the piece. She tells of her attempted reconciliation with her deadbeat dad, who abandoned her for years, and his continued failure to relate to her. He spanked her son without her permission, which sped up their break:
It makes her angry that Elam has made himself into a martyr when his history speaks to the contrary. “Here you have men asking him for advice on how to get kids back, and he doesn’t say, ‘I was a really shit dad and a drug addict and I hate women and I’m not going to talk about my estranged kids or spanking my daughter’s son for opening up a fridge.’ He says women are awful, but I’m a woman. I raised two boys. I’ve been a victim of abuse but I didn’t let it affect me. He says women are needy, but I reached out to him in his time of need. The list goes on.”
Which brings us back to bell hooks, who writes, “Patriarchy demands of men that they become and remain emotional cripples.”
Elam doesn’t sound like the kindest or most thoughtful human being, but without patriarchy, he might actually have a healthy relationship with his daughter. Instead, he has a relationship with thousands of dudes who are as disgruntled as he is, and who make it their business to threaten women in the service of making themselves seem oppressed. When Time magazine reporter Jessica Roy went to an in-person MRA conference in Detroit, she left feeling a mix of pity for the men who were obviously hurting and in need, and hurt by the awful sexist vitriol that was slipping through the friendly facade of the conference, leaving her “sad and angry and helpless and determined, all at the same time,” she wrote at the time. “Moreover, I didn’t expect to talk to so many men in genuine need of a movement that supports them, a movement that looks completely different from the one that had fomented online and was stoked by many who spoke at this three-day conference.”