Produced and shot by Michael Toledano, with additional camerawork by Daniel Goodbaum with interviews by Alex Tindal.
On September 28, an international coalition of men’s rights groups converged in Toronto to discuss the topic Men and Boys in Crisis.
Prior to the rally I didn’t know much about men’s rights activism, except that these groups have an established tradition of responding to writers with personal attacks, seen in creatively titled blog posts like “Jonathan Goldsbie: Head in the sand, talking out ass” and “Brad Casey wants to mind-rape our women!” It is because of blog posts like these, previous events like this, anti-feminist diatribes like this, and individual men's rights supporters with a fondness for Nazi iconography that I had developed a skewed impression of who actually goes to their rallies. I expected to encounter an all-out hate group, when in actuality the men’s rights activists I spoke to held beliefs ranging from reasonable to downright oppressive and sprinkled with a dose of crazy.
Most attendees seemed motivated by a concern for the well-being of men, or a fear of women rooted in their own personal traumas. A surprising number of men at the rally came forward as victims of domestic violence. These men felt stung by misandry—they talked reasonably about the weakness of men’s support networks and the lack of sympathy that they experienced following abuse. Almost everyone at the rally expressed concern for things like the high suicide rate among males, boys falling behind in school, and a systemic bias against fathers in custody battles. Then again, some statistics used by the activists to bolster these issues were hard to swallow: “In 50 years the last bachelor’s degree will be issued to a male in this culture,” said Paul Elam of the organization A Voice for Men.
The MRAs who met in Toronto attribute all of these problems to a single threat—a radical feminist ideology that has taken hold of our institutions and is actively oppressing men, even if most people with power in these institutions are still men. Attila Vincer, who organized the rally to take place outside of Ontario’s legislature, didn’t know if Canada or Ontario had more female or male legislators (spoiler, it's men). Of those we talked to, not a single person protesting knew what laws they wanted to see enacted.
“The paid lobbyists under feminism have pretty much entrenched themselves into the system,” one MRA told me. “They’re the system. They’re the status quo. They’re not fighting against the man, they are the man."
Blaming women for the problems of men is thinly veiled misogyny. It goes hand in hand with the open misogyny that a few men’s rights activists, such as one who joked about “fat” and “flat chicks,” could barely contain at the rally. This feeling of male subjugation also extends into particularly dangerous territory when MRAs see accusation of rape as a tool women use to oppress men. Both men and women attending the rally expressed disbelief that sexual assault is as rampant as statistics—even police reports—indicate, and felt that women should be imprisoned for false accusations of rape just like rapists are, sometimes, prosecuted for rape. One woman told me that her daughter had made a false rape accusation, but she declined to be interviewed about it because her husband, the subject of an ongoing court case and investigation, wouldn’t give her permission to speak on camera due to risk of incrimination.
The rally was interrupted by a queer and feminist counter-protest that seemed to be confused about what the MRAs stood for, treating them like straw men and calling them anti-gay despite a significant number of queer speakers at the men’s rights rally. One of the feminists argued that “the real face of what [MRAs] stands for is Marc Lépine, the Montreal mass murderer who murdered women at the École Polytechnique.” Paul Elam offered an inverse analogy: “We can’t parallel every behavior of feminists to every behavior out of Nazi Germany or out of the Ku Klux Klan, but if you look at the foundation of thought, the way they approach classes of people, I don’t see any difference.”
A few feminists in the counter-protest suggested that the current wave of feminism seeks to dismantle patriarchy and gender roles, to the mutual benefit of both men and women—and that it looks to address many of the same problems that MRAs have identified. But the biggest problem that these MRAs face is that nobody is actually trying to talk with them—unless you count online flame wars. Their movement could be shrunk to only a small, hate-filled contingent if these men were engaged through support groups, therapy, compassion, and education. Instead of having an actual dialogue, the feminist protesters mostly just yelled insults, the MRAs returned the favor, and everyone became more firmly entrenched in their polarized ideological camps.
It was all very stupid.