When men’s rights activists (or MRAs, as they are known online) held their first conference in Detroit last summer, it was an opportunity for the mainstream media to examine why a group of disenfranchised men are blaming their problems on feminism and not, as writer Jeff Sharlet puts it, “late-stage American capitalism.” Sharlet wrote about the conference in a March 2015 GQ article titled, “Are You Man Enough For the Men’s Rights Movement?” It’s the latest in a series of articles coming out of the event, from Mariah Blake’s Mother Jones profile of Warren Farrell to BuzzFeed’s look at Paul Elam, the leader of the movement’s most popular website.
If Sharlet — an associate professor of English at Dartmouth, the author and editor of six books (Sweet Heaven When I Die, Radiant Truths), and a frequent contributor to Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and GQ with a must-follow Instagram feed — has a beat, it’s approaching outsiders and outliers with empathy and fairness, never resorting to the easy answer and always finding the human thread. I spoke to him over the phone about covering the men’s rights movement.
Flavorwire: Why did you want to write about MRAs?
Jeff Sharlet: I like conservative groups, partially because they’re always so much more complicated than liberal mainstream media renderings of them. That’s why I like writing about Christian fundamentalist groups. They’re people with complicated ideas. MRAs are the first group I’ve ever covered who are less complicated than the liberal representation of them. You go and you spend time with them and they don’t talk about these issues. There was less there than met the eye. Five thousand words was about right. The temptation is this over-earnest voice, ignoring the wild violence of their rhetoric, or snark — what a bunch of jerks — it’s kind of a hard line to walk.
What’s at the root of their grievances?
Late-stage American capitalism. What’s powerful is that their diagnosis is sort of 90 percent correct, their diagnosis of the sickness that they feel. These guys are right, they are being sidelined, but they’re not being sidelined by women. They fail to see the way late-stage capitalism is reducing everybody.
What do men’s rights activists embrace in pop culture? The sidebar to your piece mentioned Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and American Beauty.
You can gather that they’re certainly pop-culture obsessed, looking for what they perceive as slights to men in pop culture, often embracing that which gets slighted, like “Blurred Lines.”
I don’t like sidebars, but this one ended up becoming, for a while, one of the best exchanges. I was going back and forth with them about what [they] love. They said To Kill a Mockingbird was their favorite book. The connection is too small to explain in the sidebar: their idea is that “we are all Tom Robinson now,” the falsely accused man. To them, the people misunderstood that To Kill a Mockingbird is about race, when it’s about gender.
That way of talking about “Blurred Lines,” books, and movies, and do you remember that movie Falling Down with Michael Douglas? Online there’s this great enthusiasm for it, one guy calls it “an MRA anthem,” but their leadership is savvy enough to know that “this would make us look bad.”
Then they wanted to mention American Beauty, but American Beauty is no To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the reactionary grievance of white men who feel their privilege under assault, in this mainstream art house movie — in reality, it’s an interesting thing, because Falling Down is a much better movie. It’s sympathetic to Michael Douglas and it’s not insisting on some transcendent truth to his violence.