The Matrix is everywhere. It’s all around us. Even now in this very room. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth that you are a slave—born into a prison—for your mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the matrix is; you have to see it for yourself.”
—Morpheus, The Matrix
In the Wachowski brothers’ 1999 film The Matrix, Neo is left with the choice whether to take the blue pill and wake up back in his bed, believing whatever he wants to believe—or to take the red pill, which will show him just “how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Borrowing this red-pill-blue-pill metaphor is a self-named “Red Pill” online community who claim enlightenment on the real state of the gender debate in the United States today. Flowing from their online base, the “subreddit r/TheRedPill” forum, the Red Pill “alpha” males tend to have their own blogs, books, and disciples, whose favorite pastime is trolling those they consider to be dangerous feminists on social media. United by their common belief that white cisgender men are the true victims in contemporary feminized society, the Red Pill community has different subsets known as the “manosphere,” “Identity Evropa,” the “Alt-Right,” “Men Going Their Own Way” (MGTOW), “Men’s Human Rights Advocates” (MHRA), and “Pickup Artists” (PUA).
In her book Not All White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, classics professor and journalist Donna Zuckerberg shows us just how far the rabbit hole goes, examining the impact of these fringe groups and their appropriation of “the literature and history of ancient Greece and Rome to promote patriarchal and white supremacist ideology” (5). Zuckerberg advocates taking a closer look at their ideologies and tactics in order to counter the effect of their growing impact. She begins by examining the aforementioned internal factions of the Red Pill community, so we can attempt to “understand why they feel compelled to position themselves as the inheritors of the classical tradition and how the ancient world validates one of their most cherished, deeply held beliefs: that all women throughout history share distinct, immutable qualities that make them promiscuous, deceitful, and manipulative” (14). In quoting the leading voices of these factions, Zuckerberg illustrates their tactics of frame theory, gaslighting, appropriative bait-and-switch, ideological sublimation, misuse of language of scholarly interpretation, and false equivalence, in order to show how one-dimensional and inaccurate their idealized analyses of ancient texts actually are.
Important to Red Pill life in the Matrix is their concept of “game” as they look to Ovid, “the original pickup artist,” for examples on how to get any woman into bed.
Many leaders of the seduction community believe that women are designed to be sexual objects (and, later, mothers) and that any woman who cares about her education and career—or any woman who does not need validation from men—is unnatural and perverted. (93)
Zuckerberg demonstrates how Red Pillers cherry-pick from the Stoics’ (particularly, ethics from the Late Stoa) self-centered path to improvement to uphold masculine superiority over women in the virtue of self-control.
Had I not seen it for myself, I might not have believed the impact of these Red Pill voices. The Matrix is everywhere, including the church. Although Zuckerberg shares that “a few self-reported surveys within the community suggest that more than three quarters of these men have no strong religious affiliation,” there are active Red Pill “Christians.” The plethora of quotes she shares are strikingly similar to the reductive, abusive, and perverted tweets I’ve received from anonymous Red Pill Christian accounts. A now-deleted tweet by one user said that I wrote my last book as a desperate final cry for male attention, since I’m over forty and will lose my looks. The women who came to my defense were dismissed as irrelevant and their own looks were compared to mine. I was told that the only reason my opinion is tolerated in academic circles (predominantly male) is because I’m pretty. I have nothing valuable to contribute as a churchwoman; I’m just arm candy. While the tweets have been scrubbed, I continue to come up in discussions in the comments on their websites. It’s worse than Morpheus said—it’s not so much that a woman’s mind is imprisoned by her body; it’s that her mind doesn’t matter.
While I have tended to dismiss these Red Pillers as part of a fringe movement that shouldn’t be honored with a reply, learning more of their philosophy and goals reveals just how deep the rabbit hole is going. It was frightening to uncover the consensus in the Red Pill community regarding female consent, and downright terrifying to read about men who genuinely believe that women secretly want to be sexually conquered and that sexual abuse on all levels is therefore (at least somewhat) legitimate.
Here Zuckerberg gives what I believe is a most important insight: all of these Red Pill books, articles, and conversations about how to have sex with women may be more about these men’s fascination with securing admiration from other men than from the women they’ve objectified. Getting a woman into bed is not the point—getting the admiration and respect of other men is the point. Women are not wanted because Red Pillers are lonely and want companionship and unconditional love; their bodies are wanted as currency in the male-respect economy, whereby the more beautiful women a man seduces, the higher his esteem and regard in the eyes of other men. As Zuckerberg puts it:
Close examination of the dynamics of the seduction community reveals that picking up women is in many ways less important than the bonds and rivalries between the community members. To an outsider, it may look like a group of men talking about women, but often the women become little more than a means to the end of establishing authority and social capital among a group of male peers. (124)
This leads me to ponder something that Zuckerberg would probably not recognize as a faithful progressive feminist, and that is the connection between misogynistic cultures, such as ancient Greece and Rome, and the rise of promiscuous homosexuality among men. As women are objectified to the point of mere animal existence (without any intellectual or spiritual life that requires the acknowledgment and respect of men), the male gaze turns more and more to himself. Red Pillers speak loudly against the homosexual community, but if the sort of stimulating and loving companionship that all humans need cannot (by their account) be found with woman—a being made to be his complement and equal (Gen. 2:18)—then to whom will they turn for that intimacy?
If women are necessary commodities in the male-respect exchange, then it follows that the man who has the most of them is the “winner.” Here, of course, Red Pillers bump up against an unfortunate obstacle: the consent of the women they’re trying to seduce. While they don’t mention it explicitly, they must be aware that most women are not lining up outside their apartment door hoping for a night of passion. But how can that be, since all women are essentially vessels of seething promiscuity waiting to be tapped? It must be that those who are saying that they’re not (and who have been “assaulted” by those who didn’t believe them) are lying. Zuckerberg hones in on the Red Pill obsession with false accusations of rape by interacting with different interpretations of the ancient myth of Hippolytus, connecting them with the Red Pill idea that the urge for women to “make punitive false accusations is intrinsic to female ‘nature.’ . . . [A]ll women are like that (AWALT)” (143–44). Here we see the anxieties of female sexuality and female credibility: As the Red Pill premise is that men should be making decisions for women, women really don’t have a right to claim rape in the first place. The ancient world of Greece and Rome didn’t define rape by our contemporary standards; to them, rape was more about theft of property (a crime committed by men against men), not a crime committed by a man against a woman and her right to respect for her person. It’s this faulty understanding of what constitutes a person and that person’s rights that threatens to destabilize and disintegrate Western society. “All three of these prominent Red Pill writers—Valizadeh, Anglin, and Weidmann—link female freedom (and especially sexual freedom) to the downfall of society” (179).
Despite their misappropriation by certain groups, Zuckerberg concludes that the classics are not only for wealthy white men admiring dead white men. Unlike other progressives who are fighting to replace the Western canon, she is a feminist who “enjoys and finds meaning in studying the ancient world” (187). Rather than allow the continuing perpetuation of self-appointed classicists from the Internet, she calls for a thoughtful retrieval of the classics (even when it is uncomfortable and distasteful) and critical engagement with their application in the contemporary topics of gender, race, and social justice. While I wouldn’t agree with all of Zuckerberg’s progressive social applications, I appreciate her call to engage. While most Christians would balk at the so-called Christian Red Pill assertions, it’s disconcerting to see how often the classics (not Scripture) are held up as exemplars for societal regulations on gender, resulting in what look like Red-Pill-lite interpretations from influential voices in both academia and popular level Christian writing, and how little these reductive—and pagan—articulations are engaged. While the retrieval of the West’s ancient tradition is a worthy task, we Christians need to ask ourselves what we are retrieving, how we’re interpreting it, and to what degree the application of that tradition is biblically faithful. Is our desire to see men and women built up in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ—or to return to a “golden age” without the messy and uncomfortable questions we’re being forced to reckon with in our ever-mutating, oft-confusing day-to-day lives? Pushing back against so-called soft patriarchy might get me labeled as a radical progressive feminist, but not all women are like that (NAWALT).
Aimee Byrd is the author of No Little Women (P&R, 2016) and Why Can’t We Be Friends (P&R, 2018) and cohost of The Mortification of Spin podcast. She lives in Maryland with her husband and three children and is a member of New Hope Orthodox Presbyterian Church.