Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Power of Context: Masculinity and Gun Violence

More than 20,000 people attended a memorial at the University of California, Santa Barbara, last week to pay tribute to the six students killed. The shooter, Elliot Rodger, was a 22-year-old son of a Hollywood director. The killings took place in the college town of Isla Vista where he laid out his plans for what he called a “Day of Retribution” in a YouTube video and a 141-page manifesto. He clearly knew he'd have an audience once he carried out his plans and made sure he put his narrative skills to use. He ranted about still being a virgin and promised to “slaughter every single spoiled, stuck-up blonde slut I see.” It was disturbing to say the least, yet all too familiar. We say we don't want to popularize sadistic killers, almost always young men, but how can we resist something so disturbing? We condemn him, we blame the culture of violence, cry out for some gun regulation and an increase in screening and help for those with mental illness, but nothing ever gets done. Soon the victims and shooters are forgotten until a new tragedy emerges from the daily horrors of ordinary everyday gun violence and the cycle starts all over again. 

After emailing his manifesto to his mother, his therapist, and more than 20 other people, Rodger stabbed and killed three men in his apartment, before shooting dead two women at the nearby Alpha Phi sorority house. He then murdered Christopher Michaels-Martinez, 20, in a local deli and exchanged fire with police, before turning the gun on himself. Rodger was found dead in his car with three semi-automatic handguns and more than 400 rounds of ammunition. Michaels-Martinez’s father, Richard Martinez, blamed the tragedy on the National Rifle Association saying it was “craven, irresponsible politicians” who refuse to tighten gun laws that caused his son's death. It's common for the family of victims to make their case to the public in the hopes to get traction on this issue, but no one can stay outraged forever. The gun lobby knows all they have to do is wait us out while they attempt to focus all our outrage on the shooter himself and the culture of violence that made this idea acceptable in the first place. But let's not forget the context of the society which produced and sold that gun to him. The shooter may be the one ultimately responsible for the killings, but in all cases of violence there is a greater context in which we can, and should, understand tragedies like this one.

Misogyny and Violence

Opinions differ greatly about what causes gun violence. Katie McDonough in talked about the terrifying yet “utterly banal” sexism that emerged as one possibility from Rodger's statements. She said that his resentment of “sluts” who didn’t meet his needs for sexual gratification and subservience are just extreme echoes of the “toxic masculinity” women deal with daily, in the media, in the justice system, and in the Hollywood world in which Rodger was raised. But Chris Ferguson in focused on something different he said “Misogyny didn’t turn Elliot Rodger into a killer,” and went on to talk about his history with mental illness. He mentioned that the shooter had been in therapy since age 8, and had been prescribed antipsychotic medication. “Although Rodger appears to have been particularly angry at women,” his misogyny was a product of his inner rage, “rather than anything ‘taught’ to him by society.”

So why was he allowed a gun? asked Cliff Schecter in TheDaily In the U.K., Canada, and Australia gun owners have to provide third-party references and pass psychological exams. Why doesn't this policy make its way to the U.S.? Under this sort of policy his parents’ concerns over Rodger’s psychiatric health “would have been enough to stop him cold.” But in America such basic checks are ferociously opposed by the NRA. To put it in the words of grieving father Martinez: “When will this insanity stop?”

Violence and Manhood

“If Columbine taught us about school bullying in the 1990s,”  then the lesson of Elliot Rodger’s shooting rampage is “the toxic way that failed sex, misogyny, and modern masculinity are intertwined” in America today. “All you girls who rejected me and looked down upon me...I hate you,” Rodger said in his video he posted on YouTube. “I can’t wait to give you exactly what you deserve: utter annihilation.” Was he simply acting out a cultural fantasy in which a humiliated man reclaims his “lost manhood through spectacular violence,” as Jessica Bennett postulated in didn't just kill women after all. He first stabbed his two male roommates and a friend to death. He also shot 16 people, killing three of them, many of them were male, but he would have killed scores more women had he not been denied entry to a sorority house.

"Rodger’s actions were extreme", said Jessica Valenti in, "but the sexist ideas behind them are deeply woven into American masculine culture. The over-the-top sexual entitlement, and the neat division of women into 'sluts' who have sex and 'bitches' who say no. Every day, women in this country must contend with leering stares, “butt-grabs,” and sickening levels of domestic violence. If Rodger’s rampage doesn’t do it, “what will it take for Americans to get real about how profoundly misogynist our country really is?” 

After Rodger’s killing spree, millions of women took to Twitter and other social media to share their own experiences of being harassed and threatened with violence by men. Men don’t often realize how bad it is, because the creeps usually are careful to harass women when nobody is looking. "Misogyny is hardly imaginary", said Amanda Hess in "A week before the murders, I was stretching outside a store after a run in Palm Springs, Calif., when a man sitting at a nearby bus stop started yelling obscene comments about my body. When my boyfriend came out of the convenience store, he shut up.”

Rodger grew up in a world that sells female objectification and sexual wish fulfillment, and he couldn’t believe buxom blondes weren’t throwing themselves at him. Ann Hornaday said in “How many men, raised on a diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair’?” Hollywood doesn’t help, , that doesn’t mean we should “let mass killers hold the culture hostage,” said Jonah Goldberg in If the Batman movies somehow contributed to the Aurora, Colorado massacre, video games played some role in Sandy Hook, and frat-boy fantasies polluted Rodger’s sick mind, then what, exactly, do people propose? “Should we police film, politics, novels, video games, and every other type of communication,” just in case they “set off a statistically microscopic minority of crazy people?”

There’s a deeper cultural problem, said Mark Morford in SFGate .com. “It’s the guns.” Deeply embedded in the American psyche is a fetishized worship of firearms. It's the icon of a “bogus virility.” In the 70-plus mass killings over the last three decades, every perpetrator has decided that the only way to prove he’s a man, to get back at women, the boss, the world, “is to buy a firearm and start shooting.” Let Elliot Rodger spell it out for us: “Who’s the alpha male now, bitches?” he wrote in his 140-page manifesto, after he bought his first Glock semi-automatic pistol. Until American men realize that relying on a gun makes you less of a man, and that authentic masculinity doesn’t involve violence, we face even “more unimaginable pain, and nearly all of it at the hands of men.”

Male Media Mind