Twenty-two year-old Elliot Rodger described himself as the “perfect guy” — the kind of young man any woman should feel ‘lucky’ to be with. “I am magnificent,” he said in a video posted online. “I am the ultimate gentleman.”
But Elliot Rodger was far from the perfect guy.
On Friday night, the Santa Barbara college student went on a shooting rampage that left at least seven people dead and thirteen others wounded. It was later discovered that he had murdered three of his roommates before going on the shooting spree, bringing the death toll up to ten. And unlike previous mass shootings — when investigators have had to work for weeks or even months to uncover a motive – it took only hours for law enforcement to discover what appears to be the primary motive for Rodger’s deadly rampage.
Rodger grew up in a life of privilege as the son of Peter Rodger, an assistant director of “The Hunger Games” and a highly regarded film photographer in Europe, and the stepson of Soumaya Akaaboune, an actress who appeared in “Green Zone” in 2010 with Matt Damon and stars in the French version of the “Real Housewives” television series. But in the nine videos he mailed to a Santa Barbara TV station and in a 106,000-word document that police describe as a “manifesto,” Rodger emerges as a troubled young man seething with resentment carried over from childhood. He despised his stepmother, and he hated the frequent lavish trips to Europe and Morocco (his stepmother’s homeland) that his family’s wealth afforded.
But most of all, he hated women.
The Dangerous Underworld of the “Men’s Rights Movement”
In a chilling video titled “Elliot Rodger’s Retribution,” the twenty-two year-old expresses anger that he is still a virgin despite being “the perfect guy.” “I don’t know why you girls have never been attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it,” he says, sitting behind the wheel of his BMW.
Rodger, who was a student at Santa Barbara City College, had uploaded a number of videos in recent months about his loneliness and frustration over women not wanting him despite his BMW, $300 sunglasses and nice clothing. According to the hate-tracking Southern Poverty Law Center, Rodger had a history of posting misogynist and racist comments on anti-woman websites. One of them, PuaHate — described by Jezebel as “the angry underground world of failed pickup artists (PUA)” — is known for its commenter’s misogynist remarks and objectification of women. In one post on the website, Rodger described several “rage-inducing” incidents in which he witnessed white women socializing with, and possibly dating, men of color:
Today I drove through the area near my college and saw some things that were extremely rage-inducing. I passed by this restaurant and I saw this black guy chilling with 4 hot white girls. He didn’t even look good. Then later on in the day I was shopping at Trader Joe’s and saw an Indian guy with 2 above average White Girls!!! What rage-inducing sights did you guys see today? Don’t you just hate seeing these things when you go out? It just makes you want to quit life.
The SPLC also pointed out that Rodger considered himself a part of a group calling themselves ‘incels’ — involuntary celibates — and spoke of a ‘incel revolution,’ writing “One day incels will realize their true strength and numbers, and will overthrow this oppressive feminist system. Start envisioning a world where WOMEN FEAR YOU.”
The Daily Kos was quick to point out Rodger’s connection to the troubling “men’s rights movement,” which the Daily Kos accurately describes as “a nebulous group of pickup artists and misogynists who’ve found each other online, and are attempting to create a movement based around their hatred, disdain, and fear of women.”
Just to be clear: The men’s rights movement is not a legitimate political or social movement — it’s not even about men’s rights. It’s not about social justice, or gender equality, or challenging unhealthy gender role scripts. It’s not about advocating for anything that would actually make life better for young men and boys.
It’s a hate group — and the target of their hate is the female gender.
As a group, they believe that men are oppressed. Specifically, they believe that white men are oppressed (according to a survey of men’s rights activists, 98 percent are white males). But instead of empowering men to become better men — or better people — they devote their time and resources to silencing and marginalizing women.
As writer David Futrelle describes, “the movement isn’t really about the issues at all—rather, it’s an excuse to vent male rage and spew misogyny online. To borrow a phrase from computer programmers: misogyny isn’t a bug in the Men’s Rights Movement; it’s a feature.”
The modern men’s rights movement emerged from the men’s liberation movement of the 1970’s. The men’s liberation movement was a much less radical version of today’s movement, and much of their work was constructive in the beginning. But in the latter half of the 1970’s, the movement split apart into two separate arms with opposing views: the pro-feminist men’s movement, and the anti-feminist men’s rights movement, which grew out of resentment for the rise of feminism and spawned what would become the modern men’s rights movement.
It was in the anti-feminist wing of the men’s rights movement that Elliott Rodger found the platform – and the audience – to launch his vitriol-filled rants against women. And it was within this group that Rodger found the validation he needed to fuel his growing animosity towards the female gender. It was here that Rodger found other men who shared his dangerously skewed, misogynistic worldview; men who, just like him, were so fueled by narcissistic hate (and/or misogynistic entitlement) that the idea that a woman might not be attracted to them was seen a sign of women’s inherent worthlessness. In the men’s rights movement, Rodger found himself in the company of other self-proclaimed “nice guys” who approach the world with the belief that they are entitled to sex just by virtue of their “nice” existence.
It was here, among other “men’s rights activists”, that Rodger found his echo chamber of indignation.
As I mentioned previously, Rodger was part of a sub-group of the men’s rights movement — a community of so-called “Incels,” or involuntary celibates. Like “men’s rights activists,” Incels are almost all white men, and the majority of them are young white men just like Rodger. These are men that were taught that if they were “nice” to women, then women must be obliged to have sex with them. I italicized the “if/then” statements in the last sentence for a reason: because most of these men share the belief in a perverse ‘sexual contract’ in which men are promised access to women’s bodies in exchange for their “niceness.” If a woman turns them down, they feel cheated — as if she is not upholding “her side” of this fictional contract.
“It’s not fair,” Rodger said in his disturbing video. “You girls have never been attracted to me. I don’t know why you girls have never been attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime, because I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy, and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men, instead of me, the supreme gentleman.”
In the twisted world of Incels, women are not treated as unique individuals, but as an undifferentiated mass. Oftentimes, they’re not even treated as human beings. Rather, women are seen as objects to be “had”; women’s bodies are seen as property of the men who “have” them; sex is seen as something to go out and “get.” These men believe it is their right to have possession of, or at least access to, women’s bodies.
Just days before going on a shooting rampage, Rodger wrote in a thread at BodyBuilding.com that “It’s been my life struggle to get a beautiful, white girl.” And in a video posted online just hours before the attack, Rodger described his plans to exact revenge for being rejected by women, saying, “If I can’t have you, girls, I will destroy you.”
Masculinity, Misogyny, and Mass Murder
Rodger’s hostility towards women – and ultimately, his violent rampage – is not simply an isolated incident carried out by a “madman,” as some have implied. For the most part, mainstream media is reporting on this story with shock and awe, seemingly unable or unwilling to make the connection between the targeted killing of women and the widespread, deeply ingrained societal forces that perpetuate gender-based violence.
As Elizabeth Plank of PolicyMic points out, “… the media has reacted by isolating the event as a monstrous and heinous act with no precedent. Rather than seeing Elliot Rodger as a product of society, the media has depicted him as a bloodthirsty madman, a mere glitch in the system. “ Plank goes on, saying, “What happened in Santa Barbara is nothing less than a hate crime, and yet mainstream news outlets are distilling the issue to ‘mental illness’ and ‘premeditated mass murder.’ Although we should be shocked by Elliot Rodger’s actions, we should not be surprised…. It’s time we stop treating these incidents as anomalies and start recognizing the deep societal issues at play.”
Plank then presents some startling statistics on mass shootings in school settings (Rodger committed his act of violence on the UC Santa Barbara campus). School shooters, Plank says, are overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white – much like the so-called “men’s rights activists” who supported (and shared) Rodger’s vitriolic sentiments. According to Plank, all but one of the mass murders in the U.S. over the last 30 years were committed by men, and 90 percent of them were white.
But, with a few notable exceptions (like MSNBC, particularly Karen Finney, who covered this aspect of the story and talked about #YesAllWomen – which is the focus of my next article, right after I finish this one), the media isn’t talking about this. We’re hearing the same things we always do after school shootings, but we’re missing the obvious gendered and racialized elements at play. As Plank rightly points out, “We often instead shift the conversation to ‘mental illness’ and describe shooters as madmen, while the characteristics they exhibit are often an extension of toxic masculinity ideals that are institutionally reinforced.”
Before I get any further, I want to be clear on something: I am not criticizing the entire male gender, nor am I implying that all, or even most, males would ever commit a heinous crime like the one in Santa Barbara. What I am criticizing is the hegemonic (and heteronormative) form of masculinity that continues to dominate and preside over the social hierarchy. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, hegemonic masculinity describes the socially constructed criteria used to define what it means to be the “ideal man” in a particular culture. It is “hegemonic” in that it places men above all women – in other words, it guarantees the dominant social position of men, and the subordinate social position of women – but it also places some men above other men in the ways it intersects with classism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice and oppression. At the top of the social hierarchy are white men. But even beyond that, hegemonic masculinity specifies the characteristics of white masculinity that are most desirable, forming an exclusive set of criteria that define what a “real man” is. As Michael Kimmel and Amy Aronson (2008) describe, “In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant, father, of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports… Any male who fails to qualify in any one of these ways is likely to view himself–during moments at least– as unworthy, incomplete and inferior.”
In this sense, hegemonic masculinity is an insidiously powerful force that is harmful for all but those who meet the narrowly defined criteria for “manhood” – in other words, it works out to benefit heterosexual white men while marginalizing women, people of color, LGBT individuals, the poor, people with disabilities, and many other “undesirable” groups in society. It’s important to point out that the social harm caused by the singular dominance of hegemonic masculinity is not evenly distributed among all marginalized groups. This is where the intersectionality of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc., come into play. Because each of these constructs is hierarchical, intersecting forms of domination produce both oppression and opportunity, such that all individuals within a given social order experience different forms of privilege and subordination depending on their race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc. As George Ritzer (2007) explains in his book Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots, “women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of intensity.” However, the power differentials between women positioned at different levels of the social hierarchy are much less significant than those between men and women, or even between dominant males and the subordinate men “beneath” them. Ultimately, hegemonic masculinity creates a pathologically asymmetrical social order in which the concentration of social power in the hands of men leaves little room for women to construct institutionalized power relationships over other women.
Hegemonic masculinity is constructed in relation to women, but also to other subordinated forms of masculinity. This definition of masculinity is part of creating a patriarchal system that perpetuates, contributes to, and reinforces the dominance of men and the subordination of women; and to a lesser degree, it provides the basis for relationships among men, ensuring that the dominant construction of masculinity maintains a higher position in the social order than non-hegemonic forms of masculinity. This is how the traditional hegemonic definition of masculinity oppresses women, marginalizes some men, and limits all men.
So what does the dominant social construction of masculinity have to do with gun violence, and specifically, with mass shootings? A lot, actually.
As Elizabeth Plank explains, “we live in a society where being white and male affords one with countless privileges and, for some, a toxic sense of entitlement.” This is the same entitlement that Rodger displayed when he called it an “injustice” and a “crime” that women were not interested in him. In Rodger’s twisted mind, his inability to attract women had nothing to do with him – after all, he is the “perfect guy.” And as the “perfect guy,” Rodger – no doubt aided by the incels and men’s rights activists who shared in his sense of entitlement – believed that he deserved to have the attention of women. More than that, he believed he was entitled to women’s bodies; that, by virtue of being nice, he was upholding his side of the “contract” and therefore, in his eyes, it was not just wrong but unjust that a woman would deny him the sex he deserved.
When women failed to live up to the misogynistic expectations of being easy to control and existing only as objects to be “gotten” and “had,” Rodger developed a deep, disturbing feeling of what social scientists refer to as aggrieved entitlement. Sociologist Michael Kimmel, who coined the term ‘aggrieved entitlement’, describes it as “a gendered emotion, a fusion of that humiliating loss of manhood and the moral obligation and entitlement to get it back. And its gender is masculine.”
Indeed, aggrieved entitlement is not only a uniquely male phenomenon, but it’s almost entirely a white male phenomenon. And this actually makes a lot of sense: Aggrieved entitlement is the product of unrestrained privilege – and no one in society has more unrestrained, unchallenged privilege than white males. White men have maintained their position at the very top of America’s social hierarchy since the first colonists arrived and declared dominance over the Native Americans whose land they were invading. They’ve gotten so comfortable with the disproportionate amount of power they hold that, for the most part, white men don’t even recognize their privilege. To many, or most, white men, white male privilege is implicitly accepted as a right – something they simply are entitled to. For most of our nation’s history, white men have held so much power that it remained unchallenged just by virtue of the fact that anyone who might have challenged their privilege lacked the power to do so.
But now, these privileges are being challenged. And the reaction is, all too often, shockingly violent.
Here’s how journalist William Hamby explains it:
At the risk of getting too existentialist, I’d like to propose a very simple and elegant explanation for not only school shootings but a host of other barbaric acts in recent years: White men are having a crisis of both aggrievement and entitlement. One need only look at the 2012 election season to see less brutal but equally mind-numbing examples of white men going mad because they are losing their power. The “Republican Meltdown” is a perfect example of men who previously had all the control escalating to madness when that control was lost.
Until the 1980s, when semi-random spree murders “inexplicably” became the province of young white men, there was no need for young white men to resort to this kind of thing. Whatever happened in society, they would be the winners. These days, it’s still not the worst thing to be a white male — not by a long shot — but it’s not nearly as cushy as it used to be. Women’s rights have grown by leaps and bounds in the last 30 years. Marriage has become more advantageous to women than men since no-fault divorce and custody policy favoring women have become the norm. We have… (gasp)… a black president. If someone grew up indoctrinated into the God and Country of the White Man, it’s easy to understand how regardless of personal circumstance, feelings of entitlement and superiority could already be on shaky ground. One need only look up any of the hundreds of “Men’s Rights Movement” websites, which are often thinly veiled hate groups, to see examples of (usually white) men who seem to be feeling very emasculated and powerless.
I want to say this next bit very carefully. It is absolutely true that white men have lost a lot of power in the last few decades. Inasmuch as these shooters are angry about feelings of powerlessness, their feelings are at least understandable. However, white men needed to lose a lot of power. Without exaggerating, one could say that a history of America is a history of white men lording power over… pretty much anyone who wasn’t a white man. If America was ever going to truly be a land of equality, white men needed to lose their power.
And, as Hamby points out, “losing power hurts.”
In the end, Elliot Rodger not only felt that he was entitled to power, but also that he was entitled to seek revenge against those who challenged his masculinity. While his involvement with the misogynistic culture of the men’s rights movement may not have caused his violent outburst, it certainly contributed to his belief that it was justified. And that’s the scariest part. Rodger’s violent and hateful attitudes about women don’t reflect the thoughts of a severely mentally ill “madman” — rather, they reflect a widespread cultural belief system that perpetuates violence against women as a righteous act of revenge.
That’s why Dr. Laurie Essig, Ph.D, says we need to shift our conversation — to stop pretending that violence against women is anything but the product of our patriarchal society:
Mainstream masculinity is often embedded in such a deep and abiding hatred for women, a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, and a seriously sick way of keeping women scared and in their place through violence and violent rhetoric that to name Rodger “mentally ill” is to create a smokescreen through which it’s difficult to see that there is something seriously sick in our culture. Until we admit this, until men reject this woman-hating and embrace feminism, until women only embrace feminist men, we will be stuck in a cycle of violence where the discussion is not about the thing that is happening- that thing called patriarchy– but instead about mental illness, guns, and a few “bad apples” in an otherwise healthy culture of masculinity.
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