The Isla Vista Shooting, Misogyny, and the Dark Legacy of American Manhood

A makeshift memorial for victims of the Isla Vista shooting: a tragedy brought about by insanity, a sick gun festish culture, and some seriously twisted ideas about masculinity.

A makeshift memorial for victims of the Isla Vista shooting: a tragedy brought about by insanity, a sick gun fetish culture, and some seriously twisted ideas about masculinity.

When an overprivileged, mentally disturbed, misogynistic asshat named Elliot Rodger gunned down seven people and wounded thirteen others in Isla Vista, California on May 23, 2014, the United States once again descended into a deep, meditative reflection on how our culture in many ways still treats women as subordinates and how America’s obsession with all things firearms might be an impediment to many citizens’ rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Okay, at least one of those things happened. After Rodger posted a misogyny-laced Youtube video declaring his intent to “slaughter every spoiled, stuck-up, blond slut” at the nearest University of California-Santa Barbara sorority house just because he was twenty-two and hadn’t yet gotten laid, women across the country started the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag to highlight and discuss the dangerous thread of misogyny that lies just beneath the underbelly of much of American masculinity. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Organization (NRA), a paranoid, insecure, violence-indifferent, bed-wetting, thumb-sucking, pathetic, shameless, greedy, small-dick compensating, borderline domestic terrorist-supporting, propaganda-disseminating shill organization for the multi-billion dollar firearms industry, was noticeably silent on the Isla Vista tragedy.

Oh, but not everyone in right-wing America kept quiet about the shooting. Former fake plumber, Mr. Clean imposter, and one-time 2008 McCain-Palin campaign toady Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher posted an open letter aimed at bereaved father and open critic of American gun culture, Richard Martinez. In the letter, Ole’ Joe proclaimed that, “as a father I share your [Martinez’s] grief and I will pray for you and your family…But: As harsh as this sounds – your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.”

Wurzelbacher was pretty blunt in delivering the standard right-wing spiel of crude, gun-fellating bullshit, but other outlets recognized how the shooting shed light on the dangers of an American culture of masculinity that prioritizes overt aggression and a sense of sexual entitlement.

Over at the Examiner, William Hamby identifies the dangerous mix of entitlement and white male identity crisis that probably contributed to Rodger’s rage. “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,” Hamby writes. Now, let’s be clear here: Elliot Rodger was clearly a whole burger short of a Happy Meal, and his mental issues played an obvious role in driving him to commit mass murder. But — and this “but” is very crucial — he channeled his rage through a distinctly misogynistic, aggrieved white male identity that, as Hamby observes, led him to justify murder as the appropriate response to a perceived failure on women’s part to recognize him — and him alone — as “the true alpha male” who deserved women’s “sex,” “love,” “affection,” and, “adoration.”

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir similarly comments on the mix of misogyny and explicit, dominating aggression that shaped Rodger’s ideas about masculinity. “Rodger said as clearly as he possibly could that he intended to avenge himself against women, en masse, for their independence, their sexual agency and their lack of subservience to his desires,” O’Hehir writes, “[t]his is an old desire, the desire to dominate and control female sexuality, in a contemporary frame.” What Hamby and O’Hehir are both hinting at is a bigger, broader, American cultural proclivity towards associating manhood and masculinity with violence, aggression, and, as Amanda Hess demonstrates, a dominating stance towards women. This cultural idea about American manhood is very real, and it has some deep historical roots.

Elliot Rodger, the misogynistic Isla Vista shooter.

Elliot Rodger, the misogynistic Isla Vista shooter.

As historian Gail Bedermen observes in her book Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917, “during the decades around the turn of the century, Americans were obsessed with the connection between manhood and racial dominance.” During this era, Bedermen continues, “white middle-class men actively worked to reinforce male power” during a time when non-white male minorities were asserting their own rights in American society and large waves of new, non-Anglo immigrants flooded U.S. ports, thereby posing a threat to insecure white guys who desperately wanted to keep themselves at the top of the American power pyramid.*

But Bedermen reminds us that manhood is not a fixed trait but rather, it’s a “historical, ideological process” that is both “continual” and “dynamic.” In other words: what it means to be a man changes over time depending on who defines manhood and who accepts that definition. In modern America, an era that began at the end of the nineteenth century, it was middle-class white men who defined manhood. Through the process of defining masculinity, these white guys claimed “certain kinds of authority,” but at the turn-of-the-century, groups like working class men, immigrants, and especially women demanded more social, economic, and political rights, thereby challenging middle-class males’ cultural and economic supremacy.*

In response to challenges to their authority, middle-class white men adopted a new term, “masculinity,” to extract the notion of manhood from the by-then passé image of the composed, dandy Victorian gentleman. By redefining manhood, middle-class American men could reassert their authority over women and “lesser” males. “Masculinity,” then, denoted an idea of manhood characterized by physical power and domination of women. “By 1930,” Bedermen writes, ‘masculinity’ had developed into the mix of ‘masculine’ ideals more familiar to twentieth-century [and now twenty-first century] Americans — ideals like aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality.”* Indeed, white men were going to reassert themselves as real men and show those uppity blacks, foreigners, and wimmins who was boss.

Turn-of-the-century ideals about manhood embraced a more viral, more forceful, more violent ideal,encapsulated by this manly artisan picture.

Turn-of-the-century ideals about manhood embraced a more viral, more forceful, more violent ideal, encapsulated by this manly artisan picture.

Contemporary America is still living with the repercussions from this early twentieth-century redefinition of modern manhood, because inherent in this definition are the assumptions that white men are entitled to the submission of women. Now, of course, there has been mountains of progress made in the name of gender equality in recent decades, so it’s not like every American white guy is out there seething with rage over the fact that women won’t give them due deference at every turn. Nonetheless, there remains a dangerous rogue strain of American masculine culture that is inherently violent and demands that women be submissive in the sexual realm. This strain becomes especially potent when you add America’s insane proliferation of guns to the mix — a danger made real in Isla Vista, California.

You only have to look at the rise of so-called “Men’s Rights Activism” (MRA), a coalition of insecure, overprivileged douchebags who spend their time whining about how white guys are losing their right to dominate everyone else. As Time reported in an excellent piece on the rise of these pasty sad-sacks, “MRAs believe the traditionally oppressed groups have somehow seized control and taken away their white male privilege. They tap into fear and insecurity and turn it into blame and rage.” Yeah, that pretty much describes Elliot Rodger, who represents the extreme, violent-but-logical endgame of this type of deeply misogynist, power-hungry, reactionary movement.

The grievances proclaimed by MRAs are the same grievances that led middle-class white guys to redefine manhood in the early twentieth-century in response to women and other minority groups asserting their own rights. These grievances represent the pathetic siren-call of privilege lost; the manifestation of a mind-blowing lack of self-awareness, and the shameless squeal of reactionary authoritarianism disguised as enlightened, democratic impulses. And America had better deal with this dark side of American manhood fast, before more women — and men — are scarred by its misguided, historically backed rage.

* See Gail Bedermen,  Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 4-5, 7, 19.

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One Comment

  1. I’d almost forgotten about Joe the Dumber, a true representative of the angry teabagger. He objected to Obama’s tax proposal, because it would have supposedly raised taxes on Joe’s fictitious income from his fantasy business that he pretended to be buying. The plumbing business in question was never for sale, nor did he have the means to purchase it. Net profits from the business were not anywhere near $250,000.
    In reality, Obama maintained the Bush tax cuts and lowered payroll taxes. Sam Wurzelbacher’s terse confrontation with candidate Obama had nothing to do with taxes, and the whole TEA (taxed enough already) moniker for the teabaggers is a crock.

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