The details of Elliot Rodger’s May rampage near Santa Barbara, Calif., are now familiar to most. After stabbing his three roommates, the 22-year-old loaded his guns and drove toward University of California, Santa Barbara, intent on killing women. He fatally shot two, plus one man, and injured 13 other people before turning the gun on himself. *
What deserves greater attention, however, is how Rodger’s story recalls past cases in which young men targeted women with mass violence. Such massacres are disturbing not only in themselves, but for what they reveal about the depth of misogyny in our culture, and about the soul-destroying social expectations that boys and young men experience around their masculinity.
If we are serious as a culture about preventing future atrocities, we need to change the way we socialize boys and men. And we will need to dismantle a culture that routinely treats women and girls as sexual objects and targets of real and virtual violence.
A dangerous masculinity
In 1989, a 25-year-old Canadian man named Marc Lépine walked into a classroom at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, lined the women up against a wall, and shot them to death, shouting, “You’re all a bunch of feminists!” Lépine murdered 14 women that day. In his suicide note, he called the massacre a deliberate political act against women, whom he blamed for challenging male prerogatives.
Rodger and Lépine grew up with the same social message of masculinity: be powerful, white, tall, emotionally invulnerable, violent if needed, and heterosexually successful. The message is reinforced by television, movies, video games, advertising, sports, social relationships, and family ties.
The reality, though, is that men can’t consistently attain these rigid norms. Those perceived as failing to meet the male codes are harshly punished – and anointed “losers.”
Certainly not all men, when refused their patriarchal dividend, take retribution against women as a class. But when mental illness, access to guns, bullying, and a culture of misogyny come together in the life of troubled individuals like Rodger and 199 other boys who committed school shootings between 1979 and 2011, the combination can be lethal.
A pattern that can’t be ignored
As a child, Rodger was teased for being short and felt he wasn’t as worthy as the “cool” kids. He felt humiliated and rejected by girls, and he was called “pussy” and “faggot” and “spoiled goods” because he was half-Asian. By age 21, he had come to see his life as a series of indignities.
Rodger directed his rage at women. He wrote in his manifesto: “Women are like a plague. They don’t deserve to have any rights.... Who’s the alpha male now?”
Between 1979 and 2008, a significant portion of the 148 school shootings were responses to a perceived challenge to the perpetrator’s masculinity. In 10 percent of these cases, the shooters targeted boys who had called them gay; 10 percent were in retaliation for racism; 10 percent were related to dating or domestic violence; and in 20 percent, the killers targeted girls in retaliation for perceived slights.
In 1997, Luke Woodham, age 16, killed his ex-girlfriend during his school massacre in Pearl, Miss., declaring: “I do this on behalf of all students who are mistreated.” And in 1998, Andrew Golden, age 11, with Mitchell Johnson, age 13, in Jonesboro, Ark., killed girls they felt rejected them, including their ex-girlfriends.
A similar sense of wounded entitlement led George Sodini, 48, to drive to a fitness center near Pittsburgh in 2009, where he gunned down 12 women, three of them fatally, in the middle of their aerobics class. Sodini had complained in his diary about not having had a girlfriend, or sex, in years. “Women just don’t like me,” he wrote.
After Sodini’s attack, men posted comments on “men’s rights” websites, expressing solidarity with him. After the Montreal massacre, some Canadian men openly told the press that they identified with Lépine’s rage against women.
Underlying culture of misogyny
The Isla Vista slayings revealed the same underlying seam of misogyny. Within hours of Rodger’s attack, men posted comments on a misogynistic site Rodger had visited expressing sympathy with him.
Such reactions seem extreme. But objectification of and violence toward women is far more prevalent in our culture than many think. Such attitudes propagate freely in pop music, film, TV, porn, and video games.
In the popular video game, Grand Theft Auto V, enjoyed by millions of mostly young men, players are effectively encouraged to murder women virtually, by stabbing, shooting, or burning them, or running them down with cars (as Rodger did to pedestrians near Santa Barbara). Obviously, playing GTA V doesn’t turn every player into a misogynistic killer, but the norms it enforces pervade our culture and shape behaviors in ways that are not without consequence.
What change looks like
Ending male violence against women means changing societal norms, attitudes, and perceptions – for both men and women. We must continue to increase equality and decrease the dismissal of women. At the same time, we must find new ways to raise boys and young men – ways that encourage them to respect and accept their own and others’ vulnerabilities.
“Pro-feminist” men’s groups, such as the National Organization for Men Against Sexism and Voice Male magazine, offer boys and young men a more compassionate model of masculinity – based on developing caring and supportive relationships. Women are seen as allies, rather than as antagonists in a cosmic battle of the sexes.
Educators, parents, media, and politicians can also develop curricula, programs, and policies that challenge archaic attitudes about what it means to be a “real” man. Such work is imperative if we are to live in a truly empathetic and civilized society in which schools are no longer the sites of mass slaughter, or of hidden suffering.
Jessie Klein is author of “The Bully Society: School Shootings, and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools.” She is an associate professor of sociology and criminal justice at Adelphi University. John Sanbonmatsu has written on video games, masculinity, and violence. He is an associate professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
*Editor's Note: The original version of this piece mis-stated the number of men and women killed.