On Friday, May 23, a 22-year-old man went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California. In a YouTube video and a lengthy manifesto, this man made it plainly clear that his actions were “retribution” aimed specifically at women who had committed the “injustice” of not warming to his advances or returning his affection. He was active on a Web site promoting the so-called “men’s rights” movement, denouncing feminism and referring to himself as an “alpha male.”
Yet much of the subsequent journalism on the tragedy downplayed the killer’s motives, describing it as the senseless work of a lunatic, another aberrant “lone wolf” indicative of nothing more than the fact mentally ill people exist in our society. This in turn has led to an online backlash, as evidenced by the popularity of the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter, as well as excellent commentaries by Jessica Valenti at The Guardian and Laurie Penny at The New Statesman. I cannot hope to match either the eloquence or passion demonstrated in their pieces, and if you have not read those linked pieces, please stop reading this and go do so right now.
“The very isolation that mass-homicide perpetrators feel makes them unlikely candidates to respond to societal trends. Rodger appears to have indeed been a misogynist, but this misogyny appears to have raged from within, a product of his anger, sexual frustrations and despondency rather than anything ‘taught’ to him by society. Had he not been so focused on his own sexual inadequacies, his focus might simply have moved to mall-goers rather than sorority sisters.”
The problem with this is that it begs the question where the misogyny “raging within” came from. The killer, as unhinged as he was, did not exist in a vacuum. The loathsome views he expressed in his video and his manifesto, as reluctant as we are to admit it, are familiar ones. He was, rather than being a “lone wolf,” a member of several online communities, whose members all adhere to the fundamental notion that women exist solely so that men can have a good time, that they are trophies to be won, that their value is only in the happiness they bring to men. To presume that he just randomly selected women as the targets of his vitriol and then devised a narrative from there is to give the killer too much credit. No, he was as unoriginal as he was disturbed. His actions were exceptionally abhorrent, but ideationally he was just an ardent sexist.
While I have thankfully never been a proponent of “men’s rights,” I did once subscribe to the sadly still common view that women innately prefer “bad boys” and that, as a nice and mild-mannered guy, I was doomed to failure with women. Since I was dependable and sensitive, the logic went, I would inevitably end up in the “friend zone” with whatever girl I was interested in, while she irrationally pursued a guy who would take advantage of her and neglect her. It was not until a little later in life that I realized how dangerous this thinking was. It rests on the assumption that, just because a man is nice (and, honestly, we are rarely as nice as we think we are), he is entitled to the affections of a woman, regardless of such considerations as the woman’s opinion of the man’s attractiveness, whether he was fun to be around, etc. Being a woman’s friend (and thus in the “friend zone”) was thus somehow a bad thing, as the only valued relationship between a man and woman would have to be romantic in nature. Women, according to this perspective, also cannot trusted to trust themselves; whatever man they are with of their own choosing is invariably the wrong man for them, because that man is not me.
Thankfully, as I grew older and was induced to think more critically, I realized just how awful this sort of thinking was. I also looked more closely at how relationships between men and women are portrayed, in everything from evening sitcoms to pornography. I also read and listened to just a smattering of testimonials out there by women of the horrors they have experienced, be it as victims of sexual assault, being stalked and harassed by people they know or strangers online, being paralyzed with fear and anxiety by men imposing themselves because they want sex or attention… The list goes on and on, and I will not pretend for even a moment that as a middle-class white male that I have been the foggiest inkling of the sorts of things the most average of women have to go through, even in these “enlightened” times. All I know for certain is that there is just as much a need for feminism as ever, and the fact that I am soon to be the father of a little girl who has to grow up in this world already has me worrying about her.
My last post on here was about how, as good as Coates’ essay on race relations is, I am not sanguine about it actually changing anything. The same might be said about the feminist response to the Isla Vista killings, but as deplorable as it is, the fact that a bloody rampage gets more media attention than a thoughtful exposition on racial discrimination means that more people might actually be confronted with the harsh but necessary truths that people like Valenti and Penny are putting out there. I can only hope that, instead of rushing to the comments section to rehash the same flawed arguments as in the TIME piece, more people listen to the arguments feminists are making rather than rushing to dismiss them or drown them out.