Our culture teaches boys to feel entitled to girls' attention, affection, and love, which breeds a vicious cycle of misogyny and violence.
This week, my hometown Fox affiliate used this headline on a story about a small-town Texas school shooting: “Breakup may be to blame for Italy high school shooting.” I guess you never know when a breakup is going to go out and grab a gun and commit attempted murder.
According to students at the school, the situation was this: A young woman had been in a relationship with this young man, then decided she did not want to be in a relationship with him any longer. So he decided to try to kill her at school. The girl was not killed; the boy is in custody. One of his classmates reported being specifically wary of attracting this young man’s attention because she thought he would likely react violently to romantic rejection.
From where I’m sitting, that looks like a lot like weaponized misogyny and male entitlement, the hallmarks of a culture of toxic masculinity that teaches boys and men that they are owed the time and bodies of girls and women—any girls and women, anytime. Toxic masculinity teaches us that “boys will be boys” and that girls will soothe and accommodate. Non-compliant girls and women are punished in all kinds of ways, by society and boys and men. Sometimes they are punished violently. Sometimes they are killed.
We often call this love. We make a “breakup” responsible for a school shooting, instead of a young man’s deep-seated, thoroughly ingrained and powerfully learned misogyny, because naming the real problem is too big for people who believe boys will be boys—which is an awful, awful lot of people.
Our culture creates this belief in myriad ways. Take, for example, pop country songs like “Redneck Crazy,” the inescapable 2013 Tyler Farr hit about stalking and harassing a woman who “broke the wrong heart.” (His heart.) Her punishment? Farr’s imagined narrator will drive his car on the woman’s lawn, throw beer cans at her house, and shine his car lights through her windows so that she and her new beau can’t get any rest. He didn’t “come here to start a fight,” sings Farr, but he’s “up for anything tonight.”
This song is considered both charmingly funny and romantic by the many dozens of radio DJ’s I’ve heard intro and outro the tune over the years. The behavior of the man in the song is meant to be understandable, because of course the woman has driven him “redneck crazy,” an eminently reasonable kind of crazy, I guess, that any redneck would become when said redneck is so overcome with passionate romantic love that his feelings manifest in attempted assault with a motor vehicle—specifically, a Chevy Silverado.
Country music is not uniquely prone to romanticizing violence and assault, but a good pop country song can do a truly phenomenal job of building the emotional, affective, experiential space of essential countrytude out of almost anything, convincing the listener through hook and lyric that we belong there—that we are there. That this is our life.
All cultural narratives do this, create guides on to which we can trace our own experiences and build meaning out of human behaviors and interactions. But the media’s world-building around romance and violence is deadly. Particularly with regard to heterosexual relationships, both men and women are socialized to understand domestic violence as driven by love.
I suppose this is how you end up with a Daily Beast lede that jokingly describes yet another teenage boy who’d recently been dumped by his girlfriend as showing up to prom “dressed to kill”—that is to say, armed with a “high-powered rifle and extended clip,” which he used to spray bullets into the dance. The Daily Beast headline described this boy—in Wisconsin—as “lovelorn.”
What do you do when you are “lovelorn”? Eat a pint of ice cream? Find the bottle of a box of wine? Rediscover your gym membership? Attempt to kill hundreds of people?
It’s not just teenagers who love so hard they have to commit murder. A 49-year-old man in San Diego was so “distraught” over a breakup, reported the Los Angeles Times last May, that he shot up a birthday barbecue. Here are 14 more women who were murdered by men they’d rejected. Transgender women, especially trans women of color, are particularly likely to be murdered by current or former intimate partners.
Women know this. Hell, we don’t just know it, we feel it. We live it, every time we smile and shift away from a boss’s hand instead of throwing a stapler at his temple. We live it, every time we giggle at a party and suddenly need to refresh our drink instead of throwing an empty glass at the man across the couch. Hotel cleaning workers live it when they suddenly find themselves alone in rooms with strange men; women who work in the fields live it when they are riding in the truck with the man who holds their wages in his back pocket.
Why didn’t she just leave? Why didn’t she report him? Why did she put up with it? People always want to know. The answer is in stories like the one from Italy, Texas, not just in what happened but in how we talk about it. She didn’t leave because she wanted to be able to leave somewhere else, some other day, some other time. She didn’t report him because she wanted to be able to speak, some other day, some other time. She put up with it because she wanted to see if she might be able to live to put up with it another day.
If time really is up, then reporters and editors must get better at identifying violence against women for what it is: misogyny, and transmisogyny, driven by a toxic masculinity borne of patriarchy. This is not about “lovelorn,” or “distraught.” It’s about power and rage and what men believe it is to be a man.
The young woman who was shot in Italy, Texas, this week was not killed by a “breakup.” She was killed by a young man who, like so many other men, believe what they hear in songs and see in movies and watch on television: that the most extreme manifestations of love are violent, and that they can and should harm others, especially the objects of their affection, to express their love and their anger, which are all too often thought to be the very same thing.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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