As the GOP and much of the mainstream media flail about looking for a "reason" for school shootings, the real problem goes largely unexplored. What are we going to do about America's angry misogynist problem?
Mass shootings are not the leading cause of gun deaths in America, but they are more common here than in the rest of the peacetime world. The Santa Fe shooting last week was simply the most deadly school shooting since February. Time and again, media outlets hunt for a motive, scouring a shooter’s social media profiles and interviewing friends and family members to see whether he was a loner, or depressed, or mentally ill. With liberals pushing for common-sense gun laws in response to this peculiarly American bloodbath, conservatives are increasingly flailing about, trying to find anything other than guns to blame (trench coats, too many doors, Ritalin). And so the same people who routinely push cruel political policies, mock PC culture, and accuse progressives of being “snowflakes” for having the audacity to stand up to racism and sexism are pointing to bullying as the real problem in school violence.
Disturbingly, major media outlets give them fodder. When news outlets point to rejection or heartbreak as the “cause” of violent outbursts, they solidify a narrative that someone else is to blame for a man’s awful actions. That “someone” is usually a woman. The message women get: We’re responsible for what men do, and if they attack us, it’s our fault.
We know that mass shooters are almost to a one angry men—and time and time again, they are angry men who are lashing out violently at women. Many have histories of domestic violence. Others go on shooting sprees in part to target women. The fact that mass shooters share this common profile reveals the “nice kid turned angry by a girl’s rejection” narrative to be particularly facile. After all, girls and women are rejected, too. Young men of color are rejected. Gay, lesbian and trans kids are rejected. But we don’t see them lash out with mass violence nearly as often as young (usually white) men.
When young, white men do lash out by shooting up their schools, the media too often frames their actions as men provoked by women’s (understandable) actions to separate themselves from the kind of guy who would shoot up a school. Take the AP headline after a 17-year-old boy in Maryland brought a gun to school and shot Jaelynn Willey: “Police: Maryland School Shooter Apparently Was Lovesick Teen.” The police in fact say they don’t have a motive, but that the shooter and Willey had been in a relationship (the fact that the shooter killed Willey suggests his motive was just that: Not lovesickness, but misogynist rage). A friend of the shooter’s is quoted as saying that he was “a nice kid.”
Or the BBC headline about the Santa Fe shooter: “Shooter killed a girl who rejected him publicly the previous week” (the BBC has since updated the wording). It’s worth pointing out here that the entire premise of this alleged rejection comes from a single source and hasn’t been corroborated; still, this offered a convenient explanation. And despite the fact that their son killed 10 people, the family of Dimitrios Pagourtzis seems more concerned about his reputation, releasing a statement reading, “We are gratified by the public comments made by other Santa Fe High School students that show Dimitri as we know him: a smart, quiet, sweet boy,” adding that “what we have learned from media reports seems incompatible with the boy we love.”
Or CNN on Elliot Rodger, a California man and self-described “incel” who went on a shooting spree in 2014: “Inside the gunman’s head: Rejection, jealousy, and vow to kill ‘beautiful girls.’” The article led with, “Elliot Rodger’s difficulties with women were so devastating to him that he vowed to kill anyone he couldn’t win over.”
None of this is to say that reporters shouldn’t report on potential motives. The reality is that women are more likely to be killed by men they know than by random strangers. And outside of mass school shootings, reporting can be even worse, passively noting that children are dead instead of explicitly saying they were killed by their father, and beginning stories of domestic violence with gauzy scenes of happy families: “A November 2016 photograph on Mai Hodges’ Facebook page shows her smiling as she stands alongside her husband, Robert, with their two beaming children at their side,” begins a piece in The Sacramento Bee. “Mai Hodges holds a hand over her pregnant belly, a few months before she gave birth to their third child.” Spoiler alert: Robert strangled Mai before murdering all three of their children. The Davis Enterprise offered “money problems” as a motive, because killing your entire family is apparently an understandable reaction to being in debt. After a North Carolina man impregnated his daughter and then killed her, her child, and her adoptive father, one Fox channel went with the headline “4 people found dead, including father-daughter couple charged with incest, baby.” NBC 4 New York offered, “Incest case tied to 4 deaths, including baby’s, in 3 states.”
Whether media outlets are pinning a killer’s motives on a woman or obscuring the fact that a man committed the killings by suggesting that children were simply found dead, the message is the same: Violent white men aren’t responsible for what they do.
There isn’t just an out-of-control hyper-masculine culture of guns and violence shaping these stories. There’s also a culture of expecting women to be the keepers, custodians, and caretakers of men—expecting us to show them kindness in the face of provocation, expecting us to be the keepers of sexual virtue while also making ourselves sexually available in exchange for good behavior, supporting their struggles for power or influence or individuality or sense of self while subsuming our own. And so when men step out of line, the impulse is to find a woman to blame.
In the school shooting cases, mass media outlets couch this assumption of blame in a hint of sympathy, as if we are just seeking to understand what drove a young man to act so violently. The thing is, we pretty much know the answer: Misogyny, male entitlement funneled into violence, and, at least in the U.S., easy access to guns. Nonetheless, news outlets look for other explanations. In CNN’s look at Elliot Rodgers, reporters pointed to “A life-changing divorce” of his parents, “bitterness after puberty” fueled by “unfulfilled desires for women,” “taunting and bullying,” and some of his more positive social media posts wherein he portrays himself as a “sophisticated, polite gentleman.” Nikolas Cruz, long known to be disturbed and violent was described by the Florida Sun-Sentinel as “lost and lonely.”
Of course we should delve into the psyche of mass shooters. But it’s noteworthy that too many of these reports are tinged with sympathy for the man’s apparent plight.
Increasingly on the right, blaming women for men’s misdeeds is made more explicit. After the Parkland shooting, conservative commentators blamed Emma Gonzalez and her peers for allegedly “bullying” Cruz (there is no evidence that said bullying took place). Right-wing media outlets claim Cruz’s problems “started over a girl,” and that he went off the rails after his girlfriend cheated on him. After Omar Mateen went on a bloody shooting spree at an Orlando nightclub, his wife, who he physically abused, was put on trial (she was eventually acquitted). When a man drove a van through the streets of Toronto, killing ten, YouTube personality and psychology professor Jordan Peterson opined to the New York Times that the driver “was angry at God because women were rejecting him,” and that “the cure for that is enforced monogamy.” In other words, forcing women to pair off with, and have sex with, violent and undesirable men, ostensibly in an effort to curtail those same men’s wide violent impulses. The suggestion that violent men may be violent partners doesn’t seem to register—or is perhaps simply taken as a given, a kind of collateral damage that women should simply bear for the better of mankind.
Our culture of male impunity and entitlement is slowly being whittled away. Women are ascending in the workplace, in politics, and in popular culture. We are challenging men for power. We are increasingly saying “no” when we mean it, and “yes” to what we want. The problem isn’t this progress; it’s the reaction of some men to it. It’s the rage we see in response to women refusing to be doormats and helpmeets that animates pockets of malevolence in American society, some horrifically violent, some simply distasteful: school shooters, organized hate groups, the Trump base. Which is why it’s so damaging when usually-responsible media outlets cast blame—even gently-couched blame—on women who did nothing wrong instead of the men who chose to harm them.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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