Over at Slate, they’ve posted a disturbing piece titled “I could have been Elliot Rodger.” In it, Brian Levinson presents both himself and the UCSB shooter as lonely boys searching for love—and he also admits to enacting hatred and violence against women himself. He closes the article with words that read like a threat:
So the Elliot Rodger inside me is not dead. He’s not as active as he used to be, but I fear he’ll always be in there, lurking, waiting for the next moment to show everyone who the alpha male is now, bitches.
"Since you can’t understand girls, it’s easy to turn them into fantasy creatures, whose love has the healing power of unicorn blood," Levinson writes of his and other boys’ adolescent experience. His piece fails to acknowledge or address the cultural forces that lead to that mentality, that belief that girls and woman are alluring but alien. It comes off, then—however unwittingly—as apologism for misogyny, as well as a revelation of just how horrifying and horrifyingly common men like Elliot Rodger are.
In response to Levinson’s piece and to the general mentality that it reveals and supports, I have a novel proposition for everyone. Are you ready? Are you sitting down? Good. Here goes:
Girls and women are people.
Before you roll your eyes—isn’t that on a bumper sticker or something, after all?—consider how frighteningly pervasive the notion is that women are ciphers, that their thoughts and behavior are a code that men must crack. In the wake of the UCSB shooting, mainstream media coverage has made us collectively aware of the seduction community, pickup artists, and “involuntary celibates” or incels. This subculture of men who construct their identities around sexual frustration and misogynistic rage is not an aberration. Its members simply take conventional notions of gender and sex to their logical conclusion. The “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” mentality is alive and well in mainstream culture. Adolescent boys go through a gawky “awkward phase” while girls “bloom” into alluring, inscrutable women. Young boys get hung up on how to “talk to girls,” and they are conditioned through a constant bombardment of media to believe that the good guy—the “nice” guy—will always “get the girl.” In all the long history of feminism we still have not collectively moved past the construction of women as objects, as trophies or badges that men display to each other as emblems of their status.
The tendency of even well-intentioned or relatively enlightened people to buy into this discourse—to believe that girls are mysteriously and essentially different from boys, and that boys are uniquely ruled by “hormones” that make them violently horny—hampers our collective ability to apprehend the rage of men like Elliot Rodger for what it is. We have already called his rage misogyny, but we stumble when it comes to actually understanding it as such. News media is still framing Rodger as a “lonely” boy who was “rejected” by girls. We are bogged down in our discussion of misogynistic violence by those words: love, loneliness, rejection. We romanticize and universalize these concepts, and thus prevent ourselves from apprehending the actual machinations behind gender-based violence.
Let me share something with you: I have been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, as Elliot Rodger allegedly was. I was a desperately lonely teenager and remain a deeply lonely adult. As an adolescent I often felt so frustrated and lost that I thought the force of those feelings would tear me apart. But I could never have been Elliot Rodger. The idea of externalizing loneliness into violent rage is completely foreign to me. It is unthinkable.
I couldn’t have been Elliot Rodger in part because I am female. My femaleness does not lend me some essential, inborn empathy that men “naturally” lack. Other people are often as inscrutable to me as men claim that women are to them. The difference is that, as a girl, I was conditioned to view my fellow humans—including and especially boys and men—as just that: as people.
Elliot Rodger was not lonely. Girls did not reject him. He did not want them to love him. He made his motive crystal clear for us: He hated women because he saw them as a status symbol that he could not get his hands on. According to his manifesto, Rodger barely ever spoke to girls. He never gave them the opportunity to “reject” him. He inflated perceived slights—a little girl snapping at him for falling into her, women having the audacity to date other men—into unforgivable injustices. He expected women to hand themselves to him as a reward for existing and for being male.
Loneliness is a longing for human contact and connection. Love is mutual care and understanding. Elliot Rodger wanted to possess a woman as validation, to secure his status in the eyes of other men. That is the motivation of the desperate men posting on PUA and incel message boards. That is how we, as a culture, teach our boys to understand gender, sex, and desire.
Men and women are different, but the crucial difference does not lie in biology or immutable, inborn traits. We are conditioned from birth, constantly and from all sides, toward different social roles. Men are active agents, people with interiority and inherent dignity. Women are emblematic objects, an inscrutable but necessary other that reinforces the personhood and status of men. That is misogyny. Not simply the fact of hating women, but the ideology and cultural discourse that give form to and sustain that hatred.
There is no excuse for failing to recognize and resist that paradigm—not Asperger’s, not loneliness, not “raging hormones.” In order to prevent another Elliot Rodger from externalizing his rage into gunfire we need to understand that his actions are a symptom of a pervasive, systemic problem. Be aware of what you say to boys about girls and sex. Teach them empathy instead of entitlement. Talk to them about how gender, sex, and desire are portrayed in the media that they consume.
Now, I do not approve of, nor do I wish to unwittingly promulgate, the twisted understanding of socialization that certain self-professed feminists use as a bludgeon against trans women. I am not here to police or dictate who has and has not experienced boyhood, nor do I believe that socialization is destiny or that any particular childhood experiences determine one’s gender. Certainly boys can and do grow up to be women, or to be other than men. Gender is a social position that all of us can, individually, choose to accept unquestioningly, resist, subvert, or otherwise engage with as we see fit—that is an epistemological cornerstone of my own understanding of feminism.
But, collectively, we do treat boys and girls differently, because as a society we understand manhood and womanhood as distinct and hierarchal social roles. If you are a man and you are still inclined to look on girls and women as enigmatic ciphers, please stop and take a cold, hard look back on what you have been taught about them. If you are going to be part of the solution, to take an active role in building a world without misogyny, you need to look inward. Dismantle and dispense with the ideology and conditioning that prevent you from recognizing an entire class of your fellow human beings as people.