Elliot Rodger and American Masculinity

Mental health is always a factor to consider each time we dissect the latest mass shooting in this country. So is easy access to guns. But, in so many of these cases, including the latest horror in Santa Barbara, we should be talking about masculinity.

There are three traditional ways to prove one’s manhood in this country: economic power, physical power, and sexual prowess. Patriarchal rules teach boys and men that they must excel in these ways, or be considered inferior, i.e. like a woman. And, the pressure to prove your power in these arenas is constant.

Boys are also taught from early on that they are superior to girls. And this higher status that they are taught and see in the world around them (think: which sex has more feature roles in movies, and which sex is almost always the hero in children’s books and cartoons) teaches them privilege and entitlement.

As they age and face their sexuality, they are subjected to pervasive messages telling them to objectify girls and to be the sexual aggressor. And, I can tell you from experience, the pressure on boys to get laid, hell, to get to “first base” is immense and never-ending. And, as is ingrained in the language boys use to talk about sexual activity, girls are never equal sexual beings but merely a prize to be won, a run to be scored.


YouTube ScreenShot

Also speaking from personal experience I can say that girls can be cruel and that rejection is painful. But, sadly, most boys are taught not to feel or express feelings and thus this type of pain and sadness is channeled into rage and violence, the only acceptable behaviors for “real men.” Relatedly, boys are not taught empathy for others because empathy is also “soft” and “girly.” Instead, they are taught no self-control or awareness of others, as people simply remark “boys will be boys.”

This background is the common thread in the epidemic of violence against women, whether we are talking about rape and sexual assault, street and workplace harassment, domestic violence, or murder based in misogyny.

So, what did Elliott Rodger, a privileged, well-off, young man, reportedly into working out and Pick-Up Artist culture, and the suspect in Friday’s Santa Barbara shootings, have to be so angry about? His failed love life. His virginity at the age of 22. His rejection by women and popular kids.

The transcript of his chilling video posted on YouTube could not make his motivations any clearer, and they are based in misogyny and a failed toxic version of masculinity. Rejection by inferiors (i.e. women) is a crime that embarrassed him, and one he could not leave unpunished.

As he explained in his own words: “ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires. It has been very torturous.” Rodger also addressed the women who had rejected him, saying “I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime.” He added: “all I’ve ever wanted was to love you and to be loved by you. I’ve wanted a girlfriend, I’ve wanted sex, I’ve wanted love, affection, adoration. You think I’m unworthy of it. That’s a crime that can never be forgiven. If I can’t have you, girls, I will destroy you.”  

After describing his plans of mass murder, “annihilation” as he called it, Rodger stressed “I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am in truth, the superior one. The true alpha male.”

While not all men commit violent crimes resulting in murder, millions of men commit violent acts, whether rape or domestic violence, or demonstrate their superior status through catcalls on the street, or sexist jokes in the boardroom, all of which are part of maintaining the gender hierarchy of male over female and demonstrate an utter lack of empathy. All women live with this knowledge. As a society, we are raising our boys to potentially become these type of men; we are lucky not all boys turn out that way. We must stop teaching boys that they are superior or entitled to anything from girls and women. The results of those teachings have been disastrous.

As for Rodger, what choice did he have? Under his deeply flawed vision of what it means to be a man, a vision that is pervasive, and which the Pick-Up Artist community apparently promotes, he could not continue as a virgin. Nor could he show weakness and seek help for his emotional pain. Violence was all he had left. And, violence is how all too many men prove their worth.

Ariel Chesler is an attorney in New York. He lives with his wife and two daughters, and one cat. He is the son of feminist author and psychologist Phyllis Chesler. He tweets from @arielchesler


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  • The problem with stories like these is we have a tendency to push back and scream at boys/men about how bad we all are and how we have been broken or raised improperly.

    There is not enough acknowledgment of how many boys/men are good and who don’t act out like this. There is not enough focus on how many men don’t respond to anger with violence.

    I am not saying we don’t have problems to address or that we shouldn’t pay attention to what is happening but the broad brush is problematic.

    • cutemonster

      Agreed. Also, the young man was not rationale. I don’t know much about his parents or what steps if any they took to help this young man. He was financially privileged but still painfully alone. My heart goes out to the victims. I do think a balanced approach to discussing this issue is warranted. And as Jack mentioned, all boys and men should not be lumped into one tidy box of needing to be fixed.

      • Cpt_Justice

        Yeah, when discussing a culture that devalues & dehumanizes women into accessories for male pride, it;s totally appropriate to shift the focus to men who don’t murder women, as opposed to actually addressing the problem of how society negatively views/treats women.

    • Terri Yancy

      You don’t need to point out that “not all men are like this”. Everyone knows that. Talking about the pervasive cultural view of what defines masculinity and the profound problems inherent within it that often have personal as well as societal consequences is a discussion that needs to be had. Most men don’t act like this; it doesn’t need to be pointed and discussed. What kind of discussion are we even going to have about men who aren’t misogynists? In fact, it would seem that most men were, if you have to highlight the ones who aren’t. Are they exceptional? Should we give you a cookie because you don’t beat or rape anyone? This article isn’t painting all men with a broad brush, it’s discussing the way the societal narrative paints masculinity with a broad brush (dominant, sexually assertive, competitive). Your trying to steer the conversation away from that which is problematic towards that which makes you, as a man, feel good, is not helpful and derails an important discussion away from any possible solutions.

      • You used a lot of words to say very little and added nothing of substance to the conversation. Of course your history online shows a similar pattern of behavior blah, blah, blah.

        If you want to have a real discussion than have a discussion in which you don’t engage in knee jerk condescension towards positions of dissent.

        It makes you the problem.

        The challenge of these “turn around” responses to tragedy is they take a snapshot in time and try to make sense of a situation that isn’t always possible.

        There is no justification for what Elliot Rodgers did but what happens if we find out if he had some kind of mental/emotional issue that made it difficult/impossible to empathize or relate with people.

        That would turn much of this article irrelevant in relationship to him.

        And frankly I take issue with the broad and sweeping statements made in this paragraph because it is opinion and not factually based.

        “As a society, we are raising our boys to potentially become these type of men; we are lucky not all boys turn out that way. We must stop teaching boys that they are superior or entitled to anything from girls and women. The results of those teachings have been disastrous.”

        To be clear Yancy I won’t lose one minute of sleep or thought on whether you like, agree or disagree with anything I have said.

        But as the father of a son and daughter it is my job to work to see that they are protected, not one at the expense of the other.

        • Terri Yancy

          You are asking for respect for positions of dissent but that is all I did myself (express that switching the narrative to ‘let’s talk about all the men who aren’t misogynists’ wasn’t helpful, and that the subject that is raised in this article is indeed valid) and I see you making it very personal (so much so that you feel compelled to search my comment history as “evidence” that I am whatever you think I am). This conversation about the cultural attitudes regarding masculinity and sex does not protect your daughter at the expense of your son; it protects him too. Do you want him to grow up feeling like he’s not a man if he can’t prove his strength and sexual virility or accumulate enough markers of material success? Do you want him to be bullied or beat up for not being manly enough, or feel that he can’t get anywhere with women without being aggressive or viewing them as trophies to be won, or feel like a loser because he hasn’t lost his virginity at a certain age? I suspect you don’t, and I see you mean well, but I assert that avoiding and redirecting discussions of those perceptions isn’t helping. You may read this as being condescending, but let me make this clear: this isn’t about me vs. you and who is the smarter or better person. It’s about the actual subject at hand. If you don’t want to discuss it, that’s fine, but if you post on a discussion forum don’t be surprised if people really do want to discuss things and take a different view, and that different view is not necessarily a personal attack.

        • Cpt_Justice

          No, dude; your response to her was the only response YOU deserved for your initial post. You didn’t just miss the point, you actively pushed it away, YOU are the problem, hands down.

  • Cpt_Justice

    This was the ONLY end result in a culture that promotes every single complaint that he professed. Anyone who is shocked as not been paying attention.

  • Ryan

    Theres a reason we neuter male dogs – there’s also a reason the most gangster gay hating criminal will have sex with men during a long bid in the pen – Adolescent males have an erection 23.5 hrs of the day – I can’t imagine going through that and not having the high school and college sex life I had – social awkwardness and zero sex – thats enought to drive someone crazy. add in Mental illness – now you have potential killer- See, these pick up artists online ( idiots in my opinion) at least have sex – something elliot didn’t. CNN interviewed a lot of kids who had seen Elliot- everyone described him as creepy – So that is the cause – his mental illness – regardless of “”American Masculinity” he did not fit in, had severe mental illness, the police were warned (did nothing) – and he was able to buy guns. He could have been a feminist movie fan – that wouldn’t change the fact girls didn’t like him and even guys were creeped out by him. Same thing with Sandy hook killer – same with Columbine – Mental illness, social rejects and access to guns – Sandy hook killer played Dance Dance Revolution – didnt watch TV or Movies and had garbage bags on his windows – he blocked out the world – yet decided to kill over 20 kids – WHY? not because he wasnt Van Wilder, not Seth Rogan. Elliot’s father was the director of Hunger Games – which has a strong female lead and no sex – I guess only Seth Rogen Movies influence people to kill and his father’s films (which were way more successful and violent ) had no influence