The lives of seven young people were taken in Isla Vista at Santa Barbara City College on May 23, and if you haven’t been paying attention, you should be. There is more to this incident than gunman Elliot Rodger’s personal struggles, which have been the main focus of the media reportage on the event. This tragedy was the result of multiple cultural and societal issues in the Western world, including gun control, mental illness, and, most troubling of all, violent misogyny.
If mental illness was the gun in this crime, misogyny was the bullet. We can’t focus solely on Rodger’s mental state as the cause of these deaths. Rodger’s extreme resentment towards women may have been worsened by his illness, but it was fueled by a culture that encouraged his attitude, and has encouraged the attitudes of countless other killers and abusers.
Examples of this sort of poisonous cultural trend are everywhere: the “friend-zone,” pickup artists, online stalking, and even catcalling from vehicles and bars. Though our society teaches us that this behaviour is normal, these are situations in which women are being treated as objects that men have a right to use, not as human beings who have the right to their own bodies.
If mental illness was the gun in this crime, misogyny was the bullet.
The idea that these sorts of actions are okay comes down to the feelings of entitlement based in deeply ingrained misogyny. I’m not saying that every man shares these views, but there are enough to justify misogyny as an issue of serious concern. This is evident in popular culture, social media, our language, and in the reality of how women are still treated every day when they walk down the street.
No one should ever feel afraid to turn a romantic overture down, and no one should ever feel entitled to another individual’s body because of their gender. Yet the reality is that I and countless other women have felt afraid when being pursued by pushy men because we know that violence can, and often does, occur. Harassment will never be a sign of appreciation or flattery, and being put on a pedestal for display is dehumanizing and scary.
Avoiding groups of men on the street when I am alone at night and pretending not to notice inebriated leers when I go out with my friends has become second nature for me, and I know I’m not the only one. I am afraid to stand my ground because I don’t want to be targeted; no woman should have this expectation put upon her. This isn’t the way that things should be, and both men and women need to play their part to change this norm.
Elliot Rodger felt like he was owed a woman’s affection. This isn’t only because of his mental illness; it’s also because he internalized the way our society portrays both femininity and masculinity, with dangerous results. Misogyny in our culture doesn’t only affect how men tend to view women — it also affects how men view themselves, and each other. Rodger resented women for rejecting him, and men because, in his eyes, they had been given something that he deserved as well.
The culture promoting this definition of masculinity is evident in the body building blogs and pick up artist sites that Rodger frequented. This alpha male culture — one he claimed to be a part of in his Youtube videos — is deeply intertwined with misogyny as it associates femininity with weakness, and masculinity with strength. In his videos, Rodger seems desperate to prove himself as manly by showing off his power and dominance, in an attempt to fulfil the expected gender role our society had presented him.
The hashtag campaign #YesAllWomen was created in response to the incident — it’s meant to allow women and men to share their thoughts on misogyny and the role it plays in their everyday lives. It has also allowed individuals to show support to the women killed and injured in the incident, and all those who’ve lived through violence and abuse.
Some have claimed that feminists are using this tragedy to promote their cause, as if it’s a bad thing. It isn’t. This is an opportunity for our culture to reflect on the damage misogyny causes for all of us. Because this isn’t the first time this sort of thing has happened. And, sadly, it probably won’t be the last.
The most well known Canadian equivalent to the Santa Barbara attack is likely the 1989 attack at École Polytechnique in Montreal, when Marc Lépine murdered six female engineering students because he was denied acceptance into the school and resented women for occupying nontraditional roles that he felt entitled to. But it doesn’t stop there — violence against women in Canada is a huge issue, and Statistics Canada released data last year which indicated that Canadian women are 11 times more likely to be victims of sexual assault than men.
Something is obviously wrong here. Misogyny is still shaping the attitudes and actions of individuals, and women are being mistreated emotionally and physically as a result. If nothing else, we should respond to this tragedy by re-evaluating our societal and cultural norms, and asking ourselves: what can we do to make sure this never happens again?