Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Tragedy of Hypermasculinity

Last Friday, May 23rd, 22-year-old Elliot Rodgers went on a violent killing spree that ended with 7 people dead, including himself, and 13 injured. He did this because he was still a virgin and blamed others for his lack of romantic success.

I feel I need to preface this before we dive in. I loathe seeing groups jump on their soapboxes as soon as a tragedy occurs, twisting the situation to their own advantage. So I want to make it clear that I am not writing this article in hopes of riding the wave of interest to generate pageviews. However, I feel the troubling views of young Elliot that contributed to his misery and eventual destructive behavior are important to address, as they are a perfect example of the effects of a toxic culture. If you can stomach it, the following is a link to a video Elliot posted prior to his rampage. I warn you that it is extremely difficult to watch, and if reading is more your style, a transcript can be found here.

Throughout the video, you can feel the entitlement dripping off of every syllable. Elliot believed that women were merely objects that owed him sex and never once considered that they may be, you know, human beings with their own wants and desires. He felt that, as a virgin, he was being wrongly denied some fundamental right as a man. Yet despite being a virgin, which he views as some kind of glaring weakness, he also thinks of himself as being superior. The "true Alpha Male."

I could dissect his entire tirade for a month and only begin to scratch the surface of the problems with his mindset. Instead I'm going to focus on some of our cultural messages that contributed to it.

But First, A Note About Mental Illness

Elliot Rodgers, among other things, had a history of mental issues. At one time, he was diagnosed with a mild case of Asperger's Syndrome. He had seen several therapists and had even been prescribed medication which he refused to take. And none of that matters. Whether he had a mental illness or not is irrelevant; at most, such a condition makes him more vulnerable to our culture's influence. The problem isn't with mental illness, it's with the toxic messages about masculinity that we are so inundated with that it's difficult to imagine living without them.

To label Elliot as a mentally ill person and write this off as the unfortunate result of unusual circumstances does an incredible amount of harm. First, it further stigmatizes those who suffer from mental illnesses, and they have enough adversity to overcome in our culture without adding to that mountain. Secondly, it sweeps the whole issue under the rug. By labeling him as just a lone nut who went off the deep end, we isolate him from the rest of society. If we write him off as a special case, we completely ignore the underlying problems with our society that led to this tragedy, leaving the door open for another violent outburst from another troubled young man who can't live under the pressure that society puts on us. Again. Because this has happened before.

Identifying The Problem

As men, we are constantly bombarded with cultural messages that tout hypermasculinity as the ideal. According to this ideal, there are only two axes along which manliness is measured. The first is a man's ability to get sex. The more conquests1 a man has had, the more established he is as a man. By this measure, being a virgin is so much less than being a man, that an individual isn't considered one. They're a pussy. They aren't even considered a woman, just a part of a woman to be fucked by true men.

The second axis is a man's capacity for violence. The more fights a man has been in, the more respected he is. If a man isn't tough enough to hold his own in a fight, then he's not really a man. So when Elliot wasn't getting the sex he so desperately felt he needed to validate himself and establish his manhood, he was trapped and turned to the other axis to define himself. He created a 141-page manifesto detailing why he felt punished and justified in punishing others for denying him his right to have sex. His coming of age left 7 dead and 13 wounded.

Memorial Candles
Let us not forget the victims of this senseless violence.
photo credit: much0 via photopin cc

According to hypermasculinity, the toughness of a man is measured by more than just physical capacity for dealing pain, but also by the ability to hide pain. Showing that you are hurt is a sign of weakness. Even more so if that pain is anything non-physical. If you so much as admit to feeling anything other than anger, your manhood is questioned. If you shed a tear you might as well grow some tits and trade your cock in for a vagina because only women get emotional, bro. This is why Elliot refused his medication. This is why, despite having seen several therapists, he still desperately needed help; because if he admitted to feeling the emotional pain he was clearly suffering through, that would be giving up his manhood.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Elliot Rodgers was a troubled young man. His actions, ultimately, are his responsibility, but they're also another symptom of what's wrong with our society. If we want to prevent another violent episode from another troubled young man, we need to treat the cause and stop perpetuating this message of hypermasculinity as an ideal. But how?

We have to lead by example. If you've had sexual encounters, don't brag about them, and never reveal who your partners have been. Discretion is important as a way to respect your partners, but also to avoid putting pressure on others who have not had the same experiences. This is not to say that you can never discuss sex ever, but be mindful that you only discuss it in the context of "This is my personal experience and it in no way defines who I am." By the same token, don't brag about fights you've been in, and never resort to violence unless you are absolutely forced into defending yourself. By leading by example, you show others around you that it's possible to be a man without being hypermasculine.

It's not enough for us to individually reject the idea of hypermasculinity. We have to be vocal about it. We, as men, have to take back what it means to be a man and push against the old ideal. Respect every man as a man, whether they're effeminate or masculine, gay or straight, virgin or promiscuous. If another man opens up to you with his vulnerabilities, listen to and support him. If a man is bragging about his sexual exploits, call him out for being the raging douchebag he's acting like. If a man gets up in your face and tries to start a fight, calmly walk away. If a man is challenging another man physically, alert nearby authorities2 so they can break it up. Under no circumstances should you ever insert yourself into a physical or potentially physical altercation without proper training and authority to do so.

It's time to stop talking about what's wrong with our culture and start working on fixing it.

1 Yes, conquests, not partners. Because women are the enemy.
2 Whether that's a guard or a policeman or just an event organizer who will know who to contact.

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