Before the Media Treated Him as a Threat, They Treated Him as a Joke

Roy Den Hollander, now suspected of murder, was once a mini-celebrity—a figure whose misogyny was dismissed as entertainment.

The Atlantic

In March 2011, The Colbert Report aired an installment of “Difference Makers,” the segment in which Stephen Colbert, through the character he played on the show, satirized American “heroes” in the guise of celebrating them. Its subject this time was a lawyer who had been making headlines for his efforts to challenge the constitutionality of “ladies’ nights” at bars. “The latest giant of civil rights,” Colbert said, had been failing: His arguments had been rejected by every judge he’d brought them to, including the ones who sat on the Supreme Court. But he would not be deterred. “I’m going to fight the feminists,” the lawyer told Colbert, “until my last dollar, my last breath. And if there’s anything after death, I will fight them for eternity.” A Difference Maker, Colbert noted to the audience, never backs down. “Even alone,” he said, “Roy Den Hollander will continue to fight the good fight.”

The segment was a classic example of The Colbert Report’s sly brand of comedy. Now, though, it carries a new weight. This week, Den Hollander was named as the primary suspect in the killing of Daniel Anderl and the wounding of his father, Mark, at their home in New Jersey. The men were the son and the spouse, respectively, of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas; investigators speculate that she had been the true target of the person who entered their home on Sunday, reportedly dressed as a FedEx deliveryman. (On Monday, Den Hollander was found dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound; next to his body was a box addressed to Salas.) Judge Salas had been hearing one of Den Hollander’s latest cases; in writings, he had accused her of delaying the case. And, as Joshua Benton pointed out in The Atlantic yesterday, Den Hollander seems to have left a long trail of racist and sexist writings—some of it, recently, directed at Judge Salas.

Den Hollander also, however, left another kind of trail. In the years before terms like incel and toxic masculinity reached the mainstream consciousness, American media outlets gave him their own kinds of hearings. He was a regular presence in newspapers and magazines and on radio and TV shows—in New York City, where his series of sexist nuisance suits turned him into a local anti-celebrity, as well as nationally. He appeared on both Fox News and MSNBC, holding forth about the rule of the “feminazis.” He was introduced to the public, in prominent papers, as a “legal eagle” and a “crusading barrister” and a “civil-rights attorney”—and as a reliable source of spectacle. The New Yorker likened him to “a combination of Leon Phelps, Che Guevara, and Travis Bickle.” IndieWire once named him its “bachelor of the year.” For years, the media metabolized his misogyny as an amusement. The stories about him are scattered around the internet, reminders of how reluctant many were to see his hatred as a threat. He treated sexism as a spectator sport. And media outlets, for a long time, gave him his arena.

“I’m tired of having my rights violated and being treated as a second-class citizen.”

That was Den Hollander in July 2007, making a brief appearance on Time magazine’s website. The publication had selected him for its “Quotes of the Day” feature; it identified him, via bullet points that followed his quote, as “a New York City attorney, who is among two dozen men suing bars that host ‘Ladies’ Nights.’”

Den Hollander’s terse statement of grievance, co-opting the language of civil rights to talk about cover charges at clubs, would set the tone for his inverted strain of celebrity. It also established the tone media outlets would often deploy in discussing him: one of amused detachment. In 2008, the Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto hosted Den Hollander for a one-on-one interview, to discuss the lawyer’s latest nuisance suit (this time against Columbia University and its women’s studies program). “If a guy takes a women’s studies course, what’s going to happen to him?” Den Hollander said at one point. “The girls in the class are gonna basically walk all over him in their stiletto heels.” He argued, extremely incorrectly, that “girls control nearly 60 percent of the wealth in this country.” He insisted that those “girls” are “the real oppressors.” Cavuto—his visage situated just above a chyron that read “Developing: Do women’s studies courses teach bigotry against men?”—offered cursory challenges to his guest. (“You have issues, don’t you?” he said at one point. “Roy, you’re angry. You’re very angry,” he said at another.) But Den Hollander had come with his talking points, and talk he did. Cavuto, having aired Den Hollander’s thoughts to his audience, ended the interview with this: “All right, Roy, thank you. I want to keep track of this, my friend. Thank you very much.”

Cable news thrives on conflict; Den Hollander provided it. In 2010, on MSNBC, Savannah Guthrie interviewed him about the “ladies’ night” case. The segment began with a clip from the movie Cocktail. “Ahh, the bar scene,” Guthrie said, smiling. “What’s missing from that picture? A class-action lawsuit, obviously.” She paused. “We kid—but, you know, why is it okay for bars to charge men more than women for drinks and admission on ladies’ night? Well, one New York man is arguing it is more than unfair: It’s unconstitutional.” The interview proceeds in much the same way as Cavuto’s had; Guthrie maintains, throughout, a jocular tone. Den Hollander is just sharing an opinion. She is just asking questions.

Den Hollander was a reliably outrageous quote. He happily compared men’s “oppression” to the injustices of the Jim Crow South. (“Having to buy a $350 bottle of watered down vodka—that’s the ‘sitting in the back of the bus’ for us!”) In 2010, when he was in his 60s, he informed The Village Voice about the kind of women he was attracted to—those in their 20s—by way of a rambling line about “Mother Nature” and Marilyn Monroe’s “pillows.” Asked by the New York Daily News to estimate the odds that the Supreme Court would agree to hear a “ladies’ night” case, he replied, “about the same as some pretty young lady paying my way on a date.”

In that comment and many others, he made himself mockable; the media, accordingly, mocked. But even mockery can amplify. IndieWire may have semi-sarcastically named Den Hollander its “bachelor of the year,” but it simultaneously directed its readers to his website—a cesspool of sexism that is striking even by the low standards of the internet. (“His contact information can be found on the site,” IndieWire added cheerfully, “for all you single women looking for romance.”) When the popular legal blog Above the Law wrote about Den Hollander in 2013, after he lost another suit, it ended its entry with a note to Den Hollander: “Banning free drinks for ladies? Advocating cover fees for all? You’ll never get laid in this town again.” To drive home its light-hearted attitude toward its subject, the blog gave the post the following tags: Drinking, Gender, Old People, Parties, Ridiculousness.

Such coverage highlighted a truth: Den Hollander’s arguments were absurd. And the mocking coverage of him was, effectively, an Overtonian kind of argument. Here were the bounds of acceptable discourse. And there was Roy Den Hollander, so far from the window that he was out in the yard. But even as the media distanced themselves from him, they covered him—and downplayed him as an agent of danger. And they did that even as Den Hollander was telling them about his intention to escalate his hatred into violence. In a 2013 interview with the Daily News, Den Hollander said, “I’m beginning to think it’s time for vigilante justice—civil disobedience.” He added that he “may pull a Carrie Nation on the Ladies’ Nights clubs.” (Carrie Nation, the Daily News pointed out, was a radical member of the temperance movement who vandalized bars with a hatchet.) On his “Difference Maker” segment with Colbert, Den Hollander said, “Let’s get 100,000 armed guys in D.C. I’m willing to go down with you guys—let’s go.” A 2008 column about Den Hollander in the Los Angeles Times quoted him saying, “If feminism is declared a religion, that’s going to be a knife to the heart of darkness of it. And as I smile and put my arms around feminists, that’s the dagger hidden in my right hand.”

The column’s next line? “Yeah, but it’s still not a half-priced drink.”

In 2015, an article from Mic listed “7 Tips on Gender Relations, According to Men’s Rights Activists and the ‘Manosphere.’” Framed as an explainer of the areas of the internet that are, Mic noted, “collectively responsible for some of the world's worst misogynist trolling,” the piece goes on to share, in detail, some of the “strange bits of advice you might pick up while trawling the Manosphere.” It cites Den Hollander. He comes just after an image of a woman with a black eye, its caption reading, “Maybe she DID have it coming.” His quote reads, “There is one remaining source of power in which men still have a near monopoly—firearms. At some point, the men in this country will take the Declaration of Independence literally.”

It’s striking, now, the breeziness with which so many news outlets amplified the voice of a man who wrote, on his well-publicized website, that “females aren’t here to soothe the ‘savage beast’; the ‘savage beast’ is here to limit their infinite capacity for evil.” And it is notable that one of the corners of the media that did not treat Den Hollander with such easy detachment was the feminist blogosphere. Feminist journalists, much more clearly than their mainstream counterparts, understood that gendered grievance can often turn into gendered violence. They mocked him, too (Jezebel compared him to a recurrent yeast infection), but their mockery had a distinct edge. It warned. It focused on Den Hollander’s “hatred for women.” As Salon’s Amanda Marcotte wrote yesterday, in a piece headlined, in part, “Feminists Have Warned Us”: “Den Hollander was just the latest in a long line of men who would rather blame feminism than themselves for their personal failings, and who lash out violently at the world in acts of murder or terrorism.”

Many media outlets, now, have heeded the warnings. Many now appreciate how easily misogyny can become an emergency. But while the years-old treatments of Den Hollander now seem dated, they don’t seem dated enough. For many Americans, the impulse to treat misogyny as an amusement remains. It was there when Jeffrey Epstein joked about molesting underage girls. It was there when, according to a lawsuit filed on Monday, male employees of Fox News viewed sexual harassment of their female colleagues as little more than pranks. It is there in the presidency of a man who bragged about sexual assault and was elevated to office anyway.

Den Hollander was apparently proud of his media appearances. He listed them, organized neatly by year, in the “résumé” section of his personal website. Under “2011,” nestled between stories about him in the The Times of London and The New York Times, is his appearance on The Colbert Report—the segment in which Den Hollander and his misogyny were so thoroughly mocked. Next to the link, Den Hollander included a note. “If you can make them laugh at you,” it says, “they won’t expect something serious.”