Elliot Rodger and Poisonous Ideals of Masculinity

He videotaped misogynistic rants about women before killing himself and at least six others at UCSB. But his hatred of femininity is tangled with hatred of other men—and himself.

Reuters/The Atlantic

Like Elliott Rodger, who killed at least six people in Santa Barbara last week, when I was 22, I had never had a girlfriend. Like him, I had never kissed a girl. Those facts weighed on me, just as they seemed to have weighed on Rodger. Being a virgin, as I've written before, made me feel broken and wrong and failed. In a YouTube video uploaded on the same day that he allegedly stabbed and shot four male and two female students, Rodger said that "a beautiful environment is the darkest hell if you have to experience it alone.” I don’t agree with him, but I recognize the sentiment.

Rodger’s horrifying violence, the videos he posted, and the way he saw himself are all extreme. But they’re also a reflection of the way poisonous ideals of masculinity affect men. To some extent, I’ve felt the frustration Rodger felt, and I think other men may feel it as well. This is not an excuse for Rodger’s actions, but something more painful: a confrontation of the ways in which he's not deviant, but typical. Acknowledging that seems like an important part of making sure this kind of thinking doesn’t remain typical any longer.

In his YouTube videos and a 137-page manifesto he wrote, Rodger's frustration toward women is constantly couched in terms of his hatred and envy of other men. "My problem is girls," he says, but adds, "I deserve girls much more than all those slobs." The threats in his final video are aimed at women, but they’re also directed at men:

"All you girls who rejected me and looked down upon me, and, you know, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men. And all you men, for living a better life than me. All of you sexually-active men. I hate you. I hate all of you and I can’t wait to give you exactly what you deserve. Utter annihilation."

In her book Between Men, Eve Sedgwick dissects this kind of thinking: Men typically route their feelings toward and competition with one another through women, she says. Women become tools through which men show their power and worth to other men. Success with women is also an important part of men’s self-image—that’s a big part of what it means to “be a man.” This seems to be the kind of thinking at work when Rodger says he feels like women are "treat[ing] me like scum" when they have boyfriends who aren't him. To him, women aren't people; they're markers of who is and who is not a man. If a woman chooses someone else, the thinking goes, that means Rodger and others like him are not men.

This equation of manhood with desirability and sexual prowess is just about everywhere in our society, from the priapic James Bond to the nebbishy, always rejected Clark Kent and his alter-ego, the ever-desired Superman. This rings true in my own experience, too. For me, being a virgin wasn't painful because of the lack of sex or the lack of companionship. It was frustrating because of the sense that I was doing it wrong; that if I didn't have a girlfriend, I was, like that old Marvel character, Man-Thing, a misshapen mockery of a man.

This kind of thinking creates a version of male identity that is bifurcated, or split in two. There is the man you should be, and then there is the failed, non-man thing you are. You can see this in ugly detail in Rodger's videos, where he veers back and forth between outlandish claims of his own magnificence and despairing statements of his own inconsequentiality. At one moment he's the "ultimate gentlemen," the next he's "so invisible as I walk through my college, because none of the girls pay attention to me." He is super human and then he's nothing; there's no space between the two. For Rodger, this could only be resolved with the ultimate expression of “manliness”: violence. "If I can't have you girls, I will destroy you," he says. And he destroyed himself, too: that pitiful failed thing who was not a man.

Misogyny shaped Rodger's view of women. But it also shaped his self-loathing view of himself and his masculinity, or lack thereof. The stigma against male virgins is something that men like Rodger—and men like me—internalize, and is, in itself, a form of misogyny. As Julia Serano writes in her book, Whipping Girl, that misogyny is directed not only against women, but against femininity—against anyone who fails to be that ideal, powerful, alpha superman. As long as masculinity is based in hatred of and fear of femininity, it will be expressed in violence—against men, against gay people, and against the marginalized. And most of all, it will continue to motivate violence against women.