This weekend, news broke of the deaths of 7 people in Isla Vista, California. One of these was thought to have killed the other 6 with 3 weapons.
It has emerged that the person who killed 4 men on his way to and 2 women in a sorority house associated with UCSB, was Elliot Rodger. As the pieces of the puzzle have been gathered and Rodger’s identity confirmed, we have heard terrifying information about the reason for his crime.
A series of YouTube videos (removed and now re-uploaded) see Elliot complaining about never having had a girlfriend, being a virgin, and not receiving any attention from the ‘beautiful blonde girls’ he desired daily. He saw this as an injustice, stating that he was magnificent, sophisticated, beautiful, and couldn’t understand why women wouldn’t express interest in him.
A few observations, as we try to make sense of this tragedy:
Speculations about Rodger’s mental well-being were quick to come to the surface. It may indeed be true that he struggled with mental illness, but it is worth noting that if he had been black (he was white), he may have sooner been labelled a criminal; had he been Arabic, he may have sooner been called a terrorist.
The media is talking about Rodger – while missing a significant portion of the ‘why’ which I’ll question later, we’re talking about his mental well-being, his famous parents, where he was from, his YouTube career. Not about the people he killed: who were they? What were their hopes for the future?
I want to note before we go any further that I think what happened to the victims as well as to Rodger is incredibly sad. It is not helpful to label him ‘sick’, ‘perverted’, or ‘evil’ and leave it at that. Whilst they must make us angry, Rodger’s actions point towards a great sense of troubledness and I will only explore a few of the factors that may have led him to carry out such devastating actions.
Violence against women
This crime is violence – both against men and against women. Rodger himself admitted before committing the crime that the reason for it was his hatred of women (“No girls like me, and I hate them all for it… I will punish you all for it. I will not let this fly – I will rectify it. Tomorrow I will have my revenge against all of you. ” He refers specifically to women as the cause of his problems, but also expresses anger towards men who ‘date’ the women he desires.) No doubt were there factors that aggravated his feelings towards women and led him to act so drastically. Not all men who dislike or objectify women will act in a similar way to Rodger. But had the killer been a female, the media would quickly have painted the picture of a man-hating monster. However, we have been reluctant to note that this is a case of gender-hate-fuelled violence. Why?
Rodger’s final video highlights his plans for his ‘final retribution’, which he later carried out with devastating effect. In this and earlier videos, he talks about ‘deserving’ a girl, about how unfair it is he has not experienced a relationship with a girl (which he seems to equate to sexual contact – I’ll touch on this further down.)
There are other examples of violent acts fuelled by similar entitlement: this minor admitted to stabbing a girl who refused to go to prom with him just last month.
This sense of entitlement comes across very strongly in Rodger’s video content. He believes that he is worthy and does not understand the lack of female attention. He lists reasons why he is worthy – because he doesn’t understand what is wrong with him; no, because he holds himself in high esteem (“beautiful”, “cultured”, “rich”, “gentleman”, “magnificent” are words he uses to describe himself).
Also, however, women and girls are seen here as something to be deserved, worthy of, accessed. It is an exchange: his “magnificence” could pay for her beauty, her sex. ‘Porn culture’ has something to answer for in this. A woman (more specifically, a woman’s body) can be accessed or bought, to sometimes bring pleasure to, a man in many contexts – buy a magazine or click ‘play’ and access the sight of a woman’s naked body, click ‘enter’ and pay a fee for a webcam show, park your car or make a call and access a woman’s body in person. Whether or not Rodger partook in these particular examples, he grew up in a culture where women and sex are commodities to be accessed.
But commodification is not possible without dehumanisation.
Dehumanisation/objectification of women
Rodger felt entitled to ‘having a girl’. “I am insulted by the sight of guys enjoying girls while I am all alone.” “I deserve one.”
Rodger constantly refers to “hot”, “beautiful” and “blonde” “girls” in his videos. He talks about being lonely in a predominantly sexual way, his main need/desire for a “girl” being sexual – a girl would bring him justice, fulfilment, satisfaction because of her sexual and physical characteristics. She would be, in his eyes, essentially an object.
The examples of commodification I listed earlier also relate to the objectification of women (if they are indeed accessible by currency), but we can take this further – an add campaign for a car/toothpaste/random object with a sexualised image of a woman, the lack of developed female characters in film (yep, this is changing), the acceptance of workplace sexism – and other examples of women being lesser than, seen only as sexual, stripped of their humanity. If women are dehumanised, objectified…denied their full personhood, then they can be bought, accessed, deserved.
Concept of relationships/sex
Rodger was very concerned at the fact that he was a virgin at his age (22). First sexual contact does normally occur at a younger age than this; but society’s view that ‘virgin’ is the same as troubled, prudish, wrong (“We’re The Millers”, anyone?) is sad. He focused in his videos obsessively on his lack of sexual experience. For him, this is what made his life unjust. Of course humans have needs, and desiring closeness and intimacy is healthy and natural. As well as commodifying sex, Rodger equated loneliness with a lack of sex and relationships with sexual contact. This view is not realistic. Where did he get it from?
The response to this tragic event has been shocking to some, unsurprising to others.
Rodger blames his loneliness and sorrow on humanity, and all women. “It’s a tragedy that I’ve had to live a pathetic life all because of the cruelty of humanity and women.” He isn’t the only one to believe this – support for Rodger’s actions has also come through online. These are actual quotes:
“Be nicer to men so we will avoid mass murder.”
“U girls set and lay thirst traps then don’t wanna take off the knickers. Then when man goes Elliot u lot wanna complain.”
“I don’t blame guns. I blame blondes for this.”
“I hope you women see this as a lesson stop being so stuck up and give that one kid some.”
“Women should be more open to sex, I mean it is not like you are getting married.”
“I applaud what this guy did and encourage more young men to take womens lives, its the only way we can fight feminism.”
Coming at this from a different angle, men and women have responded by listing other examples of the denial of the full personhood of women under the hashtag #YesAllWomen on Twitter. Note that men are supporting and contributing to this – because #YesAllWomen but #NotAllMen. This is important because it furthers understanding of the nuanced complexity of sexism and how common it is today. Because it happens. Not all senses of entitlement, dehumanisation of women, commodification of sex will lead to actions like Rodger’s. But these things are a part of our everyday, and whatever their consequences, they should not be.