“All of my suffering in this world has been at the hands of humanity, particularly women”.
So begins the chilling 140 page manifesto written by Elliot Rodger, the now-infamous 22-year-old responsible for the deaths of seven people, including himself, in the idyllic college town of Isla Vista, California. Rodger chose Isla Vista as the site of his spree because he wanted to strike at what he perceived to be the very heart of his misery – the UCSB sorority Alpha Phi who, he claimed, “represent everything I hate in the female gender”.
Elliot Rodger, by all accounts, hated a lot about the female gender. His manifesto and accompanying YouTube videos – one entitled ‘Retribution’ and another ‘Why do girls hate me so much?’ – are bilious, hate-filled rants directed at women and the many ways in which they, identified as a monolith, have rejected and failed him. He refers to them as ‘whores’ and ‘sluts’ who stopped him from living the life he believed he was ‘entitled’ to. However, his hatred towards women is also more complex than this – it is completely entangled with his perception of his own masculinity. To Rodger, women existed not as human beings but as symbols of manhood and masculinity, their only purpose being to define his success and identity as a man in modern society. In failing to do this, they earned and deserved his retribution.
Rodger’s spree and manifesto serves as an explicit example of how violence and misogyny directed towards women is still extremely prevalent in society – and what is worrying is the response to Rodger’s attack. Firstly, there are the men scattered around on various message boards, Reddit, Facebook – men who are stating that they don’t condone violence but can see where Rodger is coming from, can understand the pain and frustration of constant rejection, and hope that his spree will serve as a wake up call and convince “American women to become nicer after today’s attempt“. The fact that these men are placing their gathered rejections and hurt feelings on the same level as the death of six people speaks volumes about the culture of male privilege that we currently live in. The worst thing a woman can do to a man is embarrass and reject him. The worst thing a man can do to a woman is kill her. To those who identify with Rodger, and Rodger himself, the two seem to be equally as damaging.
Another response to Rodger’s spree is one that has been brought up in almost every case of violence perpetrated by a white, wealthy male – mental illness. Rodger, it seems, suffered from an unspecified mental illness. In his manifesto, he states that he doesn’t know “…why my parents wasted money on therapy, as it will never help me in my struggle against such a cruel and unjust world.” Rodger’s own admission of his sanity is important when considering the popular rebuttal of mental illness to the argument that his attack was a result of the overwhelming level of privilege that men are awarded in our society. “No one who is sane picks up a gun and decides to shoot people!”, is a common response to the argument that Rodger’s spree was cold, calculated, and absolutely intentional. To describe Rodgers actions as ‘crazy’ or the result of some kind of mental illness is, in my opinion, dangerous. Dangerous because it relies on conjuring up archaic stereotypes that are so often placed upon those with mental illnesses – that to be mentally ill is to be dangerous, sick, evil, and capable of inhuman actions. It relies on the belief that symptoms of mental illness are personality traits rather than medical conditions, and are a reflection of the ‘goodness’ of a person. In actuality, those with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violent crimes and tend to turn any perceived anger and frustration inwards, rather than towards other people.
Elliot Rodgers may well have been mentally ill. This may well have been grossly overlooked by those who knew him, and his doctors, and the law enforcement officers that his parents summoned after reading his manifesto. However, being mentally ill is not a precursor to misogyny. Mental illness does not cause a seething, all-encompassing hatred towards women. Privilege does, and the problem with privilege is that no amount of it is ever really enough. Elliot Rodger was born into a society that taught him, from childhood, that he was more important than the women he coveted, that any rejection from them was a personal slight, a withholding of something that he was entitled to simply because he was male. By withholding what he so rightly deserved, these women were refusing him the opportunity to truly be a man and live the life he was ‘entitled’ to.
As long as society’s concept of masculinity is tied up within hatred of femininity and women, the Elliot Rodgers of the world will continue to exist. In her 1982 essay Writing the Male Character, Margaret Atwood discusses a conversation she had with male and female friends regarding what they found threatening about the opposite gender. The responses she received are, in the wake of Rodger’s spree, more pertinent now than ever. When asked why men felt threatened by the female gender, Atwood’s male friend said that men were “afraid women will laugh at them…undercut their world view.” The response from her female friend was startlingly different. Women are threatened by men, she said, because they know that they might kill them.