On Continuing to Live In the Same World that Made Elliot Rodger (and Many Like Him)

feature image credit to the Los Angeles Times

Much of the staff of this website spent this past week on a mountain in a tiny and lovingly created queer community — not a perfect community, but still the sort of place where more often than not, consent is confirmed before giving a hug. In the middle of all this, we heard through our patches of access to the outer world that somebody named Elliot Rodger had killed six people and injured 13 more before killing himself, and that his actions were motivated by the “rejection” of women whom he deemed not sexually available enough for him. Oh.

By now, many other excellent writers have explored the important angles of this story. The ways in which, because of his apparent whiteness (Rodger was multiracial and described himself as Eurasian) combined with his maleness, Rodger’s violence is being written off as a tragic isolated event, rather than part of a vast and dangerous narrative. The degree to which many are willing to credit Rodger’s murders to untreated mental illness, when in fact Rodger had enough money to access plenty of treatment, and that line of thinking seems to ignore the mental unhealth caused by living under constant threat of violence as a woman (particularly a trans woman and/or woman of color). The degree to which our mental health system can even recognize or treat violent misogyny, given how common it is. The way that racism and misogyny are linking arms and skipping down the street together when Rodger justified his rampage by saying that “inferior” black and brown men got access to women that he “deserved” more. The looming specter of American gun culture. The fact that the most remarkable thing about Rodger’s spree is how totally unremarkable it was, really, at all, as Soraya Chemaly explains so well.

The #YesAllWomen conversation that rose out of Rodger’s attacks has been an enormously important and validating one to have in a public space — it’s a testament to how rarely discussions about violence against women are actually able to be centered on women that this feels so revolutionary. And while it’s disheartening, as many have noted, that it’s taken a tragedy of this magnitude for the #YesAllWomen conversation to occur, it’s not that surprising, either. It mimics the patterns that many women see in their own offline lives; our fear of being dismissed or not believed is so strong that sometimes we need to wait for an unequivocally misogynistic event to talk about it all, just so we can be sure that those around us are at least starting off from a place of understanding that yes, this happens. There’s a hope that when the danger to women’s lives was so recently demonstrated, there will be more receptivity in listening to our experiences of how that danger functions and is allowed to prosper. There’s almost a part that feels relief; maybe, now that something truly and objectively awful has happened, something that can only be interpreted as a violent hatred of women, maybe someone will finally take seriously all the other instances, the ones I survived to get to this point.

That won’t necessarily happen; plenty of people, plenty of men, will take this shooting as an opportunity for clucking and head-shaking, but not asking themselves hard questions or examining the actions of their male friend groups. It is unlikely that the patriarchy will suffer a serious blow because of Elliot Rodger’s violence, or even the fact that Rodger explicitly wrote over and over and over that his hatred of women and his sense of entitlement to them was what drove him to kill other people. American culture hasn’t shown much aptitude for learning from horrific acts of public violence. The murder of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman hasn’t cured white Americans of the collective delusion of a post-racial society. The Sandy Hook massacre has yet to inspire a reassessment of our gun laws and gun culture. On the other hand, while it’s unlikely that the end is nigh for MRAs or that the guy who followed you from the bar to the subway last week is having a moment of realization, this week still feels like an opportunity for something important. Even though the violence of this week is placed squarely on the shoulders of Rodger and, behind him, a poisonous patriarchal culture, we can make the choice to center women, to center ourselves, and to take care of and support each other in this moment and after it.

I was thinking about Elliot Rodger as I was leaving the mountain, as I was re-orienting myself to a male-centric and heteronormative space. As men were calling me “sweetie” and forcibly taking my luggage away from me so they could make a point of lifting it themselves, as I was draping my jacket over myself before I fell asleep on the plane in the hopes that it would make me less grope-able to my male seatmate. I was thinking about learned helplessness, and the experiments by Martin Seligman. In Seligman’s experiments, he administered painful electric shocks to animals in a lab. The animals in one group were able to stop the shocks by pushing a lever; the animals in the second group were not. The shocks stopped and started, it seemed to the Group 2 animals, at totally arbitrary intervals, no matter what they did. After the experiment, the animals in Group 1 bounced back fairly quickly, and were able to go about their lives. The animals in Group 2 weren’t. In fact, after realizing that they had no control over their environments, they exhibited symptoms that look a lot like what we call clinical depression in humans.

After reading about Rodger’s “manifesto” — I couldn’t read it myself — I was struck by how impossible his demands on women were. How impossible the general demands on women are — doubly so for black women, other women of color, trans women. The list of everything expected of women as a group and a woman as an individual goes on for days, and even when those requirements are satisfied, there still remains some patriarchal reasoning for why she deserves pain. Thinking of Rodger, thinking of saying yes and saying no: the rule of the sexual contract means that once you’ve said yes to anything, anyone, then you have relinquished all rights to safety or choice, and you can be blamed for anything that’s done to you. The rule of compulsory sexual availability means that if you say no to any man, any time, his anger will be deserved, and you can be blamed for anything that’s done to you. Maybe nowhere is this violent and impossible double bind more clear than in the case of the overwhelming violence against trans women, often killed by men who are sexually attracted to them — saying no to sex is unforgivable, but saying yes and having a trans female body can be too. Within patriarchy’s guidelines, any failure to meet a man’s sexual expectations is enough of a transgression to be punishable by death. So many of us spent so much time — still do — trying to figure out which choices we can make to avoid being hurt, avoid being in danger. I know I did, and do. How to turn down the drunk, surly guy who my male friends keep inviting to parties in such a way that he won’t follow me out to my car. How to respond to catcalls from a car when I’m on the sidewalk on an empty street in such a way that they won’t chase me or run me down. How to react to a sexist joke from a sexist boss in such a way that I won’t get my hours cut for unspoken reasons. The idea that our actions have consequences, that we can to some small degree control outcomes in our lives is so seductive that we keep trying to work out the right combination. When we start to feel like that’s not possible, like we aren’t able to take any actions that will affect our lives — when we do everything right but we still get shoved into an alley or wall or back of a car — it can start to get difficult to keep going.

The aspect of Seligman’s experiments that the animals didn’t know about was that there was a Group 3. The animals in Group 2 weren’t actually getting random shocks; they were still controlled by levers, they were just levers being worked by a third group of animals. Rodger and those like him are a reminder of how unfortunately fantastical that idea is, the idea that our actions can control our reality. Whether we wear a short skirt or don’t, buzz our hair or not, we aren’t in control of when the shocks are starting or stopping; patriarchy and its violent men are. The women that Rodger killed (and the men who also died for his misogyny) hadn’t done anything wrong, because they hadn’t done anything at all; they had never even met him before, and there was nothing they could have done, even within Rodger’s twisted sense of desirable actions for women, to save themselves from him. That’s terrifying and gut-wrenching, but is also a way of remembering that the culpability isn’t ours; it’s theirs. Conversations like #YesAllWomen can’t fix that, can’t end violent misogyny in one fell swoop. But they can help us hold onto our sense of which way is up through the power of community. When I read about the violence experienced by women that I respect and admire, it helps me remember that the things that have happened to me aren’t because I made the wrong choices; it’s because a violent and oppressive social institution is pulling the levers. It helps shine a spotlight on that wizard behind the curtain, and even if men won’t necessarily choose to acknowledge it, it could still help many women.

In the final stages of Seligman’s experiments, animals that had been shocked seemingly arbitrarily were left with little to zero desire to even try to stop themselves from being hurt. When presented with the opportunity to jump over a low partition and escape, animals from Group 1 did so immediately; animals from Group 2 didn’t even try. It’s how we get the term “learned helplessness.” The only way researchers were able to motivate the animals to take actions for their own self-interest was to physically pick them up and move their legs for them, pantomiming the motion of walking and jumping until they were finally willing and able to do it on their own. To physically, literally hold them up until they were able to do it themselves. It’s our entire community’s, our entire culture’s job to figure out what to do with men like Rodger, and the disturbing invisible population of men who are very similar to him but haven’t picked up a gun. We’ll continue to push for that, to push for accountability, to name misogynistic violence when we see it, and to make abusers as visible as possible. At the same time, while our whole culture needs to be focused on men and the danger they pose to us, we have to focus on each other, on women. On how to help hold each other up so we can get out of this together.

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Rachel is Autostraddle's Senior Editor and the editor who presides over books and news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy."

Rachel has written 761 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. Thumb up 17

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    thank you. this piece is catching me at a vulnerable moment– i’ve been scared all day, extra scared, and every catcall and microaggression since the UCSB shooting has felt to me more like a slap, more like a punch, than ever before. this is the first thing i’ve read about the shooting that has actually comforted on me on some level (it helps that i imagined you reading it aloud in soothing tones) and made me feel connected to a broader community of stunned, angry women. i am not sure how to articulate my despair in regards to this and every other mass fucking shooting the US has seen in recent years, but this piece at least made me feel like i can stand up and cook dinner. so thank you.

  2. Thumb up 9

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    The scariest thing to me is that anyone could be that guy, support him, or blame women. The NY Post (piece of trash that it is) just published a piece on its cover headlined “Killer Crush: Childhood snub set me off, madman seethed.” In the story (which I didn’t give clicks to but read about on Slate), the Post used the phrase “she lit the fuse” by ignoring him in childhood. Horrifying how people actually believe that.

  3. Thumb up 14

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    This article is absolutely brilliant.

    This incident reminds me so much if the massacre at L’École Polytechnique that happened in Montreal 25 years ago.

    Much debate was made then about whether or not that was the work of a lone “mad man” or if it was simply an indication of larger systemic issues.

    It’s tough to reconcile that nothing much has changed since then.

    • Thumb up 8

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      I am an actually “mentally ill” person, a self-proclaimed madwoman (though I don’t always broadcast that given the context). From my experience, every episode I’ve had has been heavily, if not entirely influenced by the culture I live in. I think I read something a while back on things I read that I love that current technology and culture pours into peoples’ psychoses. I can vouch for that. I mean when you’re having delusions or psychoses, you don’t pull the content out of your ass. It echoes the things that have entered your brain- and patriarchy and misogyny could quite easily be those things given the surrounding environment!

      What I mean to say is that calling this an isolated incident, mental illness or not, is indeed bullshit.

  4. Thumb up 12

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    Thank you, Rachel. I just wrote my own article on how Maya Angelou is our perfect example in the business of holding each other up so we can rise together. Hard, systematized, broken, tragic world, but we are resilient. This we know.

    “You may trod me in the very dirt
    But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” -MA

  5. Thumb up 6

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    THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS! I’ve read too many articles that defend women in a very angry way and I just cannot healthily spread the word on the fear and desperation that this kid’s actions have re-woken on me. But this one is just my type of argumenting, the type that might actually get spread further instead of just snubbed.

    It’s awful, to live in constant fear like this, me and my girlfriend have been traveling in our native country for the past months, and I dunno about her, but at time I have feared for my safety. She was very very eager to hitchhike, but I was very scared to do it. After about seven rides I gained confidence, but that little fear that one seemingly innocent face could trick us still trails somewhere behind me.

    But we can’t just shut up about it, we can’t. At least I feel we shouldn’t. And this is a very dangerous line to walk on, if we appear too violent or too gentle in our defenses we can be dismissed just as easily if we didn’t say a world. So I think this article is neither too gentle nor too violent. It hit the spot, thank you!

  6. Thumb up 6

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    Thank you for this.

    Mass shootings leave me jittery and agitated for days, all the conversations around them are full of triggers and I find myself near constantly angry or near tears. This is the first article I’ve read that hasn’t left me feeling worse than before. So, thank you.

    I hope that not only does the US start having the conversation it needs, but starts making moves to change.

  7. Thumb up 2

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    So many other articles since these recent murders want to frame him as a lone monster, a singular loose cannon, a mentally ill individual, not like them. This article speaks truth to the real underlying issues. Thank you.

  8. Thumb up 3

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    This is everything that I needed to read right now about this incident.
    Most importantly the reminder that we, as women, can and should hold each other up and be a support for each other. All too often it feels like we are fighting the same fight but fighting it on our own.

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    Amazing article! Just what I needed after speaking out on the incident and the patriarchy at large on Facebook (something I have been afraid of doing before because of potential backlash) and having some dude respond with a diatribe about it being an isolated incident.

  10. Thumb up 3

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    Y’all, I need help. How do I talk to my straight female friends in relationships with men about this, the ones who are staunch in viewing this mainly as a mental illness issue, the lone gunman, the isolated incident? And these are smart women, too, but they’ve even supported the notion that he must have solely been off his rocker and that his misogyny didn’t matter because he ended up killing men, also.

  11. Thumb up 7

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    Also, it’s fucked up that we can now refer to the VTech shooter, the UCSB shooter, the Aurora shooter, the Fort Hood shooter, the Sandy Hook shooter – there have been so many of them that I know I’m leaving many out. It’s fucked up that I’m nervous every time I watch a violent action movie in a movie theater, it’s fucked up that I think about what I would do in a lecture hall if a shooting occurred, or when I’m at the mall.

    This is terrorism. And I haven’t even gotten to the part where I am constantly patrolling my actions in public as a woman and a lesbian.

    How far have we gotten on building that queer utopia, and will there be bunnies and cats?

    • Thumb up 2

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      You can’t. I’m sorry but it’s true. Your friends have buried their heads in the sand and convinced themselves this isn’t a thing. It sucks, but I don’t have any advice.

      This is coming from a girl who is adamant about gun control laws because I’ve been there, I’ve spent more than one afternoon on the phone either trying to get in touch with my sibling to know they’re alive or assuring my parent’s family that they weren’t shot, and have had my heart stop because I thought the car back firing was a gunshot, and saw the terrified looks on the faces of everyone around me and the man who had thrown himself to the ground because there was nothing else he could have done if it had been a gun.
      I only advocate that there should be background checks, maybe a waiting period, and a ban on high-powered rifles that are overkill for hunting. But forget my personal experience, forget the statistics, or that mass shootings are a trend predominated by men who had ready access to guns. If I am talking to someone who owns guns then all they hear is that I don’t trust them, or that I’m a [wimp] for being unwilling to ever have a gun in my house. The discussion was over before it began and I just wasted my breath. You can’t change your friends because they don’t see the same world as you and they won’t. You can try, and good luck to you if you do, but I get tired of beating my head against a brick wall.

  12. Thumb up 7

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    On Friday, several hours before the shootings happened, a random guy at the bus station had me backed up against a wall, telling me all the things he wanted to do to me. He also told me he betted that I had the “pussy of a little girl” and that because of that it was probably “delicious.” When I finally got away from the situation, said some pretty disturbing things about what I deserved for that. I spent the rest of the day mulling over what could’ve happened if there weren’t people around, or if he had had a weapon, or something. And then this happened.
    I think it’s taking the easy road when you blame mental illness. Don’t get me wrong, the guy was mentally ill. It is not a healthy mental process to go on a murderous rampage. But it’s easier to blame mental illness, and people do it all the g-damn time. Oh, he had a traumatic childhood. Oh, his wife wasn’t supportive enough and that depressed him. Etc, etc. It’s harder to look at what, in conjunction with mental illness, facilitated these atrocities. Access to weapons, maybe involvement in hate groups, and being born with the world being formatted just for you. It’s easier to say “okay, let’s make sure access to mental healthcare is easier/cheaper” than to say “we need to completely change society so that women aren’t seen as owing something to men.”
    It is every man, because study after study shows that from the moment parents learn their little baby is a boy, they treat that child accordingly. It is seen as normal for little boys to be violent, normal for young-ish boys to gain access to porn, normal for boys to show they like a girl by being mean to her. I mean, it took until 1993 (!!!) for marital rape to be criminalized in all fifty states, and it’s still extremely hard to prove in court. Hell, non-partner rape is hard to prove in court.
    Sometimes it seems like I’m fighting a losing battle. Nothing much has changed for women in the twenty-some years since the Montreal massacre, and shit like this is still getting brushed off. It just makes me want to punch something. Preferably a man.
    I think this whole “not all men” thing is so stupid. We live in a patriarchal society. You’re going to believe stupid things about women (even if it’s just misconceptions about women’s periods, which is damaging even still). Just like living in a racist society means that yes, every single white person has some stupid, damaging misconceptions about people of color. And even people of color have some stupid, damaging misconceptions about other people of color (just sit through a conversation with the Vietnamese mother of my person to see just how racist a brown, immigrant woman can be). Or this guy, who was half-Asian and clearly a racist dick. People just need to accept it, take responsibility for it, and continue to listen and learn. It’ll do them some good.
    /endrant

  13. Thumb up 5

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    This might be a lone mad thought, but.. I think that all of these issues come down to one thing: as women we are told that our sex and sexuality is submissive/vulnerable and men are told that their sex and sexuality is powerful.

    This means that people like Elliot Roger feel powerless because they believe that their power is linked into their sex and sexuality. He was ‘unfulfilled’ because he couldn’t make something ‘submissive/lesser’ submit to him.

    Women are considered submissive/vulnerable/less and therefore objectified/not considered people.

    I reckon now with like birth control and us gays we could flip the switch on this bullshit.

  14. Thumb up 0

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    I guess instead of blaming mental illness entirely, you can acknowledge it as the mouthpiece for all the prejudices and warped views you’ve pointed out. Rodger would likely have not done this had he not been unstable, but his instability alone can’t be blamed. America should go either of two ways after this, blame guns or blame pervasive misogyny. To take the middle road and just sigh that it was tragic and he was unbalanced is unfortunately what appears to be happening though.
    The part about the animals and their pain was really enlightening, it explains many women’s reactions to feminism.

  15. Thumb up 10

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    The strange thing is, though, that after reading his entire 140-page manifesto, which is every bit as horrible as you’d expect, and watching his youtube videos, I still can’t figure out if he was actually mentally ill. It’s his behavior, the fact that he committed the murders, that makes me think he must have been, because I find it unfathomable that someone in his right mind could do such a thing. But in his writing, he sounds lucid, articulate, even reasonable. The conclusions he comes to make no sense, but the language of extreme privilege he uses to get to those conclusions is frightningly familiar.

    He sounds not so very much different from some of the young men that I’ve taught in my classrooms. Narcissistic, absolutely. Strangely passive and dissociated from his own responsibility for his life as well. Everything was arranged for him, and his idea of making money was winning the lottery. He spent his entire time in highschool playing World of Warcraft. Girls never had a chance to say no to him, because he never talked to them after he hit puberty.

    What is in those pages is someone who was born into so much privilege, that he felt entitled to everything he wanted, without doing anything at all to earn it. He felt that if he drove an expensive car and wore expensive clothes, girls should somehow become his girlfriend automatically. This only went for ‘hot girls’, which he appeared to see as a species of alien that was only good for sex, and for displaying as a trophy. He refers to himself as a consummate gentleman, but his only response when seeing a woman he finds attractive is to seethe with rage because she either is, or he imagines must be attracted to another man. His ideas about life were completely centred around himself and his status in the world. Women were not even human to him. They were things that were supposed to confer status on him, but somehow refused to.

    And this is the bizarre thing: he had access to mental health professionals. He was assigned different mentors, who were supposed to teach him to get by in the world. He told these men and other men in his life about his ideas – which were basically the standard patriarchal rhetoric, women = sex, sex = bad unless it’s sex with me – and how he wanted to act on them by eradicating all women from the face of the earth.

    The craziest thing wasn’t that he thought that way, and ended up acting on it. It was that he told people, in conversations, in emails, in comments, in videos. That he flew into a jealous rage at seeing a woman as part of a multi-racial couple when his father was there, that he got into fights with people over his racist and misogynistic ideas, and no one stopped him. No one stepped in. Over the course of history, women have been committed to mental institutions for wanting such outlandish things as a career, or a life not married to a man. Here is someone who told people he wanted all women to die horrible deaths, and no one even went ‘huh.’

    The police came to his door and he convinced them easily not to even come in. That happened because they thought his kind of behavior in a young man was normal. He had these ideas for a long time, and that may make him a psychopath, or something else. But it’s our society that allows someone to walk around with these ideas, clearly articulating them, and not react in time.

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    why is it that nobody is talking about the implications of this particular form of misogyny: the one that s closely related to patriarchy as a MARKET STRATEGY. The one that tells u that if u don t buy enough you are not enough: in this case not enough man, but in others not enough woman as in an object of men s desire? to be able to deactivate this particular kind of misogyny one would need to react against a culture that tells u that u are as long as u buy, are we willing to do just that?

  17. Thumb up 0

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    The thing that strikes me is how the discussion around mental illness suddenly changes when it benefits people to use it as a deflection. Normally when a mentally ill person commits a violent crime, people cry for blood and dismiss the suggestion that they might not be capable of being held responsible for their actions as a travesty of justice. Any defense of mental illness in court is viewed with suspicion and contempt. This time, however, everyone is falling all over themselves to point out that he was mentally ill in order to frame it as an isolated incident divorced from any social context.

  18. Thumb up 1

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    “Within patriarchy’s guidelines, any failure to meet a man’s sexual expectations is enough of a transgression to be punishable by death.”

    I gave myself the “luxury” of waiting one full week off the mountain before reading about Elliot Rodger. This is the first of 18 pieces I have bookmarked to get through.

    I’m really glad I kept my promise and made yours the first one, Rachel!

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