Many of us whose work touches on the subject of masculinity and violence have long been frustrated by the failure of mainstream media — and much of progressive media and the blogosphere as well — to confront the gender issues at the heart of so many violent rampages like the one on December 14 in Connecticut.
My colleagues and I who do this type of work experience an unsettling dichotomy. In one part of our lives, we routinely have intense, in-depth discussions about men’s emotional and relational struggles, and how the bravado about “rugged individualism” in American culture masks the deep yearning for connection that so many men feel, and how the absence or loss of that can quickly turn to pain, despair, and anger. In these discussions, we talk about violence as a gendered phenomenon: how, for example, men who batter their wives or girlfriends typically do so not because they have trigger tempers, but rather as a means to gain or maintain power and control over her, in a (misguided) attempt to get their needs met.
We talk amongst ourselves about how so many boys and men in our society are conditioned to see violence as a solution to their problems, a resolution of their anxieties, or a means of exacting revenge against those they perceive as taking something from them. We share with each other news stories, websites and YouTube videos that demonstrate the connection between deeply ingrained cultural ideas about manhood and individual acts of violence that operationalize those ideas.
And then in the wake of repeated tragedies like Newtown, we turn on the TV and watch the same predictable conversations about guns and mental illness, with only an occasional mention that the overwhelming majority of these types of crimes are committed by men — usually white men. Even when some brave soul dares to mention this crucial fact, it rarely prompts further discussion, as if no one wants to be called a “male-basher” for uttering the simple truth that men commit the vast majority of violence, and thus efforts to “prevent violence” — if they’re going to be more than minimally effective — need to explore why.
Maybe the Newtown massacre will mark a turning point. Maybe the mass murder of young children will force the ideological gatekeepers in mainstream media to actually pry open the cupboards of conventional thinking for just long enough to have a thoughtful conversation about manhood in the context of our ongoing national tragedy of gun violence.
But initial signs are not particularly promising. In the days since the shooting, some op-eds and blog posts have spoken to the gendered dynamics at the heart of this and other rampage killings. But most mainstream analysis has steered clear of this critical piece of the puzzle.
What follows is a brief list of suggestions for how journalists, cable hosts, bloggers and others who will be writing and talking about this unbelievable tragedy can frame the discussion in the coming days and weeks.
1) Make gender — specifically the idea that men are gendered beings — a central part of the national conversation about rampage killings. Typical news accounts and commentaries about school shootings and rampage killings rarely mention gender. If a woman were the shooter, you can bet there would be all sorts of commentary about shifting cultural notions of femininity and how they might have contributed to her act, such as discussions in recent years about girl gang violence. That same conversation about gender should take place when a man is the perpetrator. Men are every bit as gendered as women.
The key difference is that because men represent the dominant gender, their gender is rendered invisible in the discourse about violence. So much of the commentary about school shootings, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, focuses on “people” who have problems, “individuals” who suffer from depression, and “shooters” whose motives remain obtuse. When opinion leaders start talking about the men who commit these rampages, and ask questions like: “why is it almost always men who do these horrible things?” and then follow that up, we will have a much better chance of finding workable solutions to the outrageous level of violence in our society.
2) Use the “M-word.” Talk about masculinity. This does not mean you need to talk about biological maleness or search for answers in new research on brain chemistry. Such inquiries have their place. But the focus needs to be sociological: individual men are products of social systems. How many more school shootings do we need before we start talking about this as a social problem, and not merely a random collection of isolated incidents? Why are nearly all of the perpetrators of these types of crimes men, and most of them white men? (A recent piece by William Hamby is a step in the right direction. )
What are the cultural narratives from which school shooters draw lessons or inspiration? This does not mean simplistic condemnations of video games or violent media — although all cultural influences are fair game for analysis. It means looking carefully at how our culture defines manhood, how boys are socialized, and how pressure to stay in the “man box” not only constrains boys’ and men’s emotional and relational development, but also their range of choices when faced with life crises. Psychological factors in men’s development and psyches surely need to be examined, but the best analyses see individual men’s actions in a social and historical context.
3) Identify the gender subtext of the ongoing political battle over “guns rights” versus “gun control,” and bring it to the surface. The current script that plays out in media after these types of horrendous killings is unproductive and full of empty clichés. Advocates of stricter gun laws call on political leaders to take action, while defenders of “gun rights” hunker down and deflect criticism, hoping to ride out yet another public relations nightmare for the firearms industry. But few commentators who opine about the gun debates seem to recognize the deeply gendered aspects of this ongoing controversy. Guns play an important emotional role in many men’s lives, both as a vehicle for their relationships with their fathers and in the way they bolster some men’s sense of security and power.
It is also time to broaden the gun policy debate to a more in-depth discussion about the declining economic and cultural power of white men, and to deconstruct the gendered rhetoric of “defending liberty” and “fighting tyranny” that animates much right-wing opposition to even moderate gun control measures. If one effect of this tragedy is that journalists and others in media are able to create space for a discussion about guns that focuses on the role of guns in men’s psyches and identities, and how this plays out in their political belief systems, we might have a chance to move beyond the current impasse.
4) Consult with, interview and feature in your stories the perspectives of the numerous men (and women) across the country who have worked with abusive men. Many of these people are counselors, therapists, and educators who can provide all sorts of insights about how — and why — men use violence. Since men who commit murder outside the home more than occasionally have a history of domestic violence, it is important to hear from the many women and men in the domestic violence field who can speak to these types of connections — and in many cases have first-hand experience that deepen their understanding.
5) Bring experts on the air, and quote them in your stories, who can speak knowledgeably about the link between masculinity and violence. After the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide, CNN featured the work of the author Kevin Powell, who has written a lot about men’s violence and the many intersections between gender and race. That was a good start. In the modern era of school shootings and rampage killings, a number of scholars have produced works that offer ways to think about the gendered subtext of these disturbing phenomena.
Examples include Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel’s piece “Suicide by Mass Murder: Masculinity, Aggrieved Entitlement and Rampage School Shootings,” Douglas Kellner’s “Rage and Rampage: School Shootings and Crises of Masculinity,” and a short piece that I co-wrote with Sut Jhally after Columbine, “The national conversation in the wake of Littleton is missing the mark.”
There have also been many important books published over the past 15 years or so that provide great insight into issues of late 20th and 21st century American manhood, and thus provide valuable context for discussions about men’s violence. They include Real Boys, by William Pollack; Raising Cane, by Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon; New Black Man, by Mark Anthony Neal; Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft; Dude You’re a Fag, by C.J. Pascoe; Guyland, By Michael Kimmel; I Don’t Want to Talk About It, by Terrence Real; Violence, by James Gilligan; Guys and Guns Amok, by Douglas Kellner; On Killing, by David Grossman; and two documentary films: Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, by Byron Hurt; and Tough Guise, which I created and Sut Jhally directed.
6) Resist the temptation to blame this shooting or others on “mental illness,” as if this answers the why and requires no further explanation. Even if some of these violent men are or were “mentally ill,” the specific ways in which mental illness manifests itself are often profoundly gendered. Consult with experts who understand the gendered features of mental illness. For example, conduct interviews with mental health experts who can talk about why men, many of whom are clinically depressed, comprise the vast majority of perpetrators of murder-suicides. Why is depression in women much less likely to contribute to their committing murder than it is for men? (It is important to note that only a very small percentage of men with clinical depression commit murder, although a very high percentage of people with clinical depression who commit murder are men.)
7) Don’t buy the manipulative argument that it’s somehow “anti-male” to focus on questions about manhood in the wake of these ongoing tragedies. Men commit the vast majority of violence and almost all rampage killings. It’s long past time that we summoned the courage as a society to look this fact squarely in the eye and then do something about it. Women in media can initiate this discussion, but men bear the ultimate responsibility for addressing the masculinity crisis at the heart of these tragedies. With little children being murdered en masse at school, for God’s sake, it’s time for more of them to step up, even in the face of inevitable push back from the defenders of a sick and dysfunctional status quo.