Archive | June, 2014

Elliot Rodger and the Pandemic of Masculinity

3 Jun

I read Elliot Rodger’s manifesto yesterday. It was, without a doubt, the least surprising document I’ve ever read. It wasn’t hard to follow; it wasn’t bizarre; it wasn’t a collection of the meanderings of a mind that had lost touch with reality. Instead, it was boring, trite, obvious, and exactly what I expected it to be: a rant by a spoiled brat with an overweening sense of entitlement. To women, to sex, to wealth, to attention and adoration. Frankly, I suspected at times that it was written by a Marxist feminist satirizing privileged male entitlement in general and MRAs in particular.

Elliot Rodger wasn’t Holden Caulfield, he was a bratty little asshole who assumed he was somehow superior to everyone else and thus deserved rewards simply for existing. The rage that he felt wasn’t caused by the cruelty of others, but by his own unreasonable expectations, expectations shared by the majority of men. He may have been less equipped to deal with frustration than the average person, but his reaction to that frustration shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the directions the culture has been taking over the course of the last decade or so.

About that manifesto. I’d call it a memoir of a cult member rather than a manifesto, since it doesn’t contain an idea of any kind. Rodger spends 141 pages narcissistically recounting every detail of his privileged childhood, describing in excruciatingly boring detail each family trip to some “exotic” locale or other, each luxurious Japanese dinner, each wasteful birthday celebration, each time he and his family attended a media industry event as someone else’s plus-one. Save a few bits of ham-fisted foreshadowing, the story up until Rodger hits puberty reads like the autobiography of every kid I went to elementary school with in Southern California: upper middle class parents who have no interest in raising a child but plenty of money and help doing so raise a kid with a profound sense of both entitlement and abandonment. His family clearly had just enough money and social status to gain entry to the outer circles of extreme privilege, and to afford Rodger a glimpse of what could be his if only he were fabulously, disgustingly wealthy instead of just comfortable in the extreme.

In fact, the story Rodger tells of his life after puberty reads like a tale of the rude awakening to the fact that his parents were not that rich after all. He makes repeated reference to puberty as the mainspring of his disillusionment with life and humanity, as the catalyst to his confrontation with the cruel realities of the world, but he is clearly projecting a concept he has adopted from the Men’s Rights Movement and from the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) scene onto his own adolescent understanding of the world, while his recounting of his own memories illustrates a gradual realization that he was not, after all, a member of the Hollywood gentry.

Is it just me, or are there more cult-ish movements around these days than there were a few years ago? Rodger makes mention of his attempt to follow the advice contained in Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, a book that encourages readers to think they are multi-millionaires to whom life’s rewards flow unremittingly and without effort, which will result in them actually becoming one-per-centers. Though Rodger ultimately dismisses The Secret when putting its methods into practice doesn’t result in his winning the lottery and thus becoming a pussy magnet, the fact that he tried it in the first place, coupled with his wholesale adoption of MRA and PUA theories of how the world works, indicates that he shared something in common with tens of millions of people: the willingness to believe that disappointments and frustrations can be explained by nebulous, ill-fitting, simplistic principles propounded by self-help mountebanks in the pursuit of book and seminar ticket sales.

The culture told Rodger that sex, money, and attention were his birthright. When the system failed to deliver, Rodger flailed around, seeking an explanation. At first, it seemed that he turned his frustration inward and assumed that he was lonely because he was somehow defective. At that point in the narrative, I almost felt sorry for him. We’ve all been bullied, we’ve all questioned our worth as human beings based on the way that others treat us, and we’ve all wondered if life would be better for us if we were somehow constitutionally different than we are. It’s gross. Some of us respond to that kind of fundamental uncertainty about our value by entering into a pattern of self-abuse, some of us begin to question the system of social values that leads to such misery, and some of us fall prey to explanations that place the blame for our unhappiness on the people who reject us. Some of us do all three. But disorder arises when someone like Rodger fails to differentiate between fantasy and reality and never grows out of the expectation that life will turn out like a Bud Light commercial. Or a porn video.

So, what did the culture tell Rodger he could expect from the world? As a privileged child, he was given everything he expressed a desire for, it would appear. Rodger, cared for by a series of nannies, also grew accustomed to being doted on by young women in his childhood years. He grew up on the edges of Hollywood’s elite, a world in which power and wealth command attention and favors from what must look to a child to be an unending parade of young, beautiful women. Once Rodger learned about sex (from porn, naturally), he reached the seemingly obvious conclusion that he was owed sex due to his superior social position.

The culture tells all men that they are owed access to women’s bodies and energy. Sitcoms feature attractive women married to and putting up with mountains of bullshit from blundering schlubs. Movies hammer the idea into boys’ minds that young, hot women, though they may resist at first, will eventually fall into the laps of lazy, misogynistic, overgrown infants like those played by Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. Porn tells young boys with no other knowledge of sex that women are filthy pigs who just love being gangbanged and ejaculated on by abusive, sneering monsters.

I don’t know why girls rejected Elliot Rodger when he entered adolescence, or whether they even did. There seemed to have been a window in junior high — before he started consuming porn — when that was not the case. He might have been a little awkward, he may have lacked social skills, but it appears that his obsessive sense of entitlement to what he believed other boys enjoyed (whether that was the case or not) took over, coloring all of his interactions and probably preempting any chance he had at relating to girls. He was consumed by the foolish belief that porn and bullshit adolescent male bragging were reality for everyone but him. Once that set in, his anger and desperation probably became palpable in social situations to the point that women — who learn from a young age how to spot signs of danger in male behavior — steered clear.

Without any real contact with women, for Rodger, they became cartoon characters, aliens, beasts, non-human. They were an enemy to be vanquished, a prize to be collected for the achievement of having been born male, the source of all of his frustrated expectations. He absorbed those messages wholesale from mass media culture. Rodger’s memoir reads like a catalog of his consumption of popular media, from Pokemon through World of Warcraft through Halo 2, from Star Wars to the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Game of Thrones, to internet pornography, to MRA discussion forums populated by legions of men railing against women for not fulfilling the fantasies instilled in them by that same media culture.

Several feminist bloggers have made the argument that writing Rodger off as mentally ill takes the focus off of systemic misogyny and allows a worldwide epidemic of woman-hating and gynophobic violence to go unexamined. They aren’t wrong. But Rodger was mentally ill. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.

By that definition, Rodger was certainly mentally ill, and so are most men. What set Rodger apart was his willingness to participate directly in violence against women as women in order to punish them for refusing to provide him with the sex he felt entitled to, rather than simply doing so by proxy via the consumption of violent and degrading porn and other products of a capitalo-misogynistic society. The existence of masculinity requires that men be unable to relate to women, as masculinity and femininity are the institutions upon which male supremacy rests. A man who is capable of relating to women — who does not suffer from the mental illness known as masculinity — is incapable of abusing them, either in person or by proxy.