Toxic Masculinity, Elliot Rodger, and What You Can Do

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

A long time ago, my first foray into screaming into the void came in the form of my own blog. It was, by most measures, not terribly successful. As you may have noticed by my often-rambling posts and my loose relationship with the term “Friday,” I’ve got a tendency to focus on over-long deep dives and a hatred of deadlines. These characteristics often make it difficult to actually finish and publish pieces, and these characteristics are not improved when I am my own editor/boss.

The best thing to come out of that early blog, besides Richard going “hey, wanna also write for my blog?” (seriously, imagining Richard looking vaguely disappointed in me does wonders for my completion rate) was one of my very first, and most disturbing, deep dives—a prolonged piece on Elliot Rodger, his 100+ page manifesto, and aspects of sexism in culture.

At the time, many news outlets were focusing on the more sensational aspects of Rodger’s manifesto, like his declaration that women should either be starved to death in concentration camps or selectively bred, like cattle, to declare Rodger somehow less-culpable by means of “insanity.” But at the time, I had the notion that the explanation was both more simple and more dangerous—Rodger’s actions weren’t the result of a mental illness, but of a cultural one. And the laborious, upsetting slog through his manifesto and his videos confirmed that belief for me. Rodger may have been a few different kinds of emotionally disturbed, but he was, at heart, a product of his culture.

He had been taught that women, and specifically sex with beautiful women, was his due in life. He had been taught that virginity was shameful. He was taught that he was special, and that he should be treated as such. He was taught that his narcissistic view of the world was the right one. He was taught that money would solve all of his problems. He was taught that his feelings and thoughts were more valid than those of women. He was taught that any rejection by women is the cause of great distress. (Seriously, he apparently cried for an hour in a bathroom stall after he said “hi” to a hot girl and she didn’t respond. I’m so not even making this up.) He was taught that his actions have no real consequence, and that he could get away with assaulting women. He was taught that women were lesser than him, no better than “beasts.” He was told that he was a “gentleman,” and that he should be rewarded accordingly. He was taught that there is something wrong with women, and something wrong with the asshole “alpha males” they supposedly flock to. He was taught that other men were being given things that he deserved more.

Elliot Rodger was a product of toxic masculinity.

It was in reading his manifesto that I first began truly understanding and appreciating the multitude of meanings behind that phrase. The way that it implies both danger and disease. The way that it implies harm both to the infected and the people around the infected. Toxic masculinity is like nuclear waste—dangerous in small doses, deadly in larger ones, and capable of harming both the first person to come into contact with it and all of the people that come into contact with that person. In my mind I start seeing the world as if I’m Roddy Piper in They Live—when I have my sunglasses on, I can see the neon green taint of toxic masculinity on teenagers joking about “no homo,” on message boards, on the survivors of domestic or sexual abuse. I can see men glowing a sickly chartreuse, eating themselves up from the inside at the same time that they infect the world around them.

When I first wrote about Elliot Rodger, I assumed that I was already as outraged, and as burned out, as I could get. Now I look back on that time with a sad smile, because 2018 Elle can’t help but think that 2014 Elle was still sweetly idealistic and naïve. I ended my original post on Rodger thusly:

I wish I had some nice, neat way to wrap this all up, but I really don’t. My outrage is too strong for that. Seeing the ways that seemingly innocuous “nice guy” rhetoric can snowball into murder, seeing the ways that the indignant and apologetic “not all men” battle cry can be used to cover up the obvious and self-professed motives of a killer, and even briefly scrolling through the stories on “When Women Refuse” is enough to make me despair about the world. All I can do is hope that the things that I write, and the things that others who are much more eloquent than myself have written, can spark a thought, a conversation, or a movement. The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable. If we can create a culture where sex is neither an assumed privilege nor a badge of honor, where a woman’s right to decide her own desires and sexual partners is respected, where women are allowed to voice their grievances without being interrupted, and where women are seen as equals, not as transactions, then there may be some hope for us yet.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

The actions of future Elliot Rodgers are preventable.

That line jumps out to me again and again. Because I was so right, and so wrong, at the same time. The actions of future Elliot Rodgers were preventable. We just didn’t fucking do it.

The pickup artist forums of Rodger’s time have turned into the “incel” forums of today. (“Incel” is an absurd made up word that means “involuntary celibate.” It’s used by misogynists who think that women literally owe them sex, and that the fact that they aren’t getting their dicks wet is the highest treason possible. I will never use that term again after this point in the article, because I think of it the same way I think of the term “alt-right”; I refuse to use the terms that bigots came up with to keep themselves from sounding like bigots. So they’ll be “misogynists” and “Nazis” respectively from here on out.) A brief perusal of these forums shows virulent misogyny, bewildering levels of entitlement, and a frightening commitment to violence and violent language. Rape is frequently advocated. Women are frequently denigrated. The “Stacys” of the world, aka women, are purposely going out with the “Chads” of the world, aka “normie” guys who are alpha males and not this particular brand of misogynist, and that is just super unfair. It’s so unfair, in fact, that people should probably die because of it.

That seems to be the thought process behind Alek Minassian, who praised Elliot Rodger as the “supreme gentleman” and promised a misogynist rebellion shortly before using a van to kill and injure people.

Alek Minassian is the future Elliot Rodger that four years ago I was hoping we could stop. We obviously didn’t. If anything, things have gotten worse. Even our president is a sexual predator. There’s not a lot of difference between “grab ‘em by the pussy” and the vitriol spewed on these misogynist sites. #MeToo is happening, but there also already a slate of fawning articles wondering when the men who were temporarily deposed by #MeToo can make their “comeback,” as if they were caught doing coke at a party and not, you know, sexually harassing and assaulting women. If I had a nickel for every time a respected news outlet wondered if feminism has gone “too far,” I wouldn’t have student loans anymore. Gamergate has permanently changed the landscape of gaming, game journalism, and even the goddamn sci-fi awards, all for the worse. I thank my lucky stars because I have been a woman blogging about feminism on the internet for four years, and I have yet to receive my first rape threat for doing so. I’m basically the only female blogger I know who can say that, and I know it is a matter of time and google algorithms until it happens to me as well.

The only positive difference between today and four years ago is that this time, news outlets are actually acknowledging Minassian’s misogyny and toxic masculinity, instead of just wondering if he’s mentally ill (which, for the record, is not a significant contributor to violence, so stop blaming mentally ill people every time someone goes on a shooting spree).

That difference is the only reason I can end this post on a somewhat hopeful note. Because unlike issues like gun control or SESTA, toxic masculinity is something that literally every one of us can help fight against. This is not in the hands of an inept Congress. While the patriarchy is strong, MRA’s don’t have quite the political reach of the NRA. This is our culture, and we can take it back. This is especially important for parents. We’ve already fucked up our existing generations, and we’re gonna have to do a lot of work to fix them. It’s easier if we can start when they’re young and haven’t learned toxic masculinity yet. So to that end, I’m going to leave you with ten things you (yes you!) can do. Start today.

  1. Stop buying into bullshit gender binaries, especially ones that claim men can’t be emotional, weak, or have associations with traditional feminine qualities.
  2. Encourage men and boys to consume more “girl-focused” media.
  3. Don’t segregate children by gender for every damn thing. Encourage non-gendered friendships and play.
  4. Abandon terms like “real men.” Even if it is being used in supposedly helpful ways, like “real men respect women.” There is no such thing as a “fake man.” At least not until the robots take over, and that’s an entirely different conversation. Let’s just give up on that whole concept of policing what it means to be a man, shall we?
  5. If you’re a man, do your best to unlearn gender norms that hurt you, even if, again, they are supposedly positive. You don’t have to be the bread winner. You aren’t “babysitting” your kid, you are raising your damn kid. You don’t have to pay for dinner (unless your partner is making 60% of what you do because of the pay gap. In that case, yeah, keep paying for dinner.)
  6. Work to dismantle the value system around virginity. The fact that guys who are virgins are failures and that girls who are no longer virgins is sluts means that guys and girls are constantly in a sexually-based conflict in which the rise of male value implicitly comes with the diminishing of female value. Stop it. Encourage healthy, consensual sexuality for everyone. Virginity is great if people want to be virgins. Not-virginity is great if people want to be not-virgins. The end.
  7. Please, for the love of God, abandon language like “don’t be a pussy.” Anyone who has seen a childbirth video knows that the vagina is basically the strongest thing in the world. I’m not telling you to “reclaim” the word pussy, because I’m a little skeptical about the idea of “reclaiming” words, but at the very least it shouldn’t be a phrase that means the very opposite of what it should. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of phrases like “that takes balls” and “ball busters.” Let’s just get rid of cisgender-normative genitalia phrases in general, shall we?
  8. Stop assuming the worst about men, even when it’s a convenient excuse. I’ve known plenty of boys and men in my life. Weirdly, none of them have been sex-obsessed maniacs who can’t control themselves around a woman’s bare shoulders. They’ve also all been passable at doing laundry, keeping track of appointments, talking about their emotions, and communicating clearly. It’s like men aren’t all latent rapists lying in wait, or totally inept at household tasks and emotional labor. Weird.
  9. Call people out on their shit. Is someone around you buying into outdated stereotypes? Is someone telling a rape joke? Is someone complaining about “blue balls” because they haven’t been graced with sex yet? Is someone complaining about being in the “friend zone”? Tell them to knock it off.
  10. Encourage male friendships and male affection/diminish the association of weakness with homosexuality. I can hug any of my girlfriends pretty much any time I want. I can hug any of my guy friends almost any time I want. It’s a fantastic world of hugs. But for a lot of guys, simple affectionate contact is seen as suspect, especially with other men. They live in fear of being called too sensitive, or being called homosexual. They have to hedge acknowledgements of platonic love with “no homo, bro.” Men, I have to conclude, are often really fucking lonely. Let them be friends. Let them hug.

Signed: Feminist Fury

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Featured image is of a warning sign reading “TOXIC” and showing a human figure in distress after consuming something presumably toxic. Michael Smith, CC BY 2.0

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