The Isla Vista Massacre, Misogyny, and Discourses of Mental Illness

A lot of digital ink has been spilled (quite rightly) over the culture of misogyny that informed the recent horror that occurred at UCSB.  However, and not quite as rightly, there has also been a kneejerk reaction that attempts to either a.) Assert that Elliot Rodger was a victim of mental illness and that this has nothing to do with larger cultural forces or b) Argue, in response to an op-ed piece by Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post, that there is no connection between the work of “bro” directors like Judd Apatow and the event that occurred.  I want to argue that those two impulses are false, misleading, and ultimately part of the very problem we as a culture face when it comes to talking about issues as an interconnected skein rather than as single, discrete phenomena.

What is particularly troubling about this tendency of ours to pathologize men like Rodger is that we use it as a blanket to smother any other types of discussion about what social and cultural forces led him to these heinous acts.  In our nonstop efforts to find explanations for terrible acts of violence–what many refer to as “senseless,” though that is often just another way of stifling discussion–we often simply argue that a perpetrator was mentally ill and act as if that explains everything.  This is not to suggest that Elliot Rodger did not suffer from a mental illness, since it is patently obvious that he did.  What is necessary, however, is an understanding of how that fits in to the larger social fabric in which he was embedded.  Mental illness, for all that we try to sequester it, does not emerge out of a social vacuum.

Just as importantly, I have also been struck and rather dismayed by the vitriol that was poured upon Ann Hornaday after she published a column in The Washington Post arguing that we need to see Rodger’s action in the context of the Hollywood fare upon which he grew up.  While I would not go so far as to argue that films such as those made by Apatow necessarily caused this specific massacre, I would argue that such films are both a reflection of our contemporary society’s views on women (for all that we like to trumpet the gains that women have made), as well as a participant and an encouragement of such beliefs.  The fact that such comedies are routinely successful at the box office suggests at least a measure of participation among some segments of the audience, or at very least a lack of resistance to the ideologies such films routinely espouse.

In essence, we as a culture and a society need to start thinking about these kinds of issues as being fundamentally and inescapably interconnected.  The plethora of comments on various message boards and articles attempting to pigeon hole this event in one way or another, while clearly a response to the trauma of this incident, foreclose on the possibility of asking the really tough questions that we need to consider as we wrestle with the consequences of this massacre.  It’s high time that we as a culture stop shying away from the important questions and start asking them.  We might not like the answers, but only by seeking them can we hope to effect change in the future.

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