COMMENTARY | Elliot Rodger was the geek who couldn’t get the girl. Full of festering rage, he planned a horrifying rampage and, after releasing his plans online in taunting fashion, embarked on his twisted goal as his parents and law enforcement rushed to stop him. He ended up committing suicide with his own gun after killing six college students, beginning with the stabbing deaths of three other young men in his shared apartment. His online rants and screeds against women and “popular kids” has led the blogosphere to erupt in soul searching and finger pointing. What was to blame for Rodger’s madness and heinous actions?
Gun culture? Rape culture on college campuses? General misogyny in American culture? Barbaric ideals of masculinity? Failures in the mental health care system? Insufficient policing of online hatred? It is likely that many factors attributed to Rodger’s hateful and incomprehensible actions.
But now that society’s lens is on misogyny and masculinity, I cannot help but wonder what could change things for the better. What makes masculinity and misogyny the way they are? What leads to entrenched sexism and the pursuit of hypermasculinity?
Arthur Chu, writing for The Daily Beast, offered some enlightening tidbits. Though he goes overboard in condemning fellow men and asserting that misogyny is rampant everywhere, the beginning of his article raises the interesting point of how we are raised being “force-fed” the “script” of the guy “getting” the girl. While Chu’s focus was on the nerdy guy onscreen finally wearing down the hot girl into going on a date with him, or tricking her into a date, or some such sitcom-y event, I realized that it extends much further into mainstream media and literature.
How much of media and literature is about men aggressively pursuing women? Ranging from old fables of the knight accomplishing arduous and heroic tasks to “earn” the fair maiden’s heart to more modern tales of a guy trying to prove himself, men are tacitly, or overtly, encouraged to be sexually aggressive. It’s how life gets done. Nice guys finish last and you don’t take “no” for an answer. The guy who gets rejected is told to get back up and try again.
It’s tough for guys – we receive lots of mixed messages. Respect her, but be persistent. Be nice, but be tough. Don’t be aggressive, but let her know you want her. If the guy gets jealous and angry over another guy flirting with his girl, he’s “controlling.” If the guy doesn’t get jealous and angry over another guy flirting wit his girl, he “doesn’t care about her.” Sound exhausting and confusing? It can be. Again, sitcoms illustrate the dilemmas pretty well. How often have we seen the guy receiving mixed advice, much to our entertainment? It’s not as entertaining in real life, when it could mean losing the girl of your dreams…
Guys are expected to be the Type-A “go-getters” but receive social sanctions for erring on either side of the imaginary line, which is different for different men. Short men, for example, can be mocked for having a “Napoleon complex,” less eloquently known as “short man syndrome,” for being considered too aggressive. Identical behaviors, however, would be praised in a taller man as “leadership.” Racial, religious, and cultural differences likely also play a role in what level of aggression is acceptable or preferable in a man. Become too aggressive and hypermasculine and you receive sanctions as a crude, boorish lout. Become insufficiently aggressive or masculine and the insults are often far worse, ranging from “loser” to “pussy” and even “faggot.”
Men receive less sanction for being too aggressive and hypermasculine than for being insufficiently aggressive or masculine. They have been taught from birth that nice guys finish last and that persistence gets the girl. And this state of affairs is firmly entrenched by the opposite sex. That’s right: Though women cringe at sexism, they often tacitly reinforce it through social, romantic, and sexual norms.
For example, why don’t women ask men out on dates?
Despite all the advances in gender equality, women insist on sticking with traditional social mores when it comes to initiating dating and sex, writes Dr. Michael Mills on Psychology Today. Dr. Goal Auzeen Saedi reminds us of the old “apple tree” adage, where women, like apples, that are hardest to “get” are the best. Oh, and brings up the He’s Just Not That Into You book-and-movie combo, which tells girls that any man who’s not pursuing you isn’t really that into you. Rule of thumb: If he’s not beating down your door you don’t want him.
Apparently, women worry that they will be judged as “desperate” for pursuing a man and that their reputations will be marred. Also, men must prove their desire, lest they be considered half-hearted and prone to straying.
In sum, it appears that men and women are raised to behave in ways that perpetuate sexism and misogyny, with men told to aggressively pursue and women told to expect, and even desire, the pursuit. How many women who complain about these pursuits in #YesAllWomen have tacitly encouraged such behavior? How many men who say “not all men” in response to complaints of a sexist culture have engaged in overzealous pursuits of women?
Most of us are guilty, whether or not we would like to admit it.
So what can be done? How can we reduce sexism and misogyny and make our society a more egalitarian place? We need to encourage men and women to break free from these traditional norms of dating and sex which encourage hypermasculinity and female submissiveness. To do this, women must seize sexual agency and end the trend of trying to provoke the pursuit. Instead, talk to the guy.
We need to get to the point where men do not feel that “I’m not interested” is not deemed code for “maybe, if you wear me down.” We need to get to the point where women do not feel the need to engage in risky behaviors, such as binge drinking, to try and catch the eye of “that guy” at parties, instead leaving them open to other, more predatory, men as well. In Economics terms, there is a tremendous amount of deadweight loss caused by our traditional dating and sexual norms – neither men nor women are happy.
A select few men, high on the socio-attractiveness scale, benefit from these norms. A select few women, also high on the same scale, benefit from these norms. Most would benefit from actually being able to speak frankly to members of the opposite sex. Right now, this equal-to-equal talk is difficult because our sexual agency is mismatched between the genders. Men can be seen as having the vast majority of sexual agency in any new or prospective heterosexual relationship, while women have little.
This means that unwanted hypermasculine behavior, such as lewd, crude, and aggressive pursuits, flourishes. Women need to push back and strike a new balance that lets both genders know that such behavior is no longer necessary or desirable. Most men aren’t really Neanderthals – they just want to use the approach that works. Right now, Hollywood is selling them a version that has lots of collateral damage.