We are now one of them. One of the educational communities that was targeted by some fucker for a murder-death-kill spree. We are trending on Facebook.
A man living in the student-packed Isla Vista community directly adjacent to my university—the University of California, Santa Barbara—got in his BMW with a semi-automatic handgun, murdered six people, and wounded seven more. He was targeting women, specifically women who were, or looked like they might be, sorority sisters. We know this because he made a series of videos and left behind a manifesto. So we have evidence as to why—or rather, how he justified—his actions.
I haven’t watched the videos because I’m afraid to hear him say these things and then imagine him gunning down my female students. But I know what he says, because people have reported about it here and here.
So now to what I intend to say. I’ll say it, and then I’ll try to think of a strategy of moving forward with my students, my department, and my university.
This act was predicated in a form of misogynistic thought supported by how women and sexuality are portrayed in media and entertainment. This act was in line with the way misogyny, control of women’s sexuality/bodies, masculinity, and violence tend to bleed together. We should be horrified. We should not be surprised.
According to the videos, this guy saw couples together–the affection they shared, their touching, their intimacy–and was lonely and envious. His feelings were not projected internally (ie, I’m not worthy), but rather outward. He was angry at men who got sexual access to women, and women who “gave themselves to other men” and denied him access to their bodies. Women who denied him his entitlements of female adoration, love, and companionship. So he engaged in “retribution”: a violent act of controlling those he could not otherwise put under his sexual control.
I’m not surprised by this chain of logic, because it’s how women, femininity, and sexuality/sexiness are presented in contemporary western popular culture. Take Karen Pitcher’s article on Girls Gone Wild (2007), or Rosalind Gill’s work on the ever-increasing cultural sexualization of women (2007). Or let’s take it old school with Laura Mulvey’s male gaze (1975). Women (read thin, white, feminine women) are portrayed in media culture as objects to be looked at, and their bodies/sexuality as objects to be desired. Even with the postfeminist shift from desired sexual object to desiring sexual subject, what the “subject” most often desires is to be viewed and consumed in ways that conform to heteronormative, masculinist, and porn-fantasy driven narratives. This objectification is positioned as a form of flattery. Women should want their bodies sexualized. It makes us feel pretty and special.
Terms like “severely mentally disturbed” and “the work of a mad man” began to circulate after the murders. I can’t comment on this guy’s mental health, and that’s not my job. What I do know is that his ideas about deserving sex and adoration from women are supported by how women are presented in popular culture: as sexual objects that can be—and should be—consumed by men. When he was denied access to that system, he was also left out of a basic cultural pact: boys become “men” by getting laid.
The combination of misogyny and feelings of entitlement to/control over women’s bodies contributes to the massive amount of rapes and domestic violence cases in the US every year (case in point). So when this guy is dismissed as a “lonely mad man,” what we actually dismiss is a discussion about how constant portrayal of women as sexy/sexualized objects, and how co-mingling masculinity with sexual prowess and violence, supports a culture of men hurting women when they do not get what they want/feel they are entitled to.
I honestly don’t know how to end this. So I won’t. Because this is a conversation I’m going to have to have in every fucking class I teach from now on at UCSB. And it’s going to have to constantly evolve.