Tag Archives: misogyny

So There’s Just Been a Mass Shooting

So there’s just been a mass shooting. The newsfeed is full of it, the TV can’t stop. Ugly scenes. SWAT cops running around in combat armor like beetles with ballistic shields and submachine guns. Ambulances and camera crews somewhere where they’re not supposed to be, where they shouldn’t be. The reports are confusing. Maybe the shooter is dead; maybe he’s still at large; maybe he’s been taken alive; maybe the cops killed him, maybe he killed himself (regardless of outcome it’s pretty safe to assume the shooter is almost certainly a “he”). The current casualty count is uncertain. Some victims may pull through; others may succumb. The dead bodies are still warm.

Here’s what happens next. Depending on circumstances and timeline, some of what follows may be attenuated, some of it may be condensed. But here’s what you should expect, and what you should know.

First, not all “mass shootings” are created equal. The very fact that we’re paying attention to this event in the first place, and calling it a “mass shooting,” is the function of selective economies of attention and predetermined narrative framings.

Much like “gun violence” itself, there is no settled, universal definition of what a “mass shooting” is. When counting and talking about “mass shootings,” some academics and members of the media will use the FBI definition of a “mass murder,” others will use its working definition of a “mass killing.” One key difference between these definitions is body count: if your definition of “mass shooting” is synonymous with the FBI’s “mass murder,” then it’s four dead, not including the shooter; if you’re using their definition of a “mass killing,” it’s three. The kicker here is that people have to die in order for it to qualify. In other words, if you’re wedded to either of these definitions, when seventeen people are shot and injured in a single incident at a block party in New Orleans, then this is technically not a “mass shooting.” As Gwyneth Kelly pointedly notes, variations in mass shooting data provide ready fodder for some pro-gunners to wave away the problem and discredit research in general. Meanwhile, crowd-sourced datasets like the Mass Shooting Tracker (which Jennifer Masica has written lucidly about here) count incidents where multiple people can be wounded, but many of these are acts of violence tracked by other FBI datasets (i.e., gang-related incidents) that rarely capture the same degree of media attention – or activate the same public emotional response – as do rampage killings by active shooters.

In other words, for you to be seeing that “Mass Shooting” news alert, a whole range of selection processes have already occurred. It’s not a one-way-street, though. The media is giving you news that you are presumed to care about, and your attention to it fuels the process. And so we need to ask a question here. It’s so obvious, and yet also asking it seems like violating a taboo, like callousness. Here it is, regardless:

Why do we care about these events so much? Of rather – why do we perform caring about these events so much? Not that caring and performance are mutually exclusive, of course – but what if there’s something about the latter that undermines our ability to do the former?

There’s a certain hierarchy to which mass shootings capture the general public eye. Shootings that happen in schools and on college campuses grab headlines, followed by those that happen in recreational venues (malls, theaters, trendy districts), and then workplaces and lastly homes. Body count and the age of the victims plays a role, but it seems that what matters most is that such shootings occur in public spaces that enshrine cultural values of education, leisure, consumption, and productivity. In other words: violence that strikes against the nurturing and flow of precious human capital is a collective horror. And since this is America, where life is cheap and some lives are cheaper than others, you should fully expect our attribution of value to be very much constrained by our biases with regard to race, gender, and class.

Second, the question of the shooter’s identity and motives will simultaneously become a rhetorical football, an object of dismissive, knee-jerk righteousness, and, above all else, and at every possible level, a derailment from actual political action. I game this out in real-time on Twitter practically every other week, and the song is always the same. The immediate rush to perform bullshit digital forensic psychology on the shooter’s social media footprints will selectively follow frames that simultaneously foreground “politics” (in the most point-scoring sense) while also effacing and sustaining deeper political structures. Considering race is the most obvious example. If the shooter is black, there will be barely-even dog-whistle characterizations of thuggish criminality, coupled with an attempt to tie his actions to black activism – to call upon leaders in the “black community” to answer and apologize for “their” “responsibility.” A similar pattern of racist targeting and a logic of collective guilt will be brought to bear if the shooter is suspected to be Muslim, where the vocabulary of terrorism is ready-to-hand, and especially if the target can be tied to our never-ending Global War on Terror. Meanwhile, if the shooter is white, there will be an immediate push to individualize his actions and to paint him as pathological, mentally ill. There’s a double lie in this latter, pathologizing move: it cynically stigmatizes the mentally ill as a group, and simultaneously disowns the normalization and influence of cultural pathologies which are shared by “normal” people and cultivated by cynical politicians and media figures.

The agenda underlying all these moves is two-fold. First, to muddy the waters and stoke rage by activating tried-and-true stereotypes and associationist assaults that quickly derail serious attention (“He liked Media Matters on his Facebook – he was a Liberal!” “Oh yeah? He followed the NRA on Twitter and posted this meme!”). Second, to depoliticize both the mass shooter’s individual motives and the phenomenon of mass shootings itself. A white man can assassinate a black State Senator in the name of a pretty-damn-familiar brand of Southern chauvinist irredentism and talking heads will question if he had “political” intentions or whether he really is a “terrorist” instead of just some poor lost soul. Meanwhile, male mass shooters from the killer in Killeen in 1991 to the killer in Isla Vista last year espouse a shared ideology of entitled, violent misogyny that is recognizable and overlaps with broader cultural attitudes, yet our refusal to grapple with that fact (or to put their acts on a continuum with a grotesque national landscape of gendered violence and domestic abuse) remains resolute. The deep structures of our culture and political process are extremely invested in not talking about racist violence, gendered violence, and the role of guns in both – let alone their intersections – and selective depoliticizing in favor of pathologizing is a favored national coping mechanism. The violence which spurred this post – a shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood Center – is an act for which the motive remains, at the time of my writing, per media insistence, “unclear.” I know as little as anyone else, but even now the stirrings of the framing process are visible: if the clinic was targeted, we are being told, it must be the solitary act of a madman, hygienically sealed off from the months of gory Right Wing vilification of PP that preceded it; if it wasn’t, then PP should apologize to its critics for having the gall to think that suffering an extended shootout on its own premises was somehow a political matter – even as those same critics none too subtly implicate PP may have deserved to be targeted. Implicit behind both these cognitive pretzels is not just a disavowal of the political stakes of abortion rights and cultural misogyny, but a truly remarkable notion of what constitutes “the political” itself: “Don’t worry folks – this wasn’t a political act, it was just a normal mass shooting. You know, one American going on a rampage in a high-profile public place and gunning down a whole bunch of other people, a phenomenon that happens pretty damn frequently, but which is of course not a political problem in and of itself. How could it be?”

Third, the “conversation” will inevitably end in general exhaustion, stultification, and monetized rage. Derailment and posturing from the Right will meet with self-sabotaging and posturing on the Left, and both sides will shadowbox over “gun control” while favoring magical thinking over an acknowledgement of the actual horizon of possibility. Meanwhile politicians will rise to occasion to utter the usual and increasingly pathetic pieties or pandering with promises of radical change that they couldn’t realize even if they were serious about them. And then we’ll all take a break for a bit, our energies spent, and walk away, likely less informed and more sure of ourselves than ever. Meanwhile, this mass shooting, like the previous mass shooting and the next mass shooting, won’t just spawn retweets and shares and Tumblr posts and thinkpieces and shoddy stump speeches. It will also sell guns. If you listen carefully enough, above the sound of keyboards and thumb-taps, you can hear the bills being rustled out of wallets, the metallic snap of rounds loaded into magazines.

Campus Speech in the Crosshairs

Last night, Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a speaking event, scheduled for today, at Utah State University.

Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic who addresses the representation of women in video games (and does so, I think, quite brilliantly) has been a consistent target of violent threats for some time. Such threats against Sarkeesian and other women in the video games industry have only escalated with the development of the so-called #Gamergate “movement” (for a primer on Gamergate, check out this article). There’s a lot to be said about Gamergate, about the culture-war identity politics at play in it, and about how its most strident, misogynistic voices exemplify the paradoxes of fictimhood at its most distilled – they are at once shrilly pseudo-aggrieved while simultaneously they threaten people who are genuinely marginalized – but that’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, I want to focus on the background and circumstances of Sarkeesian’s cancelling her talk.

As Utah State University News indicates, Sarkeesian received threats prior to the talk, which the FBI determined were “similar to other threats that [she had] received in the past.” Among these was the specific threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history” targeting her and other “feminists.” However, Sarkeesian – who has bravely and regularly faced down threats of violence in the past – cancelled her appearance not simply due to this threat itself, but because Utah State officials informed her that licensed Concealed Carry permit holders would be allowed to carry loaded weapons into the speaking venue. This is not a matter of University policy: in fact, Utah State law specifically prohibits public colleges and universities from banning concealed carry on their campuses. Although the State Board of Regents retains some limited authority when it comes to regulating the presence of guns for campus, this only extends to allowing students to request to share dorm rooms with roommates who aren’t licensed to be armed, and to maintaining no more than one “secure area” where guns are not allowed in which to conduct private “hearings” (IE, for grievance procedures, disciplinary hearings, firings, etcetera); that “secure area” ceases to be a gun-free space, by the way, the moment the hearing event is over. When it comes to a public event like Sarkeesian’s, then, Utah State’s hands are tied. And although Utah is the first state in the country to have laws like this on the books, other States are poised to enact similar ones soon, and Georgia (where my own university is located) appears to have already “accidentally” enacted similar legislation this summer.

Now, in case you’re curious, the requirements for getting a CC license in Utah are listed here. As these things go, the requirements are fairly high (in that you have to take a course with a certified instructor), but Utah also maintains reciprocity honoring licenses issued by numerous others states, including, for example, Georgia, where all you have to do is fill out some paperwork, undergo a background check, and wait about a month or so for your permit. In other words, beyond having that, a gun, and a willingness to show up at a Utah college and murder someone in public, there’s really nothing stopping you: unless you’ve already made your identity and intentions clear (and most of Sarkeesian’s threats are anonymous), campus security will wave you on in.

Of course, gun rights advocates will doubtless say that the presence of guns on campus should make things safer, rather than less (in fact, there’s a national Students for Concealed Carry group that makes this case explicitly). Whatever the statistical odds of dying in a “random” mass shooting, the primary threat against which Campus Carry groups advocate arming oneself, the situation with Sarkeesian is entirely different: she is being specifically and personally targeted with the threat of assassination. Against that backdrop, her desire not to have an audience containing armed people is eminently reasonable – and far more reasonable than, say, suggesting that a “good guy” with a gun could somehow manage to get the draw on a “bad one” before the bad guy manages to get a shot off at her. At which point, what is Sarkeesian supposed to do? Bring a gun of her own, and keep it in one hand to sweep the audience with while she holds a laser pointer for her PowerPoint in the other? Roll in with her own coterie of pistol-packing supporters, forming a human shield around her, maybe?

All of this is at once ridiculous, tragic, and terrifying. As I have argued elsewhere, the presence of guns at contentious public events inevitably changes the dynamic – there’s a chilling effect on expression, an ever-present implicit threat. Knowing that random members of the public are in your audience carrying heat is something that certainly should and will impact what you say, particularly when you’ve already been told that someone will show up to your event and shoot you. While I readily admit that I also find the prospect of ludicrously over-militarized campus security personnel toting M-16s and grenade launchers likewise toxic when it comes to impacting speech on campus, and in quashing student dissent in particular, I believe that colleges and universities are supposed to be places where ideas can be exchanged freely and without fear of violent repercussion. They should not be places where speech hangs in the balance of who’s better armed or who has the quicker draw – and certainly not places where a speaker should be silenced from the get-go by the prospect of having to speak in the crosshairs.

Why Didn’t Elliot Rodger Pay for Sex?

In the wake of the multiple murders committed by 22 year-old Elliot Rodger in Isla Vista, California, there has been a brilliant response on the part of numerous writers across the web tackling both Rodger’s motivations and their relationship to the broader cultural backdrop against which his rampage unfolded (see for example this piece by Laurie Penny, this one by Jessica Valenti, and this piece by Chauncey DeVega).

There’s also been a largely predictable backlash from figures on the right, from stigmatizing the mentally ill, to blaming Hollywood media, to cravenly attacking the families of victims in a pre-emptive effort to fend off (highly unlikely) new gun control legislation. Somewhat new to the landscape, though, is the special pleading from so-called “Men’s Rights” advocates, who have taken the trenchant analyses linking their own retrogressive ideology and Rodger’s misogyny as a reason to double-down on blaming women for their own victimization at the hands of men. In particular, one of the more wretched purveyors of this argument has announced that “more people will die unless you give men sexual options.”

Before anything else, let’s flag this vileness for what it is – a proclamation, in so many words, that unless women make themselves sexually available to men who desire them, they deserve to die. Having acknowledged that, and recognizing the fact that Rodger’s crimes were indisputably acts of misogynistic violence, I want to state something obvious – but which I haven’t seen brought up elsewhere – and then dwell on it for a bit. This is a tremendously difficult thing to talk about, and I hope to try to do so with some degree of delicacy, welcoming whatever responses I can get in the process.

Here’s the thing. Rodger did have “sexual options.” Sex workers in San Diego, not far from where Rodger lived, participate in a market that generated some $97 million dollars in 2007 alone. Had he been willing to make a day trip to Nevada, only a five-to-six-hour drive from Santa Barbara, Rodger could have paid for sex quite legally. Bracketing the immensely complicated question of how sex work should be considered as a legal matter (for a compendium of excellent articles on sex workers and the sex trade, try this Slate Long Form Collection), and stressing that I believe that sex workers, like all other workers and human beings, deserve respect and legal protection, the question arises: if Rodger, a self-professed virgin who had “never even kissed a girl,” was so incredibly driven by the need to have sex, and if our society, for better and for worse, makes it possible for men to purchase sexual encounters, then why didn’t he pay for it?

It’s not that he couldn’t afford it. We know that Rodger came from a background of considerable wealth and privilege. We know that he ultimately spent some three thousand dollars on the handguns, ammunition, and magazines he used in his rampage. We also know that, for years before, he appears to have been an avid purchaser of body-building paraphernalia, and was a member of an online forum for men united by the common experience of being “duped” into spending money on expensive courses, videos, and books supposedly guaranteed to improve their “game” at picking up women. Rodger’s memoir-manifesto is preoccupied with issues of money, and documents numerous expenditures, particularly on clothing, that were intended to improve his attractiveness and self-image: “Buying new clothes would always give me a temporary boost of confidence, and I practiced it as if it was a drug.” Given such willingness to shell out for what he understood to be the accoutrements of sexual attractiveness – the body-building, the clothes, etcetera – and his single-minded obsession with doing so for the purpose of having sex, why didn’t he just pay for sex itself?

Answering this question requires diving into Rodger’s grandiose memoir-manifesto, “My Twisted World.” That document reveals that, for all the money Rodger spent, he was also convinced not just that he needed more, but that he was mystically destined to receive it. In particular, Rodger was obsessed with winning the lottery. “I believed that it was destiny for me to win the Megamillions Lottery…People win the lottery every single month, so why not me? I was meant to live a life of significance and extravagance. I was meant to win this jackpot. It was destiny.” The money Rodger would win in the lottery would have one function above all: to make him sexually desirable. “As I sat meditating in my room, I imagined the ecstasy I would feel as scores of beautiful girls look at me with admiration as I drive up to college in a Lamborghini. Such an experience would make up for everything.”

Of course, winning the lottery is easier said than done, but Rodger was not easily dissuaded. After spending some $900 on lottery tickets to no avail, when he learned that the jackpot would hit $656 million, Rodger grew convinced that this win would be his.

“I was astounded and filled with a feverish enthusiasm of hope and desire. This was the highest lottery jackpot in history. I knew I was always destined for great things. This must be it! I was destined to be the winner of the highest lottery jackpot in existence. I knew right then and there that this jackpot was meant for me. Who else deserved such a victory? I had been through so much rejection, suffering, and injustice in my life, and this was to be my salvation. With my whole body filled with feverish hope, I spent $700 dollars on lottery tickets for this drawing. As I spent this money, I imagined all the amazing sex I would have with a beautiful model girlfriend I would have once I become a man of wealth.”

Needless to say, Rodger didn’t win, and he describes this disappointment – like practically every other negative experience he recounts – as an overwhelming loss.

“What I saw crushed all of my hope completely. My whole body shivered with horrific agony. I didn’t win. Three people won that jackpot, and it was split between them. But none of those three people were me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was certain I would be the winner. It was destiny… fate. But no, the world continued to give me no justice or salvation whatsoever.”

The Lamborghini and model girlfriend were not to be his. Meanwhile, the people who cared about Rodger were attempting more realistic measures to get him to socialize and engage with other people. Specifically, Rodger’s psychiatrist and parents arranged for him to see a series of “social skills counselors.” These counselors were also in their early twenties, and were intended to help Rodger improve in his abilities to relate to others and otherwise boost his confidence (as was the purpose of his mother’s gift of a BMW). But it didn’t work. The first counselor, a young man, displeased Rodger at their very first meeting, activating both his racial prejudices and sexual insecurities all at once:

“I asked him if he had ever had sex with girls in Isla Vista, and he told me he had sex with four girls! I was very jealous. Karlin was half Hawaiian and half Mexican, and he wasn’t that good looking. How on earth could he have managed to sleep with four girls in Isla Vista, while I had been there for two years and had none? It seemed absolutely preposterous. I didn’t want to see him at all after I found this out.”

The second counselor, though, appeared more promising, at least at first – because she was a woman.

“She was the first young girl I had interacted with in the entire time I stayed in Santa Barbara, and she was only hired to talk to me. How pathetic is that? At first, I didn’t want to have a female counsellor, but when I was introduced to her, I saw that she was quite a pretty looking blonde. I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to hang out with a blonde girl, despite the fact that she was a hired friend. It was the only time in my life that I had the experience of spending time with a girl my age, and even though it was all fake, I really enjoyed it. I felt so much better about life after each time we met. But then, I thought about how unfair it was that I could only get a fake little taste of such an experience, while other men get to do such a thing every single day with their girlfriends.”

But eventually this young woman moved away from Santa Barbara, leaving Rodger feeling even further alienated. “I decided not to have any more female counsellors. It has the same effect as hiring a prostitute, I imagine. It temporarily feels good for the moment, but afterward it makes one feel like a pathetic loser for having to hire a girl when other men could get the experience for free.”

It makes one feel like a pathetic loser for having to hire a girl when other men could get the experience for free. There’s a huge blind spot here. The young man who sees a Megamillions lotto jackpot as his ticket to a Lamborghini and sex with a supermodel is contemptuous of the idea of paying an actual woman for sex. Rodger disdains the idea of paying for sex, yet simultaneously conceives of wealth as his entrée into a world of sexual pleasure. What bridges the gap is the theme that both wealth and sex ought to be his by virtue of simple entitlement – they are prerogatives of privilege, rightfully his without effort or responsibility. His “destiny” is to accumulate and enjoy objects and experiences, not to form relationships with actual people.

The overarching sense that emerges from reading Rodger’s “My Twisted World” is that his “world” is only “twisted” to the extent that it isn’t entirely and unqualifiedly his, to the extent that it recedes or escapes his grasp. The child destined for greatness discovers that life is not simply a succession of rewards, sexual and monetary, but instead something more disappointing. But rather than understanding that monetary success and sexual fulfillment are objects and experiences to be encountered and shared through life in a world populated by other living subjects, all of whom struggle and suffer in their own ways, Rodger elevates his own grievance into a cosmic injustice. It is an injustice that, in one final act of entitlement, he in his “magnificence” is empowered to rectify through violent judgment: if the world cannot be his, he will destroy it, and himself.

And that’s the thing, the ultimate reason why I don’t think Rodger was ever willing to pay for sex. Not just because it presumably would have gone against the grain of his belief in his own entitlement, his conviction that it should have been his for “free,” or because it would have offended his delicate class sensibilities, or even because it would, in a sense, have been real – an actual encounter with another human body, however alienated, however tawdry. He couldn’t do it, didn’t do it, and wouldn’t do it, because actually having sex with another human being would have obviated his fundamental self-understanding as wounded and wronged. You can’t be aggrieved if you don’t have a grievance to nurse. In other words, I think that Rodger was aggrieved first, primarily and fundamentally – and the rhetoric of sexual frustration is a channel for that, an expression of it.

Here we come back, full circle, to the kernel of Rodger’s misogyny. Saying that a misogynist “objectifies” women is absolutely true, in that he views them as something other than equally human, that he makes them the mere objects of his will – playthings to win, abuse, display, and dispose of. They are the expendable corollaries to his desires. This is the logic that underwrites the vile demand that men “be given more sexual options.” Women are to be marshaled and made available to men, object-like, as resources for the fulfillment of their desires. And from this logic also flows the obvious threat: If women are not placed at men’s disposal, like objects, well, then, like displeasing objects, they deserve to be disposed of, men’s fervent desire transmuting into equally destructive rage the moment it is thwarted. If you can’t play with your toys the way you want, you break them and go home.

Rodger himself expresses this transition, writing about the development of his attitudes towards a family friend whom he knew as a child and with whom he later re-connected in Santa Barbara. Prior to meeting her again, he “stalked” her on Facebook, looking at pictures of her and her friends, and growing enraged as he did.

 “She was a popular, spoiled girl who partied with her hot, beautiful blonde-haired clique of friends. All of them looked like absolute cunts, and my hatred for them all grew from each picture I saw on her profile. They were the kind of beautiful, popular people who lived pleasurable lives and would look down on me as inferior scum, never accepting me as one of them. They were my enemies. They represented everything that was wrong with this world. [She] was my first friend in America. As a child, I played with her as an equal. Now she was my enemy. I would take great delight in torturing and flaying her and every single one of her spoiled, obnoxious evil friends.”

“My Twisted World” is a deeply disturbing read, but this section is, for me at least, the most horrifying. I can’t imagine what happens inside a person to change him from a young boy who can play with a young girl into a man who sees her as nothing but a cunt to fuck and kill and consume – a man who can slip between all those verbs so freely. I don’t know where individual pathology ends and where cultural pathology begins, how social and personal sicknesses form and reinforce one another. A chasm yawns between the fantasy in which Rodger wanted to live and the “twisted” world he made for himself – a gap between the fantasy of willing women, fast cars, and outrageous luxury that he felt he was owed and the snuff film he came obsessively to imagine and ultimately to enact, at least in part. What he did last Friday irrupted from that gap, and we are left to pick up the pieces, bury the bodies, and untwist the world as best we can.



Playing the Man Card

Update 5/25: In light of Friday night’s mass shooting in Isla Vista, confronting the relationship between gun violence, misogyny, and pro-gun extremism is more crucial than ever.

There’s a piece in Mother Jones by Mark Follman that’s worth a read, now more than ever. It’s about the experiences of numerous women affiliated with the Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America movement. These women have been the targets of repeated acts of intimidation, including threats of rape and sexual violence, stalking, and more. In one particularly memorable episode, activist Jennifer Longdon, who was left paralyzed after a 2004 shooting by unknown attackers, claims to have been ambushed in her driveway by a man carrying a rifle and dressed in black “like something out of a commando movie.” Follman writes: “He took aim at her and pulled the trigger. Longdon was hit with a stream of water. ‘Don’t you wish you had a gun now, bitch?’ he scoffed before taking off.” Although several of Follman’s sources provided him with copies of the threats made against them – including emails and voicemails – there’s been an inevitable backlash of gun enthusiasts accusing them of fabrication.

I understand that when it comes to debates over gun rights and gun control there’s always an impulse – on both sides – to discount or otherwise question personal stories. Several of the episodes Follman reports do indeed have a sensational character to them, and in some cases the victims may not have filed police reports. I admit, I’m still inclined to believe most of these stories anyway, for two reasons. First, at least in my own experience, violent threats from pro-gun extremists are quite real. Second, it is morally reprehensible to dismiss claims of threatened sexual assault in a nation in which nearly one in five women is likely to be raped in her lifetime.

But whatever you may think about its more headline-grabbing episodes, Follman’s piece offers some evidence that’s indisputable and deeply troubling. It’s hard to see video of a group of men gleefully riddling a topless female mannequin with bullets and then photographing it with its pants down around its ankles, or to watch a Florida firearms instructor shoot up a Moms Demand Action poster as a way of saying “Happy Mothers’ Day,” and fail to recognize that there’s a deeply twisted, violent misogyny at work in certain extremist segments of the gun rights movement.

Let’s be clear about something. I believe that the majority of firearms owners, and even of ardent Second Amendment supporters, don’t actively hate women – they’re decent people, and a not-inconsiderable number of them are in fact women. Saying otherwise paints too many good people with too broad a brush, much like claiming that all gun owners and Second Amendment supporters are racists. But it would also be naive to think that debates about gun control – like practically every other contentious debate in contemporary America – aren’t also shaped by deep-seated cultural problems of sexism and racism, or that gun violence isn’t also an inextricable part of the landscape of gendered and racialized violence. Sociological data, for example, indicates that professed racism correlates with increased odds of gun ownership among whites (although opposition to gun control and racism aren’t as linked). Likewise, 44% of all women killed by guns die at the hands of former or current domestic partners, while men are more likely to die in shootings by strangers, and having a gun in a home where there’s domestic violence increases a woman’s odds of dying by some 500%. Given the extent to which guns are involved in acts of violence, and the fact that American violence all-too-often involves sexual assault, domestic abuse, and racialized fears, the presence of guns on the scene shouldn’t be too surprising.

But what Follman’s article reveals, I think, is something more – a superadded, symbolic dimension to the vehemence of pro-gun extremism that is thoroughly gendered and deeply disturbing. The men shooting that mannequin are having a blast – no pun intend – and it’s hard to ignore the relish in that Florida gun instructor’s voice. Whether or not it bleeds into outright assault (in the legal sense), the symbolic violence they are inflicting on the women who oppose them carries overtones of male sadism at its worst. They’re putting those uppity women in their place – and they’re getting off on doing it.

Frankly, it is unsurprising that female gun control activists receive threats of rape. Women who take public, controversial stances on any issue regularly receive such abuse, and worse. But I think what makes the thinly-veiled imagery of misogynistic violence emanating from the darkest corners of the pro-gun movement particularly inevitable is that it targets women who are ostensibly threatening to take men’s guns away from them. Much as rapists seek to dominate their victims – frequently as a proof of their own virility, or in response to a perceived affront to their masculinity – these men are responding to women who threaten to emasculate them by “grabbing” their guns. In other words, they fear a kind of symbolic castration, and respond by threatening symbolic – and real – sexual violence.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not jumping off the often-caricatured Freudian deep end here. For most sane folks, a cigar is just a cigar, and a gun is just a gun – although NRA Board Member Ted Nugent’s invitation to Barack Obama to “suck on my machine gun” and talk radio host Pete Santilli’s call for Hillary Clinton to be “shot in the vagina” may be the exceptions that prove that rule. Those cases aside, we do live in a nation that associates the ability to wield a gun with sexually successful masculinity, particularly in our popular media. In his excellent book On Killing, former paratrooper and West Point psychologist David Grossman observes that:

Much has been made of the relationship between male sexuality and the power of motorcycles (1,200 cc of power throbbing between your legs) and muscle cars. The continuing popularity of magazines in which motorcycles and cars are displayed along with scantily clad women in provocative positions make this relationship clear. This kind of sex-power linkage also exists in the gun world. A video advertised in gun magazines, Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns, taps this same vein. “You’ve got to see this tape to believe it,” says the ad. “14 outrageous sexy girls in string bikinis and high heels blasting away with the sexiest full auto machine guns ever produced.” The psychological state that is satisfied by Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns is not widely shared among gun aficionados and is often viewed with considerable scorn…Yet, in reality, our Sexy Girls and Sexy Guns video is only a little removed from the not-so-subliminal message of virility implied in the familiar image of a barely clad woman clinging to James Bond as he coolly brandishes a pistol.

I’d argue that the same is true for a great deal of gun advertising – hell, buying a Bushmaster is literally marketed as getting “your man card” back. Of course, in the real world, dropping a grand or two on a tacticool AR makes you an action movie star about as much as spending eight bucks on a pack of Marlboro Reds makes you a cowboy. But when it comes to the theatrical performance of American masculinity – and the marketing bottom line – projecting virility and general badassness is all that counts.


But just because that image is a fantasy doesn’t make threatening it any less dangerous – in fact, the tenuousness of that fantasy translates directly into the ferocity with which it is protected. Shattering someone’s fantasies is a dangerous prospect, because people kill for fantasies all the time. And while I’d argue that, at the end of the day, the threat of nationwide gun confiscation is also pretty much a fantasy – one that also has a lot to do with marketing and unrealistic perceptions of personal power on both sides of the debate – I do think it’s incumbent on all of us, and in this case particularly on gun owners and Second Amendment advocates, to look this particular flavor of ugliness in the face and repudiate it.

On Shellie Zimmerman, the Guns of Patriarchy, and American Double Standards

Via the redoubtable Tressie McMillan Cottom, I came across this phenomenal piece by Robert Reece at Still Furious and Brave. It’s called Shared Victimhood and Redemption Through Racism and is about the similarities between Shellie Zimmerman, the soon-to-be ex-wife of the killer of Trayvon Martin, and Carolyn Bryant, the wife of one of the murderers of Emmett Till.

Like Bryant, who stood by her husband during his trial, Shellie Zimmerman aided her husband in his — to the point of committing perjury. Also like Bryant, who went on to divorce her husband, Shellie Zimmerman is now seeking separation from hers. And in her bid to divorce him – and presumably also to gain some media exposure – Shellie Zimmerman is invoking his killing of Martin much in the same way as Carolyn Bryant did her husband’s killing of Till: as evidence of her abusive partner’s capacity for violence.

In other words, both represent cases of (white) women leveraging their husband’s killing of  black children — outrages that went shamefully unredressed by the criminal justice system — in bids to claim victim status and exert their own right to vindication and compensation in a court of law. As Reece devastatingly puts it: “Zimmerman and Bryant opportunistically use the boys’ murders as proof of their husbands’ capacity for abuse when they benefit from shared victimhood, but they uphold their husbands in court through their testimony when they seek to defend white supremacy.”

Reece’s piece is absolutely on-point and raises a ton of deeply complicated, nuanced questions. Without gainsaying the legitimacy of Bryant and Zimmerman’s status as victims of domestic violence, Reece forces us to confront not just the irreducibility of different experiences of suffering modes of white patriarchal oppression — violence against women versus violence against non-whites and blacks in particular — but also the ways in which the former exists in relation to the latter. What are we to make of a situation wherein white women — who are undeniably victims of violence and oppression themselves — can capitalize on the undeniable, unavenged victimization (murder!) of black children as a means of liberating themselves from the immediate violence of white patriarchy in their households — while simultaneously doubling-down on and reinforcing its injustice?

The women themselves seem quite aware that this situation is a delicate one. Their tarrying with white patriarchal violence requires what Reece calls a “colorblind abuse picture” – both Zimmerman and Bryant “openly wonder about the details of each event, but they stop short of saying that the murders were racially motivated or that their husbands should have gone to prison.” They must do this not just because the analogies between themselves and the boys their husband killed is deeply faulty — they are alive and advocating for themselves in the court of law, not dead and failed by the justice system — but also because, on a much deeper level, the narrative of the potential victimization of white women is constantly marshaled as a pretext for violence against black males. As Reece puts it, “If they [Zimmerman and Bryant] chose to acknowledge the racialized elements of their husbands’ actions they would be forced to come to terms with the fact that they are responsible as white men’s violent outbursts against people of color are often patriarchal attempts to protect white women.”

I think this is totally right. The narrative of white women qua potential victims of black male violence — a fantasized, imaginary, paranoid fear that says more about the white men who cultivate and are dominated by it than it does about actual day-to-day reality — is indeed deeply ingrained in American history (as Reece himself has chronicled). Moreover, and here’s where my own research interests come into play – this narrative is also, I think, pervasive in much of contemporary American gun culture.*

It is a manifest but frequently under-appreciated fact that the dominant contemporary “Second Amendment advocacy” / firearms industry lobbying group – the National Rifle Association – owes its current, aggressively far-right incarnation to an organizational transformation in the late 1970s that was driven in large part by a rise in crime rates and white fear of nonwhites and of  urban blacks in particular. Moreover, the man who more or less singlehandedly engineered that transformation – Former NRA President Harlon Carter – was himself responsible for shooting and killing a 15-year old Latino boy.

By the same token, much of contemporary gun advertising trades heavily in themes of patriarchal masculinity. Gun ownership is a sign of virility, a way to “Get Your Man Card Back.” The paradigmatic exercise of this virility is for a man to protect “his” womenfolk – wives, girlfriends, daughters – and this represents a constant trope in the burgeoning internet boards devoted to “Defensive Gun Use” stories. Guns are pitched to men as devices for protecting women — from whatever or whomever it is those men fear, rationally or otherwise.

If, in the general American imagination, one of the primary things guns are for is for men to protect women, then it also entirely makes sense that nowadays women can and are encouraged to use them to protect themselves. Guns are ever more frequently marketed to women directly, fashion accessorized and all. And when it came to the (successful) pushback against a possible renewed Assault Weapons Ban only a month after Sandy Hook, it was a female lawyer and activist, Gayle Trotter, who took to the Senate floor to conjure an entirely fabricated scenario wherein a totally hypothetical woman would need a tricked-out,  “scary looking” combat rifle to fend off no less than five “hardened criminal” attackers all at once.

In light of this, I have a question or two. First, some caveats. I am in no way challenging a woman’s right to carry a weapon to protect herself or others. Nor am I denying the existence of entirely reasonable, totally understandable circumstances and experiences that could lead her to make that choice – and righteously so.** Nor still am I challenging the right of anyone – men included – to choose to own a gun to protect themselves or those who need protection. That right is and remains law ratified by the Supreme Court.

But I must ask: When white American men (and, increasingly women) buy guns to protect themselves, what color is the attacker that they fear? What faces do they give the imaginary home invaders when they hear the white Gayle Trotter’s ludicrous story – are they the ruddy Cornish farmhands from Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs or are they are something several shades darker?

I fear that we already know what far too many of the answers would be. For my part, much of the hate-mail I’ve received from my writing about my personal experiences with firearms – testosterone-fueled, vitriolic tirades that are not just sexist and homophobic but also thoroughly racist – has left me with little illusion on that score.

And I’ll ask something else, even though I’m eager to be proven wrong: Why aren’t there any glossy ads for handguns featuring a black woman – even her hand? And I fear we know the answer to this too: because when a black woman even threatens to exercise the right we so ghoulishly bestow on George Zimmerman, she doesn’t even get the chance of becoming Shellie Zimmerman. She becomes Marissa Alexander.

Here’s the upshot, what I’m driving at, and what I’ve been thinking about since reading Robert Reece’s provocative and brilliant piece. We live in a country where both the claim to victim status and the right to legally threaten and exercise violence are all too often the prerogatives of white supremacy, and are appropriated from inflicted and upon black folks. Denying or ignoring this state of affairs only reaffirms it – and capitalizing on it, as I think Shellie Zimmerman is doing, and also as, in their way, the NRA and many gun manufacturers do – only makes the suffering, and, yes, the violence, worse.


*I realize that this term is somewhat of a generalization and that “gun cultures” might be more apt. If there’s interest, I can elaborate on this later on.

**I do, though, feel obligated to reference the complex and troubling data on the relationship between the presence of guns in homes where domestic violence has occurred and the likelihood that women will be killed by their partners. See here and here for some information on that subject.