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Could the emergence of a “toxic masculinity” be contributing to recent mass shootings?

In our culture, men are brought up to believe the world is theirs for the taking, provided they are tough, determined, and dominant. This unfortunately includes women (particularly their bodies) as part of the package deal.

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By Chris Towler (UFV Alum) – Email

Print Edition: July 2, 2014

“Men benefit materially, politically, and economically from the patriarchy, but at the cost of their own mental health: the patriarchy normalizes violent behaviour in men.” (Image:  Wikimedia)

“Men benefit materially, politically, and economically from the patriarchy, but at the cost of their own mental health: the patriarchy normalizes violent behaviour in men.” (Image: Wikimedia)

The Isla Vista shooting spree was a horrible tragedy that occurred on May 23, perpetrated by Elliot Rodgers. Rodgers killed six people in stabbings and shootings before exchanging gunshots with police while driving his vehicle through Isla Vista, and then proceeded to take his own life.

After his suicide, it was revealed that Rodgers left behind a 140-page manifesto and numerous YouTube videos detailing his life that led up to his plans for the shootings. Unlike other mass murders, these remnants left open a window to the disturbed mind of the 22-year-old killer. In them, he divulged the ultimate source of his woes: his persistent virginity. Rodgers spoke about the “suffering” he had endured — due to his lack of a girlfriend — from the seat of his BMW, bought for him by his parents. This mirrors an aspect of masculinity society faces: entitlement. Though Rodgers was clearly mentally ill, I believe the emergence of toxic elements in modern masculinity are strongly to blame.

In our culture, men are brought up to believe the world is theirs for the taking, provided they are tough, determined, and dominant. This unfortunately includes women (particularly their bodies) as part of the package deal. This process is referred to as “hegemonic masculinity,” a set of practices that ensure men end up in positions of social dominance. On a smaller level, hegemonic masculinity appears as men competing with each other and subordinating women into obtainable objects. What’s more, we teach men to place a gargantuan amount of self-worth on their “sexual conquests.” We lavish praise upon them for their sexual prowess, while women conversely are shunned and shamed for it.

This behaviour is echoed back to us through movies, television, books, and music. The hero does the thing that heroes do and he also gets the girl! It is a narrative that positively permeates our world.

But entitlement isn’t the only issue at play here — it goes deeper than that. There is also the way society forges the collective Western male psyche.

We teach men from a very early age to “be tough” and “man up!” or to be stoic and unemotional. To be emotional is to risk the label of being effeminate — a highly effective tool for keeping men within this box of entitlement. In fact, it seems the only socially acceptable emotion for men is anger. When you combine this narrowing of the male emotional spectrum with hegemonic masculinity, you’ve got trouble on your hands. If we socialize men to believe their value is derived only from competition and domination, then you will always have men who do not meet those expectations. When they cannot achieve the narrative left for them by our culture, then they are bound to fall back on the only options we’ve given them to express their masculinity: rage and anger. This is not a new concept — mass shootings and violence are overwhelmingly masculine phenomena.

But these ideas are not created in a vacuum. They’ve come from somewhere. This is ultimately the point that’s been so unsettling: these misogynistic and entitled viewpoints held by Rodgers came from a larger, misogynistic culture that breeds entitlement to women’s bodies, and these views are a lot more common than we’d like to think.

We need to be more aware of what we are doing to our young men. While feminism has been at the forefront of social change for women, there has yet to be a similar push from men for greater social acceptance of a wider definition of masculinity. This is an issue feminism can address. Hegemonic masculinity and its associated behaviours are a symptom of a patriarchal culture that teaches strict gender binaries: one dominant and one subordinate. Men benefit materially, politically, and economically from the patriarchy, but at the cost of their own mental health: the patriarchy normalizes violent behaviour in men.   Through dismantling the patriarchy, we can strive to fix our society and the mental health of our men. Both men and women have a role to play here: we can teach our young boys that their self-worth does not come from their sexual accomplishments. We can work to provide an environment where men do not feel like they have to compromise their masculinity every time they feel sad, are in need of help, or need to talk about their own emotions. Men are deserving of love and compassion just like anyone else. They need to be encouraged to remove the mask of masculinity by providing a safe environment where they can do this free from judgement. This will improve the well-being of not only men but society as a whole. If we cannot do this, how can we expect to let “boys be boys” if the cost of modern masculinity results in mass murder?

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