by Guest Contributor Kate MacDonald Polak
Some years ago, I left a painful relationship. As I tentatively poked a toe back in the dating waters, I decided to get on OKCupid to deal with my loneliness and my fear about getting close to men again. After a couple of unremarkable dates with a couple of pleasant men, I met up with a man—I’ll call him Aaron—for drinks at a local watering hole. He was a fellow PhD student, working in engineering, attractive, athletic, and funny in the messages we exchanged prior to meeting. He sat down, ordered a cosmopolitan, and proceeded to spend the bulk of the next hour talking about what he did to regulate his intestinal flora.
After a couple of drinks, I politely bid him adieu, and texted him later to explain that I “wasn’t feeling it.” What followed could have, in a different circumstance, rendered me permanently abstinent. A flood of angry, ugly texts poured in, Aaron explaining that he didn’t want a relationship with me and wasn’t interested in me romantically because my field was so useless, but he could tell that I was a woman “who didn’t know how to treat men properly.” He claimed that he was going to “teach me how men should be treated.” Six months of periodic texts followed, along with occasional calls from unknown numbers, messages ranging from “I’m a nice guy, I don’t see why girls don’t give me a chance” to “Women just want men who will treat them badly, because women aren’t that bright” to “Do you think some people should just be alone?”
It was hard to feel sorry for him because I was terrified. If I hadn’t been the recipient of frequent insults and veiled threats, I might have been able to give him a more cogent analysis of why he was alone. His tone suggested he felt as though he was under attack, although I never contacted him. What he said about himself didn’t jive with the way he was behaving. His texts and calls only ended after the man I had been dating grabbed my telephone and texted a response explaining that Aaron would now have to deal with him as well. Apparently, harassment can only cease when you become another’s “property.” After months of fear and annoyance, the experience eventually faded into a funny story to tell at parties.
Then, the story of Elliot Rodger happened, and I was reminded of nothing so much as the prospect of being “trained” by Aaron.
Elliot Rodger gunned down six people in California, leaving behind a YouTube video warning of his attack, and explaining his reasons. Against an eerily idyllic backdrop of palm trees, in a status-laden BMW, Rodger recounts his years of loneliness in a way so relentlessly entitled and vacuous that it would have been hilarious, if he hadn’t followed through on his threats. Entitlement has been a hot topic in recent months, considering “entitlement reforms” and “entitlement programs,” and more importantly, people are starting to speak more about the ways in which entitlement plays a role in and has material consequences for our daily lives. Currently trending on Twitter is #YesAllWomen, which documents everyday sexism, a clear snark against the “not all men!” response-turned-meme, lampooning objections to perceived over-generalizations about men.
Katie McDonough’s excellent piece called for people to speak more explicitly about the culture of “toxic male entitlement” that undergirds tragedies like those enacted by Rodgers. McDonough cites specific cases in which women’s humanity is systematically stripped from them, noting the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls, as well as several cases closer to home. As we look at specific items in the news, memes reframing debates about how we treat sexual violence, thoughtful articles discussing historical trends, personal narratives like my own above, and sociological analyses, I think it’s also worth looking at the broader narrative structures which constitute the lens through which we read such events.
Let’s take a look at where Rodger is coming from. In his final video, he tells the viewer:
“I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me. But I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice—a crime—because I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy, and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men.”
This is a familiar narrative recycled by many young men who have not yet had success in terms of dating and sex. “Friend-zoned.” “Girls don’t like nice guys.” The story goes that women, in spite of having “nice guys” available, perversely choose instead to date men who treat them poorly.
This narrative has a few issues. In the first place, it rests on the assumption that individual men (and individuals in general) are owed partnership and sexual satisfaction. In an ideal world, people are happily paired off and those pairings result in mutual sexual and emotional fulfillment. Of course, this “ideal” world rests also on an assumption that romantic pairings are themselves an ideal, which is debatable at best and damaging at worst. What one can reasonably expect to be granted in life varies dramatically based on previous circumstances, upbringing, and the specific social space in which you find yourself, as well as on your own character traits. Rodger assumed that he should have sexual satisfaction and partnership, which in turn spawned the idea that he was unfairly denied what he apparently thought of as material goods that could be purchased through what he was.
The assumed “purchasing power” of being raises the second issue with the narrative: that the quality of being “nice” is reason enough to have desires fulfilled. I won’t reiterate David Wong’s highly amusing and prescient discussion of this here, but suffice it to say, more qualities than baseline “niceness” are required in romantic transactions. Leaving aside the deeply disturbing irony of a self-proclaimed “perfect guy” explaining his intent to “punish” girls, what role does this play in the narrative? Kindness is a positive character trait, but it’s also something that can be either honed or abandoned. In the story of how Elliot Rodger happened, and how there are so many like him, being “nice” is treated more or less as an accomplishment, something that deserves reward rather than as an expected aspect of human beings in general.
The third issue is perhaps the most complex, and rests in the structure of the narrative that Rodger and others tell themselves (and are implicitly told as well). The world as they describe it is populated with large, brutish, “obnoxious” men whose physiques and penchant for poor treatment are the only things that are attractive to women.
In dividing men into the “haves” and the “have-nots,” the Rodgers of the world align themselves with the underdog narrative, a core emotional tenet of American culture. However, it has the consequence of also ascribing to women both an immense amount of power and a vast, self-destructive stupidity.
In this narrative, women are either foolishly brainwashed into desiring the “haves,” or are simply dirty sluts who take genuine pleasure in declining the “have-not’s” sexual advances. Rodger tells us that “you deserve it, simply for the crime of living a better life than me.” So, in the world of this narrative, the person (in this case, Rodgers) occupies the role of much-maligned hero, who in spite of adversity will triumph over the malicious array of forces aligned against him. The underdog narrative is a narrative that structures much of the American consciousness, and it has its uses: it can foster hard work and persistence. On the flip side, it can also foster a sense of besiegement.
The sense that one is surrounded by people with more power—who have direct power over whether or not you can attain your desires—is scary and frustrating. Midway through the video, Rodger tells us that, after the slaughter, we will see that he is “the true alpha male,” tying into the nauseating wolf metaphor that informs so much of the interpersonal discussion about masculinity. The concept of the “alpha male” has proven enormously seductive for many men, although it fundamentally misunderstands not only the social lives of animals, but also of humans. It’s a story we use to try to make sense of the world, but it bears more resemblance to Aesop’s Fables than to human social arrangements.
Let’s look a little more closely at the video. While the setting is important, equally worth address is his awkward posture, occasionally shifting to put his curled fist carefully under his chin. The obvious self-awareness is painful, and is only enhanced by mixture of common phrasing and elevated diction: “all those popular kids, who lived lives of such hedonistic pleasure while I’ve had to rot in loneliness for all these years. They’ve all looked down upon me…” Even as he recites these clearly-memorized lines, one can’t help but notice that the sun glare is in his face, washing out some of his features, and coloring his eyes slightly red.
While we can all agree that Rodger was an entitled, whiney creep whose blithe choice to slaughter those he perceived as his persecutors elevated him to the status of a monster, the narrative by which he became monstrous is less foreign than one might think.
We’ve all had moments where we’ve felt entitled to something that was denied, where we’ve been kind and have not been shown kindness in return. We’ve all put ourselves in the role of heroic underdog, fighting against far superior forces. But we’re not all Elliot Rodger. Are we?
To be clear, I’m not advocating sympathy or compassion for him. Instead, I want us to take another look at the stories he told himself, and to think about how those stories are common. More importantly, I want to propose that the underdog story erases more than it shows.
We need our collective cultural myths. They’re the stories we live by. But the underdog story, however emotionally satisfying it is, also carries with it darker consequences that can’t simply be compartmentalized into “mental illness” and “gun violence.” The narratives that lead up to radical violence are as important to understand as the violence itself. We may all have the option of writing our own stories, but our stories fit into recognizable genres that have material consequences for both our lives and the lives of those around us.
Elliot Rodger’s story of the underdog claiming just retribution left six dead. His screed started firmly rooted in an underdog story, drew from narratives of righteous retribution, winding slowly into the apocalyptic. However, as the video draws to a close, you can see him lose his place a bit—too many narrative threads, and too much room for extemporaneous ad-lib. He ends the video with the threat of “utter annihilation,” as the end to this narrative is a foregone conclusion, given the genres. The underdog will succeed, the vengeance is fair and re-integrates order into the world, and doom comes for the sinners.
The narrative he and others died for has other effects as well. When I came across Aaron, the man who harassed me for months, it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered that level of entitlement. It was, however, the first time I took a step back from my fear to think about the stories someone like him would have to tell himself in order to continue to think he was a good person. And it made me wonder more about the stories we each tell ourselves to maintain the sense that we are positive, deserving people in the world.