Thursday, 12 June 2014

Gender, Race, and Isla Vista

There is little question that Elliot Rodger's murder of six people on May 23, 2014 was an act of gender-based violence. He set out to kill women, because they (broadly, as a gender, for he saw it in such essentialist terms) refused to provide him with the sexual gratification he believed they owed him, and the men he believed they unjustly favoured over him. It is crucial that we understand this aspect of the Isla Vista killings, rather than focusing simply on gun control or mental illness, because Rodger's actions were a hyperbolical form of a pervasive social identity: masculinity.

Yet, as important as it is to acknowledge the relation between masculinity and Rodger's actions, it is also vital to note that his troubled understanding of gender was not the only crisis of identity to influence his behaviour. Dexter Thomas argues that racial insecurity played a significant role in the massacre:

Like many men, Elliot was only able to understand women as status symbols. His obsessive quest to lose his virginity had less to do with a desire for pleasure and more to do with a need to show other men that he was a white man, or as good as one. To him, his failure to seduce a white woman was embarrassing proof of his inferiority to his white peers.
Elliot's main problem was that he was not white.
A lot of people seem to think that Elliot felt that he was entitled to sex and attention from women. I don't think this is quite accurate. Elliot's descriptions of himself as "beautiful" or "magnificent" read like desperate attempts at self-delusion. He is much more honest and vulnerable when he refers to his racial background.
Elliot clearly believed that his being half Asian stained him, and ruined the entitlement he would have had if he were pure white. His most clear anger was directed at those lower on the racial totem pole - "filthy" blacks, "low-class" Latinos, and "full-blooded Asians" - who were having sex with white women. He fully accepted that he did not deserve what his white peers had, but he could not stand to see those with even less pure blood than him get the rewards that should have trickled down to him first.
Thomas demonstrates that Rodger's sense of entitlement was heavily informed by the concept of racial hierarchy. According to this distorted logic, while all men might deserve women, racialized men do not deserve white women, who represent the highest prize for, and affirmation of, masculinity. This is an important lesson we should not lose sight of. Prejudice does not operate through discrete categories; rather, systems of oppression intersect with one another, multiplying the challenges confronting those who belong to marginalized groups. Likewise, power and privilege are not bestowed equally. Despite an incredible range of privileges in terms of class and gender, Rodger perceived himself to be impotent because of a supposed racial deficiency and he exercised his rage over this shortcoming through an act of gender-based violence, albeit one directed at men and women alike.

Ultimately, the point here is not analyze the precise motivations of Rodger. Instead, we need to zoom out from the unique particularities of the Isla Vista tragedy to the structural context it occurred in. We live in a deeply stratified world rife with privilege and oppression. If we want to stop future acts of gender-based and racial violence, we need to stop pretending we live in a post-feminist, post-racial world and instead face up to the persistent reality of these violent systems.

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