As we add Elliot Rodger to that growing list of rampage school shooters, where he joins Adam Lanza, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, Steven Kazmierczak, and so many others, we will continue to hear the same refrain from media pundits and armchair diagnosticians. He was mentally ill. It’s guns. Some will return to such tired tropes as violent video games or goth music. (These last are easily dismissed, since violent crime has actually decreased in recent years, except for the category of rampage shooter.)
As a sociologist who studies masculinity, I watched the horrific scene unfold on Friday, and the holiday weekend of barbecues and remembrance now loomed as a weekend of grief and sadness. I was reminded of other men who targeted women who had somehow done them wrong by rejecting their sexual advances. A guy like George Hennard, 35, who drove his truck into a Texas diner in October, 1991, killing 23 people and wounding another 20. Survivors reported that he seemed intent on killing women and that he referred to women as “vipers.” Or George Sodini, 48, who entered an aerobics class in suburban Pennsylvania in August 2009 and opened fire, murdering three women and wounding nine others. In notes he left behind, Sodini wrote that “30 million women rejected” him, and that he had not had sex in 20 years. His revenge: he would “prevail over the female vipers.”
Elliot Rodger was eerily similar. A 22-year-old self-described virgin, Rodger was incensed that he was unable to get a date. In the Youtube video he made before his rampage, his tone shifts from confused to contemptuous as he describes his situation: “College is the time when everyone experiences those things such as sex and fun and pleasure, but in those years I’ve had to rot in loneliness…” he says. “It’s not fair … I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me but I will punish you all for it.”
In his 137-page “manifesto” left to be found after his death, he is furious that despite the fact that he has a nice car, is attractive and smart and funny – in short, as he says, “the perfect guy,” a “supreme gentleman” — girls seem to be interested in guys who are clearly his inferiors — “brutes,” and “jerks” including (and here he turns racial), African-Americans, Asians and Latinos.
“I saw other boys who had inferior cars driving around with hot girls in their passenger seats. I have a BMW and never had any hot girl in my passenger seat. Not once. It only made me fume with rage. Santa Barbara was such a beautiful town, but I could go nowhere without being insulted by my enemies. The mere sight of them enjoying their happy lives was an insult to me, because I deserve it more than them.” (Emphasis his.)
It’s in those last sentences that Rodger expresses what I have come to call “aggrieved entitlement,” that sense that they are entitled to certain things — power, wealth, sex – and that they are entitled to use violence to restore what they believe is rightfully theirs. In my book, ANGRY WHITE MEN, I chronicle how this sense of aggrieved entitlement is expressed among various groups, like Men’s Rights Activists, White Supremacists, school shooters, right-wing media pundits, and men, like Rodger, who murder women.
In the upside-down world of male entitlement, it’s women who commit the injustice.
You forced me to suffer all my life, now I will make you all suffer. I waited a long time for this. I’ll give you exactly what you deserve, all of you. All you girls who rejected me, looked down upon me, you know, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men.
Such injury to his sense of self, such emasculation, such humiliation is the foundation for what he perceives as retaliatory violence. Violence is therefore justified because it enables the restoration of his manhood. Rodger portentiously calls it the “Day of Retribution” – “my attempt to do everything, in my power, to destroy everything I cannot have. All of those beautiful girls I’ve desired so much in my life, but can never have because they despise me and loathe me, I will destroy [sic].”
And so, like any “real man,” Elliot Rodger didn’t just get mad, he got even. Today, as I write, there are Facebook fan pages, calling Rodger a “hero” for standing up to the feminists.
In that sense, Elliot Rodger, and his newfound followers, was not some crazed deviant, a madman hell-bent on mayhem. Rather, he was an over-conformist to certain ideas about what it means to be a self-described “alpha male,” what men are entitled to, and what they deserve. It may be necessary to disarm those over-conformists, yes, but we have to first see them. And often they are hiding in plain sight.
Michael Kimmel is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at Stony Brook University and author of Angry White Men (2013).