The video “confession” of Elliot Rodger, the man responsible for last night’s attack on UC-Santa Barbara, is one of the more disturbing things I’ve ever seen. In particular, I am struck by what a performance it is. Even in his full-blown twisted revenge fantasy, this person is putting on an act. If I didn’t know how sickeningly real the video was, I would think it was some young actor making an audition tape. All of Rodger’s complaints are cliches: he wasn’t noticed, he wasn’t respected, and most of all, he didn’t get laid enough, and so everyone has to die. Women are sluts and men are undeserving. We’re all guilty because nobody recognized his straight white male greatness. It was the same way with Seung-Hui Cho: a stream of masculinist fantasies so exaggerated, it could only come from someone trying to embody a vision of manhood he didn’t actually feel.
There is, as I’m sure you’re aware, a revanchist masculinist movement that has flourished online. It’s associated with the “pickup artist” community, with men’s rights activists, with a general sense that times were better when men were men and gas cost a nickel a gallon, or whatever. You’re most likely to encounter this phenomenon in the form of someone talking about “beta males” online– the beta male, you see, being the emasculated nebbish which society says it wants, but who secretly wishes to be the “alpha male” who is traditionally masculine (and gets, like, crazy numbers of chicks). It’s all ported, stupidly, from alpha wolf theory, which, you know, is like saying that human societies should be matriarchal because bee hives have queens. Worse still for the self-identified alpha males: there’s no such thing as an alpha wolf. The theory is utterly discredited. The researcher who developed the initial theory himself has repudiated it. So it’s not just porting an idea of “natural” social structure from one arbitrary species to humanity, it’s porting a bogus idea of that social structure.
There’s an even deeper problem, though, for men who explicitly embrace traditional masculinity: there’s nothing traditional about knowing you’re embracing tradition. Whatever their virtues or vices, the manly men from long ago that these bros imagine they are emulating didn’t spend all their time thinking about what it meant to be manly men. Indeed: it’s precisely the unthinking acceptance of the gender hierarchy that gave these men the “confidence” (read: entitlement) that neo-masculinists want to emulate. But you can’t think your way to an unthinking prejudice. If you have to read a website to tell you to be traditionally masculine, you will never, ever be traditionally masculine. You can’t choose an unchosen attitude. John Wayne did not have a blog. And I truly believe that it’s the combination of this association between masculinity and the capacity for violence on one hand, and the ambient postmodernism we live in on the other, that creates these monsters. The knowledge that they are acting like manly men, rather than just being manly men, makes this self-conception a maze they cannot get out of. They are told that they only have value if the embody an ideal they cannot think their way into.
And that’s why traditional masculinity has to die.
The association of male value with aggression, dominance, and power is one of the most destructive forces in the world, and so it has to be destroyed. Traditional masculinity has to die in just the same way that sexism and racism and homophobia have to die. It can’t be reformed, it can’t be rescued. It has to be replaced. It’s utterly infected, with the celebration of violence, sexual entitlement, throbbing misogyny, and a fake self-confidence that is almost always hiding total self-loathing. If the kind of sick masculinity that leads to these crimes were a religion, people would call it incompatible with modernity. If it were a race, Fox News would talk about that race’s culture of violence. If it were a political ideology, it would be classified alongside white supremacy or anti-Semitism. How could it not be, given the spasms of horrific violence that we now expect to happen over and over again? I don’t excuse Rodger or anyone else for the terrible, unforgivable choices they make. The sickness within our culture is not an excuse. But it is part of the explanation, and it needs to be cut out like a cancer.
The masculinity that replaces it will not be “anti-male,” whatever that could possibly mean. It won’t be anti-strength. It won’t be anti-confidence or anti-leadership or anti-toughness. It won’t be anti-sex. (What could be more anti-sex, really, than this person’s determination to destroy other people for the explicit reason that they had consensual sex and he didn’t?) But it will reject utterly the strangled, stupid, pathetic association between male strength and the capacity for violence. It will stop associating a man’s value with the number of women he has sex with. It will recognize traditional masculinity for what it is: a broken, impossible fantasy that even its most enthusiastic proponents can’t achieve, a straightjacket that constrains men like Elliot Rodger, crushing them, and calls it empowerment. Time for it to die.
If this kind of aggrieved performance of masculinity was the sort of thing we called terrorism in our society, we’d have a whole new government agency to try and stop it. We’d throw millions of dollars at the problem. We’d stop at nothing. Instead, we must do the work ourselves, culturally and socially, until traditional masculinity is the peculiar, obsolete artifact it already should be. Think of the lives we might save.