Revisiting Elliot Rodger, Toxic Masculinity, and #YesAllWomen

Hey y’all – I know it’s been a long time since my last update (over a month!). Some of you are aware from my last post that in the meantime I’ve been battling some personal issues related to a painful chronic illness. Coincidentally, this past month has been EXPLODING with feminist news at a rapid-fire clip. While I would have loved to devote a full post to each of these events individually, at this point it seems prudent to spend a couple of posts just trying to play catch-up. In this first post, I’ll provide a brief overview of where the UCSB killing spree falls in the feminist canon and links to some of the best articles about the tragedy and the large-scale feminist response to it.

Elliot Rodger, Toxic Masculinity, & The UCSB Murders

“Being noticed by women wasn’t really about the women. His relationship with women was about showing men that he has relationships with women. He is sad that he disappointed his father by not dating a tall beautiful blonde (always a tall beautiful blonde). At university, he goes out to find a woman to take home so his roommates will see that he is better than them. When he finds a new roommate, an older student who doesn’t give a shit, Elliot can’t stand the idea that this new roommate knows Elliot doesn’t have girls over.
He is infuriated when men that are lower-class, or of a ‘lower’ race, are seen with beautiful blonde women, the women that he deserves. Because these men ‘have’ women, he comes to hate women for being possessed. Women don’t exist in this place. Men drive the entire story.”
-Eryk Salvaggio, in his disturbing must-read, “Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood”

At this point, you’ve probably heard a lot about Elliot Rodger: his manifesto, his misogyny, his racism, and most importantly, his sense of entitlement. I’ve heard other people saying (as they often say in the wake of a national tragedy) that it is a mistake to talk about Elliot Rodger by name because it elevates him to “celebrity” status. While this is a real and valid concern, I believe it would be a mistake not to remember Elliot Rodger. While he is certainly no celebrity in the traditional sense, he is an almost unbelievably tidy case study in the effects of toxic masculinity, the set of social expectations for men that normalize and encourage traits like violence and sexual dominance. This set of unofficial rules, while never being so clearly linked to a murder spree before, is not new. In fact, back in 2012, David Wong wrote an article about misogyny that is so appropriate it could have been written intentionally about Elliot Rodger and the cultural cues that grew his sense of entitlement. An excerpt:

“Does it seem like men feel kind of entitled to sex? Does it seem like we react to rejection with the maturity of a child being denied a toy?
Well, you have to keep in mind that what we learn as kids is really hard to deprogram as an adult. And what we learned as kids is that we males are each owed, and will eventually be awarded, a beautiful woman. We were told this by every movie, TV show, novel, comic book, video game and song we encountered. …
In each case, the woman has no say in this — compatibility doesn’t matter, prior relationships don’t matter, nothing else factors in. If the hero accomplishes his goals, he is awarded his favorite female. Yes, there will be dialogue that maybe makes it sound like the woman is having doubts, and she will make noises like she is making the decision on her own. But we, as the audience, know that in the end the hero will ‘get the girl,’ just as we know that at the end of the month we’re going to ‘get our paycheck.’ Failure to award either is breaking a societal contract. The girl can say what she wants, but we all know that at the end, she will wind up with the hero, whether she knows it or not.
And now you see the problem. From birth we’re taught that we’re owed a beautiful girl. We all think of ourselves as the hero of our own story, and we all (whether we admit it or not) think we’re heroes for just getting through our day.” (I strongly recommend reading the rest of the article here: “5 Ways Modern Men are Trained to Hate Women”)

Sound familiar? In a culture that portrays women as trophies or other objects that communicate social status, it’s not hard to imagine where he developed those ideas. Does this let Rodger off the hook or make him a defenseless victim of society? No. Of course not. Rodger made intentional choices – he sought out internet communities that confirmed his own beliefs; he chose not to think critically about sexist tropes; and he made the decision to respond to not receiving what he was “owed” by committing the most atrocious of violent acts. Likewise, is society an innocent victim of Elliot Rodger? I’m not so sure about that. The people who were murdered, of course, are innocent victims. But until we turn a critical eye toward the conditions that helped Rodger develop his disgusting ideology, there will be more blood spilled.

Of course, I’m not the first person to say this. Unfortunately, rather than seeing this opportunity to have important discussions about necessary social change, some men were invested in derailing those conversations with a familiar battle cry: “Not all men!” The absurdity of that response is best exemplified in this viral tweet:
…Which leads us to our next big news story:


#YesAllWomen & the Power of Lived Experience

“I wondered if he would still be there when I returned alone, late at night, when the station would be desolate, and started charting another route home. The experience of feeling simultaneously threatened and unable to speak, of feeling as if I would be persecuting this man who was committing a sexual impropriety were I to pipe up and tell him to knock it off, was unsettlingly familiar…
Last night, emboldened by the sense of safety created by a mass of voices speaking of their private fears in a public forum, I added my own:

 'Because if I know I will be out til after dark, I start planning my route home hours, even days, beforehand #yesallwomen'

There is something about the fact that Twitter is primarily designed for speech—for short, strong, declarative utterance—that makes it an especially powerful vehicle for activism, a place of liberation. Reading #YesAllWomen, and participating in it, is the opposite of warily watching a man masturbate and being unable to confront him with language. #YesAllWomen is the vibrant revenge of women who have been gagged and silenced.” -Sasha Weiss, “The Power of #YesAllWomen”

#YesAllWomen, for those of you who are not familiar, was a Twitter hashtag that trended immediately after the UCSB tragedy. The premise is simple: even though “not all men” commit acts of assault or harassment, all women have experienced harassment at the hands of men. While “not all men” as a narrative deflates conversations about widespread misogyny, #YesAllWomen redirects our attention to the fact that even if all men are not actively and violently oppressing women, all women have to live in fear of the men who are. 
Weiss notes that the #YesAllWomen hashtag is an excellent site for self-empowerment and I completely agree. Beyond that, however, the hashtag puts the reader in the shoes of everyday women experiencing everyday sexism.  The importance of that window into the lives of real women cannot be overstated. No matter how many statistics we can cite or how many studies we are armed with, there are people who will never fully trust those formats for communicating knowledge. Statistics can be skewed, samples can be unrepresentative, and surveys can have methodological flaws. For these reasons, and perhaps others, most people don’t respond well to dry data. What we does resonate with us – nearly all of us – are personal stories.
At its heart, that’s what #YesAllWomen is: a massive collection of personal stories. These stories come from a grand tradition of using personal experiences for activist causes. Second-wave feminists, long before the internet and Twitter, based many of their initiatives on common issues that surfaced during private “consciousness raising groups”. Today, many modern feminists rely on personal narratives as they explore the intersectionality of oppressions (the unique experiences of people with multiple oppressed identities such as women who are also racial minorities, queer, transgender, and/or disabled). Of course, the concept of intersectionality was born from Critical Race Theory, and its seminal essay, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color was penned by noted black feminist and Critical Race theorist, Kimberle Crenshaw. Because these intersections are often so specific to the individual, “lived experience” is heralded as possibly the most trustworthy source of data – for both academia and activism. Without black feminism and CRT, #YesAllWomen may have never come to be. For that, we owe the black feminist movement a debt of gratitude. I encourage you to read all of the stories – some terrifying, some disgusting, some deeply sad, and all incredibly poignant – on #YesAllWomen here.


Stay tuned for another post coming later this week about the past month’s reproductive rights news: Hobby Lobby, Buffer Zones, SCOTUS, and the new history-making comedy, Obvious Child.

Dani Unterreiner

About Dani Unterreiner

Dani Unterreiner recently graduated with a B.A. in Sociology from University of Southern Maine. She now works in politics and engages in grassroots activism in her spare time. Despite being a mean, scary feminist, she's happily married and the proud mom of a little girl.