On analyzing the motives for murder
Some trigger warnings are in order. I’ll be talking about sexism in the entertainment industry, masculinity, and spree shootings. What do these things have in common? They’re the subject of an article that’s been getting a lot of blowback. Their connection is debatable, but it’s one worth examining.
Usually I don’t weigh in on these types of controversies, but I felt I had to, because I almost wrote the exact same article.
The Article in Question
Prone to seek out citations to confirm my suspicions, I cast off information that challenges my opinions. Trying to come to an understanding, my biases often win. When tragedy happens, it’s in my nature to make assumptions. I cast blame before the contributing factors are confirmed. My emotions don’t have time to wait for all the facts to come in.
That’s why when I read the article In a final videotaped message, a sad reflection of the sexist stories we so often see on screen, by Ann Hornaday, in the Washington Post, I felt like I could’ve written it myself. The story links the actions of Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter, to the presentation of women on the big screen.
Like Hornaday, I believe “a sexist movie monoculture can be toxic for women and men alike.” Still, I can’t help but feel that linking the male underdog, who always gets the girl, to the actions of a killer is an oversimplification. Downplaying other contributing factors, Hornaday limits her observations to the domain of film criticism.
Her exploration of gender roles on screen comes with citations, it’s in her wheelhouse, it’s well informed, but her thoughts on Rodger’s motivations are speculations written with the tone of conclusions. She doesn’t ignore his mental illness, but she disregards his life experience, as if his worldview was only informed by what he saw on screen.
I Made A Similar Connection
After some of the facts on the shooting came out, I started writing about how movies warp our sense of romance, leading to unrealistic expectations. So many coming-of-age flicks make it feel like there’s a manic-pixie-dream-girl on her way to save every man from his own cynicism. This makes viewers feel like there should be someone for everyone all the time, like isolation is uncommon, like introversion is a bad thing.
Our culture glorifies young couples, slapping their skin on every screen, sex has gone from an expression to an expectation. My early draft pointed the finger at everything from indie movies to Axe body spray advertisements (Lynx for those of you who aren’t in the U.S.).
I speculated that our need to shoehorn romance into everything warped Rodger’s expectations, but my theory didn’t sit well with me. My brash writing style made it sound all encompassing, like my insight allowed me to see the piece of the puzzle lost on the 24-hour news cycle. Then Elliot’s message board ravings came to light. The kid thought he was leading an uprising. When he tried to make a case that refusing sex causes suffering akin to a crime, I realized I had no clue what was going through his mind.
There wasn’t one convenient factor to encapsulate his motives. I realized, I’m not a forensic psychologist. Even if I had a strong hunch, I couldn’t pretend to know what made him tick. I was doing a disservice to my argument by associating him with it.
This is what happens when I rush to diagnose a cause by observing a handful of symptoms, as more evidence surfaces my authority is undermined by the autopsy. Reality could care less about my subjectivity. Just because I see everything through the lens of my expertise, doesn’t mean the truth will bend to it.
I don’t want to sweep Hornaday’s arguments on the “Celluloid Ceiling” under the rug. The entertainment industry is overdue for a reckoning. In blockbusters, female characters are used to motivate their male counterparts, they’re always in need of rescue, like Rachel Dawes in Batman Begins, or they’re killed to motivate the hero’s mission, like Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight, or they’re there to seduce the hero as part of a deception, like every woman with a speaking role in The Dark Knight Rises (hey, Nolan brothers, I love you, but you’ve got to write better parts for women).
A lifetime of seeing the same vigilante tropes are bound to leave an impression, but men are not so impressionable that we all go out and try to be Batman. These power fantasies have an impact on our mindsets, but the effects are insidious, they’re cumulative, and hard to quantify. Hornaday’s theory is still missing the crucial link to connect these movies to Rodger’s actions.
Don’t let Your Experience Blind You
Our extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. We need to show our data. That way, if we’re proven wrong, at least it makes sense how we mistook correlation for causation. When we speculate, we ought to admit that’s what we’re doing. Without a compelling argument, it just seems like we’re inserting our topic into a conversation where it doesn’t belong.
Hornaday saw her field all over Rodger, linking his tone in his YouTube manifestos to Christian Bale’s performance as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.
Compare that observation to the article Elliot Rodger and America’s ongoing masculinity crisis by Lisa Hickey, for The Good Men Project. Using math, Hickey looked into the last 70 mass shootings to figure out what they all had in common. Of the shooters, 69 were men, many of whom had patterns in their lives prior to their breakdowns.
In 26 of the shootings the shooter had been fired from his job. 68% of workplace shootings happened before the recession, declining to 20% after 2003. It’s Hickey’s belief, that disgruntled employees felt less isolated in a down economy. Surrounded by peers in the same position, they were less likely to retaliate with a shooting. Society pushed these men to see themselves as breadwinners, but when society was in shambles their gender role didn’t prove as fatal.
Hickey believes our limited definition of masculinity lowers men’s self worth, preventing them from seeking help, or developing real coping skills. It could be a contributing factor to why some become shooters.
If Hornaday believes that movies shape the definition of what it means to be a man, this article adds weight to her argument. It does this with statistics, not just an interpretation of the killer’s last video statement.
As journalists and bloggers, the worst thing we can do is come to the right conclusion for the wrong reason, to present ourselves as delegates for a subject, only to communicate it with bad logic. Letting our tongues slip, our tone creates a negative reaction toward our positive points. Shooting from the hip, we lose converts in the crossfire. Going over the top, we undermine our arguments.
Check Yourself before You Wreck Your Reputation
Before you write that article on a current event, ask yourself: is your expertise applicable? How much of a stretch is your angle? Is your subject really there or have you projected it on? Are you adding or subtracting from the conversation? Does the situation apply to your central issue, or has your topic turned into a blue car, where once you buy one you see them everywhere?
Would your piece benefit from recent examples to evoke your reader’s emotion, or should a little abstraction spare them some pain?
Hornaday’s article had great points that weren’t fully realized. I don’t think her piece deserved the backlash it got, which I fear would’ve happened without Elliot Rodger’s name tacked on, simply because it was an article on sexism in the entertainment industry written by a woman.
She posed questions worth asking. I implore her to ask them again, but with a better argument. The framing of Rodger’s video manifesto isn’t enough to sell me on the notion that he believed he was in a movie.
Not to say that that hunch is without merit. There are studies on how dramatic mediums can effect our perception of reality.
Jaye Derrick and Shira Gabriel of the University of Buffalo, and Kurt Hugenberg of Miami University coined the Social Surrogacy Hypothesis. Their research found that television displaces social interaction, tricking lonely viewers into thinking they’re friends with the characters, this made them less likely to seek meaningful relationships or admit to feelings of loneliness.
Name Behaviors not Names
Hornaday’s article proposed a theory that read like a conclusion, and director Judd Apatow and actor Seth Rogen thought she was pinning the blame on them. This is where her article could’ve benefited with generalities that focused on the behavior of male characters, rather than point the finger at a specific actor. Sure, Seth Rogen benefits from male privilege, but he doesn’t preach misogyny to a chauvinist choir, his characters always get the girl, but they never hate her.
On Twitter, Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow’s responses read like they believed Hornaday made a direct correlation between their films and Rodger’s sexist entitlement. This raises a question of editorial etiquette.
By leading with a photo of Rogen promoting his newest film Neighbors, the article makes this implication, which is unfortunate. It takes focus away from a broader systemic problem: Hollywood is dominated by men, men who write what they know, and what they know rarely covers the experiences of women. This is why female characters are so often seen through the eyes of male leads. This turns girls into goals, when better writing would give every character a goal of their own.
The underrepresentation of women on the big screen contributes to an empathy gap in men. It might have been a part of Elliot Rodger’s problem. I’ve written about how male writers can help to correct this, but really, women need to be equally represented in the writing room. That’s something predominately male producers need to hear, something we should all be asking for.
I believe entertainment has a broader impact on our culture. It may not drive our actions, but it contributes to our self perception. Rather than shy away from this conversation, I urge Hornaday to find more support for her conclusions, drawing them out in a longer form (maybe an ongoing series on the subject). I’d invite her to include television, cable news, and advertisements in the conversation. If she does, I’d be interested to see what she finds.