cw: racist & misogynist language
On May 23, 2014, 22-year-old Elliot Rodgers exacted a murderous “retribution” across the Isla Vista, first stabbing his three Asian roommates and proceeding to a college sorority house, where he then took the life of two female passerby. The incident ended in the loss of 7 lives, including Rodger’s own.
In the wake of the event, emerging remnants of Rodger’s troubled life sparked the attention of many media outlets – his YouTube channel full of eerie rants about his wealth, frustration, and lack of attention from women; his contributions to online male-empowerment forums; and, most notably, his 139-page manifesto entitled “My Twisted World”. Evening news latched onto the narrative of the killer, attempting to unravel and cognize his perverse motivations. An archival analysis of coverage from three major media outlets (ABC News, New York Times, and LA Times) will explore how reporting of the event detached race from the shooter’s ideas of misogyny and masculinity, and how diversion from race served as a tactic to distance whiteness from hegemonic ideas of masculinity.
In Rodger’s disturbing manifesto, he details his fantasies of dating “beautiful blonde” women, his hatred towards these women and the men that paid them attention, and his warped sense of self-confidence. But another theme that emerged was less discussed in the reports following the event – throughout his manifesto, Rodger denigrates other men of color and simultaneously revels in his “beautiful Eurasian” features and detests his inability to be a “normal fully-White kid”.
Rodger’s sensitivity to his own race, which in part manifested into his actions on that May 2014 night, are relegated to the peripheries of news reports of the shooting. Rodger’s virulent misogyny, “Virgin Killer” status, and to some extent, his ties to Hollywood and elitism, became the center of media’s attempt at mythologizing and mystifying Rodgers violent behaviors. The New York Times profile details incidences of bullying, seclusion, and childhood therapy to characterize the alienation Rodger’s felt from society. ABC’s segment “Elliot Rodger: Inside the Mind of a Killer” attempts to reveal clues to Rodger’s “descent into a deranged rage”, featuring multiple psychiatrists who emphasize the pathology behind Rodger’s ideas and actions. The ABC News video poses what seems like the media’s thesis regarding Rodger in its intro: “How did this young man who seemed to have everything become a mass murderer?”
“Hav[ing] everything” ostensibly becomes synonymous with class privilege, as posited in the coverage. The NYT article covering Rodger’s childhood and life leading up to the shooting contains a section titled “Vagaries of Hollywood”, in which the backgrounds of Rodger’s Hollywood-connected parents are detailed. Similarly, the ABC video characterizes Rodger as “the son of Hollywood privilege” and emphasizes Rodger’s “respected director” father’s connection to celebrity. The integration of class markers into the discussion of Rodger’s shooting exemplifies a “scandal of ex-privilege”, where the “loss” of what he believes he is entitled to (e.g. female attention, praise from others) permeates through his autobiographical videos and writing (Brandzel and Desai 65). This “scandal” is ideologically compensated by Rodger’s incapability to engage in normal social interaction as well as his mental illness, thus neatly folding the killer’s narrative into the failure of capitalist happiness due to an individualized mental illness.
But this coverage of the “scandal” eclipses Rodger’s very real grapplings with race. The LA Times article titled “UCSB friends were victims of circumstance” epitomizes the media’s distance from the racialized nature of Rodger’s violence. The article poses that “Rodger wrote extensively about people he hated for rejecting him: Popular men. Beautiful women… James Hong, David Wang and George Chen were not those people.” Through this lens, the murder of the 3 Asian American students is problematized as a mystery, rather than in part a result of Rodger’s anti-Asian sentiments.
In describing his roommates, Rodger states: “These were the biggest nerds I had ever seen, and they were both very ugly with annoying voices.” While Hong, Wang, and Chen indeed did pursue traditionally nerdy interests (e.g. math, science, computers), this posturing of his Asian American roommates as “very ugly” nerds falls into what Chou refers to as the “Model Minority Man” (Chou 111). The image of Asian American men in media often falls into this characterization – “antithetical to the mainstream notion of authentic black male identity but accepted as an accurate representation of an Asian American man” (Chou 112) – suggesting that the word “nerd” is coded with racial connotations, and that the “hypomasculine” construction of the Asian American man played a role in Rodger’s violent murder of his roommates. For the LA Times, to shore this up to “[happening] to spend time in the same apartment as Rodger” disregards the whiteness idealized by Rodger’s conception of traditional masculinity.
The media’s erasure of Rodger’s own mixed Asian heritage, especially considering that his first victims were Asian men, reveals the constructed nature of his raceless portrayal. His manifesto detailed several instances of disgust at seeing men of color with white women:
“How could an ugly Asian attract the attention of a white girl, while a beautiful Eurasian like myself never had any attention from them?”
“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me?”
These reveal the racial hierarchy that Rodger’s had internalized – a hierarchy that places white women exclusively as the bounties of white men’s desires. In this way, Rodger’s violence is not an exception to, but an “overconformer” to “a particular normative construction of masculinity” (Brandzel and Desai 67).
To figure Elliot Rodger as merely a lonely and psychologically disturbed killer sidelines the very material ideas about race and gender that undergird his manifesto and ultimately his violent actions. The media’s ability to solely psychologize Rodger into a “son of Hollywood privilege but sexually frustrated” further constructs a narrative where violence against women is figured as an act of misogyny, instead of a violent reclamation of masculinity. Furthermore, this raceless narrative erases the raced aspects of masculinity that render Asian American men “hypomasculine”, thus exacerbating alienation and manifesting in hostility towards men of color. To acknowledge the axes of race and gender, and how they surface as material, often violent, consequences is to make visible the “unnamed and invisible category” of whiteness (Eng 141). Delineating these prisms of difference helps de-mystify the patterns of violence, and allow us to critically engage with the cultural practices that allow violent sentiments to persist.
Brandzel, Amy L., and Jigna Desai. “Race, Violence, and Terror: The Cultural Defensibility of Heteromasculine Citizenship in the Virginia Tech Massacre and the Don Imus Affair.” Journal of Asian American Studies 11.1 (2008): 61. Print.
Chou, Rosalind S. Asian American Sexual Politics: The Construction of Race, Gender, and Sexuality. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012. Google Scholar. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
Eng, David L. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Duke University Press, 2001. Google Scholar. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
Kimmel, Michael S., and Matthew Mahler. “Adolescent Masculinity, Homophobia, and Violence Random School Shootings, 1982-2001.” American Behavioral Scientist 46.10 (2003): 1439–1458. abs.sagepub.com. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.