The role of masculinity in school shootings

By Alisina Saee-Nazari

courtesy of four12/Flickr
(courtesy of four12/Flickr)

On Oct. 12, Umpqua Community College reopened after nine people were killed there on Oct. 1. Christopher Harper-Mercer, 26, opened fire in his English class, killing eight students and a teacher, as well as leaving nine wounded. Roseburg, Oregon has become the stage for the recurrent national discussion about campus safety, gun control and mental health. Another shooting has yet again been brought to our attention: the problems with how our country regulates firearms and understands mental health. But the national dialogue has left out our culture’s distorted view of masculinity.

According to Vanderbilt University researchers Jonathan M. Metzl and Kenneth T. MacLeish, “The ways our society frames the connections between gun crimes, mental illnesses, social networks, and gun access issues reveal as much about our particular cultural politics, biases, and blind spots as it does about the acts of lone, and obviously troubled, individuals.”

Our blind spot is our reluctance to accept how masculinity is manifested in our culture and how it played a role in Roseburg. President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have spoken out about increasing gun control while Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and a majority of the Republican Party have called for mental illness reform. Harper-Mercer had mental health issues and legally obtained all of his 13 weapons, but what isn’t discussed is his gender.

Mass shootings (defined as shootings events killing at least 4 people) occur in the United States every two weeks. Per the bipartisan Mayors Against Illegal Guns, “between January 2009 and September 2013 there have been 93 mass shootings in 35 states.” It is not a coincidence that almost all of the perpetrators, like Harper-Mercer, are men. While we call to combat mental illness, we must take the same approach in examining gender and deconstruct what it means to be a man.

To be a “man” means to be straight and cisgender because masculinity is constructed to be heteronormative and cisnormative. Any signs of ‘femininity’ or diverging from a man’s gender role is discouraged, often invoking the use of derogatory terms. Men are emasculated for not conforming to our culture’s masculinity through the use of terms that are violently misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic. The violence that is encouraged in masculinity isn’t only physical or verbal, but systematic.

Men will teach their kids what their fathers taught them: to be physically tough and emotionally invulnerable. Growing up, we’re encouraged to repress all emotions except anger, and our masculinity is equated with intimidation and power. The “tough guy” and his use of violence to achieve power and respect is glorified through movies, videogames, advertisements, sports, politics, porn and more. Having played football in high school, I would be praised by my coach to cause the opposing team pain or emasculated for showing my pain and vulnerability.

There are countless movies that glorify men’s use of violence to achieve power – “Scarface”, “Drive”, “50 Shades of Grey”, “Rambo”, “The Expendables”, The Bourne Trilogy, “Gladiator” – and the pornographic ones sexualize men’s control and dominance over women in a heterosexual lens. Therefore when we examine the shooting at Umpqua Community College and Chris Harper-Mercer, we must recognize the trend of these mass shootings by examining the culture of masculinity. When these men are glorified, masculinity becomes distorted when attributed to power and toxic when means of attaining that power are violent and justified.

Like Harper-Mercer, men are constantly hearing the same message. A gun shouldn’t be the response to feeling powerless. How our culture constructs masculinity is toxic and present on university campuses, so while it is important to make reforms in gun policy and mental health, we must ask how the University of Massachusetts will address the elephant in the room.

Alsina Saee-Nazari is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]