author – activist – faculty – mom
Last weekend, I was horrified to learn about the UC Santa Barbara shootings that targeted young women. I learned about it via twitter and read many well-researched, thoughtful pieces by writers I admire. I was moved to join the conversation, and wrote a piece about it last Sunday. I tried to find an angle and perspective about it that was fresh—when joining a conversation, I don’t just want to rehash what has been said. I sent my work to a wonderful colleague, Shailja Patel, who said she liked the piece and hadn’t heard of anyone writing from that particular angle. So I did what freelance writers do. I pitched it out to four different contacts I had at online media outlets. I waited a couple of days to hear back. Two passed. Two never responded.
Every writer has her Achilles heel, and this is mine. Some writers are afraid to send anything out because they fear it’s not perfect enough. In some ways, I have the opposite problem. When I have a piece I’m really proud of, that I think is an important contribution to the public debate, I can’t stop sending it out. I am convinced that someone else is going to want to publish it, if only I can find the right media outlet.
When, in fact, the right media outlet is sometimes me. My very own blog, where the editor always likes my work, says yes, and publishes it as soon as she has childcare and can sit down at the computer.
But part of my issue here is that I’m always waiting for that “big break,” that moment where some gatekeeper says yes to me, validating me and giving me a much bigger platform. In some ways, as I’ve explored this challenge, I’ve likened it to compulsive gambling. I know it’s time to quit, but I’m still sitting at the roulette table, pouring more resources into my dwindling chance at a big win. As hip hop artist Coco Peila sings, “it’s so hard to let go/but it needs to be done.”
The internalized sexism here is about the waiting to be discovered, rescued. Waiting by the phone (or refreshing the inbox). Holding my tongue til some more powerful institution bids me to speak through their microphone. Part of me is waiting for prince charming media outlet to elevate me to a more visible and successful level as a writer. And in order to keep myself “pure” for those media outlets, I can’t publish the work on my own blog, because it must be “unpublished” in order to retain its value. So I waited and sat on the piece for days. Yesterday, I learned that a powerful and well-written piece had run in The Daily Beast with a similar angle. Now, I wish I had published it earlier and been in conversation with that piece when it came out.
And it’s a lesson I keep learning over and over. Last year, when I wrote about Miss America, I pitched it to several outlets and none of them gave me the green light. I posted it on my own blog and got a WordPress Fresh Pressed Pick. I thought I learned the lesson then, that I need to offer my work to the bigger outlets, but when they pass (or time passes with no response), I need to put it up on my own blog.
So here’s the piece I wrote, no longer fresh in the news cycle, but I’m still proud of it. With a tragedy like this, there can’t be enough voices speaking publicly about it. And it’s fine if we’re all staying the same thing. This violence that targets women must be stopped.
From the 1984 movie “Revenge of the Nerds” to the recent tragic shooting at UC Santa Barbara, both are based on the entitlement of social outcast guys to hook up with sorority girls
In movies from the 60s and 70s, they are referred to as “coeds,” reflecting the history that most colleges were exclusively or predominantly male before they became “co-educational institutions. Thus, college women have become both a symbol of female progress, and a target for misogynist wrath. In the horrific aftermath of the UCSB shootings, I have been trying to put this tragedy into an even greater context. I began to read accounts by Jennifer Pozner and Laurie Penny of a larger pattern. While Elliot Rodger acted alone, this is the most recent in a series of mass murders that have targeted women by young men who have felt entitled to a positive sexual response from them. They both date the trend as beginning in the late 1980s. According to Penny, “In 1989, [a] 25-year-old…shot 28 people at the École Polytechnique in Quebec, Canada, claiming he was ‘fighting feminism’. Fourteen women died.” Citing various examples in the last 25 years, Pozner expresses outrage at the press as “still failing to report this as a gender-based hate crime.” “Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were,” Penny says, “misogynist extremism.”
In particular, Pozner identifies “Cho Seung-Hui, the mentally unstable stalker of women at Virginia Tech, who ended up being responsible for the worst school shooting in U.S. history.” In this case, as at UCSB, the police were called, but in both cases they failed to take the threat seriously. One difference with the UCSB shooter, Elliot Rodgers, is that we see in his social media rants that this was truly a premeditated murder of women because he felt frustrated with this lack of sexual access to attractive sorority girls. He was outraged that they were not interested in him, and instead “sexually attracted to obnoxious, brutish men.” I am uncertain what could be more brutish that killing women who won’t have sex with you, but, for Rodgers, that is beside the point.
What is it about college girls? Blonde sorority college girls in particular, that makes them a particular target for misogynist extremism? As a college faculty member teaching creative writing at UC Berkeley, I have written about rape on campus and how young women in college have a particular set of vulnerabilities to sexual violence. These institutions, originally set up to protect the entitlement and privilege of male students continue to do so at the expense of female students. But this pattern of shootings reveals even more about the targeting of young adult women in college.
In a youth-obsessed society with a fetish for females just past the age of consent, college girls represent a large population of girls just out of high school who are beyond parent control. Their poor and working class counterparts may be commuters to local colleges, or may be serving the coffee at the college coffee shops. They may also conform to conventional beauty standards. But these girls live in houses with their families, and don’t represent the same sort of unguarded hen house in the misogynist fantasy world.
Also, while college girls may or may not actually be middle or upper class, represent a sort of elite young womanhood, upwardly mobile, and headed for success. Prior to 1970s feminism, college women were trained to be charming and subservient husband hunters. At that time sex was supposed to be reserved for marriage, an institution in which these women were expected to be completely domesticated, and use their education to make their husband look good.
What then is the misogynist to make of these contemporary college women? They have sex when they want with whom they choose, male or female, and are on a path to compete with men in a tight job market. Whether or not they call themselves feminists, they certainly have embraced the rights that feminists have fought for: access to education, sexual freedom, and equality in the workforce. According to Elliot Rodger, “feminism is evil.” Any young man who’s ever watched a blockbuster movie or played video games knows that a hero’s job is eliminate evil through violent means. But this evil is also personal. The self-styled hero of this tale has been personally rejected by these women. They think they are too good for him. In the misogynist fantasy, this is precisely part of why they need to be taken down. As Rodgers himself said, “I am the true victim in all this. I am the good guy.”
If a young man from a wealthy family in Southern California wants to have sex with conventionally attractive blonde women, he has ample opportunity. The sex industries provide legions of women who fit the description who are available to offer those services for a fee.* If he wants a non-professional arrangement, there are many poor and working class young women who would be excited to have a boyfriend with a shiny black BMW and a dad who was the assistant director on a big movie their friends had all seen. Granted, for the latter, a young man would need some social skills, but apparently he wasn’t interested in any of the available women. He was interested in college girls. Sorority girls.
I think back to the 1984 movie Revenge of the Nerds, about a bullied group of campus freshmen who face off against the powerful football fraternity and cheerleader sorority on campus. I haven’t seen the entire movie, rather I’ve viewed several key clips on YouTube. The conflict with the sorority is all about sexual power. The nerds are attracted to the women, and the women feign interest in them just to increase the impact of their later rejection. The nerds then seek “revenge”—the same words shooter Rodgers used in his manifesto. They organize a chapter of a historically black fraternity. Once organized, they spy on the girls in the showers, photographing them naked without their consent. While the story paints the nerds as victimized by the rejection of the desirable sorority girls, they also have an opportunity to get to know another group of young women. These girls are dark-haired, many are of color or white ethnic-looking (Jewish? Italian?), heavyset, and/or wearing glasses. But the nerds completely reject these girls, who are essentially their female counterparts.
The film later includes a non-consensual sexual act, where the alpha female has sex with the nerd protagonist believing that he’s her boyfriend (because he’s wearing her boyfriend’s mask). As is typical in these fantasies, the act isn’t understood as non-consensual, because the sex is supposed to so satisfying to her that she abandons her boyfriend for the protagonist. Sexual violence gets reframed as giving her what she didn’t know she wanted all along.
In the final scene at the homecoming pep rally, the nerds receive assistance from hunky black members of their fraternity who appear out of nowhere. Then the nerds grab the microphone and invite everyone onstage who’s ever felt like a nerd (outcast) and hundreds join them. According to the protagonist: “no one’s really gonna be free until nerd persecution ends.”
This is the most disturbing part of the fantasy to me. The way the film equates the pain of bullying and low social status for white men in college with the historical injustices of racism and discrimination. And further, the implication that sexual access to desired white women is an essential part of the remedy.
And indeed, the bullying of the nerds by football frat boys and the attraction of women to “brutish men” are all part of misogyny. The painful part is that, in the analysis of both the movie and the shooter, the goal isn’t to take down misogyny, the goal is to win the spoils of misogyny.
And it would seem that college girls, with their sexual liberation, workplace competition, and sense of possibility for their own lives, are the ultimate spoils to be sought after. And if rejected, to be targets of violent revenge.
*This is not to suggest that violent misogynists should go see sex workers. As Lori Adorable said, on behalf of the sex work community:
Rather, it is to say that if Elliot Rodger were simply a lonely guy who wanted to pursue sexual experiences with a particular type of woman, there are entire economies built around his ability to purchase those experiences. But he wasn’t just a lonely guy. He was an angry guy filled with sexualized rage, whose impossible demands were nobody’s job to try to fulfill.