When Elliot Rodger murdered six people and injured 13 more on May 23, 2014, near the campus of the University of California-Santa Barbara, it was the latest in a string of horrifying mass killings across America. Though each perpetrator is to blame individually for his actions, our society must conduct some serious introspection to determine and repair as best we can what is causing these events. And, if we don’t, there will be no end to our national mourning.
Though no two mass murderers are alike, they all share primary attributes: access to weapons that can cause great harm with relative ease, mental illness, and breakdowns in the social support network in the individual’s life. These are not simple concepts with easy solutions. And, in some instances, including Santa Barbara, you might add another complex component: the effect of pop culture.
Rodger blamed women for the miserable state of his life. “I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection, and unfulfilled desires, all because girls have never been attracted to me,” Rodger said in a YouTube video. “Girls gave their affection and sex and love to other men, but never to me.” In a manifesto, he enumerated what went into his “twisted world,” including movies and TV. He fantasized about the 2006 Emile Hirsch/Justin Timberlake film, Alpha Dog. “The [roots of the] Santa Barbara plan ... stretch all the way back to when I just turned eighteen. It was all because I watched that movie Alpha Dog. The movie had a profound effect on me, because it depicted lots of good-looking young people enjoying pleasurable sex lives.”
Despite these little iceberg tips of evidence, we’ll never truly be able to fathom the profound depths of Rodger’s psychosis. But, our society produces mass forms of culture that irradiate us with all manner of concepts, good and bad. It mutates who we are fundamentally and manifests itself in ways, big and small, we can’t foresee. We are far more impressionable than we’d like to believe.
Mass murder is an extreme symptom. But, before he was guilty of murder, Rodger was messed up by a significant sense of entitlement with regard to women. And he’s not the only one. Inspired by his marked misogyny, the huge social media campaign “Yes All Women” bloomed in the days following the killings, where females shared the everyday occurrences of sexism and far worse they are subjected to.
The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday wrote that Rodger “unwittingly expressed the toxic double helix of insecurity and entitlement that comprises Hollywood’s DNA. For generations, mass entertainment has been overwhelmingly controlled by white men, whose escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment.” Hornaday specified the comedies of Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen. The pair fought back. Rogen tweeted, “How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage,” and Apatow said, “She [Hornaday] uses tragedy to promote herself with idiotic thoughts.” The editor-in-chief of Variety wrote an op-ed titled “Linking Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow to UCSB Shootings Is Absurd.”
The pushback is understandable, but Hornaday’s critics miss her more subtle point: “Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it.” And, did Rogen ever whiff on this one, writing about “me getting girls” — as if “getting” is a defensible possessive verb?
After the Rodger murders, Arthur Chu, writing for The Daily Beast, concurred in a piece about “misogyny, entitlement, and nerds,” saying, “We [male] nerds grow up forcefed this script.” In Psychology Today in 2009, Jim Taylor wrote, “We may be entertained by The Biggest Loser, Knocked Up, or Jay-Z, but we are also unwittingly influenced by the messages that underlie this popular entertainment and which form the basis of synth culture, messages of greed, consumption, schadenfreude, win at any cost, and misogyny, just to name a few.”
Other than beer commercials, has anything done more for the average American male’s romantic possibilities in the last decade than Apatow-related movies? In the past few years, we’ve seen the girl “gotten” by the nerd (The 40-Year-Old Virgin), the schlub (Knocked Up), the sad-sack (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), and momma’s boy (I Love You, Man). Hand in hand with the decline of male stock is the consistent stratospheric quality of the girls he gets. In the same order as the films listed above, there’s been Catherine Keener, Katherine Heigl, Kristen Bell and Mila Kunis, and Rashida Jones. Not that skin beauty is a beneficial chlorine to add to our species’ gene pool, but as the unremarkable man gets repositioned as Mr. Right in the cultural consciousness, we are all witness to the soft misogyny of lowered expectations.
The answer is not censorship, government intervention, or other heavy-handed, artificial methods to ameliorate the culture we produce. Instead, our culture should make the conscious decision not to consume mass-produced sexism. From there, capitalism can take over: Hollywood will listen if its box office receipts tell a money-losing story. The Rogens and Apatows of the world aren’t off the hook for their films just because they claim they’re for entertainment purposes only. They have the responsibility of ownership of their work and actions, just as we all do. We never know who is listening, or what it is they hear.