Critical perspectives on the Isla Vista spree killer, media coverage

 

Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

  • Immediately following Elliot Rodger’s spree killing in Isla Vista, CA last month Internet users discovered his YouTube channel and a 140-page autobiographical screed, dubbed a “manifesto” by the media. The written document and the videos documented Rodger’s sexual frustration and his chronic inability to connect with other people. He specifically lashed out at women for forcing him ” to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires” and causing his violent “retribution”. Commentators and the popular press framed the killings as an outcome of misogynistic ideology, with headlines such as: How misogyny kills men, further proof that misogyny kills, and Elliot Rodger proves the danger of everyday sexism. Slate contributor Amanda Hess wrote:

Elliot Rodger targeted women out of entitlement, their male partners out of jealousy, and unrelated male bystanders out of expedience. This is not ammunition for an argument that he was a misandrist at heart—it’s evidence of the horrific extent of misogyny’s cultural reach.

His parents saw the digitally mediated rants and contacted his therapist and a social worker, who contacted a mental health hotline. These were the proper steps. But those who interviewed Rodger found him to be a “perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human.” They deemed his involuntary holding unnecessary and a search of his apartment unwarranted. That is, authorities defined Rodger and assessed his intentions based upon face-to-face interaction, privileging this interaction over and above a “vast digital trail.” This is digital dualism taken to its worst imaginable conclusion.

In fact, in the entire 140-odd-page memoir he left behind, “My Twisted World,” documents with agonizing repetition the daily tortured minutiae of his life, and barely has any interactions with women. What it has is interactions with the symbols of women, a non-stop shuffling of imaginary worlds that women represented access to. Women weren’t objects of desire per se, they were currency.

[…]

What exists in painstaking detail are the male figures in his life. The ones he meets who then reveal that they have kissed a girl, or slept with a girl, or slept with a few girls. These are the men who have what Elliot can’t have, and these are the men that he obsesses over.

[…]

Women don’t merely serve as objects for Elliot. Women are the currency used to buy whatever he’s missing. Just as a dollar bill used to get you a dollar’s worth of silver, a woman is an indicator of spending power. He wants to throw this money around for other people. Bring them home to prove something to his roommates. Show the bullies who picked on him that he deserves the same things they do.

[…]

There’s another, slightly more obscure recurring theme in Elliot’s manifesto: The frequency with which he discusses either his desire or attempt to throw a glass of some liquid at happy couples, particularly if the girl is a ‘beautiful tall blonde.’ […] These are the only interactions Elliot has with women: marking his territory.

[…]

When we don’t know how else to say what we need, like entitled children, we scream, and the loudest scream we have is violence. Violence is not an act of expressing the inexpressible, it’s an act of expressing our frustration with the inexpressible. When we surround ourselves by closed ideology, anger and frustration and rage come to us when words can’t. Some ideologies prey on fear and hatred and shift them into symbols that all other symbols are defined by. It limits your vocabulary.

While the motivations for the shootings may vary, they have in common crises in masculinity in which young men use guns and violence to create ultra-masculine identities as part of a media spectacle that produces fame and celebrity for the shooters.

[…]

Crises in masculinity are grounded in the deterioration of socio-economic possibilities for young men and are inflamed by economic troubles. Gun carnage is also encouraged in part by media that repeatedly illustrates violence as a way of responding to problems. Explosions of male rage and rampage are also embedded in the escalation of war and militarism in the United States from the long nightmare of Vietnam through the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

For Debord, “spectacle” constituted the overarching concept to describe the media and consumer society, including the packaging, promotion, and display of commodities and the production and effects of all media. Using the term “media spectacle,” I am largely focusing on various forms of technologically-constructed media productions that are produced and disseminated through the so-called mass media, ranging from radio and television to the Internet and the latest wireless gadgets.

  • Kellner’s comments from a 2008 interview talking about the Virginia Tech shooter’s videos broadcast after the massacre, and his comments on critical media literacy, remain relevant to the current situation:

Cho’s multimedia video dossier, released after the Virginia Tech shootings, showed that he was consciously creating a spectacle of terror to create a hypermasculine identity for himself and avenge himself to solve his personal crises and problems. The NIU shooter, dressed in black emerged from a curtain onto a stage and started shooting, obviously creating a spectacle of terror, although as of this moment we still do not know much about his motivations. As for the television networks, since they are profit centers in a highly competitive business, they will continue to circulate school shootings and other acts of domestic terrorism as “breaking events” and will constitute the murderers as celebrities. Some media have begun to not publicize the name of teen suicides, to attempt to deter copy-cat effects, and the media should definitely be concerned about creating celebrities out of school shooters and not sensationalize them.

[…]

People have to become critical of the media scripts of hyperviolence and hypermasculinity that are projected as role models for men in the media, or that help to legitimate violence as a means to resolve personal crises or solve problems. We need critical media literacy to analyze how the media construct models of masculinities and femininities, good and evil, and become critical readers of the media who ourselves seek alternative models of identity and behavior.

  • Almost immediately after news of the violence broke, and word of the killer’s YouTube videos spread, there was a spike of online backlash against the media saturation and warnings against promoting the perpetrator to celebrity status through omnipresent news coverage. Just two days after the killings Isla Vista residents and UCSB students let the news crews at the scene know that they were not welcome to intrude upon the community’s mourning. As they are wont to do, journalists reported on their role in the story while ignoring the wishes of the residents, as in this LA Times brief:

More than a dozen reporters were camped out on Pardall Road in front of the deli — and had been for days, their cameras and lights and gear taking up an entire lane of the street. At one point, police officers showed up to ensure that tensions did not boil over.

The students stared straight-faced at reporters. Some held signs expressing their frustration with the news media:

“OUR TRAGEDY IS NOT YOUR COMMODITY.”

“Remembrance NOT ratings.”

“Stop filming our tears.”

“Let us heal.”

“NEWS CREWS GO HOME!”

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