By BEVERLY MCPHAIL
TWO words have consistently been used to describe the school shooting
in Littleton, Colo. : tragic and senseless.
Although the first adjective is painfully true, the latter is not. The
violent episode makes perfect sense to those who have made a career
studying violence. Unfortunately, these are often not the so-called experts
quickly gathered to serve as the talking heads to fill in between eyewitness
accounts and the community's reaction. Often overlooked are the real experts on
male violence -- feminists.
Feminists have become reluctant experts on the violence that men commit
because many times that violence is directed toward women. The violence
at Columbine High School and the many other examples of school violence
make sense to feminists because a feminist analysis of violence begins with
gender and power as the central issues. In their rush for simple answers and
quick solutions, other theorists, clinicians and politicians frequently
overlook these two core concepts.
These horrific acts of violence have a chilling commonality; that is,
they were all perpetrated by white males. Secondly, they were perpetrated by
males who felt isolated, powerless, ridiculed and rejected. Although feminism
has been successful in expanding the gender-role stereotypes for girls and
women, society has been less willing to adapt a more flexible sex role for
males. Boys are still taught to be dominant, competitive, detached from others
and dissociated from feelings.
This impossible role is detrimental to both the males who adopt it and
the boys who resist it. The boys who adopt such a role learn to ridicule
and belittle both women and other men who are perceived as weak. It is no
accident that boys who do not project these male sex role attributes
are called girls and sissies and wimps.
While women are socialized to turn their feelings of powerlessness and
anger inward, boys are taught to direct it outward. It is not surprising that
even though sexual harassment is a serious assault on a woman's person, we have
yet to have a woman come into an office and shoot all the people who have been
unjust and unfair.
Women leave the job, or talk to friends, or take it to the courts. Yet
this society has trained males to react differently. Men are taught to
defend their masculinity by striking out. Picking up a gun is instant power to
men. It gives them the power and control society has taught them they are
entitled to. Sometimes they strike out at women in the forms of rape or
domestic violence to assert their status; and sometimes they strike out at
dominant males and systems that have so aggrieved them.
In looking for answers, the public and media often want to make these
boys or their parents monsters or mentally ill, but the chilling fact is often
they are pretty normal boys; that is, well socialized males. Although as a
society we say we abhor violence, the culture supports and glorifies violence.
Not only is violence acceptable, but often in movies and video games it is
transformed into heroic and exciting events. Boys learn these lessons when they
are given play guns at age 2 and real guns at 12. And when boys begin to act
out these destructive roles we say, "Boys will be boys."
Unfortunately, these destructive gender roles are not left in the school
yard, but are taken with men as they move onto bigger playgrounds, like
the global stage. It is ironic that our president should mournfully state
that we must teach kids to resolve conflicts nonviolently while he has ordered
constant bombings an ocean away.
The woman's movement brought these issues to the forefront almost a
generation ago, and yet the aisles at the toy store remain strictly
segregated: bright pink aisles populated with dolls next to
fatigue-colored aisles that look like miniature arsenals. And then we wonder
why boys are violent.
Yet when attempts are made to change the ways we rear boys and how we
define masculinity, the first is response is a homophobic one; that is, a fear
we will raise gay men. Linking sexism and homophobia is just one link in a very
long chain that includes racism, religious intolerance and ethnic rivalries.
As a culture, we divide people based on superficial characteristics
such as sex and skin color and make them the "other." Differences that could
enrich us are used to divide us. To feel "one-up," the other group is deemed
inferior. The next step is to dehumanize, to hate, to hurt.
Although men often subordinate women, men also define a pecking order
among themselves. This is why all the quickly proposed solutions to stopping the
violence won't work. More metal detectors and security cameras are not the
The answers are complex, with many factors. At the center must be an
analysis of power and gender. This overarching theory explains why there are no
geographic cures for violence and no place is safe. For the male sex role in
American society is taught from Key West, Fla., to Alaska and includes
seemingly idyllic towns forever altered in minutes in a hail of gunfire -- of
which Littleton is just the latest.
For decades feminists have been talking about the gendered nature of
violence and how violence is about power. It will be a shame if all that comes
from this latest tragedy is making trenchcoats the bogeyman without
understanding the angry and conflicted boys beneath their protective facade.
With a feminist analysis, such violence does make sense. While not
acceptable, in a context of gender and power it is more understandable.
What doesn't make sense is our nation's unwillingness to see how the beliefs we
hold -- male dominance, intolerance for others and a culture of
violence -- are seeds we are sowing. What doesn't make sense is the surprise
and shock the nation demonstrates when we are merely reaping what we sow.
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