The Sandy Hook Tragedy: Masculinity and the Expectation of Violence

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By Ashley-Michelle Papon

On December 14, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary became a household name. In a flurry of gunfire, 20-year-old Adam Lanza reignited the politically charged debates over the factors that inevitably perpetuate the cycle of violence. As the media reported a growing death toll, everyday citizens took to their social networking pages to hypothesize a solution while politicians pointed fingers and evoked the names of Columbine and Jonesboro as they discussed what had befallen Newton, Conn.

However tempting it might be to add a page for Sandy Hook in the lexicon of school shootings, what transpired on December 14 is emerging to be more complex and nuanced than conventional wisdom would suggest. Obviously, this is not to suggest that any case of mass murder, particularly of children, is simple. It isn’t. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the political talking points of gun control, access to mental health resources and overhauling school prayer are sorely missing the real culprit behind Sandy Hook: masculinity.

Readers may question the value of a post such as this at Adios, Barbie. The “One Stop Body Image Shop” has certainly explored violence before, even going so far as to launch a successful campaign to keep Kanye West’s “Monster” video off the air for its eroticized images of violence against women. In her post deconstructing all that “Monster” has to offer, Adios founder and co-editor Pia Guerrero charges that,

“…Black men and boys are imprisoned (literally and figuratively) by the violent, hypersexualized notion of masculinity. An ideal where masculinity lives as a thug, rapist, murderer and savage.”

Of course, the prison of hypersexualized masculinity Guerrero describes exists outside of music videos, and it’s an epidemic impacting more than just men of color, and until that system is confronted, there can be no hope of permanently liberating us from its construct. We believe men are capable of being more than thugs, rapists, murderers, or savages, and that it is time to take that image back once and for all.

In order to do that, however, we have to get the dialog going about what’s really empowering the episodes of violence occurring in the status quo. The dialog about masculinity can’t come fast enough, as it appears violence is growing. Earlier this year, news outlets reported that the rate of assaults had spiked for the first time in 20 years. According to Mother Jones, 2012, with a tally of 151 victims from 10 shootings, also has the record-breaking distinction of “the worst year of gun rampages in modern US history.”

Without a change in how we approach masculinity, 2013 may pick up where this year left off. Since 1982, there have been approximately 63 episodes of mass murder involving gun violence in the United States alone. Of those incidents, only two involved a female perpetrator: in 2006, former postal worker Jennifer San Marco, who killed seven people before committing suicide; four years later, professor Amy Bishop gunned down three of her coworkers after being denied tenure. Still, the overwhelming majority of these crimes are committed by men. Although men may not inherently be more predisposed to violence than women, the “statistics on men who massacre say something upsetting about the way we equate masculinity with physical power,” wrote Emma Gray for The Huffington Post.

The equation of masculinity and physical power isn’t simply a cultural construct, however. It’s also an ingrained expectation—how often are you surprised when you hear the perpetrator of a violent crime is a man?—which has also facilitated countless commercial strategies that develop effective marketing campaigns. This larger conditioning essentially tells us to accept that a society with men means violence is inevitable.

Perhaps one of the most bitter elements of the Sandy Hook shooting was Lanza’s weapon of choice: a semi-automatic assault rifle. Lanza’s gun was manufactured by Bushmaster, a company which is not unknown to those familiar with mass and spree shootings. Since 1999, products from Bushmaster have been linked to 28 deaths from mass and spree shootings, including the 10 people murdered by Beltway Snipers John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo in 2001 and 2002. Like Lanza, Muhammed and Malvo preferred the .223 caliber option.

Guns have long been linked to perceptions of masculinity, but Bushmaster found a way to take it to the next level even before what happened at Sandy Hook. In 2010, Bushmaster launched a nauseating “Man Card” campaign. Hosted on Bushmaster’s website (until the page itself was inexplicably removed) customers could be issued the proverbial “Man Card” after they answered a series of questions somehow designed to test a participant’s overall manliness. Of course, Bushmaster warned users that their Man Card could be revoked by their friends for any number of offenses, including a charge of being “unmanly” which included no descriptor beyond depicting a woman on the icon. But customers were also reassured that they could reclaim their manliness by purchasing any of the Bushmaster products. The advertisement for this approach featured the .223 next to a scrawling black font that declared, “CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED.” [see image above]

With such an emphasis on guns as essential to the self-worth of men, it’s understandable how the dialog about reforming violence comes in the way of the gun control debate or even pushing for increased access to mental health services. Folks on both side, as well-intentioned as they are, are nevertheless still missing the mark when they talk about banning assault rifles, which satisfies our need for action in the here-and-now, or developing a care model that doesn’t involve triaging pervasive mental health conditions because it allows us to feel we’re part of a macro solution for a micro problem. These alone, as important as they are, will not solve the epidemic of violence.

At the heart of the matter is how those men have come to believe their cultural value rests on asserting their power over someone else. In fact, the pattern of violence marking Sandy Hook has more in common with domestic violence than the more infamous school shooting incidents such as Columbine. While doing the research for this piece, I contacted Catherine Wooddell, a well-known Feminist voice on numerous social networking sites who has emerged to be a vocal critic of the erasure of Nancy Lanza from victim-centric responses to the shooting. At one point, she confronted WomenUnited on their decision not to include Lanza, a woman who gave up her career to homeschool her son, in their photo tribute to the “teachers and educators of Sandy Hook.” I asked her to help me explore the relationship between domestic violence dynamics and Adam Lanza’s own deadly decisions. She explains:

“Our construct of masculinity is based on having power over, specifically power to harm, others; especially hinging on one’s power over women and children. Adam’s decision to kill additional women and children was likely a continuation of his castigation of his primary victim [his mother, Nancy Lanza] not unlike other domestic violence multiple murders.”

Although Lanza’s crimes go beyond domestic violence, the dynamics draw from the same place. At the center, cases like these tend to highlight how boys are taught to utilize aggression, control, and dominance as a means through which to compensate for their lack (or perceived lack) of power, up to and including wresting it from others. Lanza had a history of violence against his mother, a woman whose own violent death as his first victim has created an intense, polarizing backlash with much speculation about Lanza’s ultimate responsibility for her son’s actions. As people argue whether Lanza was negligent in allowing her ‘brilliant, but troubled’ boy access to her guns, the real conversation is completely ignored.

“The problem is that we confirm their entitlement at every level, from our ill treatment of victims and lenient treatment of perpetrators in dominant discourse to law enforcement and judicial systems,” Wooddell, who also holds a Master in Social Work, wrote to me in an email. “Distinguishing Adam Lanza’s massacre as separate from domestic violence, omitting Nancy Lanza from the victim list, from calls for cards of condolences and from our collective grieving, is a profound injustice that supports and perpetuates the cause of this massacre. We join her murderer in figuratively spitting on her grave.”

Ironically, this is how masculinity continues to thrive unchecked. By focusing on the victims and how they are to blame for the crimes committed against them, we can distance ourselves from believing that we’re part of the problem, especially if the victims are women killed by men. It’s the oldest trick patriarchy ever played: fight amongst yourselves, and you can’t fight me.

If things are to change, we have to talk about masculinity and recognize that it is the starting point for the vast majority of violence that takes place in the United States. It’s true that crimes involve women, too, but as Maya Dusenberry argues over at Feministing, just about all violence, to some extent, is linked back to masculinity, which is why women who are aggressive are dismissed as pathological and conflicts between them are characterized as cat fights. She concludes, correctly, that, “The stories of female violence can’t be told without talking about masculinity, either.”

Which brings us back to why this article demanded to be written for Adios, Barbie. Right now, the collective whole of society lives in a prison where men are educated from infancy that domination is their birthright. In their self-image and the larger consciousness, their image is one of violence and aggression. While patriarchy assumes that they are incapable of change, we know better. And for the 27 people murdered by Adam Lanza last week, we have no choice but to DO better.

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