The Sandy Hook Tragedy: Masculinity and the Expectation of Violence

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.

9 thoughts on “The Sandy Hook Tragedy: Masculinity and the Expectation of Violence

  1. Percent of men who personally own a firearm : 46%
    Percent of women who personally own a firearm: 23%

    Since the population is roughly 50-50 by gender, it so completely logical for a company trying to make money to have targeted advertising toward their largest demographic. Judging them for effective marketing is poor practice.

    @shelly Men and women are fundamentally different. Anyone that argues otherwise are either being ironic or stupid (see for an example of gender differentiation). While people can live between the two, there will always be a line between the two, it’s just a matter of how broad you paint it.
    Ultimately you run into a “separate-but-equal” paradigm, since you cant integrate biology :O.

    Want gender equality? Why differentiate between violence against men and violence against women?

  2. 99.9999% of men do not go out mass murdering. It’s true there are more violence perpetrated by men (men are also the majority victims)”

    No, but 99% of violence is perpetrated by men. Therefore it’s a gendered issue. This isn’t a hard thing to grasp and by attempting to derail the conversation by bringing up the fact that women are also violent sometimes, you’re doing a great disservice to all of us, female or male, affected by male violence. The author made it very clear that males aren’t inherently violent but that our construction of masculinity IS, and if you’re taking it as a personal attack then you’ve missed the point.

  3. Great piece (especially since i’m quoted – lol). In all seriousness, while there are obvious biological and behavioral differences between the sexes, our current ideals of what is “normal” masculinity (and femininity) are arbitrary constructions perpetuated by our culture. Extreme acts of violence by men, as seen by these mass shooters, are not an indication that men are inherently violent due to their gender. These acts are an indication that these men didn’t have access to an environment, culture, or community that nurtured healthy, dare I say masculine, ways to express the normal emotions of loneliness, isolation, rejection, anger and rage. Violence is a symptom of a very big problem. It can’t be eliminated without addressing the larger systemic issues that CAUSED the problem, as Papon points out in this piece.

    To be a man once meant you were violent as a means to guard your resources, your family, or your honor. To be a man meant you protected and provided for others; you were a contribution to and a leader for your family and community. That ideal of masculinity was normal once. Here’s to working on bringing it back.

  4. My article doesn’t imply that masculinity is violent; it states that the present conditioning of masculinity IS violent. That concept is not a new one to Adios Barbie, as the link to Pia Guerrero’s piece from a year ago succinctly summarizes the framing of masculinity in both criminal and psychologically indicative terms of “thug, rapist, murderer, savage.” These terms imply both greater intent and execution than, say, “bitch, jealous hen, cat fight” which are the terms used to characterize female violence. In the same way masculinity glorifies violence, it also diminishes female violence.

    That’s the point there; not that female violence doesn’t happen (it does; I never discounted its occurrence) but that when it does, it’s dismissed and due to the inherent power imbalance, rarely does female violence muster the way male violence does. That doesn’t discount women’s responsibility; it squarely targets the societal conditioning present which make women the outlier in their commission of violence. Ironically, that’s the other side of the masculinity coin: by treating all men as would-be Vikings, episodes of “smaller” violence in women is ignored and downgraded to ‘catfight’. Then, significant episodes (such as murdering an abusive spouse) are played up significantly, so that women end up serving a disproportionate sentence to their male counterparts and society wonders “what went wrong” because we have this mindset that women don’t kill. Which, conveniently enough, is backed up with evidence–it’s kind of difficult to argue with the documented fact that of the many mass shootings which have taken place since 1982, only two episodes have involved women.

    As far as the “95 percent” figure, that wasn’t in my article. I’m not sure why I need to defend someone else’s words, but since I agree with the spirit of what Maya wrote, here goes. I doubt that figure is linked to reported violence only, because the rate of women reporting for violent crimes (minus murder, where the crime doesn’t rely on the victim to come forward, obviously) is staggeringly low. And I cannot imagine why anyone who would consider themselves enough of an advocate for the social justice as what Adios Barbie pioneers would honestly imply excluding domestic violence from figures demonstrating how violence oppresses women. Not only because the case for Sandy Hook needs to be viewed through a domestic violence lens has been made in so many excellent outlets, but because that is the lynch pin of correcting violence in the status quo.

    Research is finding that rape isn’t the only crime women under report. Most who are abused by their intimate partners experience multiple episodes of victimization before they ever come forward. This is also the case globally, where patriarchies are common and progressive countries treating women as equal citizens are few. In this lens, I can totally see where Maya would have gotten the figure, and hope she has the option to come and defend her warrants herself.

    You’re correct that violence is a human condition, but unfortunately missing the mark that the way for ALL genders to take responsibility is through exactly what I outlined above. We must confront masculinity and the assumptions society makes about men’s inherent need for violence and women’s inherent responsibility to accept it. This is the most assured and definitive way to reducing ALL violence in the status quo.

  5. “The stories of female violence can’t be told without talking about masculinity, either.”
    Wait, what? Mother’s killing their children (the majority of perpetrators btw) or beating their husbands is about masculinity? Such a stupid notion to assume almost all violence is related to masculinity, unless you’re implying masculinity IS VIOLENT. There are stupidendous amounts of female perpetrated abuse n violence, hell some of the most extreme bullying is considering feminine and is nothing short of violent.

    “There is nothing inevitable about the fact that 95 percent of violent crime in this country is committed by men.”
    This only includes reported crime doesn’t it? Unless domestic violence rates are much lower than other forms of violence, I highly doubt 95% of violent crime could be perpetrated by men unless DV isn’t included. Even with sexual abuse 20% or so of rapists are female, so how did they get the number?

    “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.”
    99.9999% of men do not go out mass murdering. It’s true there are more violence perpetrated by men (men are also the majority victims), but you appear to be discounting the violence women also perpetrate. Does society live in a prison because women are educated from infancy that they can hit men without repercussion? I could easily draw this conclusion seeing as pretty much every single time I’ve seen 1 gender hit another, it was females hitting men, being violent, often without those men hitting back.

    By trying to paint violence as masculine and even suggesting female violence points back to maculinity somehow you are discounting the responsibility of women in society regarding violence. There’s far more to violence than shootings and stranger-based fist fights, muggings, etc. A huge amount of violence occurs in the home, both genders beating each other up, psychologically and sexually abusing each other and yes women too play a large role in that. Violence is not limited to masculinity, nor men. Some of the most violent people in history have been female.

    Violence is a human condition, not a male condition. Both genders need to take responsibility for it instead of treating it as if it’s a problem with men alone.

  6. that’s the thing that bugs me – why do we have to fit in boxes labeled “boy” or “girl”? why can’t we fit in both boxes? if we were allowed to be human rather than just masculine and feminine, the world would be a much better place, so why can’t we let girls play rough sports and let boys express thier emotions?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.