Mass Killings in the U.S.: Masculinity, Masculinity, Masculinity

shutterstock_126668459This article was first published by The Huffington Post

Schools in Philadelphia are currently on high alert because of a threat of violence made against “a university near Philadelphia.” The threat was posted on 4chan, an anonymous message board, on Friday, the day after a murder-suicide that left 10 people dead in yet another campus shooting. The new threat, echoing other comments, praised the Oregon shooter for being part of a “Beta Rebellion,” a beta being a weak, unattractive man who lacks confidence and can’t get a girl. An unnamed police official described the Oregon shooter this way, “He didn’t have a girlfriend, and he was upset about that. He comes across thinking of himself as a loser. He did not like his lot in life, and it seemed like nothing was going right for him.”

Prior to last week’s mass shooting, the gunman allegedly also wrote a 4-chan warning, “Don’t go to school tomorrow if you are in the Northwest.” Among the responses, many encouraging him or glorifying mass killing, was the comment, “You might want to target a girls (sic) school which is safer because there are no beta males throwing themselves for their rescue.” Another read, “//r9K needs a new martyr alongside our hallowed Elliot,” a reference to Elliot Rodger. Like Rodger, it appears the Oregon school shooter felt let down by life and women.

It’s impossible to confirm if the original post was made by the gunman, but the commentary is insightful and disturbing nonetheless. The comments revealed more than thoughts about guns or anger over women. Some argued that this shooting will give white men a bad name. Others, in a proxy for class, noted that “Chads and Staceys” should be targeted. We Hunted The Mammoth’s Dave Futrelle is keeping a dismal running update of the discussions.

The term “beta male” succinctly captures certain attitudes about gender, hierarchy and sex. Whether role-playing or not, as one Redditor put it, some people are taking the idea that there are betas and alpha males seriously and concluding that, “Since sexual freedom is rising and women today can choose with whom they want to have sex, a small minority of ‘alpha males’ gets all girls while most betas are left in the dust. See this picture. After the betas have realized this, they’ll rise up and stop the feminist insanity that left them without pussy.”

However, many media outlets and analysts continue to treat information like this as an aside, or, when addressing the issue, actually feed it. Consider, for example, this headline: “Chris Mintz Defies The Age Of The Beta Male.” In the meantime, another young white man with a gun has wreaked havoc on a community and once again the media is fixated on a numbing conversation about guns and mental illness. These are important dimensions of this crisis, but they are insufficient ones. Without addressing the gender and race dimensions of male entitlement in the United States—and the role they play in the treatment of mental illness, gun culture and the targeting of victims—we will never tackle this problem in a meaningful way.

Consider schools, for example. Schools make up 10 percent of mass shooting sites in the U.S. and are highly gendered targets of opportunity. They are places where educated women aggregate and compete with men as equals. According to one thorough analysis, women are twice as likely to die in school shootings as men.  This year alone, we have already had 45 school-based mass shootings.

But schools are not the only places. Gyms, shopping malls and places of worship are also frequent targets, and are places where women and girls are present in greater numbers. Similarly, movie theaters provide opportunities for gunmen to express particular rage. When John Hauser, a man who had repeatedly expressed misogynistic views in public, methodically mowed down 11 people in July at a theatre, the film they were watching was Trainwreck, a “chick flick” in dismissive parlance, one frequently discussed in terms of feminism. Workplace shootings also have a marked result: Being killed while at work is the second most likely way for women to die in the workplace, after car accidents.

Lastly, there is perhaps no greater gendered target of opportunity than homes which, in terms of intimate partner violence, become Alpha male arenas. As Melissa Jeltsen wrote earlier this year, “The untold story of mass shootings in America is one of domestic violence.” Fully 70 percent of mass shooting incidents occur in homes, but we don’t generally hear about them because these crimes are considered a matter of private, not public, health. In August, for example, a man tracked down his ex-girlfriend and executed her, her husband and six children. He was apparently angry that she had changed the locks on her doors. Headlines focused on the “incomprehensibility” of the crime and about “domestic disputes.”

Overall, according to a recent Huffington Post analysis, 64 percent of the victims of mass murders are women and children.

So, it doesn’t require an explicit statement of misogyny to result in an explicitly disproportionate harm to women and children due to the violent expression of masculinity. There is, however, no shortage of explicit and public statements of hatred of women, in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Particularly in connection to women’s education and status.

What may come to mind for many people in terms of anti-feminist violence, schools and girls is the catalytic shooting of Malala Yousafzai and her classmates, while on their way to school. Acid thrown on schoolgirls in Afghanistan is not far behind in terms of hatefulness. However, we have no shortage of these crimes in countries where we tend not to focus on gender. In 1989, a man walked into an engineering class in a Montreal, Canada school and—yelling, “I hate feminists!”—shot 28 people, killing 14 women. He only shot men who interfered. In the U.S. in 2006, a truck driver walked into an Amish schoolhouse, “ordered the 15 boys in the room to leave, along with several adults, and demanded that the 11 girls line up facing the blackboard.” He tied the girls’ legs together and shot them. In 2013, Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik killed 77 people, 69 of them teenage students. Anti-feminism was an essential aspect of his manifesto, although that information often got buried in his wider ranting. He was concerned that feminism would “deny the intrinsic worth of native Christian European heterosexual males.” He wrote that, “The fate of European civilization depends on European men steadfastly resisting Politically Correct feminism.” Prior to killing six people during his 2014 killing spree, Elliot Rodger explained, “I will enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB, and I will slaughter every single spoiled stuck-up blonde slut I see inside there…The true Alpha Male.” Clearly Boko Haram has no monopoly on targeting educated girls or schools.

The demographics of mass shootings in the United States are a testament to how inseparably and tightly bound race and gender are to one another. During the past 30 years, all but one of the mass murders in the U.S. was committed by a man, 90 percent of whom were white.  Sociologist Michael Kimmel has worked for decades conducting extensive research to illuminate the relationship between race, hyper-masculinity, homophobia and violence. As he put it after the Sandy Hook shooting, “White men… have a somewhat more grandiose purpose: they want to destroy the entire world in some cataclysmic, video-game and action movie-inspired apocalypse. If I’m going to die, then so is everybody else, they seem to say. Yes, of course, this is mental illness speaking: but it is mental illness speaking with a voice that has a race and a gender.”

That mental illness can be socially constructed is rarely mentioned in knee-jerk media coverage after a mass shooting. “Mental illness actually does reflect the local culture,” explains anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann at Stanford University. When we spoke last year, she made a comparison with people’s behavior when drunk. “The way people express their symptoms has a lot to do with the ways that people learn to think. For example, Americans are violent drunks. American college men want to destroy things when they’re drunk. That’s a learned behavior. Violence is not necessarily associated with alcohol around the world.” Luhrmann’s research revealed that the voice-hearing experiences of people with serious psychotic behaviors differ around the world. In Ghana, the voices people hear are benign and playful, in the U.S. they are violent and harsh.

Gender considerations also affect the way people deal with mental distress. “Women in distress,” she explained, “turn their anger against themselves. Men in distress turn to violence. I think that before the biomedical revolution of the 1980s, mental illness was feminized. Our general cultural ideas tend to think of emotion as just more feminine. However, after [the] biomedical revolution, I would say that the stereotype for serious psychotic disorder did shift to more of a male model—the crazy, angry, psychotic person. It is, however, still much more difficult for men to seek help or to recognize that he needs help.” Think, for example, of something as basic as men learning to associate asking for directions as shameful or embarrassing.

Last week’s shooting was, like many others, effectively a murder-suicide. The killer was dead before the end of the episode. It is estimated that there are 12 murder-suicides a week in the U.S. They may not be as publicly spectacular as this one, but they are every bit as tragic. Ninety percent of cases are perpetrated by men and involve guns. Seventy-eight percent of those killed are women, and more than 90 percent of the killers who commit suicide are men.

So, yes, we need strict gun control laws, a deeper understanding of the role of media and better mental illness treatment. However, what we really need, central to all of those dimensions, is a public conversation about hegemonic masculinity in the United States, particularly the historical and social relationship between ideals of white manhood, agency and guns. Masculinity does not have to be misogynistic. It doesn’t have to be based on white supremacy. It doesn’t have to cultivate the denial of men’s emotional pain.

Yesterday’s shooter allegedly chose to either kill or injure people on the basis of religion, So, some might say, this has nothing to do with cultural ideas about power, gender and race. Similarly, when men die in these killings, many people laugh at the idea that gender can be an issue, but this doubt represents an unhelpful, serious and dangerous error. Too many boys are learning that violence and entitlements to domination and control, including, centrally, over girls and women, define them as “real men.” That’s about gender, and the outcomes are grossly misogynistic, whether they use money, knives, fire, laws, or guns and whether or not their stated intent is religiously or racially motivated. Schools, parents, coaches and religious communities all need to be thinking deeply about how traditional ideas about gender and gender stereotypes work to create a national culture in which bullet-proof clothing and backpacks for children are a clothing category, and gun deaths occur at 20 times the rate of peer nations.

And, just for the record, this isn’t about “all men” or “all white men” being evil, which is an absurd and specious assertion. It’s about how we teach children to think about gender, race and how to be human.

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Photo via Shutterstock


Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and activist whose work focuses on women’s rights, free speech and the role of gender in politics, religion and popular culture. Her work appears regularly in a variety of media, including Salon, CNN, Huffington Post and The Guardian.


  1. karen3224 says:

    Regarding the Montreal Massacre, it is a myth that men tried to interfere or stop the shooting. This was the first mass shooting in Canada. Out of approximately 2,000 male students and teachers, only about 3 tried to do anything about it. How did they try? They pushed students and teachers into rooms and locked the doors, to ensure their safety. So what did the other males do? They just went along with the gunman and left the women to fend for themselves. A male professor on the third floor just went along with the gunman who ordered the male students to leave. Then after the shooting, he had the nerve to criticize students who tried to help the wounded. Since the professor abandoned his responsibility, he had no business assuming responsibility after the shooting and chastising the students.

    There was a year-long inquiry into the Montreal Massacre, because no one could figure out why no one did anything. At this time, guns were not banned in Canada. Surely, someone probably carried a gun, yet no one did anything. No male students tried to throw books at the gunmen or distract him. We know this for sure because of the year-long inquiry into the situation.

    Lastly, the police waited outside the school for the gunman to surrender. They failed to notify the students and male professor on the third floor (who could have jumped out the window into the fire fighters safety nets). Had they been notified, they would have jumped out the window into the safety nets. The police also stopped the fire fighters from going into the school.

    The fact that the male police officers could not risk their lives and just waited for the gunman to surrender is a sad statement on Canada, which generally prides itself on being slightly less “macho” than the United States. They could not even be bothered to broadcast to the third floor that there was a safety issue and they must leave and jump out the window.

    The behaviour of the police officers and the males (students and teachers) was appalling. The year long inquiry proved that only 3 students did anything to try to stop the shooting. Lastly, the gunman had a history of violence towards animals and violence towards his former girlfriend. Had he been arrested back then, maybe he would have been in prison and unable to commit the mass shootings. The fact that most of the victims were white middle class women has been used (often by feminists”) to dismiss the murders as unimportant.

    Lastly, mass shootings in school do get more attention. However, there are mass shootings in hair salons, shopping malls, playgrounds, fast food restaurants, fitness clubs and such. And of course, most violence to women (beatings, sexual abuse, murder) is at the hands of male relatives and partners.

    • Patricia w says:

      ” The fact that most of the victims were white middle class women has been used (often by feminists”) to dismiss the murders as unimportant.”

      Feminists ?? OFTEN ?! dismiss the murders as unimportant??! this is rather hard to believe…I’d like to see a source for this.
      This is an interesting article. But, I just can not fathom the possibility that feminists (esp. educated feminists) would DISMISS the murders as unimportant? very very strange indeed Did I read this correctly?

  2. What a well written, insightful analysis of such a complex and timely issue. I only wish there was more general discourse about the topics you raised – seems nobody really wants to go deeper than what can be expressed in a sound bite.

  3. This is a ridiculous over-simplification of a complex, multi-factor phenomenon. The last sentence does not release the author from the problem, and it raises the more general problem with “perspectives” as opposed to scientific theories. Perspectives promote verification. They nudge you toward the details that just happen to fit your perspective–I’m a feminist so what details in this picture seem to fit my view? (Forget all the other factors that may matter more for explanation and prediction. I don’t/can’t even see those other factors with my blinders on.) What we end up with is no more useful than astrology. Now contrast that with a non-ideologically driven starting point of intellectual honesty where the goal is to make sense of all relevant factors in developing a falsifiable explanation. These frameworks are available and worth our attention in terms of developing further scientific knowledge and useful applications. But to scream about the unitary importance of one factor is immediately discrediting. The author is cherry-picking details in line with her pre-existing and obviously deeply held bent. That’s not going to help address this complex problem.

    • And yet not one point made in this post takes issue with any specifics mentioned–not the stats, the specific arguments, or the various examples given. The author wasn’t attempting to “scream about the unitary importance of one factor,” and even if that were the case, why is it inappropriate to bring a factor *rarely* considered by others who comment on and analyze these issues into view, so that others can integrate it into the larger discussion–assuming this author didn’t? If no one is hearing or listening, might a shout be appropriate?

      So even if you disagree or find the author’s arguments problematic or not supported by evidence, you offered nothing that contradicts the points made–which is why the author tagged on the last line in the first place.

    • Elene Gusch says:

      OK. Please tell us your own explanation for the fact that all the mass shooters are men, and mostly white men. We will be extremely interested to hear it.

    • Karen Lyon says:

      Will: Exactly! I completely agree. This is a serious problem that requires serious thought and search for for solutions, not a quick analysis of the alpha/beta male phenomenon or what-have-you. I was raised in a family with lots of boys — three brothers, around 20 male cousins, and 9 nephews. (As opposed to one sister, one niece, and 8 female cousins!) So, although I am a feminist, I have personal experience with the fact that you can’t just label men as one personality type or another. As a long time elementary school teacher, I can also tell you that all boys aren’t raised with a privileged view of their place in the world or a uniform attitude of how they should be treated by others. It is all much more complicated than that. Yes, most of the recent shooters have been angry, disturbed loners who felt that the world was insulting them by ignoring how “special” they were, but there is not a straight between that and a mass shooting. If that was the case, my question is why are they all invariably young? Don’t older men have the same feelings of isolation and anger? Or the same disdain for other races, organized religion, any of the other things on the hit lists of these killers? Of course, others have been making a direct connection between these tragedies and the fact that a majority of the shooters have been possibly mistakenly put on antidepressants or flat out over prescribed by their doctors. Not to mention the people who are claiming that the medications themselves cause the violent behavior. But then the question becomes is it only (young) males who are misdiagnosed, over prescribed or violent? I won’t even go into the gun control arguments, we’ve all heard them. (If gun control was the only issue, why aren’t we seeing more female mass shooters? There has only been one.) My answer to all of these arguments: correlation is not causation! Damn, y’all. I wish we could look at all of the possible elements of this problem instead of pointing fingers at our particular favorite boogeyman and making that boogeyman the sole reason for these horrors. Because until we look do, we will not find solutions, and it will all go on and on.

    • J. Wright says:

      Agreed. Though I appreciate examining the idea of gender and violence, the author makes a profound leap to the ridiculous in drawing her conclusions.

    • Since GNEDER is RARELY even ACKNOWLEDGED in public discussions about mass shootings, I think this article is VERY relevant. The author did NOT just dismiss either easy-acccess to GUNS or lack of access to MENTAL HEALTH CARE/STIGMA of MENTAL ILLNESS. The author ADDED a GENDER perspective that is CRUCIAL if we are to address MEN using GUNS to express their PAIN & RAGE.

  4. Andy Drinkard says:

    A little quick feedback. I was moved by this article, and it’s an important and neglected part of the conversation about violence in our society. I have shared it on Facebook and will continue to call others into a conversation about this issue.
    However, I feel compelled to state that the headline occurs to me as irresponsible and ironic. You have written a profound article about how boys and men are interpreting the messages of progress in such a way that they are coming to self-identify as oppressed themselves (i.e. “beta males”) and are acting out with devastating violence. Your headline has a colon (which often denotes that the post-colon clause explains the pre-colon clause) connecting masculinity to mass murder. For those of us who can speak this language more precisely, we get your intention. However, the very boys and men that are being referred to in this article are the ones who are likely to quickly see a reinforcement of their perception that we are insisting that male=problem. The headline is in direct contradiction to your final paragraph as far as a non-progressive or non-academic would be concerned. Once upon a time, I self-identified as a “beta-male” (though I didn’t use that term). This headline came very close to keeping me from ever clicking to read the article. Getting clicks from people who already understand these dynamics is not likely to make an impact other than self-satisfaction for those parties.

  5. I find this article to be a short sighted and an incomplete analysis. Masculinity did not evolve and does not operate in a bubble. It’s part of a larger cultural language that not only includes gender, but also race, and more importantly, religion and capitalism which this article completely ignores.

    And not for nothing, it shouldn’t be just about men’s responsibility vis-a-vis masculinity. Women also affirm and reinforce gender stereotypes, including popular masculine ideals, but also the feminine.

    The problem with strict feminist analyses, my view, is that they fail to assume any responsibility for social norms themselves but rather put all the responsibility on men, and then complain about it. Cultures do not develop in bubbles, nor are they controlled and ordered by one gender.

    Moreover, in my experience with feminists has been far from inclusive or equitable.

    If you’re honestly looking to solve these social problems I suggest you widen your view and incorporate economic factors, especially capitalism and religion which are indeed bolstered by patriarchy.

    But don’t fool yourselves by thinking that femininity, and women, do not willingly and wholeheartedly participate and reinforce these structures.

  6. this article hits the mark! It’s getting soooo scary to even let your children go anywhere! I have a 13 yr old who’s been beat up for no reason (other than she has long blonde hair and is pretty) by another girl she only knows by her first name….my daughter fought back..pulling hair,etc. A week later, she and a friend were just walking around the block from out home when she was physically attacked by a boy this time, in response to her defending herself against the girl who beat her the week be4! This is in a fairly nice neighborhood…after that, the kids were all afraid to hang around their own neighborhood! They had to be driven outside of the city to a park where these ‘thugs” could not get to them! I think this is outrageous!!! I told her, be careful, these idiots will beat u up and somebody will be there filming it rather than trying to stop it!!!! Many times these ppl are adults!!! What is wrong w/people???? Males AND females….the teenage girls are the most vicious, verbally and now physically and it’s all about what they LOOK LIKE. Nothing to do w/character….they don’t even KNOW my kid!!!! They just don’t like the idea that she is cute and popular!!!! Police cannot do anything because they flee and they don’t know their last names or where they live….Philadelphia…the city of “brotherly” love??????

  7. Interesting article, but I’m not sure a figure like “64 percent of the victims of mass murders are women and children” means what the author thinks it does—This is proportional, as roughly 64% of people are women or children.

  8. great article, but I’m confused by this sentence: “Being killed while at work is the second most likely way for women to die in the workplace, after car accidents.” What is being compared here? Female death in general in the workplace vs. female death by car accident in the workplace?

  9. An interesting and generally well written article. There seem to be a lot of confused, disenfranchised, angry and generally mentally unwell young men in America. I’d take issue with the “Masculinity, Masculinity, Masculinity” title though. “Machismo” would be more accurate I think.

  10. Yes, let’s all ignore the fact that 75% of the victims of gun violence in this country are men and let’s focus on women (or children — anyone else besides men really) because they are sympathetic victims whereas men are not.

    (citation — also found in this article: )

    Let’s also ignore that the majority of the victims in the US portion of the cited table of mass shooting data ( ) are men, that only one total — female students — in the US portion of the table has a higher female victim count, and that the highest gender disparity in that portion of the table had male school staff dying at two and a half times the rate as female staff. Which makes this quote laughable: “Consider schools, for example. Schools make up 10 percent of mass shooting sites in the U.S. and are highly gendered targets of opportunity.”
    Yet school students and staff taken together show no skew (58 male dead, 57 female dead). Let’s just write about how female students are twice as likely to die as male students when the 47 to 34 ratio clearly doesn’t support that statement either!

    By all means, please ignore men and let’s keep the focus on the real victims: women.

  11. “Masculinity does not have to be misogynistic. It doesn’t have to be based on white supremacy. It doesn’t have to cultivate the denial of men’s emotional pain.” Exactly. I think about this more and more with each passing year to the point where I think the very word and idea of “masculinity” needs to be re-claimed by critical thinkers of conscience. The idea that white, heterosexual men will somehow lose something and become emasculated by people of color, immigrants, LGBT folks, and women gaining rights, equality, and autonomy is bogus and oftentimes a straw man arguement used by people in power to retain their place at the throne. This chronic resentment by certain men seems antithetical to masculinity (ie “another’s strength makes me feel week”), and this type of ego fragility is something to be overcome, not indulged. Men are raised and enabled by American culture to be emotionally and intellectually weak (makes for a better work force), and, unfortunately, others are made to suffer when the thin veener of “masculine” strength inevitably shows it’s cracks. I take this personally, because I, as a male, feel I deserve better. I refuse to become a quivering, neurotic, desperate, violent mess as a reactionary entitlement to the “evils” of feminism, “stuck up sluts”, foreigners, etc. (weak people will always have an “etc.” on the backburner), and I want more men to demand that masculinity come from inner strength and intelligence, rather than the paper thin, entitled bully complex that we have now.

  12. Elene Gusch says:

    It is not “ideology” to point out that all the mass-murdering shooters have been males. ALL of them. And mostly white males, besides.
    Our society as a whole needs to get the reasons for that figured out so that we can do something about them. Ms. Chemaly has made a very credible and useful effort to do that.

  13. Linda Isako Angst says:

    As I posted in the immediate wake of the UCC shootings here in Oregon last week, it’s critical for the public to make the connections between the epidemic of mass shootings by lone male gunmen in this country and the blatant mysoginism displayed this past week by Republican congressmen in their disrespectful treatment and downright scathing attack of the female head of Planned Parenthood (as well as the ongoing assault on women’s rights through the calls to repeal Roe V. Wade).

  14. I find it both fascinating and somewhat telling that to this point, all male comments deprecate the article in one way or another.

  15. I really appreciate this article.
    It is hard not to connect these themes with the way women and men are portrayed in pop culture.
    If a male character is portrayed as scholarly or geeky, he is the butt of jokes which question his manhood and his ability to get a date/sex with a woman. He then gets resentful of women in general while the audience is manipulated into sympathizing with the “poor” guy and his escalating misogyny. It is a theme played out over and over, on film, TV and web.
    We should be long past the temptation to see pop cultural influences as trivial. It is time to admit to ourselves that there is no such thing as “just entertainment’ and that these images do make an impact on our human relationships.

  16. PONO KALEO says:


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