TW: This is an article about about the beliefs and ideologies which enabled the actions of a misogynist mass killer.
Already, the possibility that the misogynist killer Elliot Rodger was 'mentally ill' is being floated in the media as an explanation for his actions.
Mental illness seems highly plausible, and the absence of a decisive intervention on this axis may be an important element of the horror. However, as with the Breivik murders, the category of mental illness can perform a certain ideological function: that of quarantining an inescapably social and political outburst within the category of psychological deviance. The sickening logic of Rodger’s misogyny, the way it draws on ubiquitous cultural tropes, has been outstandingly assayed by Laurie Penny. But invoking mental illness has allowed some commentators to deny the centrality of misogyny to Rodger's actions.
This is why it is essential, though not sufficient, to listen to what Rodger says. The killer left a detailed life story, and many video diaries, and his obsessions with gender, class and race, his framework of privilege and entitlement, structure the entirety of his account. The hatred and resentment toward women in particular, and the masculinist fantasies of retribution and cleansing, provide the quilting point, through which he explains his issues to himself: everything can be resolved if only they can be made to pay. And there is no obvious reason why a mental illness should express itself in such a toxic fusion of gendered, classed and raced resentment and rage, leading to the premeditated "slaughter" of seven people (including himself), like “animals".
Before going any further, I would add that in explaining himself the killer clearly sought to aestheticise his actions, and courted precisely the wide audience for his own gargantuan melodrama that he regarded as befitting his proper status, and which he has now obtained. As he put it, "infamy is better than total obscurity". To talk about him, to review and punctuate his own words, is to be partially complicit in this. But there is one way in which to avoid being complicit, and that is to categorically reject the demonological approach and to notice the appallingly quotidian, commonplace nature of the ideologies informing this atrocity, and the equally too common systemic and individual violence against women that these ideologies are linked to. Because Rodger is not so unusual among twenty-something males. You've met men like him. His issues, his insecurities, the huge burden of resentment and shame, the ideology of violent women-hatred that he gives realisation to, are all too widespread. And this is what is most frightening, and what is missed by the rush to confine this case to a psychological black box.
The supreme gentleman
We could begin with Rodger relaxing in a comfortable BMW. He addresses the camera on his dashboard, ostentatiously taking a refreshing sip of a vanilla latte in a cardboard Starbucks cup. He savours the taste, and remarks on his beverage. He seems to be reaching for the air of a connoisseur, taking time to indulge the finer things in life.
Not long afterwards, he is expatiating on his own virtues. "I’m civilised. Intelligent. Sophisticated. I have a sense of style." In other video clips, he refers to himself repeatedly as "beautiful", "such a magnificent guy", "the supreme gentleman". This is a performance, but it is also real in the sense is that it is very much what he wants to believe, what he thinks is his due and appropriate status, denied him by others.
This sense of his proper worth is directly linked to his social class. His understanding of his place in the world and what it entitles him to is directly explored in the narrative history he gives of his family in his life story. His father hailed "from the prestigious Rodger family; a family that was once part of the wealthy upper classes before they lost all of their fortune during the Great Depression." His grandfather was "...a renowned photojournalist who had taken very famous photographs during the Second World War, though he failed to reacquire the family's lost fortune." His mother “was born in Malaysia, and moved to England at a young age to work as a nurse on several film sets, where she became friends with very important individuals in the film industry, including George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. She even dated George Lucas for a short time.”
Later, when describing the "turning point" in his life, when contentment gives way to constant misery as he reaches puberty and is inducted into high school, he invokes the abject decline in his status consequent on his mother deciding to move to an apartment. "An apartment! I had never lived in an apartment before, and I always thought of apartments as being poor and low-class. I would be embarrassed to admit it to anyone." And then, as his despair escalates: "Father suffered through a deep financial setback ... Could things get any worse for me? As a result, my father abruptly cut off all of the child-support payments he was paying my mother. My mother was forced to find a better-paying job to make up for it, and she had to move out of her house to a condominium close by."
His concept of where women fit into this story of himself begins with his mother and grandmother, who each seem to have set aside their entire life, practically negating their own prior existence, in order to serve him as an infant. “My mother gave up her nursing career to stay at home and look after me. My grandma on my mother’s side, who I would call Ah Mah, moved in with us to help out my mother.”
He describes those early years as "blissful". Indeed, they might have continued to be blissful but for the arrival of a sister just before his fifth birthday. He experienced illness the night of her birth: "a bad omen", he remarks. The arrival of a sister means he is no longer able to monopolise attention. It means that his sister gets to choose sometimes. It means that he has to compete. Because he is "by nature ... a very jealous person". And he first experiences this aspect of himself in a strong way at the age of nine, when he finds that family friends prefer to play with his sister rather than him. He cries bitterly. Already, a girl is stealing his enjoyment, but it's just the beginning. "Jealousy and envy… those are two feelings [sic] that would dominate my entire life and bring me immense pain. The feelings of jealousy I felt at nine-years-old were frustrating, but they were nothing compared to how I would feel once I hit puberty and have to watch girls choosing other boys over me". It is at this point, and no other, that he begins to discover that the world is not a meritocracy. And it is this outrage, this "insult", this "injustice", that must be retributed, "punished", visited with destruction.
This classed, gendered sense of his proper place in the world is, in fact, nothing more than an expression of privilege. He has been socialised to understand that his masculinity and his social class entitle him to everything, that no one should have more than he does. He constantly evokes his privilege as obvious reasons why a "girl" should want him and not someone else. "I’ve travelled all over the world, I’ve so much to talk about," he explains. In his manifesto, he records how as a four year old he was "already a world-traveler", having visited "six countries" already. "Who else could say that?" "I’m sophisticated," he says in a video diary. "I have a nice car, a BMW. … These sunglasses here. They’re $300. Giorgio Armani. I’ll put ‘em on. See? … Look at how fabulous I look." Rodger has much to say about this, and about the symbolic violence constantly visited on him by "girls", and to a lesser degree by the "losers" and "slobs" who have unjustly monopolised their affection and attention.
Prestigious. Renowned. Important. Poor. Low Class. Losers.
But his sense of place is also raced. This is only subtly alluded to in his video entries. The women - "girls" - he demands attention from are "blonde". Repeatedly, he utters the phrase "beautiful blonde girls", often followed by a reference to the "absolute stupid, obnoxious-looking douchebags" they're with.
What matters here is what "blonde" means to him. It seems to mean that to have a "blonde" girlfriend would 'reflect' well on him, on his ego-ideal. It seems to mean that the girl would make up for his lack of blondness. He expresses, in his 'manifesto', unease about his own 'mixed-race' background, his mother being from Malaysia. This made him "different from the normal fully-white kids". It was part of his being "uncool" and unpopular from an early age, and later part of the narcissistic injury which he describes as the "turning point" in his life, and which is never staunched. His "first act" upon discovering that he was "uncool" was to "ask my parents to allow me to bleach my hair blonde. I always envied and admired blonde-haired people, they always seemed so much more beautiful."
His disdain for non-white people is evident - recorded, for instance, in his displeasure at, aged 20, discovering that his new apartment mates were "of the Hispanic race" (and also "rowdy, low-class types"). Or his rage at seeing "this Asian guy" "talking to a white girl". "I always felt as if white girls thought less of me because I was half-Asian, but then I see this white girl at the party talking to a full-blooded Asian. I never had that kind of attention from a white girl! And white girls are the only girls I’m attracted to, especially the blondes. How could an ugly Asian attract the attention of a white girl, while a beautiful Eurasian like myself never had any attention from them?"
This is internalised racism. “As I begin to recognise that the Negro is the symbol of sin,” Fanon wrote, “I catch myself hating the Negro”. Rodger hates the “Asian” in him. He hates himself for not being "normal" and “fully-white”. A notable recollection of a high school bullying incident no doubt alludes to this fascination with blondness. A "tall", "blonde" boy bullies him and the "pretty girls" with him side with the "evil bastard". Women and girls, he infers "flock to these men". He hates "the girls even more than the bullies because of this". His automatic, socialised reaction is to hate the women who don't bully him more than the men who do.
He may well have thought that this tall, blond-haired bully was "beautiful". But in his video diaries, he insists that it is he who is "beautiful", and turns the "loser" label back on the men whom "girls" and "women" "flock to". It is these men who are "unworthy" "slobs". "I see this disgusting looking loser. Well, he’s a loser in my opinion. And he walks in with these two beautiful blonde women by his side. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was so… insulted by that, because I should be the one with the girls."
His insecurities prevail. He describes himself in his life story as being "shy by nature", wanting to be friends with the cool kids, but terrified that they will think him "weird". He withdraws from everyone rather than risk a slight. He says: “I want to feel that sense of being worthy of a girl’s love”. And though he grandiosely affirms that he is, it seems obvious that the whole world is telling him, and he believes, that he is not. His class and gender should assure his dominance - this would be "fair", "good and pure", this would be meritocratic - but his not-quite-white racial status deprives him of it. Because women and girls flock to the evil, beautiful blond boys and men - or worse, to men even less racially "normal" than he. This complaint, that 'women dig jerks', is the cri ce coeur of so many men socialised to believe that female attention is theirs as a birthright.
Normal. Cool. Uncool. Weird.
Narcissistic injury, rage and retribution
The original narcissistic injury driving Rodger, incurred upon being admitted to high school, thus seems to have pivoted upon his evident racial self-hatred, sense of class decline and above all his feeling of thwarted gender entitlement. The ensuing narcissistic rage spirals, terrifyingly and wrenchingly, in each recorded segment. The offence to his status, to his entitlement, to who he is, and what his place is in the world, is limitless. "Every single day I have to be insulted". "It's such an injustice." He laments how "sad and unfair my life has been, all because girls haven't been attracted to me". He blames "girls" for stealing his enjoyment in life. "You girls have starved me of sex and enjoyment and pleasure for my entire youth." "You’ve taken eight years away from my life. Eight years I’ll never get back. D’you know how much misery you’ve caused me? I’m such a nice guy, why won’t you give me a chance?"
At last, he hands down judgment. His abandonment by females is "the supreme crime". "If I can’t have you," he warns women, "I will destroy you." They will get "what you deserve: utter annihilation." And he will "slaughter" not just women, but also those
beautiful blond slob loser men who have persecuted him. He will be "a god", and they will be "animals".
This desire to annihilate women is already signalled at some length in his life story. He writes, in the manner of a comic book villain, that it's time to "abolish sex" by abolishing women. They must be "quarantined like the plague they are", sent to "concentration camps" and deliberately "starved to death" while a new despotic ruler exerts total control "over every aspect of society" to "direct it towards a good and pure place". He envisions himself as the ruler in question, the man of steel. He aspires to the immortality of the machine.
This is a common masculinist fantasy, iterated in a thousand science fiction scenarios. "The most urgent task of the man of steel," Klaus Theweleit argued in Male Fantasies, "is to pursue, to dam in, and to subdue any force that threatens to transform him back into the horribly disorganized jumble of flesh, hair, skin, bones, intestines and feelings that calls itself human." Since, in this fantasy, women represent everything that is degenerative (Rodger has much to say about degeneracy and its connection to the sexual act), it is they who must be subdued. Rodger’s gendered snuff dreams are the stock of so many male internet trolls. Indeed he evinces the classic psychology of the troll in his 'manifesto': "It felt horrible to be teased and bullied … but at the same time I got a kick out of getting so much attention." The difference is that he then enacts the fantasies that make below-the-line comments cesspits.
The element of performance, articulating the baseline ideology of the internet misogynist in the idiom of pulp fiction, continued to the horrifying end. In the final video before the massacre, his assumed persona, always unconvincing, became a caricature. The words caught in his mouth, the syllables drawn out or garbled. His cold sneer became a gurn, and his educated patter gave way to incoherence. He exhaled so much genuine abject misery and hate, and yet the heel mannerisms, the forced 'evil laugh', the 'triumphant' words of revenge, were more stagey and hammed up than ever. He impersonated the "godlike" power that, in a sense, he always believed himself entitled to. Except that, it wasn't just an act. It really was heartstoppingly terrifying. He really did mean to kill.
So, on 23 May, Rodger embarked on his "slaughter". His first three kills could have been achieved far more easily with a gun, but he chose a method that required proximity and exertion. He began, seemingly armed with machetes, a hammer and a knife, by repeatedly stabbing three men to death in his apartment building. For these, his inaugural murders, he chose 'Asian' victims. Having done this, he set out to stalk the streets around the sorority houses where those "beautiful blonde girls" lived, this time using an assault weapon to "destroy" the women he could not have. He killed six people, and wounded thirteen. Then he killed himself.
Elliot Rodger was not so unusual.