Last Friday, after 22-year-old Elliot Rodger’s murderous rampage in Isla Vista, California came to an end with his $40,000 BMW crashing into a parked van and a gunshot to the head, Santa Barbara Sheriff Bill Brown described the tragic events as the work of a “madman.”
Clearly, a man who would do such a thing has to be sick. But as more information comes to light — several videos posted to YouTube, a 141-page “manifesto” entitled “My Twisted World,” and, according to Amanda Hess, digital footprints left all over the online Pick-Up Artist and Mens Rights communities — it’s apparent that this was a guy with some very clear motivation: revenge.
“You forced me to suffer all my life,” Rodger said in a YouTube video posted and removed just before the attacks. “Now I will make you all suffer. I waited a long time for this. I’ll give you exactly what you deserve, all of you. All you girls who rejected me, looked down upon me, you know, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men.”
Four of Rodger’s victims — five if you include him — were men, but the trail of evidence he left behind indicates that he was driven by the desire to “punish” women for not having sex with him. According to his manifesto, at several times over the past years, Rodger became so enraged at the sight of happy couples or “hot blonde girls” that he would follow them and throw drinks on them; last summer, in a fit of rage, Rodger tried to push some women off a 10-foot ledge. This fury at women drove him to pound on the door of the Alpha Phi sorority house last Friday, after murdering three men in his apartment and before murdering three others on the streets of Isla Vista.
Rodger felt entitled to women, entitled to the sex he saw as women’s sole raison d’etre — as though a woman were a vending machine, and he’d paid his money but his bag of Funyuns had become stuck on its way out. He felt so entitled to women that the fact that he was a virgin registered to him as an injustice, an injustice worthy of murderous “retribution.” He believed — with the fervency of a zealot — that women had denied him something he was owed, and his fury was made lethal thanks to the ease with which anyone can amass an arsenal.
His view of the world was decidedly twisted — perhaps refracted and fueled in the subcultures in which he was reportedly involved — but infused with the ideology that is at home in the larger culture: that women are objects; there to be conquered.
For me, the fact that this went down in my old hippie college town is jarring. I wandered those streets — the ones now cordoned off with police tape, and littered with spontaneous memorials — daily and nightly, meeting friends for burritos or beers. I partied on those balconies and “studied” — by which I mean had my books with me while I sunbathed and smoked — on those lawns.
Oh, and the books? Buddhist Philosophy, Hindu Myth and Image, Life among the Yanomamo (ever practical, I double majored in Religious Studies and Anthropology). Today I’m ashamed to say, but think it’s important to admit, that when I was a student at UCSB, I wasn’t interested in Women’s Studies. I, like the great majority of my girlfriends, bought into the idea that feminism had nothing to do with me; that the case was closed; the work done. I believed, to my core, myself empowered.
It didn’t take much time in the real world for me to realize that feminism had everything to do with me and my life. And, looking back, ours was a strange empowerment. Yes, we were raised without the slightest question that we were worthy of an education. And yes, we excelled academically. Career-wise, we dreamed big, and believed we would encounter no outright obstacles to achieving those dreams based on gender. We could choose to have sex.
But, if I sharpen the focus on those dreamy college memories, I see that every one of us experienced being afraid; the feeling of unfamiliar eyes up and down our bodies that, when objected to, were defended with the refrain that we should “take it as a compliment”; some sort of what can very certainly be described as assault.
Now, rare is the collegiate experience that is not thoroughly infused with sexual energy and questionable decisions. Bodies are young and virile; quarters are close; prefrontal cortexes are not thoroughly developed. But the objectification we lived cannot be smoothly attributed to immaturity and hormones alone. It’s cultural, and insidious. It is so finely ingrained, so stealth, that, even as we lived it, regularly, at the hands of our neighbors, we did not believe it to be a function of systemic sexism. We bought that it was individual. Individual dude leering at us; individual guy getting aggressive at a party; individual young woman, left to figure how to respond.
And clearly, Rodger was singularly mad, and remains singularly responsible for his actions. But the views that fueled his fury are reflective of our culture, of the idea that women exist to be ogled, evaluated, conquered, claimed, by men, and cannot be wholly shaved from his individual actions. And it’s the pervasiveness of these beliefs that has women airing their grievances en masse on Twitter, with the hashtag #YesAllWomen, which began trending on Saturday, after Rodger’s killing spree.
The town of Isla Vista — not quite two square miles, bordered by bluffs that drop to the ocean, open space, and the UCSB campus — is unique in its isolation, and its density: more than 23,000 people live there. Isla Vista was, and is, a universe unto itself; even while we were in school, we referred to our town as a “bubble.”
And living in a bubble, it’s easy to ignore the things we don’t want to see. Thousands of 18- to 22 year-olds packed on top of each other into two square miles of beachfront property may have some excuse for forgetting, sometimes, that there’s a whole world beyond their bubble.
But what about the rest of us? What’s our excuse?
Sometimes, we’re stunned awake for a minute. Sometimes a bereft, heartbroken, angry father yells out in anguish and we are shocked enough that we don’t look away; we nod along.
Sometimes, something happens that is so awful, so horrific, so tragic, a big conversation is ignited, about the many things that are so clearly, obviously wrong, the things we never want to see, let alone talk about. But those moments never last for long.
The initial, horrifying, enlightening shock fades. The ice melts; that which the moment had to teach us is watered down. We avert our eyes. Change the channel.
And, in the in-between, we see the familiar, comfortable constraints of our bubble. And too often, we choose to settle back in.
Shannon Kelley is a writer and author based in California who writes frequently on the intersection of feminism, pop culture and politics.