The privilege of being noticed, or participating in a conversation on cultural misogyny while fat – thoughts on the UCSB massacre, part two


I have been thinking an awful lot about the UCSB massacre, the man who did it, the men who support him and the victims Rodger attacked.  More over, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the conversation around this incident, and the media coverage.  Why this man?  Why now?  Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely support the conversations happening, especially those involving gender; however, I think there is more to this story.  There is a lot more about this case that hasn’t quite hit the public conversations quite yet. 


The week after Rodger went on a rampage, killing seven and injuring 13 more, a friend reached out, noticing much of what I had noticed: Do you think Rodger is getting coverage because he’s white?  I had to think about this for a moment, and consider my response – because, no, I didn’t think that was the case.  In fact, Rodger wasn’t white, strictly speaking – he was Asian American.  And while this raises some interesting questions about ideas of masculinity and an entirely diferent conversation around race and gender in our country, it doesn’t meet the point I was thinking when I responded to my friend: No, I said.  I think Rodger is getting coverage because of the whiteness of his victims. 


Back in 2009, a case so heinous hit the news that I could not believe it didn’t receive more attention.  Anthony Sewell, a fiftiesish black man and registered sex offender, finally had enough complaints filed against him about the smells coming from his home that officers finally came to investigate.  And they found the rotting bodies of 11 women, all of whom were women of color – poor women, prostitutes, drug addicts – and all of whom had been raped and murdered and left to fill the home this man lived in.  On the surface, this case actually has a lot in common with the Rodger case: In both cases, people around the killer reported suspicious activity, and in both cases, the police dismissed the complaints – in Rodger’s case, by meeting with Rodger and accepting his misogynistic “incel” view of reality and in Sowell’s case by dismissing the idea that the women who’d gone missing were worthy of looking into.  But one has incited a national conversation, and the other has been completely silent.


So what’s all this about?  Over the past several years, I have taken notice of the trend in coverage of killings leaning towards white and middle class populations.  Think about it: the news we’ve seen has been about shootings in white malls, on white college campuses, a white elementary school, a movie theater in a predominantly middle class neighborhood and where the media images were all of white victims.  To date this year alone, Chicago has reported 108 murders and New Orleans metro has reported 55.  None of these incidents have made national news.  I attended a reading event last month and the last reader of the night read a piece he had written for a local magazine regarding a missing boy.  The piece was incredibly well written, and drew a sombre response from the audience; yet, as it dawned on me when the boy was described that he was white, I was shocked initially at my incorrect notion, and I found myself wondering: why don’t pieces like this get written about the dozens of black girls and boys who go missing in metro atlanta each year.  The next day, I logged into facebook to see one such girl staring back at me: an amber alert for a teenaged black girl, gone missing while out with friends.  She and her family have not had any such plea for assistance written in the local media.  The juxtaposition was astounding and disturbing.  


Which brings us back to Elliot, once again.  The media coverage, while eye opening on many aspects of cultural misogyny and rape culture, has missed the link on so many other issues.  I believe that this case made headlines specifically because of the type of woman Rodger was targeting – blonde, thin and white, the “stuck up blonde” women he insists made him “desire” them and then ran away from him.  Would the same coverage and conversation have begun around an attack at a black or lesbian sorority house where the women weren’t deemed by our society to be “hot?”  As many articles have already pointed out, the ‘pick up artist’ (PUA) community has had a role in this attack, as have men’s rights movements.  There have even been some instances of straight up victim blaming, searching for the “girl who broke Rodger’s heart.” The nerd we love to hate has contributed an incredible piece about the misogyny in nerd popular culture and how that has come to inform his understanding of the Rodger attack, and then there was this piece about the misandry of patriarchal culture.  There have been many conversations around mental health, of which this is just one.  This blog has even called out the hypocrisy of some white feminism which discounts the black female experience – an important message for us to attend.  All of this things are right in different ways, and they’re all important.  But as a fat woman, and a fat woman who has experienced my own sexual assaults and harassment, I have felt a particular type of exclusion through this coverage.


You see, even the #yesallwomen meme has reinforced the cultural standards of beauty by primarily representing a white middle class female perspective.  And, I’d venture to say, a thin perspective.  This coverage of the PUAhate conversations about Elliot’s killings really struck me and have stuck with me… the hypocrisy with which they speak about unfuckable women yet DEMAND sex for themselves by only the most beautiful and fuckworthy of the women screams of an anger against all women, but I hear an especially tremendous hate for women like me – women who are the supposed equivalent of men like them, but who “can get sex anytime she wants it” simply by the existence of a vagina.  And that is absolutely a result of a culture which values certain bodies over and above others. 


This article from the WaPo talks about the reinforcement of social norms contributing to these attitudes via popular culture, while Seth Rogan violently responded with his own reinforcement of these norms.  I feel these norms in a very real way, and the ways in which they work against me in many facets of my life.  One such was is the invisibility I have experienced during this conversation.  As a fat women, how do my experiences with sexual assault matter to this conversation?  Furthermore, are my experiences valid in this culture at all?


Ultimately, I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that there is a LOT of wonderful conversation happening around this horrifying incident – but I think we have much further to go than the simplicity of the white, thin, middle class female experience, and I think the recognition of those limitations, whether it be one of physical ability, race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and/or size, matters.


What do you all think?


Mental health/illness and cultural context – Thoughts on the UCSB massacre, part one


I am a marriage and family therapist.  The thing that distinguishes MFT training from the other mental health professions – professional/mental health counselors, social workers, psychologists – is our intense clinical training in systems and theoretical training in general systems theory.  You see, in my training, I learned to recognize that what counts as mental health or mental illness varies based on context.  Different cultures, different value systems, all place differing emphases on what constitutes mental health versus mental illness.  This matters in the context of the Elliot Rodger killings because of the brief conversations about mental health that have arisen – and generally quickly quashed – since last week. 


We, as a society, are having a really difficult time figuring out how to have a conversation about mental health, especially as it applies to horrific crimes such as this one.  But I hope I can illuminate throughout this posting why this is not a surprise given  our cultural context.  Through my observation over the past few days of the media – both in print and radio – coverage of this terrible case, it has become obvious that we don’t have, as a nation, a language or understanding to inform a conversation of this kind.  The back and forth has been astonishing – yes, mental illness matters; no, mental illness isn’t the issue; it’s white patriarchal rape culture to blame; misogyny doesn’t matter, mental illness is to blame.  But in the end, the conversation hasn’t really happened at all outside of a few blurts and sound bites here and there.  In fact, the majority of the conversation around mental illness in the Elliot Rodger case has been – he was seeing mental health professionals; why didn’t someone catch this.  The long and the short of it is, the mental health professionals did their jobs – they called authorities and notified them that something was wrong.  Multiple times.  But law enforcement – the people whose job it is to actually detain dangerous people – laughed Rodger off as a good guy.  Before calling his a sociopath a few days later.


So here comes the part where we talk about the link between white patriarchal rape culture and mental health.  And why it’s so uncomfortable for us to have a conversation around mental health and mass murder in this country.  You see, before a few brave women changed the conversation, the initial media response to Elliot Rodger was exactly in line with this white patriarchal rape culture value system.  Initial coverage focused on how unfortunate the plight of this poor, loveless man must be rather than the objectification of the women he suffered.  As the perspective of Rodger’s actions changed over the next 24 hours, so did the story about mental illness and it’s role in the shootings.  All of a sudden, this man’s actions were no longer understandable or pitiable or misunderstood – they were deplorable, sociopathic, terrible.  Even the police who came to Elliot’s door and saw his youtube videos professing his hatred and his plan for “revenge” against women who’d committed the crime of existing walked away feeling like he was a perfectly wonderful human being.  That’s because the sociopathy of this man fell under the normally accepted male privilege and entitlement held of value in this country.  So any conversation around mental health must involve a conversation around our values as a society – and this is not something we seem prepared to do. 


When the conversations around this series of events has been either/or – a cultural divide of simply mental health OR simply misogyny – we’re missing the picture.  You see, this is a both/and – our cultural acceptance of misogynistic male privilege under very strict ideals of what constitutes masculinity – informs our beliefs about and response to mental health crises.  Poorly trained law enforcement officers viewed Rodger’s misogyny as normal and healthy, despite concerns from his family and mental health professionals that he was on the verge of doing precisely what he did.  A society which reinforces, even just in parts, the ideals that Rodger held to be true must be in some ways culpable of the crimes committed by someone taking this idea to its logical conclusion. 


It’s a shame that we seem unwilling and unprepared to have this conversation about the interaction of mental health and our own cultural values.  It could have saved seven lives.