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Elliot Rodger wasn't interested in women

And Japanese pop music proves that gun control won't solve our problems.

Last updated: 07 Jun 2014 16:41
Dexter Thomas

Dexter Thomas, Jr is a scholar of hip-hop and contemporary culture at Cornell University. He is finishing his book on Japanese hip-hop this year.
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Members of Japanese pop group AKB48 were recently attacked by a man wielding a handsaw [EPA]

Recently, we've been hearing a lot about Elliot Rodger's supposed misogyny. Some say the killings were a hate crime. Other people prefer to steer the conversation away from the topic of women.

This is fair, because really, Elliot wasn't talking about women at all. He was talking about men.

Specifically, white men.

This is obvious if we take the time to listen to him. If we read his 140-page "My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodger" with the same seriousness that we read other "stories", we can see that women were generally irrelevant to Elliot. With the exception of those in his immediate family, Elliot writes about women as flat, faceless characters. They rarely have names, and never have personalities.

Actually, Elliot spends about as much time describing women as he does his new BMW 3 Series.

Men, on the other hand, are described in detail. They generally have first and last names, especially if they are white. Elliot tells us about their skin colour, their personalities and hobbies. When Elliot talks about a woman he had a crush on in his math class, he doesn't really tell us what she looks like. Instead, he describes her boyfriend, who is a "tall, muscular surfer-jock with a buzz cut". Even men he passes on the street are given more detail than women: He tells us about how tall they are, about their jawlines, their clothes.

This is to say: like most misogynist literature, "My Twisted World" isn't really about women at all. 

It's about men.

That's actually the most difficult thing for many of us to understand. Misogyny, or sexism in general, rarely has anything to do with women as people. They are symbols, only relevant when discussing intimate and complicated relationships between men: Alpha vs Beta, say.

Fault Lines - Death in Plain Sight

Like many men, Elliot was only able to understand women as status symbols. His obsessive quest to lose his virginity had less to do with a desire for pleasure and more to do with a need to show other men that he was a white man, or as good as one. To him, his failure to seduce a white woman was embarrassing proof of his inferiority to his white peers.

Elliot's main problem was that he was not white.

A lot of people seem to think that Elliot felt that he was entitled to sex and attention from women. I don't think this is quite accurate. Elliot's descriptions of himself as "beautiful" or "magnificent" read like desperate attempts at self-delusion. He is much more honest and vulnerable when he refers to his racial background.

Elliot clearly believed that his being half Asian stained him, and ruined the entitlement he would have had if he were pure white. His most clear anger was directed at those lower on the racial totem pole - "filthy" blacks, "low-class" Latinos, and "full-blooded Asians" - who were having sex with white women. He fully accepted that he did not deserve what his white peers had, but he could not stand to see those with even less pure blood than him get the rewards that should have trickled down to him first.

A generation of scared men

Actually, our national struggle to understand Elliot reminds me of our struggle to understand Tal Fortgang, the Princeton student that wrote an angry article about "white privilege".

I don't mean to equate a confused boy with a confused killer. Their methods of dealing with the world were very different. Tal rejected the idea that society was unfair, and tried to disprove it by talking about his Jewish family. Elliot readily accepted this fact, and tried to fix it with violence.

But what we see in both is a pair of intelligent young men, concerned with their not-quite-white status. Both have had access to the finest educational institutions on the planet, but have not learned to empathise with anyone that does not look like them.

Also, we seem to be responding to them in a similar way - with denial.

Tal allowed us to deny reality, and blame women and minorities for being "lazy" and asking for handouts instead of working hard. Similarly, many of us look at Elliot's actions and deny any connection to racism or sexism. We point out that because Elliot also killed men, we can't say that he hated women (we ignore that his original plan was to kill an entire sorority and burn their house down). He was crazy, we say, and that is all. We ignore that his premeditated male victims, including himself, were minorities. Some of us have gone as far as to blame feminism for the killings.

In short, both men have inspired many of us to do everything we can to avoid thinking about racism and sexism in the US.

What Japan can teach us about the irrelevance of guns

Only a few hours after the Isla Vista attacks, another attack occurred - this time, in Japan. AKB48, a wildly popular "idol" group consisting of dozens of teenage girls, was having a meet-and-greet session. Fans who had bought their latest CD were given a ticket, which they could redeem to shake the hand of their favorite AKB member. One man reached the front of the line, pulled out a handsaw from his bag, and began hacking at the two girls across the table from him. In all, three were sent to the hospital with injuries to their face and hands.

If we want to not only stop occasional killings, but stop rape; if we want to not only address mental illness, but address fear; we will have to have to face a problem that cannot be solved by a new law, or a few extra doctors, or a 30-second online petition.

The response to this has been very similar to what is often seen in the US when women are attacked. Most of the blame seems to be directed towards the AKB48's management, or the young girls themselves. The press is blaming the group's managers for creating a "business model that makes [male] fans go crazy". Internet comments are calling the girls whores, and insisting that they've brought this on themselves with their titillating videos and concerts.

But, like in the US, there is little reflection on why people are so eager to blame girls for the bad things that happen to them.

Every time a school shooting happens in the US, we have another conversation about guns. Inevitably, someone brings up Japan, which has strict gun laws, and probably as a result, very low homicide rates. Similar laws in the US would probably lead to higher survival rates of attacks.

But the response in Japan to the AKB48 attack proves that gun control will not do anything to fix sexism, or fear. It will not stop us from blaming women for violence against them, and it will not stop us from attempting to ignore patterns.

Gun control won't fix our problem. Neither will doctors.

And perhaps this is why the national conversation has immediately shifted to the pros and cons of gun control. Guns and death are easier to talk about than race or gender.

Elliot would not have made the news had he channeled his fear the way many other terrified males do: by opting for sexual violence and intimidation. Or, he might have managed to land a cushy job that would afford him the luxurious lifestyle he longed for, and become the next Donald Sterling. He would then be free to, as he so dearly wished, systematically "punish" women and ethnic minorities without reproach.

Had he chosen either of these more common outlets, we would not be speaking about him now. As we know, rape is underreported and underprosecuted on college campuses. And as we know, Donald Sterling had a public record of ethnic discrimination, but we only took notice when he was caught on tape talking about his fear of black men (taking white women from him - a fear that he also shares with Elliot).

I'll be blunt: I think that gun control is a topic worth discussing. But letting our anger culminate in an argument about gun control is a cop-out. The same goes for calling for improved mental health care. These topics are fine, but we can't afford to stop there.

If we want to not only stop occasional killings, but stop rape; if we want to not only address mental illness, but address fear; we will have to have to face a problem that cannot be solved by a new law, or a few extra doctors, or a 30-second online petition.

We will have to seriously think about why our school systems are producing scared, angry young men. We will have to talk about why we are so afraid to talk about race and gender.

And each of us will have to confront this fear. In others, and in ourselves.

California-born, Tokyo-based Dexter Thomas, Jr is a scholar of hip-hop and contemporary culture at Cornell University. He is finishing his book on Japanese hip-hop this year.

Follow him on Twitter: @dexdigi

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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