This is the fourth installment in a bi-monthly column that will explore some of the different cultural facets of popular feminism, the #MeToo movement, and the contemporary cultural awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace and in daily life. These essays are not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to point up the ways the current environment is responding to gender dynamics, sex, and power.
MAYBE YOU’VE SEEN this somewhere: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” The quote is attributed to the acclaimed author Margaret Atwood, and in the contemporary context of popular feminism, it is viral wallpaper. It makes an appearance in the second season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. One finds it on Pinterest and Tumblr pages, on Instagram, in Twitter hashtags. Popular feminism has its fair share of memes, motivational phrases, and humorous quips, but some seem to have more resonance than others.
It is likely the second part of Atwood’s quote that explains its high visibility, because it throws a light on the fact that women are disproportionately victims of domestic violence, rape, and sexual assault. I think, however, we need to pay attention to the link between the two statements: all too often, men kill women for laughing at them.
A woman’s laughter, when directed at a man, is a dangerous thing: it is, as Atwood points out, the worst injury she can inflict. It signals autonomy, emasculation, rejection. A woman’s laughter can reveal the precarity of masculine power, the way in which this power relies upon institutional upkeep and constant validation. For an increasing number of men, the response to this revelation is a desperate assertion of power through violence. Enter the “incels,” an online community of self-identifying “involuntarily celibate” heterosexual males, members of which have been responsible for at least five mass murders.
In fact, sexual rejection is just one of the ways in which popular misogyny imagines men to be injured by women. Men are seen to be denied rights because women have gained them; men are no longer confident because women are more confident; men have lost jobs because women have entered (however slowly) into previously male-dominated realms. But for some men, sexual rejection is the most visceral blow; they feel that they are entitled to sex, and that the fulfillment of this entitlement is what makes them men in the first place. A women’s laughter is a concrete manifestation of sexual rejection, and the injury it causes demands a response.
The response is often a supportive discourse of capacity. “Men’s rights” organizations and other forms of popular misogyny dedicate themselves to restoring the capacity of men, to recuperating traditional heteronormative masculinity and the patriarchy itself. In its most basic form, this capacity is simply the power to do something, to exercise force, to eliminate the source of injury. In these cases, acts of violence become means of “coping” with or responding to injury.
The networked, increasingly visible misogyny of men’s rights activism — online, in policy, and in mass killings — is an ongoing recuperative project. Misogyny, of course, has long been the norm in Western societies, but in the current moment there is an overt claim that masculinity and, more generally, patriarchy are under threat. Popular misogyny is often expressed as a need to take something “back” from the greedy hands of women and feminists. This recuperative project promises that men, rather than women, will have the last laugh.
Many have pointed out that gun violence is predominantly gendered. As reporter Laura Kiesel writes, “If we want to stop the problem of mass shootings, we need to fix the problem of toxic masculinity.” More than half of mass shootings (54 percent) are actually domestic violence incidents. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which tracks court cases involving domestic violence, 86 percent of the perpetrators of domestic violence documented in court cases are men.
Alarmingly, gendered gun violence is now taking on larger proportions. More and more often, the rage triggered by being laughed at or rejected by women finds expression in mass shooting. In 2009, a man named George Sodini shot and killed three women outside a gym in Pennsylvania, claiming that “30 million women” had rejected him in his life. On February 14, 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Before the incident, he had reportedly committed domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend, and had also threatened his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend in an Instagram post, writing, “I’m going to fucking kill you” and “I’m going to watch you bleed.” A month later, a 17-year-old male student at Great Mills High School in Maryland shot two classmates; one of the victims, who died later of her injuries, was reportedly his ex-girlfriend.
On April 23, 2018, Alek Minassian killed 10 people in Toronto when he drove a van into pedestrians. Minutes before that, he posted a message on Facebook: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun!” The message continued: “All Hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!” Rodger killed six people and wounded 14 others in Santa Barbara in 2014, and justified his actions in his “manifesto” as a retaliation against women for refusing to provide him with the sex he felt he was owed. Like Rodger, Minassian identified as an “incel.”
On May 18, 2018, 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis, a student of Santa Fe High School in Texas, shot and killed 10 people, including a female student who had reportedly rejected him after repeated advances. The girl’s mother said her daughter had “embarrassed him” in front of their classmates; the shooter’s father claimed that his son was “bullied” and was a “victim, not a criminal.”
And just under a month ago, on June 28, 38-year-old Jarrod W. Ramos went on a shooting rampage at the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five people and wounding two others. The apparent rationale for the violent rampage was Ramos’s anger at the paper’s journalists for running a story about his harassment of a woman on Facebook. According to court documents, Ramos initially wrote to the woman, a former high school classmate, thanking her “for being the only person ever to say hello or be nice.” When the woman suggested counseling, Ramos began sending her increasingly hostile and violent messages. This led to a criminal charge, and the Capital Gazette covered this story; Ramos sued them for defamation and lost.
Let’s think about the Atwood quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” In 2018, a woman’s laughter is a dangerous thing, increasingly triggering violent responses fueled by the rhetoric of “men’s rights” both online and in mainstream politics. What can we do to decouple the relationship between women’s laughter and men’s violence, to address the fact that so much of mass violence is gendered mass violence?
Sarah Banet-Weiser is professor and head of the Media and Communications Department at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Some of the themes captured in this column are explored further in a forthcoming book, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Duke University Press, 2018).
Feature image by Keith Allison.