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Violence always leads to cultural debates

The recent shootings in Isla Vista, Calif., have led to a sadly familiar cultural conversation. After the initial shock, the question of why such things happen sends people theorizing about the roots of violence in the culture, followed rather swiftly by a backlash (or, in the more common current parlance, pushback) against the theorizing. In the end, people are as polarized and puzzled as ever. And the culture moves on.

You may be thinking that I am talking about the debate about guns that accompanies the all too frequent massacres in this country. But the debates can go far beyond that.

Ann Hornaday, film critic for The Washington Post, wrote after the shootings that Elliot Rodger’s “delusions were inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in. With his florid rhetoric of self-pity, aggression and awkwardly forced ‘evil laugh,’ Rodger resembled a noxious cross between Christian Bale’s slick sociopath in ‘American Psycho,’ the thwarted womanizer in James Toback’s ‘The Pick-Up Artist’ and every Bond villain in the canon.”

Then she asked: “How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like “Neighbors” and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of ‘sex and fun and pleasure’? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair?’ ”

Misinformed?

Apatow and Seth Rogen, who starred in “Neighbors” and is the archetype of the movie shlub, were enraged. Rogen, for one, called Hornaday’s piece “horribly insulting and misinformed.” He later added: “How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.” Hornaday followed up, saying she did not blame the movies for Rodger’s actions but “there’s no doubt [movies] powerfully condition what we desire and feel we deserve from it.”

And she said, we need to consider “questions about sexism, insecurity and entitlement, how they’ve threaded their way through an entertainment culture historically dominated by men and how they’ve shaped our own expectations as individuals and a culture.”

After all, Rodger’s actions are not only a reason to consider what men do, but also what happens to women when they run afoul of rampant misogyny.

Which brings us to the most prominent cultural reaction to Isla Vista: #YesAllWomen on Twitter.

It has been an attempt to point out that Rodger’s rage against women was not an isolated incident but part of a larger pattern of women experiencing harassment, insult and various kinds of attacks. (The tag, as CNN noted, was a reaction to the claim that “not all men” are bad. Even if they aren’t, all women have been targeted in some way.)

Not surprisingly, the hashtag resonated.

As Emily Shire wrote in the Daily Beast, it “led to an outpouring of simultaneously enlightening and disturbing examples of common-day occurrences of female harassment in the workplace and the world of dating.”

Also unsurprisingly, Shire went on to worry that #YesAllWomen had lost its value. For starters, it turned the “highly disturbed, socially isolated” Rodger into a representative of mass misogyny based on his words, when “we don’t know what exactly drove” a “deranged 22-year-old” to violence.

At the same time, Shire feared that #YesAllWomen was being attached to far more trivial issues than those raised by the shootings and the conversation about women.

Does a discussion about women’s body images in TV sitcoms “really belong in a discussion about mass murder?” Shire asked.

And to that I say, as I do to Ann Hornaday, that yes, we need to talk about these things. Hornaday’s reference to shlubby men is part and parcel with what one critic dubbed “male pattern optimism”: television series’ pairing of ordinary-looking men with exceedingly attractive women. Culture is not about single incidents, even ones as horrible as the Isla Vista shootings, but about the way ideas and attitudes permeate art, entertainment and argument. All of that affects how people, especially the young and easily influenced, think about the world.

It is not, and should not be, the only influence. There should be other material offering a counterweight. There should be people in our lives challenging and testing cultural ideas, forcing us not to absorb what we see but to think carefully about it. But that does not mean we ignore the implications of the ideas presented to us. Hornaday’s argument is worth discussing. While #YesAllWomen may have some trivial tweets — what topic doesn’t these days? — it also demands the kind of attention that takes us far beyond 140 characters and a hashtag.

We are not a culture free of sexism. I keep thinking of the recent case of an Indiana woman, drugged and raped repeatedly by her then-husband.

When the man was convicted of his crimes, the judge reportedly asked his ex to forgive him — and sentenced the rapist not to jail but to a long period of house arrest.

Yes, all women.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com.

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