When the “shlubby arrested adolescent” does not get the girl


In the wake of Elliot Rodger’s senseless rampage in Southern California on May 23, 2014 there have been many debates that made me thoughtful.   One of the most poignant issues that was raised is an age old debate between feminists and (for the lack of a better word) ‘traditionalists’. In her article, In a final videotaped message, a sad reflection of the sexist stories we so often see on screen, Ann Hornaday argues “movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire.” She used movies such as Neighbors as an example of the type of film that promotes unrealistic expectations that young men may have in regards to women and courtship. Judd Apatow, the director of Neighbors, and Seth Rogen, who stars in the film, both reacted to her article negatively. They believed that Hornaday was accusing them of inspiring this hideous, misogynistic crime when in fact she was making a comment about how media has a powerful influence to shape what people desire. I made a similar point in my unicorn chasing post. In my post, I argued that women are conditioned by the media to seek out the perfect man who will complete them, even though some of us know that we are merely chasing a mystical creature that does not exist. This tragic incident reminded me that men are also subjected to unrealistic expectations created by the media. Many bromance films, a genre Rogen and Apatow are affiliated with, paint a picture that college life should be filled with sex, fun and pleasure and that the “shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl”. Like romantic comedies, bromance films perpetuate traditional gender roles and set unrealistic expectations in love, romance and sex. Though Rogen and Apatow are not responsible for what had happened, they are a part of the racket that makes a profit by selling these fantasies. The problem is that the media is selling us these fantasies, and many of us do not have the awareness to refrain from buying into them.

Elliot Rodger represents a segment of society that has been fed with unrealistic expectations but not equipped to deal with the changing circumstances of society. Feminism has pushed for women’s role to change, but the fundamental structure of society has remained more or less intact.   Women are no longer expected to be mere housewives and mothers- we can now have a career of our own. Some might argue that we are expected to juggle motherhood and career.   Though women’s perception of themselves has changed and as girls are prepped for their changing role, men are subconsciously resistant to change because as boys, they are taught to hang on to their traditional gender role.

“Men want the sense of power more than they want the sense of freedom.  They want the feeling that comes to them as providers for women more than they want the feeling that comes to them as free men.  They want someone dependent on them more than they want a comrade.” Susan Faludi, Feminism for them? 

This quote captures the essence of how many men subconsciously view themselves.  Men as providers is the traditional gender role and it manifest itself in our popular media such as magazines, films and TV shows.  Men of course know the rhetoric of feminism, and understand how to behave in an appropriate and respectful manner in public.  However, many men derive power from being in the dominant position as provider to a woman and whether they are conscious of not, many of them still hold on to their traditional role, and act accordingly without realizing it.  There is a tension between the changes brought forth by feminism and how many men perceive themselves.  This is especially evident in the context of dating:  As a woman, I am supposed to be submissive and at the same time, engaging;  be naughty but also play hard to get. I am also supposed to  ignore my own desires because I should allow a man to dominate me.  This tension is confusing because it seems like society picks and chooses the benefits feminism brought forth in a way that benefits men.  Men are only providers when it’s convenient for them.  In the past, when I asked for emotional support from a boyfriend, I was labelled as ‘needy’ and ’emotional’.  Feminism started a public dialogue  about sex and remove the taboo associated with it (especially in urban, educated, westernized areas).   In addition, feminism pushed to make birth control and abortion available to us, which has also reduced the chances of unwanted pregnancies.   While this makes it easier for men to have sex with women, when a woman can have sex without the fear of pregnancy she isn’t beholden to a man in the same way.  This threatens men’s dominant position as a provider for women, which could make many men uncomfortable.  As a result, many women who embrace their sexuality are either reduced to mere sex objects or are slut- shamed.

Going back to Elliot Rodger, I can’t help but to think that his unspeakable crime reflects how sick our society is.  There are a lot of reasons our society is dysfunctional, and I believe one of the main culprit for our sickness is our popular media.   Elliot Rodger had a delusional view of himself and women, and our media and culture play a large part of how his views were shaped.  He decided that he needed to kill women because he perceived himself as having no power over them, and was therefore made to feel inadequate as a man.  The media portrayal of gender roles is incredibly damaging to the collective psyche and we need to have a conversation about how these portrayals are undoing the hard work of many feminists who are fighting for gender equality.  Feminism has paved the way for women to be more visible in the public sphere, to free us from the confinement of our kitchen, to enable us to engage with the world in a more meaningful way outside of our homes. However, there is still a long way to go.  As a feminist, I am not merely concerned the well-being and the rights of women, I am also very concerned about marginalized, alienated individuals such as Elliot Rodger.   How do we, not just as feminists, but also as responsible citizens of the world, teach both men and women to be more critical of our wants and needs, rather than to be lazy and succumb to the poison the media feeds us?  Feminists have given women a choice; should men also have the right to choose to deviate from their traditional gender role?  I believe that until men can view their role differently, women’s role will never change completely, there will always be confusion, conflict and inequality between the genders.  The Elliot Rodger incident is tragic, and yet this also brought important issues back into the public eye.   How do we, as informed and critical individuals, make our popular media more accountable and responsible as participants in the larger conversation about gender?  How do feminists help men embrace alternative identities for themselves?  Wes actually started the conversation in Thanks a Gay Day post.  However, I think he forgot to thank feminists, who fought along the LGBT movement to bring equality between gender and sexual orientations.



3 thoughts on “When the “shlubby arrested adolescent” does not get the girl

  1. Great post Kayo. You make a lot of cogent points, however I think you overlooked the elephant in the room. While you focus on the messages that society is sending us, you can’t ignore the messages that men and women send to each other. I hesitate a little when people ‘blame the media’. I think the media simply reflects our society, while possibly amplifying it. In order to understand this kid you have to understand the messages that we as individuals send to the opposite sex.

    The first message that young boys are given about relations between the sexes is that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, the only thing you need to do to get the most desirable female is to attain a high societal status. It doesn’t matter how friendly you are, how well you treat people or how ‘nice’ you are. All that matters is the status that society bestows upon you. It isn’t the media that sends this message, it is women you are sending this message to young boys. Every 13 year old kid is bombarded by the message that if he ever wants to get the girl he likes he doesn’t need to be smart or kind. What he needs to do is learn to throw a ball, play music or act better than everyone else. You mentioned Seth Rogen, so we’ll use him as an example. Everybody knows that if Seth Rogen was a nobody bus driver he would, to put it succinctly, have ‘trouble’ getting laid. Instead, Seth Rogen is an incredibly successful film maker, which our society values very highly.

    The same goes for young girls as well. From day one girls are told, by men, that it doesn’t matter how funny you are or how great of a person you are. The only thing that matters is your objective ‘hotness’. It isn’t the media sending this message either, it’s men.

    The young girl who dreams of getting with her favorite musician is being told by that musician that the only girls he is interested in are super hot. The young boy who dreams of getting with the supermodel is told by her that the only guys she is interested in are either famous or rich. These two kids are simultaneously contributing to, and being influenced by, the aggregated dating values of society. As long as we live with this dynamic, lots of people are going to feel let down.

    • You are right Michael- the media is a reflection of our society, and yes, it does amplify our values. My post was not intended to blame the media for how sick our society is, but I wanted people to look at our popular media, look at ourselves and have conversations. I think you did a great job in doing that. You are right, the way we are socialized as children is rather problematic, and this negative message is then reinforced in our media. The conversation we need to have is how to break this negative reinforcement. How do we change how we perceive ourselves first , and then encourage our children to be who they want to be? Maybe if we are able to achieve this, we can slowly influence our media… am I being overly optimistic?

      You can’t dismiss how powerful media is in shaping and reinforcing values. The media is often controlled by powerful people who want to sell us things, and they will trick us into having values that can be incredibly damaging, so we will buy more stuff. For instance, how are we led to believe that airbrushed people on magazines are objectively hot? How are we, as women, believe that we need to be thin to be beautiful? The point I was trying to make is that unless we are critical and aware, we will just blindly believe what the media feed us without question. To start having important conversations about gender roles, I think it is vital that we understand how the media is playing a role in what we value.

    • I do agree that how we are generally socialized to express our preferences/criteria in potential partners is an issue- ask any woman on a dating site how many “ur hot” messages they get on a regular basis for an indicator of this. However, I think you may underestimate the power that media has in shaping the cultural norms that inform the behavior you discuss above.
      Consider the common element in both classes of “desirable” people you mention above- rich/successful men and “beautiful” women. From my point of view that is money. One of the most insidious drivers of, in my view, the damaging stereotypes about our bodies and how we should present ourselves is advertising. It’s role is to sell things. In order to sell things it has to create, in many cases where none previously exists, desire for a given product. In order to desire something you must first believe that there is a lack (e.g. there is something missing). This is the sole role of advertising- to make us feel that we need something to fill a gap that we cannot alone.
      For women I think this conversation is largely straightforward- makeup, slimming products, plastic surgery, clothes and so on. By creating unrealistic and unattainable (for most) standards of beauty a powerful market is created to sell products to people who have been socialized to believe that they are inherently inadequate. Our appearance is an immediate and obvious signal to others- it’s clear why emphasis is placed here.
      For men, while there is certainly pressure on appearance, the story is somewhat different. Men frequently get a pass on their physical fitness if they have sufficient money or social power (consider the power paunch). Men get the luxury of displaying this in different ways. For men, it is usually less about things directly tied to their physical appearance and more focused on external markers of success. As the default point of perception, and therefore as the primary consumer, men, as you rightly point out, are strongly encouraged to collect and subsequently signal that they have money (watches, cars, houses, art, etc.). While the men in advertisement are generally fit, handsome and well dressed it seems that the emphasis is less on how they became fit, handsome and well dressed (perhaps implying that it is an inherent gap in the male identity) and more on the trappings that signal wealth. As you indicate above, a man who cannot display his success is inherently less than one who can, and therefore less fit as a potential mate.
      In both cases, the norms that inform these inherently inadequate gender positions are deeply entwined with the capitalist systems that they exist within. It’s no mistake that in all cases some exchange of money for goods or services is promised as a path to resolution for the lack that advertisements present to us. Considering the extensive ownership stakes that advertising companies have in media outlets (and vice versa) it’s no surprise that this dynamic exists.
      While you are correct in saying that men and women signal desirability to each other via their preferences on appearance and success, I believe we need to consider where these messages originate. As a final point, consider the impact of television on a population of Fijian teenage girls when it was initially introduced. It’s a powerful example of the damage of this dynamic at play.

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