"I don't know why you girls aren't attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it," Elliot Rodger told a video camera before heading off to kill seven people, including himself. "I'll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one, the true alpha male."
Kyley Scarlet cried when she saw the video. The senior at the University of California-Santa Barbara belongs to a sorority next door to the one on whose lawn Rodger shot two women to death and wounded another. "It's hard thinking my actions, being part of a sorority, led him to do this," she told a reporter.
But in Rodger's twisted mind, it was that simple. "I will attack the very girls who represent everything I hate in the female gender: The hottest sorority of UCSB," the Hollywood director's son, 22, wrote in a manifesto discovered after the killings, under a section called "War on Women."
"I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex."
Though four of his victims ended up being men, it was women Rodger blamed for his unhappiness, his virginity, his rage -- women who had rejected him, sorority women, women in general. So you can see why women in general might take personally his belief that women should meet men's needs or be punished: Maybe by having coffee thrown at them, maybe by being pushed off a deck, maybe by being killed. And isn't that also the attitude behind rape?
Some women responded by launching the YesAllWomen campaign, chronicling their own encounters with misogynist violence. Some women explored the gendered aspect of Rodger's words and actions through their own vantage points. The backlash when one woman wrote about it was swift and punishing.
Ann Hornaday is the film critic for the Washington Post. She's a superb writer who has been a Pulitzer Prize finalist and worked for some top publications, including Ms. magazine. In a thought-provoking piece reflecting on the contributions of culture -- particularly film -- to that mindset, she suggested Rodger suffered from delusions that were "inflated, if not created, by the entertainment industry he grew up in."
Hollywood's "escapist fantasies so often revolve around vigilantism and sexual wish-fulfillment," wrote Hornaday, that maybe we shouldn't be surprised "when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large."
Using the example of the film "Neighbors," which she called an "outsized frat-boy fantasy," Hornaday suggested it contributed to the impression of people like Rodger that college life should be full of sex and pleasure and they're entitled to that.
You might have thought Hornaday was blaming actor Seth Rogen and director Judd Apatow for killing the people themselves. Rogen tweeted that her column was "horribly insulting and misinformed." Apatow accused her of using tragedy to "promote herself with idiotic thoughts" and for ad revenues. The "Today Show" milked the controversy. Even New York Times columnist Frank Bruni jumped on board, singling Hornaday out as opportunistic and half-baked. It's not insignificant that these criticisms came from men.
In a video posted after the uproar, Hornaday explained that she had used Rodger's video to examine the influence of sexism, insecurity and entitlement in an entertainment culture historically dominated by men. That prompted Apatow to accuse her of being unable to handle criticism. Maybe her critique cut a little too close to the bone.
Hornaday wasn't dumping sole responsibility for Rodger's frame of mind on Hollywood. She also acknowledged the role of mental illness. Agree or disagree, but to the extent that a culture helps shape attitudes and expectations, part of her job as a film critic is to examine that. The topic of sexism is apparently so threatening that some people only respond dismissively. There is much to be said about how the system handles, or doesn't, the mentally ill. There is even more to be said about the ready availability of guns that enable such murders. So it's encouraging that Rodger's father, director Peter Rodger, and Richard Martinez, the father of victim Chris Martinez, are teaming up to fight gun violence.
It's encouraging to see some California legislators propose a gun violence restraining order. Misogyny may be one part of the toxic brew that fueled the Isla Vista massacre, but it is the one part all of us can do something about, beginning by re-examining what it means to be a man or a woman.
Bruni criticized the rush-to-judge events like this to suit particular agendas. "Did Hollywood egg him on? That's what Hornaday more or less asked," he wrote, "and it was a question too far, the tenuous graft of entertainment-industry shortcomings onto a tragedy irreducible to tidy explanations."
To which I'd reply: We should err on the side of going too far, because no single explanation is tidy enough. We should hold up that hideous, hateful tragedy, dissect it to pieces and filter it through every lens imaginable, until we figure out how to prevent its happening again.
Contact Rekha Basu at email@example.com.