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Romcoms, Twisted Gays, Elliot Rodger

I’m going to talk about Elliot Rodger; that’s its own content warning. I’m also going to talk about one particular facet of whole event and its media reception: for analyses of and reactions to other, highly important aspects, see Stavvers’ “An open letter to all men“, and “Elliot Rodger and Men Who Hate Women” over at The Belle Jar. Also note that while I use phrases like “the misogynistic heterosexual narrative”, I am referring explicitly to the narrative, not to heterosexuality itself; for a woman to have sex with a man is by no means misogynistic (or necessarily heterosexual) and for anyone to identify as heterosexual is by no means misogynistic either. It’s the story around male-female relationships which our culture perpetuates and treats as basic fact that I want to question.

The first thing I thought when I saw people repeatedly referring to Elliot Rodger as a “repressed homosexual” or equivalent [x] [x] [x] [x] was, “Fuck off with your Twisted Gay stereotypes.” Because that happens a lot; the Repressed Gay Man is friends with the Violent Repressed Gay Man, who is cousin to the Predatory Lesbian, whose sister is the Lonely Celibate Lesbian, who all live a few doors down from the Pedophile Homo. One question to ask about these stereotypes is why they all boil down to “queers who can’t accept themselves and thus disrupt society”; why, if people must construct narratives in which queers hate themselves and others, do they so rarely acknowledge the fact that that hate stems from society at large and is not some fundamental tenet of queerness?

Another, perhaps more immediately pressing question is, “Why do people tell these stories in the first place?”

Simple stories make people feel safe. Simple stories make people feel there is a chain of cause and effect which must come to a satisfying conclusion. This isn’t something which happens to a minority of society; we all tell ourselves stories to get ourselves out of bed each day. They’re necessary. I’m not arguing for some red pill which will open our eyes to fact and only fact; what we tell ourselves affects how we act, becomes concretised in reality through our thoughts and deeds, and that’s why I care so much about this story about love and sex and men and women. It’s stopped being a story which we tell and has become a story which tells us. All we do is perpetuate it. And when something terrible happens we reach for a story to explain it and to explain it away. So far, people have reached for two different stories in particular to explain Elliot Rodger: the Dangerous, Possibly Autistic Madman and the Twisted Gay.

In fact, what Elliot Rodger was was a violent, narcissistic, misogynist man living in a violent, narcissistic, misogynist culture cloaked in stories which are so compellingly simple, so undemanding of our consciences and our consideration, that they have become acts of misdirection, societal sleights of hand. What the Madman and Twisted Gay narratives have in common is their otherness, their not-like-us-ness. When we dismiss Rodger as Crazy or Gay, we say, “Thankfully, we would never do anything like that.” Except, of course, some of us are mentally ill and some of us are queer—but these culturally prevalent stories don’t care for nuance. They reflect a constructed notion of ‘normality’, in which normal people are sane and straight, and in which normal people do not do these things.

The heteronormative narrative is one steeped in heterosexism and misogyny. It states: men and women are binary biological opposites; men and women desire each other; marriage and procreation are everyone’s goals. And then it gets further developed along a hundred different contradictory plotlines, like “men are much more sexually-driven than women” and “women are sluts and sexual temptations to men”, both of which are held in tension—or, in fact, not in tension at all. Both are just held to be true. It’s the narrative which produces articles about, “23 Trends Guys Hate (But Women Love)“, under the assumption that women dress for men; it’s the narrative which produces surreal, joking-but-not-joking stunts like this, where back-slapping corporate lad culture meets hard-nosed capitalist hunger for revenue. It’s the narrative that produces all sorts of things which are easy to laugh off and ignore as minor [x] [x] and it’s the narrative that produced Elliot Rodger. And it’s what has produced perpetrators of male violence for centures. If you choose to read Rodger’s manifesto, you’ll see things like, “I desired girls, but girls never desired me back. There is something very wrong with that.” And, “In the video, I show that I am the perfect, magnificent gentleman, worthy of having a beautiful girlfriend.” And, “I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex.” Rodger saw women as commodities. He saw us as markers of status and purchasable luxuries. Despite being incredibly well-off he bemoaned the fact that he wasn’t rich enough to attract a girl, except that according to his account his main method of seduction was to sit and wait to be approached, assuming that a beautiful blonde would strike up conversation with him; in fact, he thought that that situation would be the right way for things to happen, because his natural charm should shine through and his cinematic destiny should be granted its fulfilment. What taught him this, do you think? To me it sounds like a romcom situation. Picture it: the lonely rich outcast approached by a tall bubbly blonde (although this is the extent of her characterisation). Would you watch it? Would it do well in the box office? In real life, Elliot Rodger was so hideously warped by his sense of entitlement to this romcom unreality that seven people are now dead.

One of the main arguments levelled against those who try to point out the culture of misogyny and heterosexism which enabled Rodger is that he was mentally ill. And so not all men think what he think. And so it wasn’t to do with gender at all. And he killed more men than women. And so the fact that he killed them because they had ‘acquired’ women when he hadn’t is irrelevant. And so on. Certainly, he seems to have been mentally ill, mentioning depression and social anxiety in his manifesto, but why does this preclude questioning why his illness manifested the way it did, and why his thinking was warped the way it was? Mental illness does not exist in a vacuum and each condition does not manifest itself in simple, identical ways in each person affected by it. Mental illness can be shaped by and caused by external factors. The misogynistic narrative of heteronormativity dictates that women should desire men; that to deprive a man of sex is a “crime” because it disrupts a natural order; that “perfect, magnificent gentlemen” are somehow worthy of having a girlfriend, as if a girlfriend were simply a gold star saying, “Well done!” Women are objects which validate men’s most hopeful images of themselves.  Think back to every action film you’ve watched where the underdog hero finally Gets The Girl. What you saw then was Elliot Rodger’s fantasy.

And yet straight men would have it that he isn’t one of them. He is other, he is weird; he is gay. The heteronormative narrative isn’t just a story which seeks to marshal gender and sexuality into neat binaries. It isn’t just a capitalistic marketing of wealth-as-pleasure and wealth-as-sex-appeal. It isn’t just a story which requires the subtle but total subjugation of women to men. It’s also a story about the normal heterosexual, specifically the normal heterosexual man; it’s a story which reflexively denies that it could ever have any negative effect, because—it says—all it is talking about is normality. The Harmless Straight Man is a story we market to ourselves as much as we do The Predatory Lesbian or The Violent Repressed Gay Man; regardless of the reality, that is how we are taught to think about people. Boys will be boys and it’s all a good laugh. And when someone kills six people out of “revenge” for being unable to sleep with women, it’s not the result of misogyny or heteronormativity. It’s because he was repressing his homosexuality. It’s nothing to do with straight men at all.

A Butch on Femmephobia

Recently, VJD Smith criticised the term “femmephobia” in her piece “Femmephobia: what are we really afraid of?” [x] It’s a funny one for me; in the past, certainly, I’ve experienced the particular misogyny which women court when they present as femme, particularly if it’s a femme which is camp, unusual or interpreted as overtly sexual. Right now, I’m more likely to get wry questions as to the size of my dick, or strangers calling me “sir” (fine by me) and then panicking horribly when they realise I’m a woman and insist I’m a “beautiful girl” or that they “just saw the short hair and…” (less fine by me).

Anyway. Smith’s piece got me thinking. She writes, “It seems you can’t attack the industries and social environments which exploit pressures on women to be “feminine” because that’s attacking those people who are naturally “femme” (an essentialist definition which is, in itself, culturally imperialistic).”

Firstly, I’d like to argue that “femme” is not essentialist per se. Neither is “butch”. Yes, both denote certain collections of thought-of-as-gendered characteristics and performances, but there’s a reason they’re preferred to “feminine” and “masculine”. Encoded in these terms is an understanding of how gender performance and presentation is separate from biological determinism. More than that, I’ve always viewed butch and femme as fundamentally camp, rocking the foundations of masculine/feminine by showing them up for the arbitrary categories they are; “naturally femme” is a bit of an oxymoron, if only because “naturally [gendered term]” is always a questionable construction. I’ll leave it to Judy: “The replication of heterosexual constructs in non-heterosexual frames brings into relief the utterly construced status of the so-called heterosexual original.” Smith doesn’t really engage with the queer context of the term “femme”. To lesbians and other queer women denied femininity or acknowledgement as women on the grounds of their sexuality (think the good old Third Sex narrative), “femme” was and is a method of resistance just as much as “butch”; femmes shouldn’t be thought of as just “lesbians who aren’t butches” or anything so simplistic. Of course, “femme” (if not “butch” so much, though I am fully in support of straight butches) has widened in common parlance to include straight/non-queer women, too. Some queer women consider this appropriation, and I’m not going to shout them down; I can see how it could be. Personally, so long as its queer origin and current queer context remain recognised, I’m happy for its meaning to become more widespread, because we need these unstable and tongue-in-cheek words for gender presentation come unstuck from gender come unstuck from biology.

But this is nothing so far but a defence of butch/femme; what I really wanted to talk about was Smith’s conclusion. I think it’s fair to say she reaches it by straw-femme arguments, although any links to people critiquing critiques of pinkification etc are welcome, and I will recant. It’s simply that I’ve never seen “femmephobia” used that way. I’ve seen it used by people of all genders, trans* and cis, to discuss the way in which femme is seen as weak, defeatist, taboo; to discuss how trans women are in more immediate physical danger than trans men (to give a very cursory example); to talk about how young girls are in one breath told to be feminine and beautiful and then mocked for being interested (if they are) in makeup, skirts, sex. I’ve seen it used in gay male communities to discuss disgust for femme men. Nonetheless, I think Smith’s final point holds true:

“This is misogyny.”

Yep. Femmephobia is misogynistic in origin. Of course it is. It is (in some cases*) a specific version of misogyny. And it’s really important that it’s recognised and named—Smith claims that the term  is pathologising, and I can understand that, but as a non-femme, I don’t feel qualified to rename an issue which femmes themselves have highlighted. I can argue, though, against rhetoric which encourages a false idea of shared experience, an idea which will always be exclusionary. Why can misogyny not be further qualified? There is transmisogyny, there is racist misogyny, there is ableist misogyny. There is misogyny faced only by mothers, only by queer women, only by old women, only by women who work, only by unemployed women—I could go on. Specificity is not an erasure; specificity is what helps us to recognise and fight misogyny and all its attendent hatreds when we see it. When Smith lumps femmephobia, whorephobia, SWERF/TERF and radfem all into one category of “madeup words which other, misguided feminists try to find comfort in”, she’s not just being patronising; she’s demonstrating the issue of what happens when you don’t try for specificity. Of course all these things are interconnected; the whole bloody patriarchy is one massive spiderweb of concurrent, conflicting, criss-crossing fuck-ups and prejudices. We’re all pretty aware of that. It’s why we agree that it’s a bad thing. But it’s a mistake to wave a hand at whorephobia because it sounds like femmephobia and you disagree with the term femmephobia; it’s lazy to argue that the label “trans-exclusionary radical feminists”, which refers to radical feminists who try to exclude trans people, is pathologising simply because you’re talking about pathologising terms.

*Femmephobia affects women, men and non-binary people, because femme does not mean woman. When a femme man experiences femmephobia, it isn’t misogyny, but it is misogynistic.