Mass Killing Isn't Gender Neutral: What Sandy Hook Can Teach us About Violent Masculinity

Like so many others around the nation I am devastated by the mass killing at Sandy Hook elementary school. I first learned of the horrific events when I checked my cell phone on Friday to discover a slew of messages from reporters looking for comments on the unfolding situation. Following the 1999 Columbine High School shootings I conducted and published sociological research on mass school killings, and continued to do so for years. I decided not to offer any comments this time around because as a mother, I was too broken-hearted to do so. However, something I read online made me so angry that I feel compelled to speak out.

Someone commented on a story about the principal and other female adults who died and suggested that it was inappropriate to have so many women working at the school. Evidently, this person thought reverse gender discrimination was at work. It is safe to say, on this subject every stupidity has now been written. Although, it is sadly true that a major factor in the Sandy Hook massacre, just as all those that preceded it, is in fact gender, just not in the way suggested.

The mass killings we have witnessed at schools, movie theaters, shopping malls and other public forums have all been committed by males. When the Columbine shootings occurred back in 1999 the media seemed to write endlessly about "youth killing youth" but in fact, I wrote, as did others, it was boys doing the killing. Sadly, as we approach the end of 2012 and have witnessed a slew of male-committed mass killings we have still failed to recognize the proper role of gender in these events. If all of these mass shootings were committed by females, wouldn't we have a conversation about what was going on with girls and women in the culture? I have no doubt if the killers were female that would be all we would talk about.

In order to effectively address mass killings there are three primary issues that must be dealt with: gun control, mental health care and gender. We're all hearing quite a bit about the first two, and yet there is little to no meaningful conversation about masculinity. If we don't recognize it, talk about it and address it, we won't change anything. To start that conversation, here are the main issues:

Gendered socialization: Socialization is the lifelong process where people are socialized into the norms and values of their society. In short, from childhood on we teach children how to act so they will fit into the culture. Part of this is teaching gender. Unfortunately, we continue to engage in practices of gendered socialization where boys and girls are not necessarily given the same skill sets. For example, girls are typically given dolls while often boys are discouraged if not entirely prohibited from playing with dolls. This is gendering. Playing with dolls is one way that children can learn to nurture. Why then would we only teach half of the population to do that? Examples are boundless but also include encouraging boys to hide their emotions (boys don't cry) and demeaning girls for being "emotional" (implying connectedness and sensitivity are associated with weakness).

Violent masculinity in pop culture: our popular culture continues to equate violence and intimidation with power, for males. This is consistently seen in television, movies, video games and the news. As long as physical prowess and violence are legitimized as paths towards power, we will continue to see extensive male violence (of which mass violence is just one form).

Desensitization to violence: from constant images of war, both real and fictional, first-person shooter video games and the proliferation and normalization of other images of violence throughout the culture, it is not surprising that people have become desensitized to real-life violence. People can't understand how a man could stand before a child and shoot them, and while it feels inconceivable, it needs to be addressed in the context of larger issues of desensitization. I think it's time we really think about what purpose highly violent and often sexist video games serve. These forms of "entertainment" actively engage players in simulated violence, which contributes to desensitization.

While certainly not all boys and men are violent, all of the mass killings that have terrorized the nation--even before Columbine and through to Sandy Hook--have been committed by males. This simply cannot be ignored.