It's a safe bet that as school resumes and colleges come back from winter break, many teachers and professors will be discussing various aspects of the Newtown massacre. And for those who plan to discuss the gender issues at the heart of this and most rampage killings, it will be hard to avoid how de-gendered the coverage in mainstream media has been. Despite the glaring fact that 61 of the past 62 rampage killings were committed by men, mainstream media outlets continue to marginalize and outright ignore critical questions about masculinity and instead focus on the more conventional topics of mental illness and guns.
This striking avoidance of gender raises some basic questions about what passes for analysis in mainstream media. If the "people" who commit these horrific acts of killing tend to be socially isolated, filled with rage and suffering from some form of mental illness, why are the overwhelming majority of them men, and nearly three-quarters of them white? Don't women experience these symptoms and fit this description? If so, why is it so rare for them to erupt in mass killing outbursts against people, including children, they don't even know? Doesn't it make sense to ask and then pursue these sorts of questions if we're truly interested in understanding -- and preventing -- future tragedies?
While these kinds of elementary questions have for the most part been absent from the national conversation about Newtown, this latest horrific massacre has arguably generated more gendered analysis than any of the previous ones. In the past three weeks there have been numerous op-eds, blog postings and tweets that have attempted to make sense of why the perpetrators of these kinds of mass shootings tend to be so overwhelmingly white and male. (Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel's concept of the "aggrieved entitlement" of some white men has been especially incisive and illuminating, and deserving of a much wider audience.)
But despite these signs of progress, analyses that take gender seriously have been limited mostly to alternative media sources. In contrast, mainstream media sources -- with rare exceptions -- have continued to avoid the subject of whether dominant ideals of manhood that equate masculinity with violence might have anything to do with what we're seeing.
Consider The New York Times, the nation's primary guardian of conventional wisdom and still arguably the most influential newspaper in the country. With the exception of a single editorial weeks after the shooting, The Times has run dozens of pieces analyzing Newtown and other mass shootings from every imaginable angle without even bothering to mention how gender, male anxiety, and American culture's love affair with violent masculinity might factor into these tragedies.
One glaring, but representative, example of this kind of gender blindness was on display in a Times Sunday Review piece on Dec. 22 by Andrew Solomon, the author of the best-selling book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. In the article, Solomon focuses on the Newtown tragedy by interweaving a discussion about mental health, depression, suicide and homicide. His stated aim with the piece is ambitious: "Only by understanding why Adam Lanza wished to die," he writes, "can we understand why he killed." But nowhere does Solomon suggest that it might be useful to understand why suicidal mass murderers like Adam Lanza are almost always males, even though the data are clear and incontestable.
Most studies show that over 90 percent of murder-suicides are perpetrated by men. Is that merely an interesting factoid? Is it something so obvious that it doesn't deserve to be mentioned -- even in think pieces that go to great lengths to isolate and exhaustively analyze virtually every other possible variable? Or is it a crucial clue hiding in plain sight? It's not as if there is no research on this. Many scholars have examined murder-suicide in the context of domestic violence; approximately 70 per cent of cases fall into that category - with men killing women comprising the large majority. And experts like Kalish and Kimmel have done important work examining the specifically gendered features of "suicide by mass murder."
Nevertheless, the response from Solomon is to avoid these sorts of questions and analyses altogether. Over the course of his nearly 1600-word piece, Solomon never even mentions the words "masculinity" or "gender." While he sees fit to reference the psychiatrist Karl Menninger's classic work on suicide, published nearly 60 years ago, he completely ignores feminist-inspired work in men's psychology and mental health that over the past few decades has significantly added to our understanding of this particular brand of violence.
Instead, and again this is the norm in mainstream media coverage, each of Solomon's references to potential perpetrators of murder-suicide are almost self-consciously gender-neutral: "Many adolescents experience self-hatred;" "Adam Lanza's act reflects a grotesquely magnified version of normal adolescent rage;" "those who are treated for various mental disorders are no more violent than the general population;" "an outraged public insists that no sane person would be capable of such actions;" "Some people who are obviously troubled receive no treatment;" "Many American families are in denial about who their children are;" "Someone who has to look for a gun often has time to think better of using it;" and so on.
This same pattern continued a week later in The Times letters section. Four letters responding to the Solomon article were printed under the headline "Seeking the Why Behind Horrific Acts." All of them referenced issues related to the treatment of mental illness. None contained a single mention of gender. In one of the letters, Paul Siegel, a professor of psychology, argues that focusing on "confirmable patterns of behavior" in case studies of murder-suicides would be more likely to bear useful information than asking why this happened in specific cases. He then goes on to write that in the Virginia Tech massacre, a profile of "shame and rage" emerged. "A school shooter tends to be socially isolated and incompetent, having no friends," he writes. "Profound humiliation is coped with by murderous revenge fantasies... Mr. Lanza appears to fit this profile."
Nowhere in this or any of the other letters do the writers account for the fact that in the overwhelming majority of cases these crimes are committed by boys and men, nor do they ask why only a miniscule percentage of rampage killings are committed by girls and women who have suffered social isolation and profound humiliation. Without explanation, it seems to be simply assumed that the maleness of the perpetrators in the overwhelming majority of murder-suicide cases does not represent a "confirmable pattern of behavior" that merits further examination.
Ironically, the lead editorial in The New York Times on the same day those letters were published did what Times editorials rarely do: acknowledge that gender is a central factor in gun violence. The editorial, headlined "The Deadly Fantasy of Assault Weapons," decried firearms marketing campaigns that have explicitly linked gun ownership to manhood. It specifically criticized the manufacturer of the semiautomatic weapon Adam Lanza used in Newtown. "Bushmaster's enormous popularity in the gun world," The Times wrote, "is the result of a successful marketing campaign aimed at putting military firepower and machismo in the hands of civilians." The editorial went on to say that Bushmaster "appealed directly to the male egos of its most likely customers," and referenced an ad campaign the gun manufacturer ran (since taken off the Web) that featured a picture of the weapon with the text "Consider your man card reissued."
Highlighting gender as an important factor in gun violence was a good start. But let's not mistake one good editorial, or even two or three, for a systematic shift in how issues are covered and social problems analyzed. The New York Times has devoted enormous resources to coverage of school shootings, rampage killings, and this country's continuing tragedy of gun violence.
It is long past time for The Times to incorporate into its coverage and commentary about rampage killings the kind of gender sophistication present in that atypical assault weapons editorial. If it does, we'll be a lot closer to answering "why" so many men commit acts of violence -- on a small and large scale, against themselves and others -- in the process of enacting a tragically truncated, distorted and destructive vision of manhood.