From Santa Barbara to Badaun: Misogyny and Masculinity

It’s been a bad week for women. They found out, in sunny California, that when they do not dispense sexual indulgences to those who seek (or demand) them, they can provoke murderous rages; they also found out, in India’s central provinces, that their bodies remain to be taken by others, used, and then finally, strung up like broken rag dolls. Elliott Rodger and the as-yet-convicted rapists and killers of two teenage girls–separated by time and space–had this in common: they disliked women intensely. They hated them enough to kill them.

Elliott Rodger begs for cruel mockery about what goes terribly wrong when you don’t get laid. But the killers of Badaun weren’t sexually deprived; they had had their fill of the girls before they tossed them aside. Indeed, if Rodger had gotten his way and been dispensed the favors he seemed to be so desperately seeking, there is no guarantee he wouldn’t have killed anyway. Perhaps he would have channeled his rage against women some other way; perhaps he would have chosen to have gotten angry because one of his sexual partners wanted to break things off and just move on. The kind of anger so clearly visible in his disturbing video is not so easily assuaged as might be imagined; its roots lie far deeper. And the killers of Badaun made this rage manifest; it was not enough for them that they raped the girls they had abducted, they also hung them from a tree to strike fear into the hearts of anyone–especially other young women–who saw their limp, lifeless bodies. Women should know their place in this world: keep shut, spread your legs. (It is an additional complicating factor in the Indian case that the young women were Dalits, and their killers were probably members of an ‘upper-caste.’)

Many years ago, in a documentary on Mike Tyson, when speaking of his rape conviction, Joyce Carol Oates had noted that the modern man–in his sexual interactions with women–is animated by a rage qualitiatively and quantitatively distinct from that which tormented his predecessors earlier. Then, when a woman declined to sleep with you, you could convince yourself it was because she wanted to be a ‘good girl.’ Now, that same rejection has a personal sting: she is choosing someone else, not you, not now. Rodger had internalized this resentment for sure, but he had also inculcated in himself a corrosive Whore-Madonna complex of sorts: women wouldn’t stop being ‘sluts’ just because they had slept with Rodger. Perhaps they’d sink even lower in his eyes. Perhaps because, despite his protestations, Rodger didn’t think very much himself, he might have regarded them as especially contemptible for having slept with him.

Among masculinity’s worst contributions to our culture–and it has many terrible achievements–has been its degradation of sexual relations, its notion of sexual ‘accomplishment’ where men succeed via promiscuity and women fail. Over time, women have ceased to be persons and have merely become prickly, uncooperative owners of bodies, who refuse to play the game. As defined by men.

The teenage girls of Badaun, it’s ‘strange fruit‘, learned that the hard way: once their bodies had been used by those who wanted them, they weren’t needed any more. And no one else could have them. Not even they, themselves.

It’s no country, or world, for women (old or otherwise).

Ronald Reagan and the Casual Invocation of ‘Lynching’

In March 1983, Anne Gorsuch Burford, the chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, fired Rita Lavelle on charges of having abused the $1.6 billion Superfund that the US Congress had earmarked for cleaning up chemical spills and hazardous waste dumps. Allegedly, Superfund monies were being steered to Republican officeholders seeking relection. A few weeks later, Burford, along with twenty other EPA employees, resigned after Congress cited her for contempt in refusing to hand over Superfund records.

The US president in March 1983 was Ronald Reagan. His response to the news included the following line: ‘This whole business has been a lynching by headline hunting Congressmen’.

In September 1983, Secretary of the Interior James Watt resigned. In responding to critics of a Watt-created commission, he had said that his commission included ‘every kind of mixture you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.  And we have talent.’

The US president had a response for this resignation too. He admitted Watt had ‘an unfortunate way of putting his foot in his mouth’ but then went on to insist Watt was ‘really the victim of a two and half-year lynching.’

In The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 (Harper Perennial, 2009)pages 169-170 of which serves as source for the notes above–Sean Wilentz notes that ‘Reagan often referred to press and congressional investigations as lynchings.’ (The James Watt story is taken from: Douglas Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries (New York 2007), 185, entry for October 8-10, 1983.) These two instances appear as part of a distinct pattern of speech in describing political adversity.

Comparing violent, murderous events to considerably more benign activities is a fairly common rhetorical strategy among journalists and politicians alike. The most common and widespread instance of this is the almost constant invocation of martial metaphors and language when talking about sports. In more recent times, that natural killer of hundreds of thousands, the tsunami, has been routinely compared to almost anything that is sudden, widespread, or remotely threatening. Perhaps you have heard of the tsunami of election commercials which await us in the next few weeks? Or the tsunami of Christmas shopping commercials which will inundate and engulf us? Perhaps modern life drenches us with a tsunami of ennui?

Still, even having accounted for the widespread deployment of this bit of verbal pyrotechnics, it still seems incontrovertible that only a ‘special’ talent could use, as part of his political linguistic arsenal, a word that has such a gruesomely violent history in the associated domain of interest . It also, of course, requires that political leader, in the modern age of mass media coverage, to be surrounded by incompetent media advisers. And lastly, and most depressingly of all, it perhaps requires that leader to be afforded an almost bizarre tolerance by his electorate, one perhaps not so attuned to the history invoked by the word in question.

Note: Next week, the Wolfe Institute of Humanities at Brooklyn College will be hosting Sean Wilentz as its 2012 Robert Hess Scholar in Residence. A full week of panels, talks and round-tables is planned; the program for the week is now available. Please contact me if you have any questions and/or are interested in attending.