Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

Our Culture’s Role in the Tragedy in Isla Vista

The results of May 23 are yet another example of the blatant need for mental health care reform in the United States. The shooting in Isla Vista, California reminded us of numerous other issues, bullying, gun control, and equality, but none more critical then mental health care. Based on the number of videos, articles, tweets, and shares out there, almost all of these issues have and are being addressed by Americans. Twitter ran rampant with tweets donning the #YesAllWomen, Facebook was subject to lengthy statuses on varying opinions immediately following,  but all of these opinions carried little weight when nothing substantial has yet to occur. Mental health was a vital part of this horror story, but by uncovering the disturbed thoughts of the alleged shooter, Elliot Rodgers, it was made apparent that there is more to it. American culture today may have played a part in the tragic events of that fatal day.

First, it is important to address the oversexualization of American society today. The United States places such an unusually high importance on sex and gender roles, which are usually found through the media. A 2007 article in the Washington Post titled, “Goodbye Girlhood,” discussed the sexualization of girls based on a study done by American Psychological Association. The APA stated, “Throughout U.S. culture, and particularly in mainstream media, women and girls are depicted in a sexualizing manner.” The study also made clear that, “such images are found in virtually every medium, from TV shows to magazines and from music videos to the Internet.”  Young men are not exempt from the oversexualization either. “Boys, too, face sexualization, the authors acknowledge. Pubescent-looking males have posed provocatively in Calvin Klein ads, for example, and boys with impossibly sculpted abs hawk teen fashion lines,” writes Weiner.  Like many young Americans, Elliot Rodgers grew up in this sexually charged world. Combining that with mental health disorders and there is a disastrous outcome.

Besides the oversexualization of America, the stereotypes associated with young adults aged from 18-25, most likely in college, are influential as well. You don’t need someone with a PhD to tell you how the typical American college student is portrayed. Take a look at the movie “Neighbors” currently in theatres. Zac Efron and Dave Franco play lead roles as frat boys who move their frat house into a residential neighborhood. The movie pays almost no attention to the academic aspect of college life and focuses solely on partying, drinking, and girls. This movie is just one example of what college life should look like, creating a stereotype of never ending parties, binge drinking, and endless sex with women of their choice. Arizona State University student Ashley Haines wrote an article in 2011 for the university’s newspaper where she agreed that the media influences the way college life is portrayed. Haines wrote, “Many people have preconceived notions of what the college experience is for all students thanks to the media.” American culture has a way of telling its young people the life they should be living. Rodgers did not fit the mold, as he explained the night before the tragedy.

In a YouTube video is titled “Retribution.” Rodgers explains his deadly plans and his reasoning behind them. Remarking on how he was 22-years-old virgin, Rodgers reiterated his hatred for women, seeing females as the enemy. In his chilling video he says, “I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me.” He also makes the point of saying that he has never kissed a girl. In what society besides the United States are either of these considered something to be ashamed of? Living in a society that places unusually high importance on sex and gender roles, a disturbed individual will inevitably feel the pressures in ways others will not. This also begs the question, what about those who do not fit the mold, where do they fit in? In 1999 Universal Pictures released the movie “American Pie.” The movie told the story of four guys making a pact to all lose their virginity before they graduated high school; they all felt the pressure to become sexually active. American Pie gained so much popularity that three other American Pie films were made.  American culture depicts a society where becoming sexually active is a social requirement.

The cause of the events on May 23 cannot be reduced to one thing. Various causes led to that fatal day, you cannot dismiss the broader social issues at play. As a female college student, I am fully aware of the pressures men and women my age face in their own sex lives. While girls are shamed for having too much sex, men are shamed even more so for their lack thereof. American society has created a warped sense of reality for its’ young people. We are constantly reminded of how women are portrayed as objects for the solely for male pleasure. Arthur Chu’s article  titled, “Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds,” takes a look at the life of Elliot Rodgers from a different perspective. He says, “The overall problem is one of a culture where instead of seeing women as, you know, people, protagonists of their own stories just like we are of ours, men are taught that women are things to ‘earn,’ to ‘win.” This constant victimization of women leaves men almost forgotten on this spectrum. It is easy to disregard the role that today’s men are supposed to play, as a dominating force to be desired by all women. When a young individual like Elliot Rodgers finds himself not fitting into the mold, he allows his contorted mind to lead to horrific actions.

While the actions of Elliot Rodgers are one very extreme example of what expected gender roles can cause, they are not the sole cause of this tragedy. Our culture has impacted the events, but it always circles back to mental health. The mental health care in the United States has to be addressed. It is very easy to overlook mental health issues and place the blame on guns or other factors. Individuals like Elliot Rodgers, Adam Lanza, and Seung-Hui Cho were all very disturbed individuals who lacked the proper treatment. While we cannot rewrite the past, it is difficult to ignore the what-if in this scenario. Would all of those men, women and children still be alive if the mental health care in the United States had been different? There is no way to answer that question, all we can do is learn from it and prevent anything like it from ever happening again. By accepting the problem and working to find a solution, we can get these individuals the help they need, preventing them from causing harm to themselves or others. We will not be able to say that shootings like the one on May 23 will never occur again, but we will be able to say with confidence that we are working our hardest towards prevention.

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