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Dec 22 2012

Spinster aunt casts yet another jaundiced eye at media stereotyping

I am about to make a remark about media coverage of infamous tragedies. Although the remark is inspired by the coverage of the Sandy Hook shootings, it nevertheless isn’t going to be sentimental. Therefore I am obliged to point out at the outset that, even though I do not invoke higher powers or beat my breast because the Newtown victims were “babies,” it doesn’t mean that I actually condone the shootings. I am, for the record, fond of children and against mass murder.

If you’re wondering why I bother to make such a ridiculous statement, it’s because in the past, when I’ve made certain patriarchy-blaming remarks concerning the megatheocorporatocratic influence on the cultural narrative of this or that National Megatragedy, and failed to express with sufficient floridity my own personal antipathy toward the original abomination, I have been construed as a sociopath, cold fish, fiend in human shape, etc. So, once again: I assure you that, like any conventionally socialized human, I am perturbed and disheartened by the Sandy Hook shootings. If I thought that following the script by platitudinously “sending my heart out” to Newtown would in any way alleviate any suffering whatsoever, send it out I would. But better to let more qualified persons attend to the unimaginable grief of the survivors, while I stick to my area of expertise and give my nieces an extra chin-chuck tonight at the annual Lower School Christmas Pageant.

Niece #1, you are undoubtedly wondering, is going to be an adorable sheep; Niece #2, a Child of Bethlehem. It is the opinion of the Lower School Music Director that Children of Bethlehem should wear sheets tied at the waist with rope, jaunty scarves wrapped around the head hippie-style, and a pair of Tom’s shoes. It promises to be quite the spectacular.

But enough about me and my cute nieces and their teachers’ questionable taste.

Nothing whips up the news media like a mass shooting. People get pretty sentimental about children, so consequently the news are describing the Sandy Hook events with some pretty extravagant language. “The slaughter of innocents” is a phrase you hear a lot. To which I respond, oy vey.

Here is where I’m supposed mention how odious it is to murder little kids, so that I am not mistaken for a child-hating ghoul. See paragraph 1, above.

You will get no argument from me that murdering little kids is about as odious a thing as there is. The argument you will get from me is that murdering kids isn’t intrinsically any more odious than murdering anybody else. A life is a life. Characterizing child victims as pure, immaculate angels recasts them as mythical paragons. This robs them of their humanity, degrades the status of adult victims by comparison, and casts an unhelpfully fanciful Biblical tone over the whole tragedy. It also perpetuates a culture of patronization. Let me explain:

Coverage of the Sandy Hook shootings relies on the “slaughter of innocents” theme because the demographics of the incident — no sympathetic male victims — precludes the media falling back on their usual gambit. I allude to the “women-and-children” gambit.

It has long been an auntly peeve that news copy forever, consistently, and without fail discriminates for no good reason between male, female, and child victims. You know, as in “Seven victims, including 4 women and children, were pulled from the wreckage.” Regular people, i.e. men, are the default. Invariably “women-and-children” are invoked as a separate unit to impart that extra delicious little jolt of maudlinosity. It’s a cheap tactic, and it works because of news media’s profitable grasp of gender bias.

Specifically: in our misogynist, child-oppressing culture, adult women are not only infantilized as the emotional equivalents of children, but as a package with children are widely recognized as diminished inferiors who, because of their essential debilitation relative to adult men, are intrinsically more pathetic. Even bathetic.

But not more tragic, mind you. “Tragic” is an elevated state to which victimized women-and-children are entitled to aspire only under certain circumstances. First they will have demonstrated some distinguishing noble trait, such as previous celebrity (Princess Diana, Gabrielle Giffords), heroic action (Victoria Soto) or exceptional pluck (Elizabeth Edwards). Conversely, males upon whom misfortune is visited tend to pre-exist as tragic by dint of their noble, godlike sex alone, since the requisite degree of respect is already built in to our society’s appreciation of dudeliness. Like, it’s wack, but a guy like John Edwards, who cheated on his dying wife and committed criminal acts to cover it up, isn’t even dead, but is nevertheless viewed as a tragic figure, his fall from grace cushioned by pre-existing dudely nobleness.

As stereotypical units of poignancy, however, women-and-children victims are largely reduced to objects for tragedy-fetishists. Portraying them as helpless innocents invites not only sentimentalism, but a kind of cloying, pitying prurience that is easily and routinely exploited by the 24-hour news channels. Banality and bathos are the enemies of truth and beauty.

On a related note: if there was any question about misogyny and news reportage, clock this, yall: in the Sandy Hook coverage, it cannot have escaped your notice, 2 deaths are consistently left off the body count. One, of course, is the shooter, for whom nobody can be expected to cough up much compassion. The other is Nancy Lanza, the mother he shot 4 times in the head. No sympathy for her, either, as she doesn’t rise to the level of the slaughtered innocents. In fact, she apparently deserved to die for having spawned a cold-blooded killer. Because no sufficiently satisfying motive for the school shootings can be discerned, the cry issues forth, “Why?” To which it is replied by sighing sages and philosophic pundits, “alas, there are no answers.”

Oh please, of course there’s an answer; Adam Lanza was a dude with a severe and untreated mental illness. But that’s not melodramatic enough, apparently. Thus is the mother suspected of creating the monster. How would the popular imagination ever cope with aberrant gunslinging dudes if it weren’t for their diabolical, sin-originating mothers?

24 comments

  1. Mooska

    Twisty! You’re back! *swoons with joy*

  2. GinBerlin

    My understanding is that Ms Lanza had guns and ammunitions in the house and that those were used in the commission of the crime. That takes a huge amount of my sympathy away. I don’t think anyone at all should have guns that can fire more than 6 bullets, that anyone should have a gun that could be used by someone in the home with a history of instability, or that one should go shooting with someone with a history of instability. So- not a lot of sympathy and it’s noty because she was a parent (or mom) of a killer, but because her guns were the instrument of murder. If not killed, I would have hoped she would spend the rest of her life in jail for providing the weapons used in murdering 26 other people.

  3. Twisty

    I’m in favor of gun control, but if owning a gun is the equivalent of shooting a gun, then I’m a monkey’s aunt.

  4. M.K. Hajdin

    No. Don’t blame this on mental illness. The last thing people with mental health issues need is to have this murderer lumped in with them so they can share the stigma and backlash.

    Women with mental illnesses don’t shoot up schools.

    This was male entitlement, pure and simple. A dominant, entitled, violent male who killed women and children because he lived in a culture where women and children are subhuman chattel to be offed at will whenever a male feels like taking his frustration out on some convenient object.

  5. Twisty

    I don’t disagree that dude entitlement culture is responsible for pretty much all violence globally, but you can’t tell me that a guy who shoots 27 people is merely feeling entitled. Certainly socialization plays a role in how anybody’s mental illness plays out. I assert this because socialization plays a role in how everything else plays out, and it doesn’t make sense that mental health would be the lone exemption. I have always contended that patriarchy makes people sick. Violence is a symptom of that sickness.

    So I can’t agree that pretending the guy wasn’t ill will help anyone. If anything, the post-Sandy Hook discussion ought pave the way for better mental health care in the US. And if it isn’t going that way, we need to make it go that way.

  6. WordWoman

    He broke a taboo. Women and children are supposed to be helpless, i.e., can’t fight back. Men are supposed to be the protector class. Protecting against what, though? Lions and bears? Earthquakes? Other men’s violence, mainly. But if the women and children are the property, spouses and offspring, then any violence by their husband and father is just because the women or children did something to anger their protector. If the women keep guns for protection they are somehow “unnatural.” (disclaimer here: I’m not in favor of guns, but if it had been the father’s guns people would not be villifying the father to the same degree.)

  7. Keri

    It really chaps my hide when the media asserts that if more dudes were in that building, the tragedy would have been averted. Sure, the female principal and psychologist go running for the shooter and teachers body blocked the kids but if only their had been more dudes. One thing I like about working in education is a paucity of dudes. And that day, children attending the nearly 100,000 public schools around this country were not being shot at but now dudes think we need armed guards and for teachers to carry guns.

    I have wondered lately what these conservative politicians and NRA assholes that love guns but don’t want to pass updated VAWA legislation would think if us ladies just start shooting dudes in the dick every day when they try to assault us. Bet gun control would suddenly be important for half the population.

    Thanks for blaming Twisty.

  8. Keri

    If only there had been more dudes that is.

  9. Buttercup

    Yeah, 28, not 26. His mom was a victim and so was he in the end. Fucking culture we live in. As the daughter of one teacher and the mother of another, this has been tough in chez buttercup.

  10. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    It’s a gigantic suck salad that arises from a violence-worshipinga culture. No one needs an assault rifle. If you wanna shoot animals, use a bow & arrow. As for the dudes with guns solution, didn’t that Army doctor walk right onto a base full of ‘em and shoot the place up?

    But we really need to do something about how we identify, treat and deal with mental illness. Because our current system resembles the dark ages, and that shit ain’t right.

  11. Shelby

    You writes good Twisty.

  12. sarah

    twisty, you are my dream aunt.

  13. caol

    Good you’re back, Twisty!

  14. IHaveNoticedTickles

    Does anyone else find it icky how suddenly everyone is worried about what gender roles do to little boys to make them snap under the pressures of holy-manliness? I’ve seen like fifty articles and news stories about it already. Obviously no one cares when it’s said that gender roles pushed on females hurts girls because it’s so “benevolent”, but the fucks are freely given when little boys are in danger.

  15. Linda

    Hi! I’m glad to see someone else calling out the “childhood innocence” bullshit for what it is. It also denies them autonomy, free speech (quite literally) and human rights. The physical dependence of children lasts only a few years; after that the only thing they need to be protected against is us. Protectionist rhetoric is just about dominating and controlling them long enough to mould them according to patriarchal interests.

  16. Rhizome

    M.K. Hajdin said:
    >>Women with mental illnesses don’t shoot up schools.

    Actually, sometimes they do: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brenda_Ann_Spencer

    Obviously, not nearly as often, but mental illness leading to violence is a thing.

  17. Skye

    Twisty, I don’t think you hate kids or men or women that think both are better than themselves. I do think you draw some erroneous correlations though.

    Seeing the utter waste of human lives due to any mentally deranged person does not, by default, mean people are casting ‘Biblical’ overtones on the victims. I’d no more pass for a christian by most of the unhappy christians we all know and love, than I would pass as a pumpkin pie.

    The actual correlation between killer and victims is evident. We have one young man, barely into adulthood himself, shooting first his mother ( a life giver ) and then some teachers ( women ) and some kids (the ‘products’ of life givers ). BTW, when I use the term ‘life giver’, I use it in terms of the unconscious thought processes many people have without analysis of any kind.

    The over-sentimentalisation about the victims that you clearly feel is unjust in some way, isn’t so much a matter of injustice as recognition. Higher minded folks like to think we are miles above the rest of Nature and speak of Nature as if we’re seperate from it. “We have to protect Nature!”. We’re not. Just as some bears kill other bears, so we kill each other and, however sadly, often for very similar reasons. And, just as a momma bear will rip your ass in half if you cause one of her bear cubs to cry, so some human mama bears will do.

    We can’t complain about ‘othering’ while we do it ourselves. I think it’s sad and unjust, VERY sad and unjust, that every single day thousands of elderly men and women spend their final months of life in horrific conditions and left to the (un)kindnesses of cold, sterile environments and people who burn out being caregivers to them, and so resort to abuse, even murder. Hundreds of thousands of children are living in near poverty and starvation conditions inside our country’s borders and no one is horrified by that because, in part, it’s simply not ‘dramatic’ enough of an event ot merit media coverage and even if it were, it wouldn’t LOOK as intersting to keep watching.

    “Oh, look. That chick is looking for shelter again tonite. Is the football game on?”

    I admit to a visceral reaction to the loss of those little kids for a variety of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the Bible. I see human potential, all things being equal, snuffed out. I see it snuffed out by a product of poor mental health support systems. I see it snuffed out by family shame and family secrets. I see it snuffed out through the eyes of a child who doesn’t understand the terror and violence of what’s happening and most certainly without even a snowball’s chance in Hell of physically being able to fight back. I see it snuffed out alongside with and in front of adults who dedicate their lives to guiding our replacements into the future.

    What any of that has to do with the Bible is beyond me.

  18. Skye

    BTW, I live in the state John Edwards calls ‘home’. He gets no sympathy here my friend. The natives refer to him as ‘Dirty Little Johnny’.

    Unfortunately, had he been a white male Republican against minorities of every kind instead of aligning himself with those ‘dirty Dems’, he would have been given quite a wider social berth than he currently enjoys. To say he’s ‘out of the limelight’ is a massive understatement.

    The saddest thing is that Elizabeth’s story failed to cause any *serious* reminder to the aspirant Southern belle’s that, at the end of the day, they will only ever be thought of by their male counterparts as just above prostitutes.

  19. alamo

    “We really need to do something about how we identify, treat and deal with mental illness.” How do you know he wasn’t being treated? If he had been treated, how do you know that treatment would have worked? It’s nice to think that psychologists and doctors can cure even the most hardened cases of mental illness, but that’s not the case.

    “murdering kids isn’t intrinsically any more odious than murdering anybody else. A life is a life.”
    I disagree. A young life is different from an old life. We get only one chance to live. A murdered five year old only got 5 years ‘to live out that life. A murdered 80 year old–still horrible, but at least that person got 80 years worth of living.

  20. Linda

    “A murdered 80 year old – still horrible, but at least that person got 80 years worth of living.”

    You’d probably disagree with that if you we’re 80.

    What about a 5 year old who has a terminal illness and say 9 months left to live? Is it worse to murder the healthy 5 year old than the sick one? What if you’re 32? Is it worse to murder a 17 year old than you?
    Once you start to judge the degree of odiousness of murder according to how many years the victim might have had left to live, you get in all kinds of trouble.

  21. Orange

    Seconding Rhizome: In Chicago’s suburbs in 1988, a mentally ill woman named Laurie Dann shot up an elementary school (and, for good measure, tried to poison people too). But yes, the vast majority of homicidalists are men (in massacres, in gang shootings, in armed robberies, in “domestic” violence, in serial killing).

    I appreciate the media’s playing off people’s sympathies for “the innocents” this time. Why? Because none of the previous gun massacres triggered anywhere near this groundswell of movement towards stronger gun laws. Kill a bunch of Sikhs at temple, kill a bunch of people at your ex-wife’s workplace, kill your coworkers, kill a bunch of people at a movie theater–none of this year’s *many* other mass murders moved public opinion. But finally, we might make some progress on issues of gun control and mental health care.

  22. Gertrude Strine's Auntie

    It’s nothing to do with the dead and I deplore the attempt to use the community there to try to run a sideways attack on the arms industry.
    Along with your highly prescient pres Eisenhower, I blame the Military-Industrial Complex for the ugly corner your country has been backed into. The one where the emphasis remains on weapons and not people, despite the crappy theatre getting run about this particular massacre.
    A warrior nation- by force of arms industries running the debate – has no way out of this situation, no matter how much emphasis can be given to treatment of illness.
    Sadly, you have to be mad to believe there should be any right to bear arms that can rapidly delete lives of any kind.
    And you also have to be mad to respect people who use such arms in advancing your state’s aims outside its borders.
    The rot of warrior worship has crept into my own state’s polity, where our army was once called the army or the defence force and is now being called the military. Australia is fucked now too.

    If I never see another front page photo adorning a worshipful article about the repatriation of a defence force member who’s been killed enforcing my state’s crooked aggression outside its borders, I won’t be upset – any more than I won’t be if I never see another eulogy about an innocent dead person.
    I fear the Military-Industrial complex owns us all now, so the story of how it addicts people to weaponry won’t be on the front page any time soon.

  23. alamo

    “You’d probably disagree with that if you we’re 80.”

    I doubt it. I’m in my 40s and yes, I think it would be more tragic if a child was killed than if I were killed.
    Yes, I think it would be more tragic to kill someone who could have potentially lived a full life than someone who was terminally ill.

  24. lucida

    When I hear “X victims, including Y women and Z children” what I hear are “X victims, Y and Z of which would likely have never been perpetrators of violence”. I think when people who are victims of asymmetrical violence by another group, or just plain not part of the conflict (and this violence is a conflict which masculinity has with itself, IMO).. those victims deserve a mention. Like how in the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict a Hamas mortar killed a Druze civil servant. I think people on both sides needed to know when conflict bleeds out onto other groups and innocent bystanders. One hopes it’s a chance for soul searching. That said, we live in a patriarchal, paternal cultural context so, mentioning women and children is probably more about that and about highlighting difference than trying to shine a light into the dark heart of masculinity.

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