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?