You made the rules
You wrote the script out
Don’t blame me when you fuckin’ lose
– ‘Statement of Vindication’ – Bikini Kill (1996)
It is over a year since Elliot Rodger murdered six people (and injured another fourteen) in what is now commonly referred to as the Isla Vista massacre, but the shock of such a forceful display of misogyny has barely dissipated. In the days following the attack, details began to emerge of Rodger’s self-proclaimed ‘war on women’, driven primarily by a belief that women had failed to provide the sex and adoration to which Rodger believed himself entitled.
Today, stories of violence against women – particularly those who self-identify as feminists – appear in what feels like a ceaseless onslaught. Recent examples range from the harassment of Melbourne writer Clementine Ford and the Gamergate scandal, to the brutal murder of American university student Grace Mann. The velocity with which these stories spread across social media suggests that the phenomenon is relatively contemporary and gaining momentum, but one does not need to search hard for earlier examples.
Recent history offers up a string of bleak precedents to cases of misogyny-driven mass murders like the Isla Vista massacre. It is important to reinscribe these into our cultural memory – not to diminish the horror of any one event, but rather to help us identify common threads. Just as crucially, we must remember how feminists of the past found ways to move forward. Indeed, a brief history of anti-women mass violence can help us to create a road map for ending such horrors. It can also help us to see how closely related these crimes are to the everyday misogyny so often accepted as a ‘normal’ part of contemporary life.
On their own, these ugly, inconceivable acts of mass violence are deeply distressing. Considered collectively – as single points on a seemingly endless trajectory of violence – they are, frankly, incomprehensible. The sound bite we are fed is that these are isolated actions of ‘crazy’ men; glitches, somehow, in what is an otherwise perfectly running social machine. The killers’ hatred of women is often a footnote, something indirectly related to their actions. Often, it is collapsed into other debates: analysis is reduced to discussions of gun control and/or mental health. While these factors are undoubtedly significant, the media’s go-to framing works to obfuscate the anti-women elements of these crimes.
Similarly, separating these massacres from their historical predecessors denies the commonalities. These crimes are not anomalous events; they stick to a pattern. Assuming they are isolated incidents risks creating a blind spot in the public consciousness. This, in turn, opens the floodgates to more quotidian types of misogyny – for the women whose terrifying experiences we hear about on social media, for the women who cannot speak up, for the women we do not hear about until it is too late.
A short (recent) history of hate
Founded in 1873, the École Polytechnique is an engineering institute affiliated with the Université de Montréal. In the public imagination, the institute is most commonly associated with the events of 6 December 1989, when 25-year-old Marc Lépine shot dead fourteen women with a semi-automatic rifle before killing himself. Lépine’s motive: a determination to exterminate feminists. His aim was made explicit not only in a letter discovered after the massacre (more a misogynist’s manifesto than a traditional suicide note), but also in the strategy he employed. The scene – shockingly simple and brutal – is brought to life in Polytechnique, Denis Villeneuve’s sobering filmic memorial. The gunman enters a classroom and, after asking the men to leave, opens fire on the women who remain. Of the nine women in that room, only three survived. Lépine then made his way through the university, randomly picking out another nine women to murder. Another ten women and four men were injured.
According to statistics from 2003, there were 1198 women enrolled at the school – a quarter of the male student population. The sexist assumption that engineering is a masculine terrain appears to be supported by this gender breakdown; it was this same assumption that lead Lépine to literally take aim at women studying to be engineers. The very fact that these women were studying engineering was enough, apparently, to render them a threat to his masculinity. To him they were ‘feminists’ – an offence punishable by death.
According to the coroner’s report, Lépine asked the women he forced into the corner of that classroom, ‘Do you know why you are there?’
‘No,’ one replied.
‘I am fighting feminism,’ he answered.
The woman, attempting to engage with him, said, ‘We are not feminists. I have never fought against men.’ Lépine replied by opening fire.
Noted the coroner:
Marc Lépine identified feminists, women, as the enemy, the bad thing to be destroyed. He regarded them as invested with negative characteristics, based on a projective mode of thinking: all the evil was on their side.
The massacre was by no means the first crime of this kind – one need only recall Richard Speck’s murder, torture and rape of eight student nurses at South Chicago Community Hospital in 1966.
These crimes are not always sudden or without warning. When Seung-Hui Cho murdered thirty-two people and injured seventeen in two separate attacks, two hours apart, at Virginia Tech in 2007, there had been clues. Eighteen years earlier, in a high school English essay, Cho had stated that he wanted to ‘repeat Columbine’, leading to school-enforced counselling. Sometime after that, Cho stalked and harassed two female students, and in his third year at university, he stabbed the floor of a female student’s room with a knife.
The Virginia Tech, South Chicago Hospital, École Polytechnique and Isla Vista massacres all took place either on or near university campuses, or involved university students. Such massacres, of course, are not purely the domain of schools or universities, but it is here where the act of mass murder seems the most poignant: there is something bitterly ironic about these institutions – spaces where people go to advance knowledge, to learn more in pursuit of bettering both themselves and the world – becoming sites where ignorance and hatred explode in such a catastrophic manner. In the case of primary school shootings, the symbolic force becomes even more powerful; the killing of children – the ultimate signifier of innocence and hope – rendering such massacres almost inconceivably hideous.
But these spectacles of violence are not specific to schools or universities. On 16 October 1991, 35-year-old George Hennard murdered twenty-two people (and then himself) and injured another twenty-eight in a small diner in Texas. A survivor reported that it was women he was looking to shoot. As his list of victims grew, he shouted, ‘All women of Killeen and Belton are vipers! See what you’ve done to me and my family … Is it worth it?’
Almost two decades later, on 4 August 2009, 48-year-old George Sodini fatally shot three women (including a pregnant aerobics instructor) and injured nine others at a Los Angeles gym before – again – shooting himself. And again, he was specifically targeting women.
Much has been written about the relationship between America’s gun culture and these kinds of massacres, but as the École Polytechnique bloodbath and Anders Breivik’s massacre of seventy-seven people in Norway in 2011 demonstrate, these crimes are not unique to the United States. Breivik’s misogyny has been well documented: by some accounts, Breivik deliberately aimed at ‘the most beautiful girl first’.
Even in the few cases outlined here – this article makes no pretence to document every single case of mass murder driven by misogyny (such an endeavour would be impossible) – one can see patterns forming. Breivik, like Lépine and others, saw women as the enemy: Michelle Goldberg documents how Breivik ‘used anger against women to cast himself as a crusader, believing feminism is destroying the West from the inside’.
There are myriad variants of misogynistic violence beyond the grim, headline-grabbing spectacle of mass murder. Anti-feminist sentiment was also at the heart of the recent murder of twenty-year-old American university student Grace Mann. In this case, only one woman was murdered – one, of course, is too many – but the context of the crime, specifically Mann’s membership of a feminist student group, marks it as similar to the crimes described above. According to the Huffington Post, the University of Mary Washington was aware of continuing harassment of the group’s members via the social media app Yik Yak, but allegedly did nothing in response and therefore ‘permitted a hostile environment against female students’.
The murder came on the back of highly publicised sexist behaviour by the university’s rugby team, including stories about their so-called ‘fuck a whore’ chant making headlines on pop-feminist websites like Jezebel. Steven Briel, Mann’s housemate, was arrested and charged with her murder, and soon after the feminist student group filed a complaint against the university with the Department of Education, accusing the institution of inadequate protection against discrimination and harassment. The complaint stated that group members ‘suffered significant fear and anxiety’ and that there was ‘a systemic failure to protect them from a sexually hostile school environment, from sex-based cyber-assaults and from threats of physical and sexual violence’.
Misogyny is institutional: it is built into the fabric of social structures themselves.
The speed of hate
In 2006, soon after the mass murder of ten Amish schoolgirls, Bob Herbert wrote a powerful op-ed piece for the New York Times. It is as relevant today as it was then – and in light of the bile sprung forth under the banner of so-called Gamergate, perhaps even more so. Violence like this, for Herbert, is in no uncertain terms a hate crime: ‘we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected’. His words continue to have profound relevance to the gender political landscape of 2015:
The disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women is so pervasive and so mainstream that it has just about lost its ability to shock … We’re all implicated in this carnage because the relentless violence against women and girls is linked at its core to the wider society’s casual willingness to dehumanize women and girls, to see them first and foremost as sexual vessels – objects – and never, ever as the equals of men.
In a remarkable essay commemorating the Isla Vista massacre, Rebecca Solnit’s passionate, intelligent j’accuse echoes Herbert’s observations from almost a decade earlier. Of the misogynist perpetrator, Solnit writes:
His misogyny was our culture’s misogyny. His sad dream of becoming wealthy, admired and sexually successful was a banal, widely marketed dream. His preoccupation with brand-name products and status symbols was exactly what the advertising industry tries to inject into our minds. His fantasy of attaining power and status at the point of a gun is the fantasy sold to us by the gun lobby and the action movies in which some invulnerable superman unerringly shoots down the bad guys, a god made a god by his gun.
Emotional and physical violence against women occurs every day in a range of different contexts; it is only the spectacular scale of mass murders like Isla Vista and École Polytechnique that make them impossible to ignore. But as both Herbert and Solnit show, the misogyny that drives men to such extreme acts is itself ‘business as usual’, an accepted aspect of contemporary culture. That there are ten years separating Herbert’s and Solnit’s articles alludes to patterns that need closer examination.
In 1991 – two years after the École Polytechnique massacre – Susan Faludi published Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, in which she identifies an ideologically driven mass media consensus that women’s liberation failed. She relates this to a broader agenda of returning women (and the United States generally) to the idealised white, patriarchal status quo of the pre-Civil Rights era. The American mediapshere of the 1980s, writes Faludi, was marked by ‘a powerful counterassault on women’s rights, a backlash, an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win for women’. From network news to blockbuster films like Fatal Attraction and bestselling books like Misery, there issued forth a constant anti-feminist drumbeat: stories repeated ad nauseam that strong, independent women were miserable, angry monsters. The subtext, according to Faludi, was that the promises of feminism led to nothing but despair and anguish for the women gullible enough to believe.
According to Faludi (and echoed by Herbert in 2006), ‘this counterassault is largely insidious: in a kind of pop-culture version of the Big Lie, it stands the truth boldly on its head and proclaims that the very steps that have elevated women’s position have actually led to their downfall’. The relevance of this observation in 2015 is not difficult to identify – think, for instance, of the social media explosion around the #WomenAgainstFeminism hashtag.
From this perspective, the backlash identified by Faludi in the early 1990s has not ended; it has merely adapted to the rapid, radical advances in technology that have marked the period between then and now. The backlash has reconfigured itself within the contemporary public consciousness, not through network media like it did when Faludi wrote her book, but through social media. We see it on Twitter and Facebook, and, as in the case of the young feminists at the University of Mary Washington, on smaller social media apps. Anti-feminist sentiment now, as then, deploys both the ‘“new” findings of “scientific research” and the dime-store moralism of yesteryear.’ As Faludi observes:
[I]t turns into media sound bites both the glib pronouncements of pop-psych trend-watchers and the frenzied rhetoric of New Right preachers. The backlash has succeeded in framing virtually the whole issue of women’s rights in its own language.
Faludi could not have predicted today’s online anti-feminist discourse any better, and the fact she wrote this almost twenty-five years ago is as remarkable as it is chilling. Fake science still riddles misogynist debates with precisely this same insidiousness: take, for example, references to fictional data ‘proving’ that the wage gap does not exist, or that one-in-three victims of domestic violence is a man. The ‘dime-store moralism’ Faludi identifies is no less aggressive today, particularly in attempts to reframe active hateful bigotry as an issue of censorship or freedom of speech.
Be it in response to Clementine Ford, Zoe Quinn or any other woman who dares to speak publicly about gender politics, the strategies and goals used to attack feminists are the same now as they were in the 1980s: bully and silence those who pose even the remotest threat to the patriarchal status quo.
The thing with misogyny is this: once a culture deems some types of misogyny to be acceptable, it is open slather. As both Herbert and Solnit show, once we start debating which kinds of misogyny get a free pass and which go ‘too far’, we open up a space in which these limits can be tested. The very phrase ‘everyday sexism’ implies that some kinds of misogyny are to be expected, are just business as usual.
But let’s take a moment to unpack that phrase. While intended to emphasise the ubiquity of sexual discrimination, the ‘everyday sexism’ slogan runs the discursive risk of reducing it to a kind of inescapable reality, to something that should be met with a shrug and a sigh.
When specific kinds of violence are normalised, ‘de-normalising’ them – that is, remembering they are not one-off instances – is an immediate way we can start undoing the damage from the grassroots up. And if ‘the media’ will not embed this act of remembering into how they tell the news, then we have to do it for them.
There is obviously a chasm of difference between the types of mass murders outlined here and the threats and abuse dominating social media debates about gender (not to mention that sty of choice for novice trolls: the comments section). But it is worth recalling Herbert’s and Solnit’s shared observation that the cultural logic that permits the latter plays a concrete role in creating a context in which the former happens: gun laws and mental health may indeed be a factor, but it is not an either/or. Misogyny is not a footnote. As unpleasant and as difficult a task as it is, it is time to start remembering.
Girls to the front
In the wake of Faludi’s book and the horror of the École Polytechnique killings, a new era of feminism was sparked: Riot Grrrl. Celebrated recently in the joyful documentary The Punk Singer, key Riot Grrrl figure and Bikini Kill member Kathleen Hanna explicitly referenced the ‘fourteen women in Montreal’ as a pivotal moment in her feminist awakening, leading to her unique and influential brand of activism.
While superficially about a niche musical subculture, The Punk Singer also marks an important effort to contextualise recent feminist history. Perhaps more importantly, it introduced the ideological side of grassroots movements like Riot Grrrl to younger people – both men and women. In the wake of this, Boston even declared 9 April 2015 ‘Riot Grrrl Day’ in order to ‘commemorate, celebrate and actively promote the cultural significance of riot grrrl culture, and to inspire grrrls everywhere to shake up the status quo and create.’
The École Polytechnique massacre was only one of many factors that ignited Hanna’s warrior spirit, but the intersection of these two cultural phenomena offers a powerful insight into how remembering shocking events can help us articulate and respond to social power imbalances.
Reading the responses to Melbourne writer Clementine Ford’s recent revelations about the online harassment she has suffered, I found myself humming Bikini Kill’s ‘Statement of Vindication’ on a loop. The song explores the twisted reality that has led to women who speak out about abuse becoming the ones who need to justify or explain themselves. In typical Hanna style, she throws this back in the face of the perpetrators:
You try to make me crazy.
You try to make me scared.
You try to make me crazy.
I think yr a fucking drag.
You are yr own worst enemy.
The conscious act of restoring feminist history by granting Riot Grrrl its place in cultural memory neatly reflects one of Riot Grrrl’s central principles: ‘Girls to the Front’. This was more than a slogan about making gigs safe for women: it demanded visible spaces for women to speak about the things that mattered to them. That so many people who missed Riot Grrrl the first time around have embraced The Punk Singer has re-energised the symbolic force of the movement and of Hanna herself. She represents a particular kind of fury that is still relevant and urgent.
Revisiting the cinematic representation of the École Polytechnique massacre recently, I was struck by how director Denis Villeneuve seemed to have this idea of Girls to the Front on his mind, too. While the first part of the film (which restages the massacre) spends enough time with the perpetrator to make clear his misogyny, the bulk of the film is dedicated to those who survived; of these stories, the most powerful one involves a survivor outlining her hopes for the future and exploring what she took away from the experience. By adopting this approach, the film does not fetishise the violence through the kind of moral spectacle typical of this kind of movie.
In true Girls to the Front style, the film ends with a dedication to the women who died that day, their names scrolling slowly across the screen. This allows the viewer to remember that these were not identity-less victims, but rather individual people denied a future. When it comes to the construction of historical memory, similar kinds of Girls to the Front acts of remembering can have real, significant value.
Here is Australia in 2015, the École Polytechnique massacre might feel a million miles away, but such events have real relevance to current debates. In a recent episode of Q&A focusing on family violence, 2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty spoke frankly about her experiences of family violence, with particular reference to the murder of her son, Luke, by his father. Batty spoke of the short-sightedness that plagues legal responses to domestic violence:
The way that we handle domestic violence, family violence as I understand it, no-one is looking for red flags. They are called out for individual instances where you go and make a statement and then you’ve got your court appearance and then they don’t turn up at court, so that gets adjourned and so it is an ongoing circus that, you know, for myself, I didn’t realise people didn’t turn up at court. I had never been involved with court before so I assumed everyone turned up. What you begin to realise is the court system is – you know, people don’t turn up all the time so then it becomes normalised and then your case becomes stale so then all of a sudden your case is not that urgent because he hasn’t done anything in the last couple of months so he is not likely to.
In many ways, this parallels the historical blind spot that denies the role of misogyny in so many mass killings.
When viewed collectively, the kinds of violence addressed here are not one-offs, nor are they anomalies. There are patterns to be remembered, talked about, examined further. As Batty puts it, ‘violence is a continuum. Without intervention, it will always escalate and get worse, always.’
Re-applying the Girls to the Front maxim to Australian feminist activism might provide a way for us to underscore the role of historiography in how memory is inscribed. In practical terms, it asks us to create safe spaces in which remembering can happen. Part of this remembering, like this article, will include mourning – not just for lives lost, but for lives damaged, altered and irreversibly harmed by culturally sanctioned misogyny. As Herbert and Solnit remind us, there is a link between ‘everyday’ sexism and the explosions of violence we see in hate crimes like the Isla Vista massacre. And as Faludi’s observations from almost twenty-five years ago make clear, the kind of backlash we are seeing against feminism and feminists today is nothing new – the technologies may be different, but the strategies employed are fundamentally the same as they were in the 1980s.
Batty and Ford have shown us that the spaces for action can be public: the strength and determination of their voices (and the backlash to it) reveals much about how urgently we need the kind of work they are doing. But we cannot leave the job to tougher women. We need to find our own ways, from the grassroots up, to ensure feminist remembering is integral to cultural memory. As this article has demonstrated – perhaps only too clearly – safety is a very real issue, but if ‘everyday sexism’ exists, then so too does ‘everyday activism’. The latter offers a whole range of ways we might be able to bring Girls to the Front on a historiographical level, ways that have direct ideological value and that make us feel safe doing so. We can do it mentally, in the way we think about how current events relate to the past. We can do it socially, in the way we construct social memory between ourselves, in conversation, be it online or off. We can write anonymous articles for Overland. Hell, we could even start a punk band.
This essay is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.
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