-isms and Society

*Trigger Warning: Isla Vista shootings/gender-based violence touched on below.*

Relatively often, I have been asked if some of my characters are meant as “feminist heroes” The first few times I heard it, I entirely admit I was caught off guard. Certainly not because there is anything wrong with someone wanting to classify them as so, but because I simply had never really considered it. As a character-driven writer, I tend to focus more on the characters as people than as any sort of statement. My female characters included. Looking over things after the fact, some would strongly identify as feminists. Some wouldn’t think about it. Some live in worlds where ‘feminism’ as a term would just confuse them. Much like I don’t think of someone as “The Black Character” or “The Christian Character” women in my story are people first, their sex/race/creed second. They can be strong, smart, dumb, passive just like any other person in real life. Their background and opportunities change based on who they are and where they live, but they are none of them are meant to be political statements over actual people.

That said, gender relations do play a large part in many of my stories. Whether it is a major theme or not, characters experience things as their society trains them to, and that can be both a mix of privilege and detriment. For the women of the historically based Broken Line series, this pops up quite a bit–they are upper class, generally wealthy (and thus taught that they are better than those who socially rank lower) but they are also women, and that governs what society allows them to do. Some find this yoke more confining than others (raging like Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace”); some find ways to use this double standard to their advantage (like Adela‘s, “Men often underestimate a woman with a pretty face”); but all are products of their society.

For the most part, I do my best to stay away from current events/politics in this blog–it is a writing blog, after all, not meant as my personal soapbox. With the events last Friday around UCSB setting me along this train of thought, however, I would beg reader’s indulgence for today. For those who, for one reason or another, haven’t heard, over the weekend a 22 year old named Elliot Rodger participated in a drive-by shooting leaving himself and six others dead by the end of it. On the way to this shooting (which he termed “retribution” in a posted Youtube video) he also emailed a 141-page autobiography/manifesto outlining his life and reasons for doing what he was going to. The document, in its entirety, now posted online, I spent a good part of last night reading it. Why? Primarily morbid curiosity, I have to admit. As a writer, I have always been interested in how others’ minds work–even severely damaged ones–and while I have not yet gotten to the worst of the ravings most have understandably reported (he spends a large amount of time recounting his “joyful” childhood before slowly devolving toward the racism and misogyny on which the papers have focused) it is a fascinating, if awful and tragic, head to peer into.

After reading what I have, would I say Rodger had mental problems? Obviously. I don’t think anyone truly has to read any of his manifesto to conclude that. Mentally sound people don’t generally decide to shoot complete strangers before taking their own life. What is fascinating, however, is to see everything that came together to this tragedy. Was he disturbed? Obviously. Is he an unreliable narrator? Of course. But you start getting a much deeper insight into his psyche than the news stories report. Was it mental illness? Misogyny? Racism? Honestly, it was a little bit of everything.

From an early age, Rodger reported himself being a ‘jealous’ person. Friends wanting to play with other children, other’s getting positive attention–especially attention he felt he deserved–set him off. This “innate” jealousy and sense of entitlement (be it narcissism or another disorder, I don’t pretend to have the credentials to say) slowly began to morph as he got older. Craving attention, Rodger began copying “the cool kids” trying to be one, picking up hobbies he didn’t care for and dropping ones he liked to try to stay with the trend. As he reached middle school, the “cool” thing was to “be popular with girls”. A late bloomer, Rodger claims to have had no interest in girls yet, in fact claiming the idea of sex was repulsive to him (whether this is the truth or a later manifestation of his anger around the idea, I can’t say). Still, he wanted to be popular, and so he wanted to be popular with girls too (his own words stating that men who could “acquire” girls easily were more respected). Combined with what seems to be an anxiety disorder and discomfort with talking to women in any capacity, he found that “girls” was not a hobby he could simply pick up like skateboarding or Pokemon. From there, it seems to have become a perfect storm. The longer he went without a girl he “deserved” the angrier he got. The angrier he got, the more awkward he became around women, to the point where he fully admits to never approaching women other than to yell at them about speaking to men he found “less worthy” rather than him. Amazingly enough, this did not do much to get him a girlfriend. Still, he entirely shifted the blame for his depression, loneliness, and anger to women for not throwing themselves at him rather than considering it something he could likely fix if he just went up to some people at a party and started talking to women like human beings.

So, was it mental illness? As I’ve said before, yes. Narcissism. Anxiety. Chronic Depression. Some spectrum of Autism. I will leave the official diagnosis up to his former therapists, but there was very obviously something wrong. It would be remiss, however, in my own personal opinion, to discount these actions simply as one disturbed boy rather than one disturbed boy who grew up learning that he deserved a girlfriend (a “hot blonde” girlfriend at that) simply because he wanted one. Grew up learning that women, specifically pretty women, are a status symbol. Is society responsible for the entirety of Rodger’s actions? Of course not. Is it others’ (men or women) fault that he went to this extreme? I don’t believe so. No one gave him the gun and told him to start shooting. No one gave him mental issues. Is there a problem somewhere deep in society that he could get these ideas in the first place and find people online who agreed that “b*tches had it coming”? There, I have to say, is a resounding yes.

I will be the first to admit I do not have a “fix all” solution. All manner of inequality are a deep hurt that run centuries back. Some people were elevated, some oppressed, perhaps simply rising from the fact that there are limited resources on the planet. For the most part, things are slowly heading for progress. I was never made to feel inferior for being a girl in my group of friends and family growing up. I was able to pursue a college education. I was never sexually assaulted while attending said college (though probably being six feet tall in my stocking feet was a bit of a deterrent there as well). I know many people, men and women, who go about their lives as respectful, good people. I have also been harassed on the street. Have friends who are survivors of rape or attempted rape. Know better than to go to some clubs without a man in the group to “stay safe”/ward of men who think simply being in a club gives them the right to grab women who don’t wish them to. And that’s not okay. Society is changing/has changed and for that I am grateful. Grateful for all the wonderful men and women I have met throughout my life. Writing examples like this off as “just a damaged guy” however, just because it is unpleasant to consider what wounds the past has still left on society, is counterproductive.

Characters are a product of their society. We are a product of ours. Good. Bad. Somewhere in between. It affects us, and ignoring that doesn’t help anyone. Both in fiction and in life you sometimes have to face the unpleasant truths for anything to get better.

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