The events at Columbine High School 12 days ago have
plunged us into a national conversation about "youth violence"
and how to stop it. Proposals came last week from all corners
- the Oval Office, Congress, living rooms across America. That
we are talking about the problem is good; but the way we are
talking about it is misdirected.
It is tempting to look at the murderous attack in Littleton
as a manifestation of individual pathologies, an isolated incident
involving deeply disturbed teenagers who watched one too many
video games. That explanation ignores larger social and historical
forces, and is dangerously shortsighted. Littleton is an extreme
case, but if we examine critically the cultural environment
in which boys are being socialized and trained to become men,
such events might not appear so surprising.
Political debate and media coverage keep repeating the muddled
thinking of the past. Headlines and stories focus on youth violence,
"kids killing kids," or as in the title of a CBS "48
Hours" special, "Young Guns." This is entirely
the wrong framework to use in trying to understand what happened
in Littleton - or in Jonesboro, Ark., Peducah, Ky., Pearl, Miss.,
or Springfield, Ore.
This is not a case of kids killing kids. This is boys killing
boys and boys killing girls.
That these school shootings reveal is not a crisis in youth
culture but a crisis in masculinity. The shootings - all by
white adolescent males - are telling us something about how
we are doing as a society, much like the canaries in coal mines,
whose deaths were a warning to the miners that the caves were
Consider what the reaction would have been if the perpetrators
in Littleton had been girls. The first thing everyone would
have wanted to talk about would have been: Why are girls - not
kids - acting out violently? What is going on in the lives of
girls that would lead them to commit such atrocities? All of
the explanations would follow from the basic premise that being
female was the dominant variable.
But when the perpetrators are boys, we talk in a gender-neutral
way about kids or children, and few (with the exception of some
feminist scholars) delve into the forces - be they cultural,
historical, or institutional - that produce hundreds of thousands
of physically abusive and violent boys every year. Instead,
we call upon the same tired specialists who harp about the easy
accessibility of guns, the lack of parental supervision, the
culture of peer-group exclusion and teasing, or the prevalence
of media violence.
All of these factors are of course relevant, but if they were
the primary answers, then why are girls, who live in the same
environment, not responding in the same way? The fact that violence
- whether of the spectacular kind represented in the school
shootings or the more routine murder, assault, and rape - is
an overwhelmingly male phenomenon should indicate to us that
gender is a vital factor, perhaps the vital factor.
Looking at violence as gender-neutral has the effect of blinding
us as we desperately search for clues about how to respond.
The issue is not just violence in the media but the construction
of violent masculinity as a cultural norm. From rock and rap
music and videos, Hollywood action films, professional and college
sports, the culture produces a stream of images of violent,
abusive men and promotes characteristics such as dominance,
power, and control as means of establishing or maintaining manhood.
Consider professional wrestling, with its mixing of sports
and entertainment and its glamorization of the culture of dominance.
It represents, in a microcosm, the broader cultural environment
in which boys mature. Some of the core values of the wrestling
subculture - dominant displays of power and control, ridicule
of lesser opponents, respect equated with physical fear and
deference - are factors in the social system of Columbine High,
where the shooters were ridiculed, marginalized, harassed, and
These same values infuse the Hollywood action-adventure genre
that is so popular with boys and young men. In numerous films
starring iconic hypermasculine figures like Arnold Schwarzenegger,
Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, Bruce Willis, and Mel Gibson,
the cartoonish story lines convey the message that masculine
power is embodied in muscle, firepower, and physical authority.
Numerous other media targeting boys convey similar themes.
Thrash metal and gangsta rap, both popular among suburban white
males, often express boys' angst and anger at personal problems
and social injustice, with a call to violence to redress the
grievances. The male sports culture features regular displays
of dominance and one-upsmanship, as when a basketball player
dunks "in your face," or a defensive end sacks a quarterback,
lingers over his fallen adversary, and then, in a scene reminiscent
of ancient Rome, struts around to a stadium full of cheering
How do you respond if you are being victimized by this dominant
system of masculinity? The lessons from Columbine High - a typical
suburban "jockocracy," where the dominant male athletes
did not hide their disdain for those who did not fit in - are
pretty clear. The 17- and 18-year-old shooters, tired of being
ridiculed or marginalized, weren't big and strong and so they
used the great equalizer: weapons. Any discussion about guns
in our society needs to include a discussion of their function
as equalizers. In Littleton, the availability of weapons gave
the shooters the opportunity to exact a twisted and tragic revenge:
15 dead, including themselves, and 23 wounded.
What this case reinforces is our crying need for a national
conversation about what it means to be a man, since cultural
definitions of manhood and masculinity are ever-shifting and
are particularly volatile in the contemporary era.
Such a discussion must examine the mass media in which boys
(and girls) are immersed, including violent, interactive video
games, but also mass media as part of a larger cultural environment
that helps to shape the masculine identities of young boys in
ways that equate strength in males with power and the ability
to instill fear - fear in other males as well as in females.
But the way in which we neuter these discussions makes it hard
to frame such questions, for there is a wrong way and a right
way of asking them. The wrong way: "Did the media (video
games, Marilyn Manson, 'The Basketball Diaries') make them do
it?" One of the few things that we know for certain after
50 years of sustained research on these issues is that behavior
is too complex a phenomenon to pin down to exposure to individual
and isolated media messages. The evidence strongly supports
that behavior is linked to attitudes and attitudes are formed
in a much more complex cultural environment.
The right way to ask the question is: "How does the cultural
environment, including media images, contribute to definitions
of manhood that are picked up by adolescents?" Or, "How
does repeated exposure to violent masculinity normalize and
naturalize this violence?"
There may indeed be no simple explanation as to why certain
boys in particular circumstances act out in violent, sometimes
lethal, ways. But leaving aside the specifics of this latest
case, the fact that the overwhelming majority of such violence
is perpetrated by males suggests that part of the answer lies
in how we define such intertwined concepts as "respect,"
"power" and "manhood." When you add on the
easy accessibility of guns and other weapons, you have all the
ingredients for the next deadly attack.