Wednesday, May 28, 2014


A lot of commentators, with varying degrees of success, have tried to link the Elliot Rodger killings to popular culture. In a Daily Beast essay, former Jeopardy champ Arthur Chu writes that, yes, nerds are fed the line that they can have unrealistic fantasies fulfilled, as seen in dubious scenarios:
... We (male) nerds grow up force-fed this script. Lusting after women "out of our league" was what we did. And those unattainable hot girls would always inevitably reject us because they didn't understand our intellectual interest in science fiction and comic books and would instead date asshole jocks. This was inevitable, and our only hope was to be unyieldingly persistent until we “earned” a chance with these women by "being there" for them until they saw the error of their ways. (The thought of just looking for women who shared our interests was a foreign one....)

This is, to put it mildly, a problematic attitude to grow up with. Fixating on a woman from afar and then refusing to give up when she acts like she's not interested is, generally, something that ends badly for everyone involved. But it's a narrative that nerds and nerd media kept repeating.

... One of the major plot points of Revenge of the Nerds is Lewis putting on a Darth Vader mask, pretending to be his jock nemesis Stan, and then having sex with Stan's girlfriend. Initially shocked when she finds out his true identity, she’s so taken by his sexual prowess -- "All jocks think about is sports. All nerds think about is sex." -- that the two of them become an item.

Classic nerd fantasy, right? Immensely attractive to the young male audience who saw it....

It’s also, you know, rape....
Chu ultimately says it doesn't matter what pop culture tells you because it's on you to grow up and act responsibly. But before saying that, he runs through a lot of dodgy pop-culture examples that appeal to nerds, many of them from sci-fi -- including rape in the "nerd-libertarian" works of Ayn Rand.

I'm thinking of this in the context of Ann Hornaday's Washington Post essay linking the killings to wish-fulfillment fantasies in the films of Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, and even Rush Limbaugh's attempt to link the killings to The Hunger Games. (Rodger's father was a second-unit director on the first Hunger Games film.)

I don't believe there's a direct connection between the killings and any fictional work -- Rodger, in his writings and videos, doesn't seem to invoke movies or books. But the pickup artist subculture Rodger became fixated on has something in common with a lot of the works I've mentioned. The notion of PUA culture is that with enough hard work (what the PUA people call "game"), you can fulfill your dreams. That's classic power-of-positive-thinking Americanism. It's also similar to the libertarian dream -- it's not just that there are ubermenschen in the world, it's that whoever has sufficient will can become one, and at that point you're entitled to whatever you get. That's true even if you're a nerd or a schlub, which is where the works cited by Hornaday and Chu come in.

I'm not saying these works are responsible for what Elliot Rodger did -- I'm saying that this hold-on-to-your-dream, anyone-can-have-it-all, all-it-takes-is-one-person idea pervades American culture, in a lot of different forms. It feed the cult of the entrepreneur. It feeds the gun culture, because every politicized gunner thinks he has the potential to be a lone-wolf hero thwarting a crime or overthrowing a tyrannical government. It's why conservatives take idiots like Donald Trump and Herman Cain seriously. (To the right, Trump is a self-made man, not a rich man's son who went into daddy's business.) It's why liberals get lulled into thinking that one elected official (Ralph Nader, Barack Obama) has the potential to make everything all better.

Limbaugh mentioned The Hunger Games because it involves young people killing young people. What seems more relevant is the fact that it's a story of one lone individual scoring victories against a system that's much bigger than she is. We Americans love that idea. Elliot Rodger saw the female gender as a totalitarian state, and he wanted PUA culture to turn him into Katniss Everdeen. Sorry if that's a creepy way of putting it, but as a way of describing his sexual worldview, I don't think it's far off the mark. It's really an American fantasy, because Americans are told there's nothing we can't do if we put our minds to it. Elliot Rodger just applied it to the notion of having sex, while in a constant state of rage.

This thinking appeals across the spectrum, but I see it more on the right -- it's the GOP that doesn't believe you're worthy of consideration if you merely work at a job rather than run your own business. In any case, it's about conquering rather than coexisting in a society, and it's not healthy.


Jim Parrett said...

Best assessment of the situation I've read.

Victor said...

The powers-that-be behind Reagan wanted to draw the people who signed the backs of their check into supporting them - the ones who signed the front of the check.

They have succeeded beyond even what must have been their wildest dreams!

Divide and conquer issues like race, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and religion, have virtually destroyed the American middle-class, and "The American Dream."

And now, over 30 years later, people still haven't run out of noses to cut-off, to spite their faces.

How sad.

Mike S said...

Donald Trumps father was a real estate developer who amassed a $400,000,000 before he died.

Steve M. said...

I think right-wingers either don't know that or somehow think it's irrelevant.