The Boston Globe, Sunday, May 2, 1999
The National Conversation in the Wake of Littleton Is Missing the Mark
"What these school shootings reveal is not a crisis in youth culture but a
crisis in masculinity."
By Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally, 05/02/99
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
What 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 unsafe.
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
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 bullied.
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
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
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
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.
Jackson Katz wrote, and Sut Jhally directed, the soon-to-be-released film
''Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity.''
This story ran on page E01 of the Boston Globe on 05/02/99.
© Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.
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