The day after last week’s mass shooting in Atlanta, the first thing I did when I woke up was check my phone. I’d fallen asleep thinking about the four Korean women and two Chinese women whose lives had been violently taken by the alleged shooter, a 21-year old white man driven by rage, hatred, and cowardice. With one eye open as I scrolled down my Twitter feed, I absorbed the words “really bad day,” “sex addiction,” and “temptation he wanted to eliminate” followed by a photo of Captain Jay Baker at a podium during a press conference on the attack. My blood boiled.
I expected a certain narrative to surface in the aftermath of the shooting. I imagined the news saturated by the usual stories about how he’d always been a quiet guy, a lone wolf. But hearing a white American man use the words “sex addiction” and “temptation” to downplay horrific violence against marginalized Asian women struck a very specific nerve for me. Not only have law enforcement and the resulting media coverage attempted to undermine the overt racist elements to the mass violence in Atlanta, but they’re also crafting a narrative that further normalizes violence against women, and specifically against Asian women.
Later that day, a screenshot from Atlanta law enforcement officer Captain Baker’s Facebook entered the news cycle, contextualizing his apparent sympathy for the alleged murderer. In April 2020, he’d shared a photo of his beloved new t-shirt emblazoned with the inflammatory rhetoric of the former President of the United States, calling COVID-19 an “imported virus from CHY-NA”. While this brand of xenophobia and sinophobia lays the foundation of the alleged shooter’s motive, there’s also an additional layer of Orientalist misogyny. The alleged perpetrator’s narrative purposefully draws on a longstanding history of Western men fetishizing, thus dehumanizing Asian women. The way media coverage has humanized him also follows a pattern that normalizes misogynist extremist attacks like those witnessed in Isla Vista, California in 2014, and Toronto, Ontario in 2018.
According to Korean-American author Patricia Park in a 2014 Bitch Magazine essay that traces the history of Orientalist misogyny in American pop culture, to fetishize is to conquer. Colonizing is apparently what the alleged perpetrator wanted to do — to exterminate the source of his so-called “temptation”, or to “kill all Asians” as he reportedly screamed at witnesses. Given his apparent Evangelical beliefs around sexuality, this suggests he sought to project his perceived shame outward so that he could “eliminate” it. The very notion of a “sex addiction”, as VICE writer Samantha Cole writes, is simply a scapegoat used by men to “pathologize misogyny as an incurable disease.” In other words, it’s an excuse that men with power use to justify being sexually violent, while blaming victims for said violence. That Cpt. Baker willingly and uncritically presented this narrative as an acceptable fact in his authority as a police officer is troubling, to say the least.
In her debut memoir, Know My Name, Chinese-American author and artist Chanel Miller recounted surviving the May 2014 mass shooting and stabbing perpetrated by Elliot Rodger. As police sirens rang across campus near the University of California at Santa Barbara at the onset of the massacre, she sheltered with friends. Together, they watched his video manifesto in horror where he justified his rage by blaming all women for his lack of sexual experience.
“In [Rodger’s] world, the unspoken law was that women owed him sex, we existed only to receive him,” Miller writes, “Those were the rules, that was our purpose.” Even today, Rodger is still celebrated and glorified across misogynist “incel communities” who sincerely believe that violence against women is justified. Apart from presenting him as a lonely child with a history of mental illness, mainstream outlets like the Los Angeles Times also disseminated the entirety of his manifesto without a thought to how they might platform its deeply flawed ideology. The coverage around Rodger was a sensationalized spectacle that further normalized such extreme misogyny, eventually giving rise to a copycat.
Nearly 4 years later in April 2018, the 25-year old perpetrator who drove a van down a Toronto street and killed ten people identified Rodger as the inspiration for his so-called “Incel Rebellion.'' When Ontario Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy issued her judgment in the case, she declined to use the attacker’s real name, instead referring to him as “John Doe'' to prevent him from gaining further notoriety. During his trial, Doe admitted to having been radicalized on 4chan. Witnesses testified that he’d hoped to hurt young, attractive women in particular, while expressing his happiness that his name was now associated with galvanizing the “incel movement.”
Spectacle and infamy are the primary motive for extreme misogynists seeking their “hero moment” — conquering their perceived enemies is how they perform and assert their masculinity. Captain Baker directly facilitated this goal by framing the mass violence in Atlanta as a man being “at the end of his rope” looking to “eliminate” the exotic “temptation”. The subsequent media coverage has only further humanized the alleged gunman, providing the public with a way to rationalize and therefore normalize the brutal murders of six Asian women.
Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a feature titled: “Atlanta Suspect’s Fixation on Sex Is a Familiar Thorn for Evangelicals.” While the piece thoroughly deconstructs and critiques the inconsistency of puritanical ideas around sexuality, the headline reduces a clear pattern of violence against racialized women to individual, internal struggles. It humanizes the alleged gunman by making him appear relatable, as if it’s perfectly rational to reduce Asian women to sexualized stereotypes to justify brutalizing them. Without critically addressing the root cause of this violence, namely the white supremacist patriarchy, mainstream media coverage ultimately functions to perpetuate a centuries-long cycle of horrific, violent abuse.
According to NBC Asian America, nearly 70% of victims of reported anti-Asian hate crimes between February 2020 and March 2021 were women. At this point, it’s both impossible and dishonest to ignore how Orientalist misogyny factors into the mass shooting in Atlanta. Asian women have historically been exoticized in America, portrayed as delicate, submissive “Lotus Flowers” or hypersexual and manipulative “Dragon Ladies.” White American men in particular have been conditioned to see us as objects to conquer and acquire as property, denying us agency, and therefore, our humanity. The violence in Atlanta must be a turning point in how the media, and our culture at large, talks about racist misogyny.