It’s only been four days since a student opened fire on a Texas high school, killing 10 people and injuring 13 others, but a narrative is already emerging in the media: A girl had something to do with it.
Sadie Rodriguez, a mother of one of the victims, says she was told second-hand by her other children that the alleged shooter Dimitrios Pagourtzis aggressively pursued her daughter Shana Fisher before the attack. "He kept making advances on her and she repeatedly told him no,” Rodriguez told Los Angeles Times reporters. Fisher, Rodriguez said, ultimately stood up to Pagourtzis and publicly embarrassed him. "A week later he opens fire on everyone he didn't like,” she said.
But there are doubts about Rodriguez’s claim, including reports from family friends. Matt Pearce, one of the journalists who wrote the Los Angeles Times story, tweeted, “They’re saying that the mom was largely out of her daughter’s life, and so they’re asking how she would have learned details like that.”
But no matter its veracity, the claim has worked its way into the narrative of the attack. A BBC story about the Friday shooting at Santa Fe High School is headlined, “Shooter killed a girl who rejected him publicly the previous week.” The Guardian ran with “Mother of victim says her daughter rejected Santa Fe suspect's advances.” As for USA Today: “Texas school shooting: Gunman targeted my daughter because she rejected him, grieving mom says.”
“It actually sends a chilling message to young women, which is, ‘Here is the cost of saying no,’” said CJ Pascoe, an associate sociology professor at the University of Oregon who studies masculinity and sexuality in high school. “What would be really great is if journalists would take that moment to perhaps highlight the expectations of masculinity for young men and to perhaps open a discussion about alternate ways to be a man.”
People are bombarded with the idea that so-called “real men” are “dominant, competent, and heterosexually successful,” explained Pascoe. Those messages, which also suggest that women owe men their time and their bodies, can box individuals into a impossible ideal and leave them flailing, or, worse: lashing out.
Research indicates that men who think they’re not “masculine” enough might be more inclined to overcompensate. A 2013 study of more than 100 undergrads at a private university found that men who received feedback indicating that they were “feminine” tended to have a more negative view of homosexuality, and more support for the Iraq War. (They also tended to be more interested in buying a SUV.)
“Threatened men,” as in men who thought their masculinity was under attack, ”reported feeling more guilty, ashamed, upset, and hostile than unthreatened men,” according to the study, which was headed by a Stanford University sociology professor.
“The worst thing for boys, for young men, at least what they tell me, is to be told that they’re not a man,” Pascoe said. “It doesn’t allow them to be their whole selves. I think it leads to problems of male violence, like the ones we’re seeing right now.”
Mass shootings in the United States, overwhelmingly committed by men, are often linked to violence against women. This is at least the second recent shooting at an American school to be publicly connected with romantic rejection. In March, a 17-year-old Maryland student shot two classmates, including 16-year-old Jaelynn Willey, who had had a “prior relationship which recently ended” with the shooter, according to a statement by local police.
The media seized on that detail, as the Associated Press (and several publications that syndicate articles from the AP wire service) promptly dubbed the shooter a “lovesick teenager.” But as Salon.com writer Amanda Marcotte pointed out on Twitter, “There is nothing lovesick about believing a girl is your property and she should die rather than reject you.”
“The ‘lovesick’ term itself makes it seem as though being rejected is an illness,” said Kjerstin Gruys, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno, who’s studied how college-age men see masculinity. “We need to be teaching young men and boys that when their feelings are hurt, when they feel their love is not returned, that they have control over how they react. There are ways to react that are non-violent and allow them to actually feel the full range of emotions that human beings feel.”
Gruys went on, “We know that our culture makes masculinity and men more powerful and more important than femininity and women. However, even though there’s an imbalance of power, that’s such a huge problem [that] men as individuals have very narrow guidelines for what’s considered masculine.”