August 16, 2019

Toxic Masculinity and Mass Shootings

Where Supremacy, Misogyny, and Violence Collide

A little over a week ago, two of the worst shootings in American history occurred within hours of one another. While the shootings in El Paso, TX and Dayton, OH are distinctive in terms of number of casualties, setting, and motivation, they share one fundamental characteristic: both were perpetrated by men. Young, white men.

As it turns out, this is a commonality shared by the vast majority of mass shootings in our country and one that is widely acknowledged by experts. The FBI reports that between 2000 and 2013, only 3.8 percent, or six out of 160 “active shooter” incidents were carried out by women. Numerous researchers have established a correlation between masculinity and violence, and a 2017 investigation found that “white men have committed more mass shootings than any other group.”

In stories of El Paso and Dayton, the mainstream media have heavily focused on domestic terrorism and white extremist ideology, as well as on dispelling statements attributing the shootings to mental illness. This is critically important, as news outlets have historically relied on narratives of mental illness to explain the outbursts of young white shooters, and often shy away from labelling white supremacists as domestic terrorists.

However, some media coverage of the recent shootings also points to the gendered aspect of this violence - and this is even more unusual.

I’ve looked closely at 11,495 articles discussing mass shootings and shooters, published over a 20-year period in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. Though my research initially focused on evaluating racial and religious bias in media coverage, I also searched for conversations about masculinity, to see if, and how, prominent American newspapers confronted the connection between white masculinity and mass murder. Compared with tenuous theories of mental illness and terrorist affiliations, male identity seemed to be the most obvious and least subjective characteristic shared by these perpetrators.

What I found - and did not find - was striking. The media often discuss terrorism and mental health when writing about shooters, but almost never masculinity. Of the 11,495 articles mentioning mass shootings or shooters I analyzed, 26% included mental health-related words, and these words appeared in 40% of articles discussing a white shooter. Terrorism-related words surfaced in 16% of all articles, and in 57% of those discussing a Muslim shooter.

“Domestic violence,” on the other hand, only appeared in 3% of articles. “Masculinity,” and/or “manhood,” were mentioned in less than 0.5% of articles. Yet gender is the common denominator uniting virtually all mass shooters over the past 20 years. My analysis focused on public shootings with seven or more casualties between the years of 1999-2018; among these, all 26 perpetrators were male, and 17 were white men.

Recently, scholars have developed the concept of “toxic masculinity” to describe and analyze possible factors contributing to mass shootings and other forms of public violence. Toxic masculinity refers to cultural pressures to display strength and aggression, repress vulnerability, maintain societal dominance, and avenge emasculation at all costs. It is most often discussed in the context of white, straight, Christian men, who have historically constituted the most powerful identity group in the United States, but whose dominance is perceived to be threatened by demographic and societal change. The phrase is relatively new and only surfaces in nine articles in my dataset, but now appears to be gaining attention from the media as journalists increasingly recognize another commonality many mass shooters share: a history of domestic abuse or misogynistic behavior.

From what we know, toxic masculinity seems to have been at work in the Dayton shooting - perpetrator Connor Betts had previously been suspended from high school for making a “rape list” of girls he hoped to sexually assault. While it remains unclear if Patrick Crusius, the white supremacist responsible for the El Paso massacre, also had a history of misogyny or threatened violence against women, experts argue that there is “robust symbiosis” between white supremacy and misogyny. Not only have outspoken alt righters and white supremacists perpetrated or defended domestic violence, but both ideologies glorify a return to a past time, when white, Christian men enjoyed more rights and privileges than women and minorities and were believed to be superior human beings.

So while white nationalism, white supremacist terrorism, and mental health continue to be important topics, the media should pay more attention to toxic masculinity. It is a common thread linking together many mass shootings and it is a pernicious force gaining momentum in American society. The correlation between misogynistic ideology, domestic abuse, and public violence should be a major part of the media and national conversation, as well as at the center of the debate over gun control.

-Emily Stabler

Methodological note: I analyzed 11,495 articles drawn from The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. My analysis includes every article published in those papers between January 1st, 1999 and November 30, 2018 with the root words “mass shooting,” “mass shooter,” “shooting rampage,” “rampage shooting,” “mass rampage,” “rampage shooter,” “school shooting,” “school shooter,” “shooting spree,” or “gun spree” in the headline or text of the article. For additional information about our methods, see here. Photo credit: Kyle Johnson on Unsplash