Manhood Crisis At The Heart of The Newtown Tragedy: Part I

As Mizzo always says, “Change the Narrative.” The Starting Five takes a critical look at the Newtown, Conn. shootings and how gender affects complex social problems. – CA


Newtown, Conn

Newtown Bee/ZUMA Press

The tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut shocked America to its core. On Friday Dec. 14, Adam Lanza, 20, of Newtown killed his mother, Nancy Lanza, 52, before carrying out a horrific shooting rampage at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He forced his way into the school wearing a bullet-proof vest and carrying three semi-automatic weapons. Lanza walked into a classroom, killing 20 children and six teachers and administrators, and turned the gun on himself.

The question on everyone’s minds is why did Lanza do this? People want to see action to prevent mass shootings. The common suggestions are: stricter gun control, greater mental health evaluation and treatment, enhanced school security, or even arming school administrators.

But an overlooked aspect in the discussion is gender. When one looks at past mass shootings, the majority, if not all of them, are committed by men. So why is gender, more specifically men’s actions, not being examined? Jackson Katz, a leading anti-sexist activist and scholar of violence, has been asking this question for years.

Katz is involved in gender violence prevention and has worked extensively with men and boys in sports culture, the military, and in schools. He has pioneered work in critical media literacy and is the creator and co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), the first program in the sexual and domestic violence prevention field to advocate a ‘bystander approach’ to prevention.

He is the creator and co-creator of three documentary videos. They are Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity, Wrestling with Manhood: Boys, Bullying & Battering with Sut Jhally, and Spin the Bottle: Sex, Lies, and Alcohol, with Jean Kilbourne. These films are widely used as educational tools in the U.S. and around the world. He is also the author of two books, The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, and Leading Men: Presidential Campaigns and the Politics of Manhood.

I caught up with Katz and we discussed how gender, manhood and masculinity shaped the tragic events in Newtown, Connecticut.


Jackson Katz

Jackson Katz

You’ve been saying for years that mass shootings have a lot to do with masculinity. Why is this a problem and why does it persist?

There’s long been a reluctance — in the mainstream media and even in the progressive media and blogosphere – to critically examine power. Whether it’s whiteness, masculinity or heteronormativity, it’s much easier to talk about the victims of violence than it is to examine illegitimate exercises of power by the dominant group.

When gender is talked about, it’s almost always talked about as a women’s issue or concern, as opposed to its being about the dominant gender, men. This invisibility of the dominant group is one of the ways that dominance functions.

Getting people in mainstream media to talk about white masculinity — which is the central factor in this as in so many other rampage killings — is difficult because so many people are uncomfortable talking about this. In some cases they don’t even have the language to talk about it. That’s not unexpected; it’s how power works. We often lack the very language to uncover the mechanisms by which dominance functions.

Based on what you’ve seen and what you’ve read so far, how is masculinity playing out in regards to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings?

First, I would say it’s the most important factor in virtually all rampage killings. I’m not saying other factors aren’t important (such as mental illness, access to guns, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.) but they are secondary. The first line of inquiry needs to be about gender – specifically (white) masculinity.

But most people don’t think about masculinity when they hear the word gender. Since they think “gender” equals “women,” many people assume that when you’re talking about Newtown and gender, you must mean it has to do with the fact that he killed his mother, or because many of the victims were girls and the psychologist and principal were women.

They don’t get that what you mean is that the young man who committed the shooting is a gendered being, and that his gender is arguably the single most important factor in his perpetration.

Right, mass shootings in Paducah, Kentucky; Bart Township, Pennsylvania; Springfield, Oregon; Columbine High School; Virginia Tech; Sikh Temple of WisconsinAurora, Colo. and Newtown, Conn. were all committed by men.

For decades, the experts who get called on to explain these mass killings say the same things over and over again. They de-gender the conversation and miss the main point.

I just listened to Dave Cullen, author of Columbine on Rachel Maddow a couple of nights ago. I did not hear him say one thing about gender. He ran through a set of psychological profiles for school shooters without mentioning that they’re virtually all boys and men, most of them white.

A widely circulated Mother Jones piece documented 62 mass killings over the past thirty years. All but one were done by a man, but there was no discussion of gender in the piece. I’ve been saying this for a long time, but you would think that someone would look into this as a meaningful statistic, not just some ancillary point. Imagine if 61 out of 62 mass killings were done by women. Would people just dismiss that and say, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and move on? No, it would be the first thing people were talking about. Everyone would say “Why are women doing this? What’s going on for women? What is it about women’s life experiences that would lead them to do something like this?”

But when 61 out of 62 incidents are perpetrated by men, it’s all about mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse problems, brain injuries, etc. Gender is barely on the radar screen.

How does masculinity drive men to do these kinds of acts? Especially toward children?

I’m sad to say this … but I think those children were props in Adam Lanza’s performance of his aggrieved manhood in some sort of revenge fantasy he plotted and enacted. I’m only speculating, of course, because we don’t yet know enough about his psyche. But I think the children were used more as props than as targets.

It’s similar with the shooting at the Sikh temple outside of Milwaukee. So much of the media conversation was about racism, ethnocentrism, resentment toward foreigners. My thought from the beginning was that it wasn’t fundamentally about those people. It was about the white male shooter – his anxieties, fears, perhaps self-hatred. Once again, the victims were props in his performance of his angry white manhood. I think when the facts come out we’ll see this is true of Adam Lanza.

Killing innocent, defenseless children was his way of making an even stronger statement. He may have thought (and I’m speculating):

“I’m going to kill children so the world can see how much pain I’m experiencing” or “I’m so angry that I’m going to break this taboo and actually kill children so you can see how angry I am. And you’re going to suffer like I have.”

That’s one of the gendered aspects of these types of killings: men’s externalization of their internal pain. They’re making a statement. Instead of turning the gun on themselves and internalizing their pain, they turn it outward. That’s the gender piece. Plenty of girls and women feel despondent, frustrated, said, helpless or emotionally in turmoil. But very few externalize the way men do. It’s like:

“I’m feeling badly about myself … I’m feeling helpless or hopeless and I’m going to take it out on somebody else. It’s somebody else’s fault … it’s the world’s fault … my mother’s fault … and I’m going to externalize my feelings of inadequacy and shame by taking it out on someone else.”

And then they kill themselves, or arrange it so the police shoot them.

What is the allure of guns to men and how is it connected with masculinity? Why is this a concern we should be aware about?

Guns are an instrument of violence that can be used against another person or against oneself. They certainly make the externalization of violence much easier. They are easily available and their power is seductive because it is so tangible and immediate.

The whole gun debate needs to be infused with a discussion about manhood. It’s frustrating to hear debates about gun rights vs. gun control, and yet very few people say what’s hidden in plain sight: it’s really a contest of meanings about manhood. I talk about this in my new book Leading Men. The NRA and the right-wing understand this. Of course there are women who own and love guns; Adam Lanza’s mother was one of them. But the right is skilled at framing the gun as a symbol of men’s potency and freedom: the freedom to defend themselves and protect their families.

One of the things I noticed about Adam Lanza was how he was armed. He wore a bullet proof vest and carried three semi-automatic weapons: a Glock 9-mm handgun, Sig Sauer 9-mm handgun and Bushmaster rifle. What would drive a man to go to that extreme? How does masculinity explain his whole appearance when he committed the killings?

I think that’s part of what’s going on here. Doug Kellner, a colleague of mine who’s at UCLA, writes a lot about these types of events in terms of media spectacle. Adam Lanza in a sense created a movie in which he had the starring role. Whether it’s a flak jacket or guns blazing, Lanza was engaged in a  performance of his manhood. That’s what it appears he was going for. His transgression of the taboo of killing children – in a public space sure to be heavily covered by media — was how he was going to reclaim his manhood.

James Gilligan wrote a couple of very important books called Violence and Preventing Violence. One of the many great insights he shares is that a huge percentage of what is called “senseless violence” is not senseless at all if you’re the shooter. There is an internal logic to their actions that makes sense. In a huge percentage of cases where men commit heinous acts of violence you see they’ve experienced shame in a profound way. The way the culture helps to shape their response to these feelings of shame is to create and even glamorize narratives for how they can externalize their pain and reclaim their manhood.

The story in many of these men’s heads goes something like this: someone has taken something from me, so I’m going to take it back. The victims of that “taking back” aren’t necessarily the original perpetrators or bullies of these guys. As I’ve said they’re merely props in a gendered enactment of revenge. But people don’t want to face this uncomfortable fact. Better to put it in a category of “mental illness” and not delve too much further into it. He just snapped, and so on.

But James Gilligan, a psychiatrist who worked with really violent men for many years, says it’s not true. It’s not how it works. These guys aren’t detached from reality and unaware of what’s going on around them. They’re intentional with what they’re doing and why.

This makes people very uneasy. They’re more comfortable with the idea that he’s a sociopath, or he just went off.

End of Part I

17 Responses to “Manhood Crisis At The Heart of The Newtown Tragedy: Part I”

  1. Lynn S. says:

    Thank you for referencing James Gilligan, whose work I greatly admire.

  2. Sara says:

    I think this is an interesting perspective. I just wish you were providing more evidence or examples of how this is the case.

  3. CAvard says:

    Sara, consult the Bureau of Justice Homicide statistics and look under gender. There’s a lot of revealing info right there. Thanks!

  4. sal says:

    I’d love to read part II. I think this article contains a lot of truth, for many reasons some men cope in destructive ways.

  5. Ricky says:

    Well said Jackson.

    I wonder if Katz will get invited to any national dialogue or political deliberations about the problem or be shunned like Chomsky from the sound bits and pundits who offer up the same dribble-so not to upset the status quo apple cart.

  6. mapoui says:

    I have been trying to refrain from commenting on this…obviously not successfully.

    Katz is joking isn’t he! isn’t there much more to this than just white individualized men’s violence against the world?

    and if its macho problem in any way why chose defenceless children, teachers, his mother…why not attack a police station with guns, flack jacket, grenades etc?

    heres another Afghanistan:

    “(Reuters) – A decorated U.S. soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in two forays from his remote military camp was ordered to face a court martial before a military panel that could impose the death penalty if he is found guilty, the military said on Wednesday.”

    and if mass murder of defenceless people, including children, is a white man’s problem…how to account for Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton, Condi Rice, Susan Rice, Attorney General Holder, Colin Powell, Obama himself?

    here is a ‘beautiful” black woman talking with Paul Craig Roberts on the killings:

    shades of Condi Rice isnt she. what accounts for her and her nasty journalism?

    white men have always been violent in the worst ways. we thought black men were dignified, exempt.

    Frederick Douglas and all the amazing black male figures of the long struggle spoiled us, blinded us to our full and true nature..which is also the nature of humanity.

    but what the hell is Katz doing by focusing the issue so narrowly as a crisis of white manhood?

    According to Roberts we do not even know yet what actually happened in that shooting, pointing out significant discrepancies in the reportage.

    and is the police state trying to disarm the American people or not?

    and if the police state is so trying to disarm the American people, to further this aim, or any aim they may have… staging this sort of mass killing of american children is nothing for such domestic power to do..which, in any kind of proper historical perspective is absolutely reasonable surmise

    intended or not Katz and company may have some kind of a point about about white male violence…but that is hardly new and hardly whole..all that there is to it..and may have the effect of narrowing the issue, miss-directing it really.

    the is a systematic problem, the product of a social development that has had to do with mass murder from the start, slavery and a virulent economic system and atrocious imperial conduct in the world for close to 200 years now.

    the american system is virtually a killing machine for profit, murder Inc in the world..going on as we speak. literally every corner of the world right now there are Americans killing people.

    as I started to write this… the question can be asked: how many people have died in the few minutes.. at the hands of american drones, soldiers, or proxies…somewhere on planet earth?

    and now we have a black president so smooth and silky, a black man himself, who is the most effective killer yet at the head of the american killing machine.

    this black man openly kills, admits it, explains that he is the one who peruses the kill lists every day or week, and decides himself, who is to die and sends in his drones or other executioners.

    murder, breaking the law, openly, in all our faces and we still love him for it.

    so isn’t it the american nation then that is responsible for all the violence..the whole nation.. from the Mayflower to now?

    and how does an American white man’s crisis of manhood account for all the American killers who are not white ordinary white american women recorded deeply torturing defenceless prisoners..or the thousands of american women of all ethnicities involved in military combat around the world..killing lots of people for the profit of american corporations.

    Nice job Women’s Lib. I suppose Women’s Lib would appreciate a thank you note from the american army for all the female recruits

  7. Doreen says:

    Thank you as always Jackson. hopefully you/we will finally be heard.

  8. CAvard says:

    @mapoui I respect Katz for coming up with the bystander approach to prevention. It doesn’t blame men. It focuses on the responsibility of teammates, friends, colleagues, co-workers, and others to help create a peer culture climate where abusive behavior is unacceptable.

    If you disagree with Katz’s theoretical points, that’s fine. But what can you do, as a male, in your own community to stop sexism and acts of violence against women and other men from happening? As men, I think we need to step up.

  9. mapoui says:

    there is literally no chance at all, that the problem of mass shootings on the streets of america can be solved in any way, save by basic social reorganization of american life, democratically, from the ground upwards.

    I said that such as Katz knows this, and that is the way he should speak.

    if he does he raise the level of consciousness of his readers to a level from which they get a high level understanding of the situation and fit them out to act in ways that can really make a difference.

    scratching around progressively at lesser levels offers some mitigation I guess. but the system addresses that danger to itself fundamentally by its comprehensive means of social conditioning.

    as you notice little changes in this regard..itonly gets worse. more mass shootings take place, more killers are produced..and areas of american life that used to produce progressive people now produce killers as well.

    Take a look at Susan rice here:

    did you realise she was this wicked in fact that such as Obama..and evil man himself… likely had to force her to step out of line for the top job! even the Repugs could make a devastating case against her

    its way beyond Katz. reading him is not a waste of time but the american solution is in social revolution. it is the same with the world. global social life must be revolutionised and a democracy in which the interest of ordinary folk dominates is put in place.

    that is the stage human society has arrived at. it is that or human ext

  10. mapoui says:

    {sorry! I was doing over this post but it got out incomplete}

    to finish it:

    its way beyond Katz. reading him is not a waste of time but the american solution lies in social revolution…real basic social change. there is no other positive option

    it is the same with the world. global social life must be revolutionised and a democracy in which the interest of ordinary folk dominates… is put in place.

    we have arrived at the end of western dominated capitalism. in a proper democracy all the problems and evils of capitalism can be addressed and solved. they cannot be solved in capitalism. they will only get worse

    that is the stage human society has arrived at. it does not make much sense to be speaking at lesser levels than the total truth. its either we can deal with it or we cant…

    what Katz says is not enough..its no solution only mitigation..if that

  11. Marilyn Matthews says:

    I have been watching this trend, too, in many magazines. How do we help men to talk about their feelings? It isn’t really safe enough for most men to share their fears, terrors, or insecurities without being labeled “wimp”.

  12. frosho says:

    Thanks for speaking out about male violence and for talking about race too. These are things that literally get whited out in our culture and its really good to hear them coming from a white man. I like your point about the phenomena that occurs when white men are perceived and accepted as individuals irregardless of the context, whereas EVERYBODY else has to go through the gender and race qualifier test. If this was a black man, it would have been “whats going on with black men?”, if it was a woman, it would have been “whats going on with women?” . Instead the media is just asking “What went wrong with Adam?” Its going to take a whole army of men, especially white men, to address the problem of violence because most violence is perpetrated by men. And if you don’t believe me, here the the U.S. Justice Departments statistics on violent crime based on gender-

    Type of crime # Total Male Female unavailable
    violence 4,734,310 100.0 % 78.3 % 19.7 % 1.9 %

    When women try to talk about it, the cries of “sexism” against men start up. When black people speak up, all of a sudden its “reverse racism”. Until white men are able to acknowledge their privilege which is gained by oppression of everybody else, and which is maintained by outright denial of such privilege, or until the rest of our society stops buying in to the whole idea of white male privilege, and starts demanding privilege for every single human being, regardless of color or gender, then we are all subject to being the victims of white male violence and domination.

  13. Des says:

    When someone is left feeling fundamentally flawed and rejected by society (whether that rejection is real or perceived) it is very easy to “go off” and strike out. Maybe it’s too simplistic, but I think that sometimes all a person needs to overcome anger is validation and empathy from another human being to foster in that person a sense of self-worth and significance. This is where gneder ties in to the problem.

    I have a teen-aged son who has suffered for many years under the abusive hand of his step father and was outrightly rejected by his biological father.
    Just last night he was lashing out angrily at myself and the other children. After 45 minutes of his verbal assaults I managed to calm him down enough to have a reasonable conversation and try to help him work through tha anger. To do this we had to dig under the surface of his anger to find out where it stemmed from. (My local woman’s shelter ran a “Children Exposed to Violence” group which emphasized the need to do this). My son had no problem identifying the person and event that brought on his anger on that particular occasion; but then when I asked him how it made him feel that so-and-so did A or B to him, a wall went up. I had to work for quite a bit more time with him before he was able to show vulnerability and open up to me because he felt EMASCULATED by talking about his feelings.

    The funny thing was, as soon as he was able to identify the core feelings that set him off on his angry tirade and get some validation and empathy for how he was feeling, the anger itself diffused and the underlying pain was exposed.

    We are doing nobody any favors by teaching our boys and young men that real men aren’t nurturing and don’t express their feelings – and then to add insult to injury by constantly baraging them with images of masclinity characterized by aggression and violence?

    I think it is a good sign that we are starting to look at how gender and race play into these tragedies. Maybe we can start to relieve our boys and men of this heavy burden we’ve placed on them.

  14. Kelly Rosenleaf says:

    It is not lost in me that most of these mass shootings are perpetuated by white men. Even more specifically white young men. Men perpetrate way more violent crime than women altogether, which could be part if the same challenge.

    However, it is notable that other industrialized, predominantly white countries have vastly fewer mass murders than the US. All of western Europe, Canada & Australia. Is there some reason young white men in the US have a greater challenge than young white men in these other nations?

    The patriarchy benefits nobody. Clearly it is a problem for women. This analysis is one of several striking examples of why it is a disaster for men too.

  15. […] safety, and oppression. How we are all part of it. How there is a crisis around masculinity (and this is an excellent article on just that, and how it has played out in Newtown and other shooti…), but I don’t think it’s just gendered one way. I don’t. I think it’s […]