Gloria Steinem

The piece from Gloria Steinem was written in 1999. After Columbine, but before so many other acts of violence that fit her description. Just as I find myself getting angry when I read about sexist attitudes from the 1800’s that are still prevalent today, I found myself getting angry to read this essay and know that nothing has changed. These attacks by young white men still happen, with fair regularity. And I have to wonder if it is in part because we are not addressing the causes that Steinem names in “Supremacy Crimes.”

We know that hate crimes, violent and otherwise, are overwhelmingly committed by white men who are apparently straight. The same is true for an even higher percentage of impersonal, resentment-driven, mass killings like those in Colorado; the sort committed for no economic or rational gain except the need to say, “I’m superior because I can kill.” (491).

We know this, and what has been done about it? What can be done about it? Steinem writes not about who to blame, but what the causes of such acts might be. What is it about the culture that germinates these actions? And it isn’t just American culture, as the Norwegian mass-murderer, whose name I choose not to write,  proved. “[I]t’s not their life experiences that are the problem, it’s the impossible expectation of dominance to which they’ve become addicted” (492). If men are led to expect a certain amount of power simply by the virtue of being male, and are then denied that power, is that a mental illness or societal contagion? The white male is set as the norm, and when one kills, he is called defective so that society can absolve itself of blame.

Steinem brings up the remarkable nature of the statistics on mass killers, that so many are white men, even proportionally to the numbers in the population. She writes a thought experiment about the Columbine killers, asking the reader to imagine what the reaction would have been if the killers were black, or gay or girls. “Would the media still be so disinterested in the role played by gender-conditioning?” (493) Perhaps there is a partial answer in the Wisconsin Slenderman attempted murder, where two young girls stabbed another young girl and left her to die in order to gain access to the palace of an internet urban legend who lives in the woods.

"Had Geyser and Weier been boys, would media coverage have been the same? Many experts interviewed said no. There is something disturbingly intoxicating about seeing girls in chains." In an article on Newsweek, this line is indicative of the different way in which we view crimes committed by girls rather than boys. The phrase, “disturbingly intoxicating,” upsets me, but it also proves the point. Girls committing murder are exotic, strange and a spectacle.

I think we begin to see that our national self-examination is ignoring something fundamental, precisely because it’s like the air we breathe: the white male factor, the middle-class and heterosexual one, and the promise of superiority it carries. Yet this denial is self-defeating - to say the least. We will never reduce the number of violent Americans, from bullies to killers, without challenging the assumptions on which masculinity is based: that males are superior to females, that they must find a place in a male hierarchy, and that the ability to dominate someone is so important that even a mere insult can justify lethal revenge. (494)

The way in which you grow up often feels like the default. You start by thinking everyone’s family is like yours. When you are exposed to other ways of living, the definitions might expand to include them, but rarely do we take the steps further to the idea that our culture is not a default. The kinds of killings that Steinem writes about have continued to happen in the years since she wrote that essay. The underlying culture has not changed, or not changed enough. Every attempt to change it is met with resistance from those who think they have everything to lose. We believe that this is the way things must be, because this is the way they have "always" been. But this way is broken.

Now what?

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