Golden lads and girls all come to dust: School shootings and gender in a violent America

Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. –Cymbeline

I know there is very little left to say about the wholesale slaughter of women and children in a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school this past December. I’m not writing this reflection in an effort to jump onto the already macabre, maudlin bandwagon. I am not offering up flowers and teddy bears to children I did not know, or driving long distances to pay homage at the site so that I might associate myself with tragic history or share in collective grief.  The bodies are buried and the media outlets have quieted. Any coherent discussion of gun control has spiraled into profits, posturing and seeming nothingness. Quiet village schools have installed heavy reinforced locking door-and-buzzer systems and have scheduled regular “active shooter” or “lockdown” drills, or other activities with more euphemistic names. Urban communities, where children die, unheralded, every day from gun violence, can only look to the ubiquitous metal detectors in their schools with frustration. And very little has changed in any substantive way.

However, despite there being little left to say on the subject that has not already been said, I am still thinking about Newtown. I am thinking I have seen it before—which of course I have. I was a 6th grade teacher at a school a few miles away on the day of the Columbine High School killings– my grade level team was out on that particular day, but my colleagues who were in the school building told me stories of crouching in darkness for hours in “lockdown” with their terrified students, waiting for the unknown danger to pass. Then there are the hundreds of school shootings that have happened in between and since. They begin to run together, one after the other, reported by the news media as “unavoidable tragedies” by disturbed and unpredictable “perpetrators” until we become numb to both the violence and the language used to describe it.

However, these really aren’t unavoidable tragedies, and despite the depersonalizing discourse in play, the “perpetrators” are in fact not automatons but people. As Jackson Katz keenly observes, they are almost without exception male people. And the victims are almost always women and children or adolescents. Katz writes, in one of only a handful of commentaries about the Newtown shootings to address gender, “in the wake of repeated tragedies like Newtown, we turn on the TV and watch the same predictable conversations about guns and mental illness, with only an occasional mention that the overwhelming majority of these types of crimes are committed by men — usually white men.” He continues:

“The key difference is that because men represent the dominant gender, their gender is rendered invisible in the discourse about violence. So much of the commentary about school shootings, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary, focuses on “people” who have problems, “individuals” who suffer from depression, and “shooters” whose motives remain obtuse. When opinion leaders start talking about the men who commit these rampages, and ask questions like: ‘why is it almost always men who do these horrible things?’ and then follow that up, we will have a much better chance of finding workable solutions to the outrageous level of violence in our society.”

Katz writes that “if a woman were the shooter, you can bet there would be all sorts of commentary about shifting cultural notions of femininity and how they might have contributed to her act,” but because the shooters are male, and US culture is notorious for its lexical inadequacy around male privilege or hegemonic, violent masculinity, the male shooter goes ungendered. These are men and boys conducting mass killings aimed at mostly women, children and occasionally other men.  In the frenzied gun control discussions that followed Newtown, one man-on-the-street commentator observed that school shooters choose schools as targets instead of, say, police stations because of the concentration of guns at police stations. He was implying that schools are targets for the simple reason that there are typically no armed people there.  The obvious logical problems with that argument aside, it seems instead that men with guns who are interested in killing multiple women and children mostly choose places that are full of women and also usually children as well. And what location more feminized than a school? The man in this case didn’t go to a shopping mall, or a dentist’s office, or to the zoo or a park. Instead, he went to a primary school. While we can’t know the mind of the man responsible, it is reasonable to say this was not serendipitous, but by design.

To expand upon Katz, school shootings must be viewed as part of the larger pattern of violence against women in America and our refusal to address the crisis in masculinity and men’s and boys’ mental health—all related to the central problems of misogyny and violent masculinity. Similarly, our collective national failure to do much in the way of preventing them is shameful; Sure, the talk was big: For weeks pundits shouted at one another about putting armed guards in every school. One man put on his combat fatigues and sat in front of his children’s elementary school.  Others further avoided critical discussion about masculinity by suggesting we hire more male teachers, and then arm them.  Others suggested giving existing female teachers automatic weapons in their classrooms. Notably, these same teachers, only weeks before, were constructed as hardly capable of teaching eight year olds to read without supervision and/or the threat of high stakes testing. The teacher herself, and the classroom, became momentarily the object of militarization; someone has even come up with the idea of creating combat-grade classroom equipment, like this armored whiteboard.

I won’t call Newtown an “unavoidable tragedy” as that word seems inappropriate; A tragedy is, at least in the classic sense, a doom inevitable driven by an unavoidable, fatal flaw. What happened at Newtown was completely avoidable in every sense of the word, in the same way so much American violence is avoidable and therefore neither classically tragic nor unexpected; it is the easily anticipated outcome of a culture that aids and abets through its endless appetite for violence of all kinds, but especially violence against women, situated as entertainment. We are familiar with all of the statistics about the overwhelming effects of violent video games and Hollywood movies, about how women are positioned as meat, as victims, as corpses, as objects for sale and destruction— as Jean Kilbourne has written, “turning a human being into a thing, an object, is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person” (p.278). But for most Americans, boys will be boys, and women will be body parts. If anyone has doubts about this, review this year’s Oscar’s awards.  But this is not news to anyone. However, it is tolerated, even celebrated.

I am disappointed to say I cannot put any clever rhetorical questions at the end of this reflection, to wonder aloud why an epidemic of mass violence against women and children perpetrated by men is not being expeditiously addressed, because I know the answer. It is not a priority. If it were, we would take proportionately swift action; as libertarian writer Megan McArdle suggests:  we would “ban guns. Ban them all.”  Perhaps our failure to do so indicates we don’t care because, after all, it is only women and children dying. It seems that women and children are not a terribly high priority in American culture, anyway.

I am still thinking about the Newtown teachers and children, those “golden lads and girls” whose deaths cannot be undone. I have a daughter who is in first grade, and a son in preschool. Both children reported that in the days that followed Newtown they had ‘new rules’ for ‘lockdown drills’ at our small school. “We don’t do drills in our cubbies anymore. We go into the bathroom now, and shut the big heavy door,” my son said. When I asked him why he does that he said, “Because it isn’t safe to be next to the windows in a storm.” The school has put a lock on the doors, and teachers practice herding little bodies into tiny restrooms while they wait for the “all clear.” As my daughter observed, “They say we have to sit in the corner of the room and be very quiet to be safe. But what if a bad thing comes and we are outside on the playground? There is no lock there. There is nowhere to hide.” The piling on of locks, and guns, and doors, armed sentries and buzzers and rules is only so much brinkmanship until we address the issues of violence and masculinity and collective cultural priorities.

A few days after the shooting we had our first very icy morning of the winter here in Massachusetts. Some parents were still keeping their children home from school, but for my son and daughter, the school bus beckoned. It was agonizing watching them inch down the long driveway, coated as it was in thick, slippery ice. They rushed out, suddenly realizing that the ground beneath was slick and wet.  They looked very small, and so unsteady, falling once and again, tumbling onto the ice in the whipping wind, both exhilarated and afraid. My son raced forward. My daughter called out and I chased after her, but couldn’t reach them without falling, too. So I shouted after them to walk on the sides, to go slowly, and so on. They couldn’t hear me.  Their bus driver greeted them warmly when they finally made it and I waved as the bus drove away. Of course my little children had no idea what was going on nationally at that moment, and were only afraid of the ice, but the miserable metaphoric experience of watching them flail, tiny and out of my reach, ripped me to pieces, and does still.

Sally Campbell Galman, UMASS and GEA Executive

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