Masculinity and Violence: School Shootings and Mass Shootings

In June of 2012, a man opened fire inside a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. He killed 12 people and injured 58 more. Only days ago, a man in Oregon opened fire in a mall and then killed himself. On Friday, December 14 it happened again, only this time it was at an elementary school where 27 people were killed, most of them children, in Newtown, Connecticut. Mass shootings like these make us wonder how people can simply take the lives of so many others. We think about motives, the shooters complete disrespect for human life, and most often we cannot think of how to describe such atrocities without using words such as monstrous, horrendous and sick and we wish something like this would never happen again. Mass shootings and school shootings are rare, but leave us mortified every time. Many of us also remember other school shootings, some of the more high profile ones being the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, and the Columbine High shootings in 1999. There is an overall pattern in terms of both school shootings and mass shootings; the perpetrator is almost always male, and is often emasculated in one way or another.  In The Bully Society, Jessie Klein not only discusses school shootings, but also the reason why such shootings happen in the first place. She states that many of the perpetrators lash out at people in order to prove their masculinity. Often the target is a bully, a teacher who did not stop the bullying, an ex-girlfriend, or a girl that rejected the boy. Overall, Klein describes how the pressure to behave in ways that reinforce traditional masculinity and hegemonic masculinity lead to the lashing out, and the killing of others, especially when such boys are bullied, are of lower status, are told that they are sissies, or do not fit in. Klein states that: “The rigid status hierarchies found in today’s schools have not developed in a vacuum. They come from a larger, more encompassing set of values, generated by what I call a bully economy” (p.5). Similarly to school shooting, Michael Kimmel discusses the notion of masculinity and terrorism in Gender, class and, terrorism, where he describes how the majority of the terrorists involved in the September 11 attack were of lower classes, lacked status and therefore felt emasculated and angry. These men used violence in order to try to restore their masculinity. Similarly, the man who killed so many other students at Virginia Tech was bullied and mocked, as were the two Columbine High shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

We may never know why the gunman decided to take so many lives in Newtown, Connecticut. Perhaps it had little do with masculinity at all. But we do know that gender and threats to masculinity are common factors in both mass shootings and school shootings. We pretend as if there is no connection between such shootings and gender, and we pretend that our definitions of masculinity, aggression and relentless bullying in schools do not matter or are normal parts of everyday life. Of course there is no forgiving these atrocious actions, and plenty of people who are bullied or do not live up the standards of traditional masculinity never turn their anger towards others, but we need to at least think about why so many boys and men end up killing others.


  1. I think there is a connection. While females and femininity have flourished over the last century, masculinity has remained stagnant. The expansion of femininity, the acceptable expression of which encompasses everything from the dress-wearing girly-girl to the pants-wearing, hard hitting career woman, has cornered males who wish to remain distinct. While women are exceeding in the job market, men are not. While women are exceeding in scholastic settings, men are not. The male wardrobe is a holdover to the late 18th and early 19th Century class/worker system, which differentiated men by their involvement in intellectual professions (suits), farm and ranching (jeans and flannels) and industrial (sturdy working clothes). Women, by contrast, and free to express themselves virtually any way they want. Without their former familial status, career and scholastic success, or a clear-cut modern definition of masculinity, males are relying on virtual experiences (movies, video games), gun ownership, and extreme behavior as a means of resisting real change… which our society is not willing to tolerate. A masculine woman is a “good” thing in America, while a male who expressed ANY hint of femininity is looked down upon and accused of being gay or faulted in some way.

    • Susan, I agree. Very interesting reflections. Thanks for sharing!

      • David Dickenson says:

        Susan; I like your piece and I think I only beg to differ with there being no change in the modern males’ status. In relationship to the feminine side of the story, in how they are treated and wish to be treated, the male has definitely changed in their status. This is a good thing, except for the confusion. I have run into some very aggressive behavior in young ladies, and I had no idea how to respond or even react. I believe that women need to have every right that any male has, that is an easy given. But do we forget the differences as well?
        The emasculation that some men feel if they consider themselves or have been told that they are less than adequate can be a very emotional shot. Then when the other sexual preferences and religious and racial disparities are voiced, it becomes so complicated. In the end, I believe the language may need to entail words such as ‘any human’ to correctly classify rights properly. How long will this take? I’m not taking a guess at that one. Curious to know your thoughts.
        Respectfully; davoleen

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