Who’s to Blame for Elliot Rodger’s Rampage?

After the shooting spree at the University of California, Santa Barbara on Friday, the young killer left behind a chilling manifesto and YouTube video highlighting his sexual alienation as a motivation for his crimes. With the blood still drying, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday singled out an unusual source of blame for the killings – Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow movies:

How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like “Neighbors” and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of “sex and fun and pleasure”? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, “It’s not fair”?

Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it. The myths that movies have been selling us become even more palpable at a time when spectators become their own auteurs and stars on YouTube, Instagram and Vine. If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.

Oy. Sure enough, Rogen and Apatow reacted to Hornaday’s attempt to blame them with outrage, and I can’t say I blame them. It’s hard to even know where to start with this. Unlike many, I don’t even disagree with the basic notion that we should pay attention to how entertainment morally shapes our kids. But in an era of ubiquitous and instantaneous pornography, complaining about comedies playing at the cineplex makes it seem like Hornaday’s priorities are a bit skewed.

Insofar as Hollywood portrayals of sex and violence are part of the problem, it’s that those making movies have done their level best to portray traditional conventions of American life—think churches, nuclear families, suburban life—as outdated or irredeemably corrupt. The erosion of these bulwarks of civil society seems far more likely to contribute to our failure to rescue young men from homicidal tendencies than their increased exposure to the entertainment excesses.

Hornaday is oblivious, but implying that exposure to the wrong movies is somehow linked to killing sprees is absurd. It’s also a pretty cavalier slander against men inexorably violent as slaves to their desires. By Hornaday’s reasoning, the hypersexulized portrayal of Helen of Troy and “macho swagger” of those fighting over her make The Illiad responsible for three millennia of western warfare.

So then it’s not surprising Hornaday quickly segues from exploiting a tragedy to pushing a feminist agenda. Women are underrepresented in cinema, so she reasons that more stories by women might result in less “subtle damage to our psyches and society.” The complaint about women being underrepresented and/or portrayed in unhealthy ways is a valid one. But implicit in Hornaday’s argument is the notion that the stories women tell are somehow inherently more moral than men. While biology may limit the violent tendencies of women, their unlimited imaginations are just as subject to the evils of human nature.

Here Hornaday is making the classic mistake of post-modern critics everywhere. She’s assuming that art is capable of radically reshaping human nature. Male impulses to violence are not something that will ever be entirely overcome, nor are they always evil. Confronting their capacity for violence also encourages men to be protectors. In cinematic terms, rescuing the damsel in distress is a common trope because it appeals to men and women alike. Speaking of damsels in distress, people were complaining about how the violence and sexual themes in fairy tales affected their children long before sex comedies were a thing. G.K. Chesterton answered concerned scolds this way:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.

And that’s what makes Apatow and Rogen such a bizarre target for blame. Apatow, who’s worked frequently with Rogen, is acclaimed precisely for standing the conventions of raunchy comedies on their head, and his films are almost entirely nonviolent. Is Hornaday seriously arguing that the guy who made Knocked Up and The 40 Year-Old Virgin is responsible for setting unrealistic sexual expectations? The latter of which is probably the best, and certainly the funniest, film ever made about male sexual alienation. Despite the superficial raunchiness, much of Apatow’s œuvre oozes morality—particularly with regard to how women are portrayed.

As for how it’s unfair of him to suggest that the average dude always gets the girl, here is a picture of Judd Apatow. Here is a picture of his wife, Leslie Mann. But I don’t suspect that Apatow has a beautiful—and funny!—wife because he’s living in a fairy tale. Hornaday glosses over this, but it’s telling that the protagonists in Apatow and Rogen movies are typically men who find they have a lot of growing up to do before they land the girl of their dreams.

So it’s worth asking – do alienated young men really watch “Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair,'” let alone become homicidal? Or, per Chesterton, does Apatow give them their first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey? Hornaday doesn’t know. But she does a fine job proving that women are just as easily prone to making unfair characterizations about the opposite sex as men.

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