Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Lunatic maybe, misogynist for sure

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Occasionally when I come across an interesting quote, I write it down on a little scrap of paper and post it near my computer so I can see it when I'm working.

I have a few up now, including one by Heather Mallick, who writes comments for the CBC and The Guardian. It reads: "Women should never underestimate how much they are hated."

I like this particular quote because it's instructive. It reminds me that misogyny is pervasive in our culture and that I shouldn't be surprised or shocked when I encounter it.

Earlier this month, on a Tuesday evening in a suburb just outside Pittsburgh, 48-year-old George Sodini walked into an aerobics class at the LA Fitness gym at which he was a member. He turned out the lights, pulled three guns from his gym bag and began firing.

He injured nine women and killed three -- Jody Billingsley, 37, Elizabeth Gannon, 49, and Heidi Overmier, 46 -- before committing suicide.

Almost immediately after the incident, it was discovered Sodini had been keeping an online diary for the past nine months. He used to document his frustration about not being able to pick up women. He wrote that he hadn't had a girlfriend since 1984 and hadn't had sex since 1990. The overall tone was one of confusion, despair and bitterness, punctuated by anger.

"I actually look good. I dress good, am clean-shaven, bathe, touch of cologne -- yet 30 million women rejected me," reads one of the entries.

When someone opens fire on a room full of strangers, it's only natural for people to speculate as to a motive. More often than not, perpetrators of such crimes are dismissed as being deranged loners.

(Indeed, several media outlets did exactly this with respect to Sodini -- I saw the shooting referred to in one headline as "an armed loner's final date," which makes premeditated mass murder sound almost romantic.)

It's an understandable position to take since it serves to create distance between "us" -- the normal people -- and "them" -- the crazies who massacre innocent women. But it's also problematic in that it doesn't allow us to connect the dots and understand individual acts in the context of the larger cultural narrative in which they occur.

To say that Sodini was a lunatic or that his nonexistent sex life was the cause of his violent outburst -- as many news media have implied -- is to ignore a far more obvious fact: misogyny exists.

Sodini didn't go on a killing spree against women because he hadn't been laid in 19 years. He did it because he hated women -- a hatred that is accepted, condoned and even actively encouraged by some in our society.

It's since come out that Sodini was a follower of one R. Don Steele, a self-help guru who offers seminars on how to pick up hot, young women, marketed to geeky, shy or otherwise socially awkward men who can afford to pay him. He's even written a book, How to Date Young Women: For Men Over 35, which can be seen on Sodini's coffee table in a video that recently surfaced on the Internet.

Steele is part of the "seduction community" -- a subculture of men who share tips on how to score with women. (One technique called "negging" involves playfully insulting a woman; as I understand it, the intent is to lower her self-esteem so she's more vulnerable to advances.)

As in mainstream culture, misogyny exists in the pick-up subculture. Women are not seen as actual people but instead as conquests -- as prey to be hunted. There's no consideration of women's desires or will; objectified and dehumanized, we are merely the prizes to be won by men who can successfully master the tricks and who therefore are entitled to have access to our bodies.

Another quote I keep near my computer is by American journalist H.L. Mencken: "A journalist's job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

Acknowledging that misogyny exists makes many people uncomfortable -- particularly those who benefit from it -- but denying it allows it to fester and spread, which only makes it worse.

Marlo Campbell writes for Uptown Magazine.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2009 A10

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