Men aren’t the only ones who go through the sexual rejection that Elliot Rodger experienced. Plenty of teen girls do too.
For my twelfth birthday, my parents allowed me to graduate from glasses to contacts. A September baby, my birthday coincided with the kick off of seventh grade, and I felt certain that this sartorial change would mean big changes for my budding social life. In movie after movie, a shy young wallflower had been transformed into a popular girl just by losing a few ounces of plastic, and something told me that this simple shedding of eyewear was all I needed to finally get the boys I crushed on to notice me.
Alas, it didn’t work. Neither did makeovers, or switching schools, or trying to change cliques: no matter what tricks I tried, I couldn’t bring all – or any – of the boys to the yard, even as girls who seemed to be no prettier, or smarter, or more fun, than me managed to effortlessly rack up boyfriend after boyfriend. The older I got, the more hopeless I felt: “sweet sixteen and never been kissed” felt more like a mark of social failure than anything else, and I found myself increasingly concerned that I would never, ever be in a relationship, that I was destined to be, as they say, forever alone.
For the bulk of my teen years I battled with these frustrations, feeling alternately depressed and angry about a situation that seemed so incredibly unfair. I developed awkward crushes and got weirdly obsessed with people, I wrote bad poetry lamenting my fate. I felt a twinge of kinship with onscreen female losers like “Welcome to the Dollhouse”‘s Dawn Wiener, and I hoped and prayed that some day – hopefully some day soon – someone would sweep down and save me from my loneliness, the way pop culture promised me that someone eventually would.
In the past week I have read quite a few accounts of young people who grew up feeling the same sort of complicated confusion as I did: the same mix of narcissism and desperation, of entitlement confronted with denial. The difference between their experience and mine, though, is that most of them seem to be men; men who, it seems, are incapable of imagining the possibility of women going through exactly the same thing.
In Elliot Rodger’s manifesto, we are told that “the ultimate evil behind sexuality is the human female. They are the main instigators of sex. They control which men get it and which men don’t.” This sentiment is echoed across the internet: the idea that women are the arbiters of sex, as though sex is some precious object that women are hoarding amongst themselves to be doled out to men as they see fit. Even well intentioned responses to this attitude – like Chris Gethard’s essay imploring awkward young men to respect women – seem to buy into this idea, casting loneliness and social awkwardness and an inability to get laid as though they are solely the domain of men alone.
My experiences as a young woman long befuddled by sex and dating put the lie to this belief; so too does Katie Heaney’s recent memoir of a life lived without dates. It’s not hard to find female tales of not being able to get laid, but for some reason, these stories rarely seem to make it into the cultural conversation. For every Dawn Wiener, there are dozens of depictions of awkward young men struggling with sex and dating, with young women far more likely to be depicted as sexually precocious and struggling with male attention than anything resembling the painfully awkward adolescence I actually experienced.
It is true, of course, that – whether due to social conditioning or some sort of biological impulse – men are more likely to translate their frustrations into acts of unspeakable violence towards others, while women turn their pain and self loathing inward, seeking out self injury rather than mass murder. But overlooking female social outcasts simply because they’re less likely to hurt someone other than themselves is a dangerous path to go down. Because the problem is this: when we ignore the existence of awkward girls, of the female nerds, losers, and geeks who are just as befuddled by sex and dating, we further codify the idea of women as sexual objects. The notion that all women can get effortlessly laid, if only they open their legs, reduces the reality of female experience, transforming women from complicated individuals to the vessels for male sexual desire lusted after by Elliot Rodger and his ilk, and further fueling the misogynistic rage that leads men like Rodger to feel justified in their anger and actions.
Image via Sony Pictures Classics.