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What Fueled UCSB Shooter's Rage Against Women?


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later this hour we will hear tributes and reflections about the late Maya Angelou, the beloved poet - writer who died this morning at the age of 86. But first, we return to this very disturbing story out of Santa Barbara - the shooting of a number of people this weekend. We want to get a different perspective that you might not have heard, but we think you will want to.

And if you've taken time to read this so-called manifesto of the shooter Elliot Rodger, then you know that it's filled with anger and frustration. But what exactly was he angry about? Yes, he says he was angry about not having a girlfriend, but his obsessions were also very much tied up in his ideas about race and masculinity. Jeff Yang did a deep dive into this. He writes about media for "The Wall Street Journal." He recently wrote a piece called "What A Close Reading Of The Isla Vista Shooter's Horrific Manifesto, 'My Twisted World,' Says About His Values - And Ours," and he's with us from New York. [POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Yang's article was written specifically for Quartz (qz.com) and did not appear in the "The Wall Street Journal."] Jeff Yang, thanks so much for joining us once again.

JEFF YANG: Hey, Michel, always great to be here.

MARTIN: Now, I understand that you said you really didn't want to closely examine this manifesto. You really didn't want to write about it and give those ideas any more air, but you felt that you had to. Why did you feel that you had to?

YANG: Well, you know, in looking at the headlines and much of the ways in which the shooter, Elliot Rodger, was being discussed, the terminology that was being used - sort of the typical, you know, loner, white, boy shooter, etc. - young white man driven because of envy and mental illness. It just struck me as being a little bit off - and more than a little bit, in fact. I'm not sure whether this is just something that, as an Asian-American, you kind of end up having this visual sensitivity towards it. But looking at his picture it was clear to me that he was not in fact, quote, unquote, "white," that there was something else going on.

MARTIN: And that - you feel that that something going on is something that you really want to talk about. I want to focus on that. You said that his identity - he's biracial - the son of a British-born filmmaker Peter Rodger, who's best known as the second unit director of "The Hunger Games," but also, a woman who was a - Lichin "Chin" Rodger - a Malaysian-Chinese nurse for film productions. And you said that his racial identity played a, quote, "deeper and darker role in his pathology than anybody has been discussing." How so?

YANG: Well, we actually read his manifesto, and reading it - it makes you want to take a bath afterwards. It's just so full of hatred both at himself and others. You can see how deeply his notion of race and his self-hatred, essentially, colored just about everything else in his life and perhaps most notably, the way he looked at women and at sexual relationships. There's a deep sense in which his not-quite-whiteness ends up pervasively filtering - being sort of the lens in which he looks at the world, and it's truly troubling. I mean, not in the least of which is because it showed the degree to which the badge of whiteness ends up becoming such a challenging thing for men of color in general, even those who are multiracial - maybe especially those who are multiracial - to have to negotiate as adolescents and as young men.

MARTIN: Well, you know, he talks about that. He talks specifically in one point about how he dyes his hair in order to be fully white. He dyes his hair blonde and his - you know, his parents indulge him in this, perhaps not, you know, thinking very much of it - that, you know, they're in Hollywood, so they're around film - that people change their appearance - maybe it's not a big deal. But he expresses it very much as a desire to be white.

YANG: He does indeed. In fact, he actually uses the term, normal white boy - normal white kids. And his notion that if he dyes himself - dyes his hair blonde - he changes this sort of external feature that he'll be accepted, that he'll be celebrated, that he'll be, quote, unquote, "cool," it's something which he talks about at length. And of course it doesn't work, at least not for very long.

MARTIN: You know, also tied up in his elevation of whiteness is his dislike - as he expresses it - for people who aren't white and especially for African-Americans and, as he puts it, Mexicans. I mean, he talks about his resentment and rage when he sees somebody who's African-American or Latino with a white girl. He's very clear that - I mean, these are some very ugly comments, so I don't know that I want to go into sort of great detail about it. But he basic - he makes it very clear that he thinks these people are less than him, and I just wanted to ask what you make of all that.

YANG: It is gut-wrenching. I mean, reading what he has to say, specifically in the context of men of color - African-Americans, Hispanics and even Asians - what he calls full-blooded Asians - when he sees them with women, when he sees them with white women - with white, blonde women - his own object of fetish, if you will, and obsession - he is disgusted. He is enraged. He speaks about them as lesser beings and wonders why it is that they get this kind of sexual or social attention when he, this being who is descended from British royalty, at least in part, has not had this advantage. It's troubling, and it, in some ways, places a real lens on the very notions of race and how it interplays with our gender identities and our interactions on a social basis.

MARTIN: Speaking of that, you know, recently more people have been talking about - you know, people in the media - people who are involved in culture - actors, for example - have been talking about the way certain groups are kind of positioned in the culture. And, you know, Asian women have been speaking out about this, but now Asian men have, too. And one of the things that has been discussed recently is this whole question of whether the Asian-American man who's typically depicted in culture is effeminized, right? He's not viewed as kind of the guy's guy or as a kind of a male role model type person. And I wonder whether that played some role in this from what - if what you saw in his writing - do you think that that factored into this?

YANG: Oh, it certainly did. I mean, he speaks extensively about being shorter, about being lighter, about not being, you know, physical in the same way that especially taller, white athletes around him are and how that in some ways makes him feel inferior or less capable of attracting women, as if women are the way to keep score, so to speak, of your masculinity. I think it's something that for Asian men - well, it's certainly a stereotype.

There is a perception somehow that Asian men physically do not, if you will, you know, meet these conventional standards of masculinity. But I think on some level, the real thing we should be questioning is whether that should be, in fact, a standard of masculinity - whether physical prowess or height or size, and especially the ability to sort of keep score by having sexual conquests is what we should be teaching men is a marker of masculinity.

MARTIN: Well, talk a little bit about - more about that if you would. And if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang. We're talking about his close read of the Elliot Rodger's - the Santa Barbara shooter's horrific manifesto. And he's writing about his reflections on this.

You talk about - a lot about movies that you yourself enjoy, you know, "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" and "Revenge Of The Nerds." But you also talk about the fact that they kind of create this kind of hierarchy of sexuality. What do you mean by that, and what would you like us to be thinking about that?

YANG: Well, you know, as somebody who is a self-proclaimed and at this point fairly proud nerd, if you will, you grow up in a setting in which a lot of the things that people and that mass media, especially, celebrates about guys - you know, this notion that somehow, you know, if you're able to win the attention of an attractive woman, that somehow validates you as a man. When you actually look at the canon, especially of young-adult, male films - of these sort of coming-of-age movies - some of the ones you mentioned - but, you know, honestly there are dozens and dozens of these. They're very focused around this idea that even people who don't meet up to that physical ideal somehow can and should be racing after that ultimate prize - that, you know, even nerds can get a beautiful girl if they do X, Y and Z.

MARTIN: And beautiful being very narrowly defined, by the way.

YANG: Oh, well, absolutely.

MARTIN: So there's that.

YANG: Yeah, I think that one of the most troubling aspects of reading this manifesto is the degree to which Elliot Rodgers talks about this sort of golden girl archetype - the tall, sexy, white, blonde girl. And frankly, growing up watching some of these films - just growing up in America in general - that really is an avatar that's placed in front of us. That is something which - you know, growing up, I said, wow, you know, that woman is beautiful because she is X, Y and Z - white, blonde, tall, etc. And that's a big part of the problem.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting that there are - there's already been kind of a furious kind of Hollywood pushback on even the suggestion that these kinds of images play some role in this. And obviously I think it's important to point out that this young man clearly was struggling with some mental illness. I think there's some documented evidence of that. I think his family has been open about that. But The Washington Post movie critic, Ann Hornaday, wrote about these kind of - these movies where the shlubby nerd guy gets the girl - the blonde girl, and that's the prize. And she specifically named some films by Seth Rogen who furiously responded, saying, you know, that you're just trying to sell papers - and very sort of angry about that.

But I do wonder whether you think there's any opportunity to talk about what kinds of messages are being sent to people about what they're supposed to want and how they're supposed to behave if they don't get it. As a person who's immersed in this culture - you write about media and movies and other cultural things all the time - is there any openness to talking about that?

YANG: There is and there should be. I mean, I respect to a certain extent where Seth Rogen is coming from. I mean, you know, nerds everywhere - there's a sense of - I don't know - a sense of some kind of change in the weather, where over the course of, say, the last ten or 15 years, we have kind of come into our own - that there are professions, there are, you know, individuals who have become celebrated in society despite the fact that we don't, again, match up with those physical ideals or conventional ideals. At the same time, again, that conversation has to happen. Do we become validated simply by embracing the same goals, the same rewards, the same standards of masculinity, just with a different position that we're coming from? I think that actually Arthur Chu, the Jeopardy champion who has since taken to writing for The Daily Beast and other places, has a terrific piece in the daily beast today about this notion that nerds, very often, are only separated by jocks, you know, in terms of how we look but in many cases have the same kinds of misogynistic contexts and viewpoints and that's really troubling.

MARTIN: Well thank you for writing this piece. I'll be interested to hear what kind of reaction you get to it. That was Jeff Yang. He writes about media for The Wall Street Journal. Jeff thanks so much for speaking with us. We reached him in New York.

YANG: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 29, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
Jeff Yang's article "What A Close Reading Of The Isla Vista Shooter's Horrific Manifesto, 'My Twisted World,' Says About His Values — And Ours" was written specifically for Quartz (qz.com) and did not appear in The Wall Street Journal.