The Dangerous Dynamic of Gender
Have you noticed the demographics of the people who tend to perpetrate mass shootings in public spaces? I’ve noticed they tend to be young, male, from middle class backgrounds, and socially isolated. These are not trivial factors.
Gender is key to this pattern. The age, class, and lack of social networks link with gender to create a situation in which the person sees the public shooting as a viable option to express their frustration. More maturity (which hopefully comes with age) and social support may allow frustrated people alternative outlets. Middle class resources bring the possibility of purchasing sometimes costly weapons and ammunition that are kept in one’s home. Most of these crimes utilize legal weapons that are part of the lifestyle of the perpetrator’s family and culture.
Why is gender key? The way we socialize men and women and define social roles based on gender denies men access to full emotional expression and social embeddedness. The way masculinity is defined and privileged, emotions are devalued and social networks are rife with power dynamics and competition.
Young isolated men who are frustrated to the breaking point, with few around them to notice, can sometimes turn to violence to vent or express that powerful emotion.
Looking at the research on gender and gender traits can help us understand how this works.
Dr. Sandra Bem is the pioneer of this research as she developed the Bem Sex Role Inventory that can measure societal definitions of personal traits along the gender continuum, with masculine on one side, femininity on the other side, and androgynous in the middle. Androgynous signifies having the gender traits we assign to both sexes: Andro = male and Gyn = female.
Research illustrates consistently that persons with a full range of human traits at their disposal (androgynous) are less depressed and more flexible, especially when stressed, since they can access a range of coping skill sets without threat to their gender identity.
Those at the extreme ends of either masculinity or femininity are at risk of particular health issues. People whose traits tend toward the feminine end of the continuum are more at risk for depression since they tend to be so nurturing and supportive of others but can forget to value themselves. People whose traits tend toward the extreme masculine end of the continuum are more at risk for heart disease since they tend to suffer from the stress of suppressing their emotions and trying to always appear to be powerful and in control.
Some research points out that androgyny can be either positive or negative if people call upon gendered traits that have positive (independence or compassion) or negative aspects (aggression or submissiveness).
Research on gender traits also illustrates that women are able to accept and adopt more masculine and androgynous traits than men are. This could be the result of societal changes such as the impact of women’s movements in our society (and other movements as well) although the changes can also be explained by the theories on gender regimes and dominance/subordinate dynamics.
When one group is dominant over another, the characteristics and behaviors of the power group remain limited and specific to retaining that power while the characteristics of the subordinate group are less important and more flexible because they don’t have much power to wield.
Ironically, women are often the group not seen as “people” since as the use the male generic suggests, we tend to define maleness, men, and masculinity as the normative—and privileged— category of people. However, I invite us to turn that on its head since our societal norms do not afford men a full sense of humanity either. Masculinity also has limitations.
What other social facts and research can you find that either support or challenge these theories and ideas? How might a critical analysis of the social construction of masculinity help us prevent mass shootings in the future?