Jaylen Fryberg was fifteen years old.
Call a fifteen-year-old a man and watch his face as puberty’s shame and the woof of its thick darkness fades briefly into a shy pride. Call him a gunman and watch him startle at his sudden power. Gunmen! They’re powerful, they’re skilled, they’re competent. They’re just exceptionally male; it’s right there in the title, gunman, and in case there’s any doubt, Merriam-Webster gives us “a professional killer” and “a man noted for speed or skill in handling a gun.” Was Jaylen, the freshman who killed two people and injured three others at his high school, a professional killer? Or, a man skilled in handling guns? Of course not. But, the news has declared him (and every other sad or desperate male who takes to shooting people) a gunman, and in that myth of the gunman, everything sank.
Jaylen shot five people, and then he shot himself. That is all. There is less and less to say with each iteration of this same story; unhappy men — we always call them Men — go to public places, shoot people, shoot themselves. Then we get the interviews, the essays and thinkpieces reasoning why, the careful analysis of whatever texts the criminal left behind if he’s white, the comparative absence of this literary scrutiny if he’s black. There are the usual calls for better gun control, the usual calls for guns everywhere, and the usual calls to “leave politics out of it.”
The story is that a girl rejected him. And, so, he killed her, and killed himself.
This might show many things. People will write for years about the things it shows, and they’ll be right, but we have known them all already, known them all: We know about male entitlement to women’s bodies, we know that women too often pay the price. But, what I want to talk about is the slit that’s opened in our definitions of men. I want to talk about how badly we’re failing the boys who can’t see their way out of a totally lethal, totally toxic distortion of masculinity — the kind that says that if boys aren’t manly, or gentlemanly, they can be gunmanly.
Our fantasy is that after these attacks, there’s meaning to be made. And, there is, of a kind: At the very least, we can see how badly our culture equips boys and men to deal with feelings by inviting them to confuse love with weakness, loss with failure, and both with lost manhood.
One of the most damaging aspects of patriarchy, especially patriarchy on the defensive and in decline, is its perpetuation of the myth that boys — and men — are reducible to simple, almost stupid desire. Men want sex, not love, goes its conventional unwisdom. Many a TV show has been built on this premise, and while feminists have noted the ill effects this perspective has on women, we’ve been slower to articulate the ways it endangers young men. And, it does, because we live in a culture that’s slow to shift, a culture that resists change by doubling down on distorted versions of its older models. As masculinity has developed into a more complex category that can include (for example) gay and trans men, a correspondingly retrograde, essentialist version of it has only become stronger in response: Chivalry is dead, this destructive masculinity myth says, and men are horny. Men don’t feel much. Men use pick-up artist techniques to “get” women — techniques, mind you — because men’s goals have been reframed: Looking for love is now looking for sex (men are good problem-solvers). Dating is re-narrated as less a human interaction than a technical challenge (men are mechanically inclined; they’re logical thinkers). In these discourses, love wilts into a euphemism, a clever trick, a silly means to a sexual end (men evolved to spread their seed). No man trained in this way of thinking can admit to anything soft like wanting love — much less being hurt when rejected. Real men don’t, strictly speaking, believe in love or its photographs and desperate notes. Real men want power and sex; above all they want, in a general way, to win.
The trouble is, of course, that men, being human — with all the fragility that implies — feel and want love all the time. Even gunmen.
Jaylen — and that’s what I’ll call him, because he was a young boy, new to the seductive labels of the masculinity myth, and winning at them — was a football player, a homecoming prince: popular. He could, one imagines, look at girls and eclipse and cloud them with a wink. He hunted. And, yet, a girl turned him down.
Many commentators on Friday’s tragedy have expressed surprise that Jaylen wasn’t a “loner.” (Myth: Popular boys must be evolutionary successful. Myth: Evolutionary success is all men need to be happy.) "What went wrong?" they ask. There are surely dozens of answers to this question, many of which have to do with Jaylen’s life, background, and particular hardships. But, we’re all guessing, so here’s a guess: For someone brittle from investing too deeply in their gender stereotype, the tension of wanting something inconsistent with that stereotype and then not getting it can break them. From the little we know, it seems likely that Jaylen’s type of man-in-the-making — the kind who seems to be getting the Man-thing right, the kind who’s actually winning socially — is actually the least equipped to deal with social failure and romantic (romantic, not sexual) loss.
Here’s the thing: Back when masculinity was at its peak power, love wasn’t feminized. It didn’t need to be. Men were secure enough to experience the full range of human emotion — longing, grief, love, jealousy, desire — without feeling their identity as men threatened or reduced. Most of the love poetry we have was written by men, after all, and while for most of recorded history it shows that love hurt like hell, it couldn’t unman you. There was an explanatory model for what a rejected Jaylen might have felt. You were expected, as someone in his position, to want love, and to experience its loss as something bigger than the loss of potential sex. You could, as a fifteen-year-old boy, revel in that loss if you wanted to (look at Romeo) without risking your sense of self. You could watch the blue stars shiver in the distance.
These days, the source of some of the most virulent and lethal misogyny seems to stem from the lack of any tool to deal with feelings that are now — thanks to a strange hypercorrection among those invested in old ideas of gender — coded feminine. So, as a confused, angry, and adolescent boy, you respond in kind. You go for the hyper-masculine corrective. Unmanned by a desire men aren’t supposed to have, you respond to this new, weak self by turning yourself into a gunman, The Gunman. (Love must not be, but take a body too, and so one fatal mistake leads to another.)