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Ariel Chesler Headshot

Maren Sanchez and Rage as the Male Emotion

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Following the recent killing of Maren Sanchez, a 16-year-old honor student in Connecticut, by a fellow student -- Chris Plaskon -- who was apparently in love with her, everyone is searching for root causes for such violence. The alleged motive was that Sanchez said no to attending a prom with Plaskon.

By all accounts, Plaskon had a good home life. He lived with his father and mother and three brothers and was a member of the football, baseball, and track teams. He had friends and was known to be boisterous and a jokester. His parents were also involved at school and regularly helped with school fund-raisers.

It has been suggested that teenagers aren't just teenagers anymore because their personal lives are now broadcast on Facebook and Twitter and other social media. So, a rejection is now experienced very publicly on social media thereby exacerbating the blow. While the way we live our lives online is certainly a legitimate and serious concern it does not tell us why young men commit violent acts, as they did before the rise of social media.

As with similar violent acts, including the many mass shootings we have suffered in this country at the hands of young men, many turn to mental illness as a possible cause. Chris Plaskon is now being held at a medical center under psychiatric evaluation and friends and community members are now questioning his mental health. While accounts note that Plaskon was athletic and well-liked at his school, friends are now reporting that he had come to school with cuts on his arm in the past and had told a friend he planned to kill himself. It is also being reported that in eighth grade Sanchez helped see Plaskon through a bout with depression.

However, there have been conflicting accounts about whether Plaskon showed signs of being troubled. Some, including teachers and friends, have said that he showed no signs of trouble in recent months and his school counselor, who he met with two days before the murder, did not observe anything of note. Others have stressed that Plaskon was very upset about not having a date for prom and that he seemed more detached than usual last week.

I agree with Soraya Chemaly's assessment that this and many other examples of violence against women at the hands of men are the "product of pervasive, violently maintained, gender hierarchy." As Chemaly notes, these assaults happen every day and will continue to occur until we face and change those in our society who promote and teach entitlement and superiority to boys, and who fail to teach boys self-control. As Chemaly says, there is a Self-Control Gap encouraged by the "boys will be boys" mentality and when a boy lashes out with violence we need to immediately think about status and power, and the use of violence to retain power.

But, there is more. As Chemaly has also discussed, boys are taught in ways subtle and direct that they are to move far from anything that is considered "girly" i.e. inferior, thus establishing themselves as superior. Examples of this range from clothing to hair to toys, and even to dreams of their future professsion.

At the same time, the process of becoming a man for many boys requires them to place themselves into a "man box." As bell hooks explained in her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, patriarchal culture influences parents to devalue the emotional development of boys and teaches boys that "real men" do not feel or do not express feelings. In essence, patriarchal rules deny the full humanity of boys and prevents them from acknowledging and addressing their emotions and precludes them from learning and practicing empathy.

There is one emotion left to boys that is not "girly" -- rage. And, as hooks notes, boys are taught to act out this one emotion through acts of physical aggression, which gets them attention. It is easy to understand why one would express anger when one is not permitted to express any other emotion. Coupled with the mass media's glorification of violence and social acceptance of violence by boys, it is not a mystery why boys are so violent. In hooks's words:

Even though masses of American boys will not commit violent crimes resulting in murder, the truth that no one wants to name is that all boys are being raised to be killers even if they learn to hide the killer within and act as benevolent young patriarchs.

In many cases, boys also learn violence directly from their fathers or older male relatives, or may experience a lack of emotional connection to their fathers. And, when boys later approach their sexuality and are subjected to pervasive messages telling them to objectify girls and to be the sexual aggressor, we have an explosive cocktail of entitlement, rage, objectification, lack of empathy, and lack of self-control.

It is thus no wonder that a boy raised in this atmosphere would use violence to express his rage that an "inferior" person rejected his advances and because he is additionally embarrassed by failing the "real man" test by having no date for prom.

So, what's the way forward? As hooks states, we must stop demanding that males engage in "acts of psychic self-mutilation, [or] that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves." We must "protect and honor the emotional lives of boys" by challenging patriarchal culture, by allowing boys to be their whole selves, and by relieving them from conforming to "patriarchal masculine visions."