Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Constructing Masks of Hypermasculinity: The Depiction of Rampage School Shootings in Contemporary American Novels

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Constructing Masks of Hypermasculinity: The Depiction of Rampage School Shootings in Contemporary American Novels

Article excerpt

Few phenomena in contemporary American society exemplify the pervasive threat and destructive allure of violence more than rampage school shootings. Distinguished from gang-related violence or random outbursts, rampage school shootings occur when middle-class students attack their suburban schools (Langman 2). These incidents are infrequent, but they represent a disquieting threat at the core of the national psyche: the possibility that the ostensibly safe haven of the suburban school could shatter at any time. Since the Columbine massacre in 1999, the topic has seen regular attention in the media. Authorities have worked to implement strategies of prevention, though their effectiveness remains questionable. Gun control reform continues to be blocked and studies have proven that other concrete measures such as increased security, metal detectors, and revamped police tactics do not reduce the risk of rampage school shootings. (1) Vague condemnations of televisual representations of violence merely have spurred lawsuits against certain films and video games. Online resources devoted to crisis response have expanded in recent years, though they focus on mitigating the impact of such shootings, as opposed to eliminating them. In lieu of a clear method of prevention, a larger social discourse has grown in response to the host of cultural anxieties that rampage violence unleashes. This discourse often elides considerations of gun control legislation in favor of reevaluations of the various social challenges that beset suburban adolescents in contemporary America. The shooting is situated within a web of loosely interrelated topical issues, including high school hierarchies and bullying, the pressures of masculine ideals, violence in media and entertainment, suburban privilege and malaise, and other factors.

Contemporary American novels also have taken up the topic of rampage school shootings, but they tend to complicate the mainstream discourse. The topic first emerged in American novels in the late 1970s and has become more prominent over the last decade. In this article I consider two novels that bridge this period, Stephen King's Rage (1977) and Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003), both of which chart the development of individuals who grow up to become school shooters. These novels portray high school boys who internalize, reformulate, and manipulate the very issues that the media invoke when covering rampage school shootings. In the standard, media-generated discourse, issues such as masculinity and high school stratification contribute to simplistic narratives about school shootings, most of which revolve around the assumption that the perpetrator is an outcast suffering from feelings of intense failure and emasculation. Graphic video games, music, and films also play roles in this narrative: supposedly, they desensitize the youth, stripping away empathy while cultivating fantasies of violent revenge. The media essentially create a persona that brings together a series of broad, collective concerns about adolescent life in contemporary America.

Conversely, the protagonists of Rage and We Need to Talk About Kevin try to create the persona themselves. In other words, Charlie Decker and Kevin Khatchadourian also situate the shooting within a larger cultural discourse, but they do so on their own terms. They are acutely aware that the figure of the school shooter is a persona, a character to be molded and shaped for others. Thus, they struggle to seize control of what this persona represents and how it will be received, a process that is complicated by its sheer instability. Significantly, for both protagonists, the persona emerges out of unresolved conflicts, traumatic memories, and private fantasies. However, although the construction of the persona is catalyzed by individual angst, the end product is simplistic and one-dimensional. For Charlie and Kevin, the figure of the school shooter showcases hypermasculine ideals of violence, reckless courage, and "cool" emotional detachment. …

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