School Shooters Are Male (and this isn’t just an American problem)


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The hegemonic definition of manhood is a man in power, a man with power, and a man of power[1].

Masculinity has been studied by social scientists, and broken down into core dimensions that many of us recognize. Masculinity means[2]:

  • Femininity Avoidance & Homophobia
  • Status & Achievement
  • Dominance/Power/Control
  • Toughness & Aggression
  • Restricted Emotionality

Toxic masculinity is when these dimensions are expressed in harmful ways.

In addition to (not instead of) gun restrictions[3], consider how social gender norms contribute to the school shooting epidemic. Mass shooters are almost invariably cisgender males. (Those who commit homicide in the U.S. are also overwhelmingly male, comprising more than 90% of cases where the murder’s gender is known). If this was simply a biological issue, then all cisgender men would be murderers. But, of course, they are not. This is a sociological issue.

Boys are fed the message, from a young age, that their masculinity is of paramount importance, and that they must actively maintain it lest they be figuratively castrated. Sissy, or other feminine insinuations, are perhaps the greatest insult for a male. Only more offensive might be fag[4], and other slurs that connote a lack of both masculinity and heterosexual prowess.

Social media has done a nice job of pointing out the lengths men go to in order to clutch onto their male identity. The hashtag #fragilemasculinity pulls up a range of contortions designed to reassure men that they are, indeed, men. It might seem funny that anyone would require his bath products to be shaped like grenades, but the underlying message is serious: boys, your masculinity defines you, and it’s at risk – take steps, even irrational and bizarre steps – to protect it.

There are several ways to try to fit into the masculine mold. Referring back to the bullet (no pun intended) points above, one of the most effective methods to keep up your perceived masculine levels is to exude heterosexuality. Social norms would have us believe that masculinity and heterosexuality are mutually-dependent, that you can’t claim one without the other[5]. Therefore, to be considered masculine enough, boys must also show that they are firmly and indisputably straight.

Another way to assert masculinity is to display power. As masculinity is so inextricably tied to power, males are taught to claim and exert power in order to stay in the boys’ club. This power can take a variety of formats, but physical power and aggression is a high marker of manliness. So, the fierce guy with muscles who attracts the girls is on top of the pyramid of masculinity. But how about the (many, many, many) young boys in our schools who do not fit this description?

Some find productive, alternative ways to achieve status (i.e. Tim Cook or Morgan Freeman style). Some find healthier ways to understand their own masculinity (and sexuality), and live comfortably outside of the constricting social norms of their gender. And others struggle and bash around inside that rigid, narrow box, looking for a way to exist, to prove their worth, to Be. A. Man.

If this struggle brings up feelings, acknowledging them is to further emasculate oneself. From the bullet points above, restricted emotionality is a major element of traditional masculinity, so great displays of emotion are contrary to these boys’ search to become men. The one exception to this rule is anger: boys can get angry without being accused of being effeminate. So, anger may become a default emotion for boys, replacing other strong feelings like sadness, shame, fear, and loneliness.

In America, these males, pressed with the burden of traditional masculine norms, but unable to fulfil them to our social standards, can find incredible, breathtaking, earth-shattering power behind the sight of an assault rifle. And they do. In the hallways of schools. There have been 270 school shootings in America since Columbine in 1999. Ninety-six percent of them were committed by males.

Outside the U.S., we have the advantage of government regulations that significantly reduce the risk of a school shooting. Still, while young boys in international schools who battle with the heavy, unreasonable expectations of masculinity may not be armed to commit mass murder, this does not mean it isn’t hurting them. Toxic masculinity exists, and does harm, world-wide.

Educators can help. Question gender norms at your school. Point them out, analyze them, wonder aloud – with your students – about their ridiculousness and the damage they may be doing. Select literature that portrays male protagonists who defy traditional masculinity. Avoid perpetuating gender stereotypes when you talk to and about children. De-emphasize heteronormative sexual relationships, such as those endorsed by prom and over-the-top, public promposals (especially on campus). Check your curriculum for signs of institutionalized heteronormativity. Teach little boys about the range of human emotions; let boys cry. Allow a flexible space for students to define their own gender and sexuality. Reiterate these messages in official policy documents.

Also, provide students with alternative ways to exercise power. Teach all children, including those who identify as male, to make a positive difference in other people’s lives, to contribute to a cause greater than themselves, and to help those who need it most. This is where their power lies.

How do you challenge traditional gender norms in your school?


[1] Kimmel, M.S. (1994). Masculinities as homophobia: Fear, shame, and silence in the construction of gender identity. In Brod, H. & Kaufman, M. (Eds.) Theorizing masculinities. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

[2]Zurbriggen, E. (2010). Rape, war, and the socialization of masculinity: Why our refusal to give up war ensures that rape cannot be eradicated. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34, 538-549.

[3] The message in this post is in no way intended to conflict with the underlying problem of Americans having easy access to guns. Get 100% of guns out of the hands of civilians, and you’ll get a 100% reduction in school shootings, even with no adjustment to gender norms. As a vegetarian, I do not even advocate for the right of hunters to bear arms. As far as I’m concerned, no civilian needs, deserves, or is entitled to a gun. I am completely supportive of banning firearms from the public altogether.

[4] Pascoe, C. J. (2007). Dude, you’re a fag: Masculinity and sexuality in high school. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

[5] Bem, S. (1993). The lenses of gender: Transforming the debate on sexual inequality. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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12 Responses to School Shooters Are Male (and this isn’t just an American problem)

  1. Jenny Shilling Cradlin says:

    Fantastic article, Emily. I will definitely be sharing this with friends, colleagues, and potentially my students. We do a unit every year looking at gender in the media and watch a documentary called ‘Tough Guise’, speaking to the same subject. Would you mind if I introduced your blog to my students in the classroom?

    • Emily Meadows says:

      Thank you so much, Jenny! I would love nothing more than for this to be a topic of discussion among students.


  2. NAPC says:

    Traditional masculinity, men”s lib, feminism, progressivism, etc. Time and time against those “new ways of masculinity are getting built with the same ground work. A system of expectations that is dictated by a small subset of men yet all men are supposed to follow and are centered more around satisfying that small subset of men and women in general than all men. The only thing has that really changes over time is which small subset of men is calling the shots and what women what. The true liberation of men, one where men as a group are able to established their masculinity for themselves, is the one thing that all those “new ways are scared of. Traditional masculinity is afraid of men deciding that they will refuse to be a wage slave that gets does the “get married, have kids and work for 40 years routine. Feminism, Mens Lib, and Progressivism are all afraid that men will stop making women the top priority of everything.

    • Emily Meadows says:

      Dear NAPC,

      I agree with you in some ways: people, including those who identify as men, should be able to define their own gender, and be as creative and non-traditional with that as they like. I think you’ll find that many branches of feminism also agree with this perspective. Strict gender roles hold all of us back!



  3. activaor says:

    Thanks a lot for the article post.Much thanks again. Fantastic.

  4. Sarah says:

    Thanks!And thanks for sharing your great posts every week!

  5. JPaul says:

    I name myself ‘lesbian’ because I do not subscribe to predatory/institutionalized heterosexuality” is definitely something that has influenced how I walk through the world.

  6. BlackWolf says:

    Emily Meadows, thanks so much for the post.Really thank you! Keep writing.

  7. Daniel Trilnick says:

    Totally agree. Specially, on the role of teachers to de-mistify the social constructed “toxic” aspects of masculinity.

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