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.

With this in mind, consider how social gender norms contribute to the school shooting epidemic. Mass shooters are almost invariably cisgender men. (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 boy. Only more offensive might be the f-slur 4], and other gender and sexuality-based hate speech that connote a lack of both masculinity and heterosexual prowess.

Social media has done a nice job of pointing out the lengths men may 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.

Grenade-shaped bath bombs

There are several ways to try to maintain one’s position in the masculine hierarchy. Referring back to the bullet (no pun intended) points above, one of the most effective methods to keep up your perceived manly 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, boys are taught to claim and exert power in order to stay in the 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 women 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 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 contradictory 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 boys and men, 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  at least 554 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 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 young 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 boys, to focus on cultivating humanity, making a positive impact in their community, and contributing to a cause greater than themselves. This is where their power lies.

[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.

14 thoughts on “School Shooters Are Male (and This Isn’t Just an American Problem)”

  1. Hi Emily. I just read your blog and feel compelled to respond.

    Would I be correct in condensing your main point to this? “Toxic masculinity causes harm worldwide, and it is particularly to blame for the rash of school shootings in the US.” Your title declares, “School shooters are male.” You don’t include the word ‘toxic” in the title, but you do suggest that forcing boys to express traditional masculine traits is a cause of anger in many of them, and that anger and power come out in school shootings. You also suggest to us educators that, as one remedy, we should help create safe school environments for children to develop without institutionalized heteronormativity. Have I fairly described your position?

    From your blog, I see that you are a passionate specialist in gender identity issues. Maybe Abraham Maslow’s old quip applies here: “I suppose it is tempting, if you have only a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” I agree wholeheartedly that all children and youth deserve school environments free from discrimination and bullying. It appears to me, though, that challenging gender heteronormativity as a way for schools to address the increase in school shootings is oversimplifying the causes of gun violence in schools and elsewhere in the US — and underestimating or ignoring other numerous factors.

    Psychologists point to many different issues, backgrounds, and personalities pertaining to the men and boys who commit these violent acts. Correlations abound, but causes resist simplification. I venture to say that issues around gender identity are not near the top of the list of correlations or probable causes. According to psychologist Peter Langman, “The intersection of multiple factors such as age, social stresses, psychological traits, as well as possible biological factors, need further analysis to disentangle.” [2017,

    I would add two common correlations that seem significant to the school shooter profile (the first you will agree with, I’m sure; the second may go against your political leanings):

    1) Being bullied and/or ostracized in school (of which *some* students would be gender nonconforming), and
    2) Fatherlessness and its common attendant emotional and behavioral results.

    Admittedly, some men are toxic, and single mothers are capable, but good fathers are not fungible. See this 2013 op-ed piece by Brad Wilcox, Univ of Virginia:

    In 2008 presidential candidate Obama lauded the importance of fathers in the home:

    “Of all the rocks upon which we build our lives, we are reminded … that family is the most important. And we are called to recognize and honor how critical every father is to that foundation. They are teachers and coaches. They are mentors and role models. They are examples of success and the men who constantly push us toward it.” [2008,

    As educators, we are responsible for maintaining safe environments in our schools; so we can and must work against bullying and discrimination of all kinds (correlation 1 above.)

    We have limited opportunities, however, to influence family units (correlation 2.) But the children and teenagers we teach often thrive or falter depending on the health of their family life and specifically the relationship with a good father or at least a mature male role model. Thirty years of classroom teaching, marriage counseling, and some parent coaching have convinced me of the importance of a stable home life and, ideally, the presence of a mother and a father, even with their traditional cisgendered identities. As goes the health and well-being of the family unit, so goes the health, peace, and safety of the society.

    Warm regards from Hanoi,
    Todd Nelson, PhD

    1. Dear Todd,

      Thank you for your readership, and for your comment on my post.

      I agree with your comment that, “challenging gender heteronormativity as a way for schools to address the increase in school shootings is oversimplifying the causes of gun violence in schools and elsewhere in the US”. Perhaps you missed my third footnote, which speaks directly to this: “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.”

      With regards to the two additional factors you suggest (bullying and fatherlessness), I’ve read your post thoroughly, but it is not clear how you draw the correlation here. Surely not from an op-ed? It seems the point you are most set on making is that families should have two, heterosexual, cisgender parents.

      I am not aware of any statistical evidence that school shootings are tied to fatherlessness. However, the academic research consensus on same-sex parenting is clear: children raised in households headed by same-sex parents are at least as well-adjusted as children raised by heterosexual parents (Adams & Light, 2015; Farr & Patterson, 2013; Lick, Patterson, & Schmidt, 2013; Patterson & Riskind, 2011). I’ve cited just a few of the many peer-reviewed publications on this topic, and I hope you will consider adding some of them to your reading list.




      Adams, J. & Light, R. (2015). Scientific consensus, the law, and same sex parenting outcomes. Social Science Research, 53, 300-310.

      Farr, R. H. & Patterson, C. J. (2013). Coparenting among lesbian, gay, and heterosexual couples: Associations with adopted children’s outcomes. Child development, 84(4), 1226-1240.

      Lick, D. J., Patterson, C. J., & Schmidt, K. M. (2013). Recalled social experiences and current psychological adjustment among adults reared by gay and lesbian parents. Journal of GLBT Family Studies, 9, 230-253.

      Patterson, C. J. & Riskind, R. G. (2011). Adolescents with lesbian or gay parents. In Fisher, M., Alderman, E., Kriepe, R., & Rosenfeld, W. (Eds.), Textbook of adolescent health care. Chicago, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.

  2. 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?

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


  3. 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.

    1. 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!



  4. 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.

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

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