In the early hours of Sunday morning, a gunman identified as Omar Mateen entered Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and opened fire on nearly 300 people. Armed with a Glock 9mm pistol and an AR-15-style assault rifle, Mateen killed at least 49 people and wounded 53 more in mere minutes, making the incident the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
And yet the gruesome attack in Orlando was typical for the United States, a nation where horrific gun violence has become a regular occurrence. It's also a nation where people like Mateen — or, rather, men like Mateen — are routinely the perpetrators of that violence, which they execute in fits of homophobic or misogynist or racist rage.
In the wake of massacres like the attack on Pulse, people are quick to look for explanations for the bloodshed, from "radical Islam" and terrorist connections, to lax gun laws or mental illness. But we're not often inclined to implicate another common thread that connects Mateen to other mass shootings: toxic masculinity, a nefarious permutation of male gender stereotypes at their worst — one that centers on men's need to maintain dominance, and to take action against weakness or femininity.
A shared history of sexist rage
Since Mateen's name was released in the hours after the shooting, the public has learned a fair amount about his violent past: In 2013, Mateen was placed on an FBI terrorist watch list for threats he made against a co-worker, as well as his repeated insinuations he might have terrorist ties. His ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, told the New York Times Mateen would routinely beat her during their two-year marriage, while his former co-worker has claimed he "talked about killing people all the time" and had a penchant for using racial and sexual slurs. To add to his complex history, Mateen was reportedly a regular at Pulse, and had used gay dating apps in the past.
The profile that's been established of Mateen isn't too dissimilar from those of other mass shooters, for whom large-scale gun violence wasn't a first act of aggression. Robert Dear, who attacked a Colorado Springs, Colorado, Planned Parenthood clinic in November, was accused of abusing his wives and posting vicious rants online before the attack, much like Mateen. Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter who killed 32 people in 2007, allegedly stalked two women and left behind a virulently sexist manifesto ahead of his rampage, much like Elliot Rodger, the student who murdered six people in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 because he was outraged he'd been sexually rejected by women.
Then there's Dylann Roof, the domestic terrorist who, just a year before the attack in Orlando, gunned down nine black parishioners in their house of worship because he believed people of color posed a threat to him. He described his hatred using slurs not unlike those Mateen reportedly shouted as he opened fire at Pulse.
"I have to do it," Roof reportedly said during his attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. "You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."
He, Mateen and the other men who committed these atrocities seem, in each case, to have acted out of a sense of fear others — women, queer people, people of color — had taken or withheld something to which they were entitled. In multiple cases, including Roof's, we know this for sure, thanks to the hateful manifestos left behind.
This is not a coincidence.
Is violence an expression of manhood?
"Boys and men are more likely to externalize their pain and take it out on others," Jackson Katz, a leading gender violence prevention expert and author of Man Enough? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity, said in a phone interview. "There's an attitude of, 'Someone took something from me, I'm going to take it from others.'"
"Violence is the single quickest way for a man to establish his manhood. It is so clearly identified in the public mind, in our culture and around the world, as a masculine endeavor. When women commit violence, especially gun violence ... they're violating a norm, and when men do, they're over-conforming to a norm."
The anger and uncontrollable rage underpinning massacres like the attack in Orlando — massacres that have become commonplace — do not develop or come to a head overnight. They are cultivated and reinforced by a culture that lionizes male dominance and control.
"Our culture is filled with media narratives, in particular, for boys and men to reclaim their dignity and manhood that's been taken from them through redemptive violence, in response to humiliation or pain," Katz said.
"When women commit violence ... they're violating a norm, and when men do, they're over-conforming to a norm."
That's why policy alone isn't always enough to end mass violence — particularly violence perpetrated by men like Mateen, whose actions are rooted in deeper insecurities about their own manhood. As President Barack Obama said Tuesday in a speech at the United State of Women Summit, there's a link between violent action and the normalization of male strength, entitlement and aggression, which is reinforced culturally in ways big and small.
"As commander in chief, I've seen how the ideology that leads Boko Haram to kidnap schoolgirls, and leads ISIL to enslave and rape women is the same ideology that leads to instability, and violence, and terrorism," Obama said. "There's a connection there."
From calling boys by derogatory terms for gay men when they display effeminate characteristics, or giving them minor sentences for committing rape a la Brock Turner (most recently, at least), our culture affirms the angry men who brutalize women who reject them; who murder their partners and children; who decimate trans women of color, bomb abortion clinics and massacre black people in their houses of worship.
But that repeated affirmation that brutal, sometimes sadistic "manliness" is acceptable is also what makes attacks like Mateen's both predictable and preventable. It could be possible to prevent mass murder simply by looking for the right signs.
"We have to be talking about the links between domestic violence and gang violence, violence in the home and violence in the streets," Katz said. "The crucible of so much violent behavior of boys and men is violence done against them in their families. ... If you have large numbers of men who grow up traumatized by violence and abuse, a large number will act out in the traditional way: through redemptive violence as a fulfillment of masculine honor."
Killing a culture of toxic masculinity
There's more to it than that, though. Ending the devastating consequences of masculinity-gone-murderous requires a broader cultural shift — one that doesn't equate anything that isn't "manly" with weakness, or treat people who defy traditional masculine ideals, like the scores of men and women murdered at Pulse, with disdain.
It also requires that we stop accepting destruction as a normal, or even valorous part of life, and instead start interrogating our own cultural values; that we recognize the stereotypical markers of manhood might seem benign, but are potentially dangerous.
Gender stereotyping "has consequences for all of us, whether we're men or women, black, white, gay, straight, transgender or otherwise," Obama said. "We need to keep changing the attitude that raises our girls to be demure, and our boys to be assertive; that criticizes our daughters for speaking out, and our sons for shedding a tear."
Honestly facing how destructive these stereotypes can be won't bring a solution overnight. But it could be a step in the right direction.