Emma Teitel

#YesAllWomen: A viral message that forgets vital details

Missing from the conversation on Twitter? Elliot Rodger’s victims

In the movie Citizen Ruth, a dark comedy from 1996, an indigent, drug-addicted mother of many, Ruth Stoops, finds herself pregnant and alone in a court of law. She’s been arrested for sniffing patio sealant and is facing charges for endangering her unborn child. However, the judge presiding over the case tells Ruth that if she aborts her fetus, he’ll reduce her sentence. After a chance meeting with anti-abortion protesters in a holding cell, Ruth is convinced to keep her baby, and is received warmly into the evangelical Christian, pro-life fold. She’s also wooed by fervent pro-choicers, a pair of plaid-clad lesbians who serenade the moon.

The end of the film finds Ruth, the poster child of a debate she doesn’t understand, huddled in the bathroom of an abortion clinic, a protest raging on outside its walls. With $15,000 cash given to her by a rogue activist (I won’t reveal why, or what becomes of the unborn baby), she makes a desperate decision to try to escape before anyone can spot her. When she gets outside though, she takes one glance at the pulsating, pontificating throng—fists clenched, faces contorted—and realizes something remarkable: they’ve forgotten all about her.

She exits through the crowd, unnoticed.

This is, metaphorically, exactly the way the victims of Elliot Rodger exited the world.

On the weekend, George Chen, Weihan Wang, Katherine Breann Cooper, Cheng Yuan Hong, Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez and Veronika Elizabeth Weiss were murdered near the University of California at Santa Barbara. Rodger, a privileged loner, misogynist and failed “pick-up artist,” decided it was time to exact revenge on a world that had denied him everything he felt entitled to: women, power, respect. The misogynist online screed he left in his murderous wake has—despite the fact he killed more men than women—ignited a feminist firestorm. And his victims’ deaths, like Ruth Stoop’s unborn child in Citizen Ruth, have given onlookers and activists a platform for political and emotional grandstanding. Meanwhile, his victims, like Ruth and other handy plot devices, have been conveniently forgotten.

The agent of this collective amnesia? #YesAllWomen.

It’s the Twitter hashtag—aka the great aggregator and diluter of ideas—that’s taking the continent by storm. It picked up steam originally as an indignant response to #NotAllMen, a now far less popular hashtag started to convey the somewhat obvious reality that “not all men” are woman-hating murderers. Its iterations range from the occasionally harrowing, to the mostly precious and inane: In the words of Australian actress Adelaide Kane, retweeted a total of 4,573 times, “Not ALL men harass women. But ALL women have, at some point, been harassed by men. #YesAllWomen.” Some other samplings, these ones described as “sobering” in The Atlantic, include:

“#YesAllWomen learn to say, ‘Sorry, I have a boyfriend’ because we are only safe if we are another man’s property.

“Because men joke about how girls always have to go to the bathroom in groups but they are the reason we do so. #YesAllWomen.” (And all this time I thought it was to gossip).

The argument behind the hashtag runs this way: Rodger was a misogynist and a consumer of hyper-masculine culture. Therefore, masculinity in all its gradations is to blame for his crimes. “If angry, sometimes violent, men are actively defining the entire gender,” Denise Balkissoon writes in the Globe and Mail, “every guy looking away is letting them get away with it. By virtue of existence, you’re in on it.”

It’s strange that the progressive voices usually relied on to rebuff typically conservative, intellectually vacant arguments—about marijuana as a gateway drug, Islam as an innate harbinger of terrorism, or Marilyn Manson as a catalyst in the Columbine shootings—have championed a culture-breeds-atrocity theory: In this case, the theory that reading a Maxim on the toilet here, and attending a men’s rights conference there, has convinced males they have a social licence to kill. The same rule, I imagine, does not apply in reverse. How many feminists would so readily pin radical feminist Valerie Solanas’s 1968 assassination attempt of Andy Warhol on the women’s movement? Culture is a neutral force, it seems, until the victims in question are female.

Speaking of Marilyn Manson, those who have embraced #yesallwomen would be well-advised to consider the singer’s response to Michael Moore’s now-famous question in his 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine. What, Moore asks, would Manson say to the kids at Columbine High School about the 1999 shootings that took 13 lives. “I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” Manson responds. “I would listen to what they have to say.”

But listening seems out of fashion these days, maybe because we can’t stop talking — not even for a millisecond. (I refreshed the #YesAllWomen Twitter feed three times while writing this and my browser crashed twice.) Apparently there’s no better occasion than the aftermath of a mass murder to wax poetic about your distaste for public masturbators and sexist Happy Meal toys. Pay no mind to the six lives untimely ripped from this world in cold blood. They’re merely a springboard for a more sobering conversation about the bourgeois grievances of the Western woman.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.