American Mythos

just can't quit you

just can’t quit you

On the Bill Press show this morning (WCPT in Chicago), the commentators were having fun with a Washington Post movie critic’s attempt to weigh in on the recent mass shooting in Isla Vista. Anne Hornaday’s target was the “frat-boy comedy,” a movie genre known for sniggering sex jokes, adolescent humor, and a consistent trope in which the schlub ends up with the hot girl. Male fantasy fulfillment, right? The arrested adolescent who’s not good-looking, not rich, not cool—the guy who wouldn’t know commitment, personal responsibility, or (often) personal hygiene if it walked up and slapped him—turns out to be the Nice Guy who at heart truly cares for the way-out-of-his-league object of his affections, and in the end he wins her over.

On the surface, Ms. Hornaday’s piece held this fantasy up as a potential contributing factor to the rampage at UC Santa Barbara. The perpetrator, she argued, was taught at least in part through the frat-boy comedy myth that “nice guys” (which he saw himself as) deserve to get the hot chicks. When this didn’t happen in real life, the movie fantasy became just one more bitter disappointment fueling the gunman’s rage: one more conveyor of, as she put it, “the toxic double helix of insecurity and entitlement that comprises Hollywood’s DNA.”

The commentariat promptly landed on her for suggesting that frat-boy comedies caused a young man with serious mental-health issues to turn homicidal. And Ms. Hornaday, to my mind, missed the actual point of the frat-boy movie, which is that the schlub changes before he wins over the girl. He doesn’t become handsome, or rich, or outwardly cool; instead, the change is an inner one. The commitment-phobic perpetual child is forced to take on responsibility, and finds he likes it; the no-zing sap who lusted after the hottest of hot chicks finally notices the sweet-hearted sapette waiting in the wings, and realizes she’s a much better romantic deal because she genuinely cares. So the movie critic missed her target, but I wish the people mocking her for overreacting to a generally harmless American myth were instead discussing her larger and more valid point: the peculiarly American tendency to buy into myths as if they’re reality, and to lash out when reality won’t play along.

The myth that does this most powerfully, enduringly, and lethally, is our ongoing love affair with the gun. Not the gun as a tool for adding to the larder, and occasional self-defense. Not the gun as a weapon for a true citizens’ militia back in the days when America had no standing army. The gun as the Great Equalizer, the enforcer of “respect.” The attention-getter, demand-maker, instant conveyor of unearned power and authority. From the Old West (also a fantasy) right down to the Bundy militias and crazed (mostly) white-boy shooters of the present day, the biggest common factor is The Gun as mythic totem. I am become Glock Semi-Auto, Destroyer of Worlds. Do what I want, be what I want, or I’ll kill you.

Troubled people who fancy themselves powerless in an unforgiving world latch onto this myth because it promises them power. Irrational government-haters who imagine themselves the only real-and-true-Americans latch onto this myth because it lets them be the heroes of their own private action movies instead of the liars, cheaters, or frightened little folk they are. Other countries have violent pop entertainment. Other countries have gun ownership (see Canada). Other countries have troubled souls among their citizens. Yet only America has mass shootings so often that we’re surprised when a month, even a week, goes by without one. Why? What is it about the mythos of the gun that we can’t let go of, even though it’s killing us?

I don’t have an answer. I wish I did. We need to find one, collectively groping our way toward some kind of light on this issue, before any more innocents are drowned in the blood from American gunfire.

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