Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday wrote a piece over the weekend linking the violent delusions of mass-murderer Elliot Rodger to the “the toxic double helix of insecurity and entitlement that comprises Hollywood’s DNA.” She decried the harm of “a sexist movie monoculture” created almost entirely by white men. And perplexingly, she specifically called out Judd Apatow and the hit Seth Rogen movie Neighbors for perpetuating the young male fantasy of collegiate sexual wish-fulfillment, writing: “How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, ‘It’s not fair’?”
It’s odd that Hornaday would name-check Neighbors, because while the film is not a beacon of gender enlightenment, it has a complicated and funny lead female character in Rose Byrne, and its frat boys are actually sensitive souls who are more upset about their friendships breaking down than anything else. And it’s worth noting that two of Apatow’s latest productions—the TV show Girls and a new Amy Schumer-led movie called Trainwreck—are about non-Hollywood perfect women, not men, in a state of arrested development.
I understand the point she was trying to make—that we are marinating in a misogynistic culture, and our films reflect that—but this wasn’t the example to pin her argument on, especially because young women are just as conditioned by rom-coms to think they’re going to “get the guy” as young men are conditioned to think they will “get the girl.” And all sexually frustrated college kids think life’s not fair. Very few of them become murderers.
Understandably, Rogen and Apatow took issue with Hornaday’s connection of their films to a sociopathic, misogynistic killer:
.@AnnHornaday how dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage.— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) May 26, 2014
Today, Hornaday defended herself against the social media onslaught with an even more confusing column. In it, she writes, “Movies aren’t accurate reflections of real life, as I wrote in the essay. But there’s no doubt they powerfully condition what we desire and feel we deserve from it.” She goes on to quote, approvingly, from readers who supported her argument with sentiments like:
Much of the attention on gun control and treating the mentally ill is well-deserved, but my question is, why is so little attention directed at Hollywood film producers and the movies they create, the addictive video games, and other social media pressures on young, vulnerable boys—as additional contributors to the violence?
First of all, every time a deeply troubled young man like Elliot Rodger goes berserk, we have a discussion about violent and sexually aggressive movies, music, and video games. This same conversation was trotted out when it was revealed that the Navy Yard gunman played Call of Duty for hours on end. Marilyn Manson’s music was condemned after Columbine, even though neither of the shooters were fans.
But what’s more, while Hollywood movies have undeniably become more violent in the past few decades, and many of them are sexist, rape and violence statistics among young people are down across the board. Reliable rape statistics are difficult to come by, because many women won’t report sexual assaults. But the Department of Justice reports that the total rate of sexual violence against females older than 12 dropped 64 percent between 1995 and 2005, and then remained unchanged. Overall juvenile violence has also dropped precipitously, reaching a historic low in 2011. As Vox put it recently, “Today's teenagers are the best-behaved generation on record.” If young men were so conditioned by Hollywood to commit violence sexual and otherwise, wouldn’t it be reflected in the stats?
Hornaday is right that there is a big, important conversation to be had about misogyny, and how it’s reflected in our popular culture. The white, male-dominated Hollywood system also deserves a closer look. But there’s just no evidence to prove that pop culture is what causes the misogyny. Trying to transpose those points onto Rodger’s horrific acts is misguided, and it won’t make those conversations any easier.