UCSB Shootings
Spencer Weiner/Getty Images

Washington Post op-ed on Elliot Rodger is wrong to point the finger at Hollywood sex comedies

As if the UCSB mass murder wasn’t difficult enough to stomach, the misguided finger-pointing that followed Sunday didn’t make it any easier to absorb.

Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post wrote an op-ed criticizing those in the entertainment industry who peddle sex-fueled comedies to male viewers; she alleges they are left with an unrealistic sense of entitlement to fulfilling the fantasies these movies depict. Hornaday singled out the new Seth Rogen movie “Neighbors” and the collected works of Judd Apatow, which led both men to lash out at her on Twitter for suggesting they were remotely responsible for the depravity of Elliot Rodger.

Hollywood should never get a pass on being held responsible for the moral consequences of its programming. But there’s something unique to this particular incident that demonstrates Rogen and Apatow are right to be outraged by Hornaday’s baseless assertion.

Hornaday cannot be blamed for grasping for answers. Yet another act of violence perpetrated by someone with severe mental health issues is bound to be followed by the hair-tearing ritual of trying to make sense out of something so senseless.

But there’s something that separates the UCSB shootings and stabbings from past incidents like Sandy Hook or the Boston Marathon bombings. While most of these murders leave behind scant trace of what prompted the perpetrators to act so heinously, Rodger left an unprecedented amount of meticulously detail material explaining his actions — and none of it remotely indicates the 22-year-old was under the spell of entertainment programming of any kind — sex comedies or otherwise.

As Hornaday wrote, “How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like ‘Neighbors’ and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of ‘sex and fun and pleasure?’ 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?’”

But reviewing the YouTube videos and 141-page manifesto Rodger created leaves the distinct impression that popular culture–mostly in the form of videogames–did the opposite of shaping his warped worldview; to the contrary, it provided him with a refuge from a personal life that became increasingly torturous to him as he grew older. It’s tempting to speculate whether he would have exploded even sooner had favorite content he specifically references in his manifesto, including TV series “Game of Thrones” and “World of Warcraft,” not provided him an outlet for escaping his troubles.

Rodger’s manifesto lays bare with painful honesty the motivations that led him to such unspeakable behavior. If anything in popular culture influenced him to become dangerously unbalanced, it would be reflected in this crucial, ample evidence Rodger left behind.

When he talks about videogames like “Warcraft” in his manifesto, as he does quite often, he doesn’t do so in a way that would reinforce the usual suspicions about how this content desensitizes consumers to violence. Rodger probably would have copped to it if it did.

That’s because the essence of the manifesto is spreading blame to all that made him the monster he became. What’s most unforgivable is he himself takes no responsibility for his own actions. He would have loved nothing more than to blame Hollywood, but he doesn’t.

As to what left Rodger with such a raging sense of delusional entitlement to the level of female attention he never received in life, the manifesto makes abundantly clear he got that not from movies like “Neighbors” but the banality of his own life, the social circles in which he flailed so futilely. He envied his more socially savvy friends and acquaintances, not “Neighbors” star Zac Efron. The Isla Vista campus where he spent his final days, which he depicts as the kind of non-stop bacchanal familiar in any U.S. college dormitory environment, simply drove him over the edge.

Hornaday might argue that Rodger wasn’t aware of the role entertainment played in shaping his depraved philosophies. She’s entitled to such an opinion but at the very least should have specified that there is no actual evidence to suggest that beyond her own intuition.

More likely Hornaday was seduced by the convenient narrative Rodger provided, one of a literal child of Hollywood –his father being a film director– succumbing to the entertainment that put food on his plate. It’s a sexy angle for a story but that doesn’t make it right.

There’s a legitimate conversation to be had about the role culture plays in the disrespectful attitudes some men have toward women, and that includes the cues entertainment provides to the most mentally unstable among us. But as badly as that conversation is needed, it’s just not appropriate in this instance.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more
Comments 38