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From Jonesboro to Virginia Tech - sexim is fatal, but media miss the story

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

April 18th, 2007

News reports about the worst school shooting in American history are mostly ignoring — as per usual — the gendered nature of the crime.

When the New York Times reported the story on Monday, the fact that “the gunman had been looking for his girlfriend” was tossed in as a one-phrase aside.

Jill at Feministe was the first (that I saw) to note that “While I’m sure this will be reported as ‘another crazy guy shoots up a school,’ it’s worth noting the theme of misogyny that permeates so many of these shootings,” such as the killings of girls during the Amish school shooting in October, 2006, the Platte Canyon high school shooting in September, 2006 (in which several girls were sexually assaulted and their female teacher shot in the head) and the Montreal Massacre of 1989 (in which a man opened fire after telling a group of female students, “You’re women, you’re going to be engineers. You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.”).

To that list I’d also add the 1998 Jonesboro school shooting, which no one seems to remember — perhaps because it was only girls and women who were killed, unlike the co-ed victims of the much-covered, never-forgottenColumbine shooting — see the bottom of this post for the text of an article I wrote about the case in 1998 for Sojourner: The Women’s Forum.

As it stands, CNN and other news outlets are starting to report that the Virginia Tech murderer, Cho Seung-Hui, had stalked women on the campus, that a female teacher had suggested him for counseling, thinking he might be emotionally disturbed or violent… and that campus police hadn’t acted quickly enough to prevent Cho’s second round of shootings because they believed it was just “a domestic” case. (Just?!)

“Just a domestic case” — that’s the same dismissive reaction that has all too often accompanied major — even fatal — violence against women in this country.

But as news is trickling out about Cho having stalked and terrorized women on his campus well before the shooting, few outlets are explicitly naming misogyny as a root cause of so many of these devastating school shootings, instead wondering ad nauseum, “What was his motivation?”

If it’s bad enough that media aren’t connecting the sexist dots, what’s worse is the abysmal victim-blaming that has started to pop up, as Lucinda Marshall noted on this blog yesterday. The most blatantly unethical reporting I’ve seen on this crime to date comes from the Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph, which ran a story headlined, “Was gunman crazed over Emily?” over a picture of the young woman who was the first to be killed by Cho. The lead sentence, printed in bold and with the first word capitalized, read:

“THIS is the face of the girl who may have sparked the worst school shooting in US history.”

The UK Metro ran a story with an almost identical lead:
“This is the face of the teenage student who may have sparked the biggest gun massacre in US history.”

It’s beyond inappropriate to suggest that the young murdered woman “sparked” the massacre — the guilt of which rests on the shooter himself, with a little bit of culpability leftover for the campus police that failed to act quickly enough to protect the dozens of students and staff from Cho’s rampage after his initial two killings, and whomever didn’t take seriously enough his stalking of female students and his teacher’s warning that this was a disturbed individual with potential for violent behavior.

Journalists could be doing a real service to the culture by focusing on the often-gendered nature of mass violence in America, and by seeking out anti-violence experts who could contextualize these crimes and could offer solutions and strategies for eradicating (or, at least, reducing) this kind of grave violence.

Unfortunately, this is not happening — despite nine years of advanced warning. Which brings me back to the Jonesboro school shooting, which took place in March of 1998. I wrote about media missing the story back then. I am beyond disgusted and disheartened that news media haven’t progressed in their understanding, or improved their coverage, since then. The following article ran in Sojourner: The Women’s Forum on May 31, 1998.

JONESBORO: SEXISM KILLS GIRLS
Sojourner: The Women’s Forum
May 31, 1998
By Jennifer L. Pozner

I must warn you: this will not be a fun read. There is no way
to weave humor into an analysis of the slaughter of four elementary
school girls and one of their female teachers by two boys, ages 13
and 11, in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

By now most of us have heard the disturbing details. A few
days before the shootings, the older of the two boys, Mitchell
Johnson, was angry at being “dumped” from a three-day “romance” by
eleven-year-old Candace Porter. (Candace told the Jonesboro Sun
that she broke up with Johnson because “I thought he was nice and
then I found out he was trouble.”) Shortly before the March 24
murders, Johnson reportedly told classmates that they’d soon find
out if they were going to live or die. “He said, ‘nobody’s going to
break up with me,’” one female student told reporters. Johnson and
his younger friend, Andrew Golden, calculated every step of their
crimes — from stealing a semiautomatic Remington .30-06 hunting
rifle from a family member, to staking out their all-female prey,
to hiding in wait as the girls exited their small Southern school
during a fire drill.

In response to the Jonesboro massacre, dozens of feminists
sent an outpouring of commentaries to the editors of major news
venues throughout the country, urging the media to acknowledge the
Jonesboro snipeas as having committed hate crimes against girls,
and calling for a nation wide citizen education campaign on dating
violence prevention. Unfortunately, their critiques rarely
influenced public opinion… because they never made k to print.
Instead, most editors limited their op-ed and letters sections to
a torrent of “why, oh why?” articles from teachers, parents and
politicians attempting to assign blame to video games, firearms,
the breakdown of the traditional American family, and “the
pressures of young love.”

The majority of journalists covering this travesty have
beaten their collective breasts about the tragic nature of kids
killing kids, scurrying past the obvious in an attempt to give
meaning to the event. Analyzing the motivations of the perpetrators
will not bring these vibrant girls, or their teacher, back to their
families — but an understanding of what led to the boys’ brutality
is crucial if we are committed to preventing similar crimes. So,
let’s be straight about this: Jonesboro was not only — perhaps not
even primarily — an example of children killing children. This was
boys killing girls. And while mass assassination may not erupt on
our television screens so graphically every afternoon, the murder
of these girls fits a larger pattern that we ignore, obscure or, at
best, pay lip service to in sensationalized made-for-TV movies.

Jonesboro’s mayor has been quoted as saying, “If anyone had
had any reason to believe something like this was possible, they
would have prevented it.” But as David Vest, a counselor to men who
batter, writes in an editorial that ran in the Houston Chronicle
and the Huntsville (Ala) Times, “The sad truth is, we had every
reason to believe that ’something like this’ could happen. It has
happened many times this year in America, and it’s barely
springtime.” In the Christian Science Monitor’s “Pondering
Jonesboro: Consider Gender,” sociology professor Kersti Yllo
writes, “This case is extreme, not aberrant. According to the FBI,
ten women a day are murdered by their boyfriends, husbands or
ex-husbands. The Jonesboro boys are not alone in taking deadly
revenge against the females in their lives.”

In rare articles addressing the true underlying causes of
these murders — the targeting of girls for revenge by boys who
felt jilted — Vest and Yllo bring into focus what the mainstream
press has largely left unsaid: unless we alter our culturally
condoned, boys-will-be-boys / boys-will-own-girls attitudes, we are
placing not only our daughters but our sons, and ourselves, in
extreme jeopardy.

“We have every reason to believe that it will happen again,”
Vest argues. “The boys who methodically gunned down those girls and
those women were only acting out their own version of an all-too
frequent story in America. The only difference is that they were a
little bit younger….”

Jonesboro represents the worst of our potential both as
individuals and as the “village” that raises its children through
sexist soundbites, Schwarzenegger films, and patterned “gender
appropriate” behavior of male aggression and female subordination.

It may be tempting to echo the gender-blind soliloquy of the
mainstream press and say that “there are no words” to describe the
horror of children killing children. But I know better. So do the
many anti-violence advocates whose clarifying perspectives on
Jonesboro were relegated to the Internet — accessible only to
members of discussion groups such as Women Leaders Online, or news
consumers savvy enough to search the World Wide Web for feminist
interpretations of current events.

Push beyond the bliss of willful ignorance, and the answers
we need appear with frightening clarity. There are words to
describe the horror. Misogyny. Hate crimes. Dating abuse. Male
entitlement. And, finally, femicide.

Within days of the murders, Title IX Advocates joined the
Sonoma (California) County Women Against Rape in organizing a
grassroots demonstration — themed “Sexism Kills Girls” — to draw
connections between Jonesboro and similar mass murders or tapes of
girls and women from Canada to Kenya to Chiapas, Mexico. Outraged
at the gender-blind press coverage, these activists took public
education into their own hands. The protesters gathered at the site
where the body of Georgia Moses was found (12-year-old Moses was
kidnapped, raped and murdered last summer in a yet-unsolved crime).
They distributed leaflets to passersby, which read in part: “In
Sonoma County since mid-January, Women Against Rape has 15 new
cases of schoolgirls who have been forcibly raped… and almost
always with threats to kill. About a third of these rapes were done
by schoolboys who were angry with their girlfriends.”

It’s also worth noting that, according to the New York Times,
Mitchell Johnson was sexually molested at six and seven years of
age. Did that mean he was destined to become violent? Not
necessarily. Does it mean this boy learned the power of fear and
anger before he learned algebra? Count on it. The Times also
reports that Johnson was charged with molesting a two- or
three-year old girl last summer. In his young life, Mitchell
Johnson seems to have progressed from victim to perpetrator, an
illustration of what can happen when the cycle of violence
continues unchecked.

The best way to honor the girls and teacher who died in
Jonesboro is to take the steps necessary to prevent the targeting
of girls and women for violence. On a legislative level, that means
pressuring Congress to ratify an amendment, introduced in November
by Senator Kennedy and others, which would include gender in
federal hate crime laws. On a political level, it means following
the example of Title IX Advocates and the Sonoma County Women
Against Rape in pressuring the news media to place cases such as
Jonesboro in their proper (if frightening) cultural context. We
need to launch educational campaigns that challenge the notion that
male violence is an “understandable” response to female rejection.

And when we identify sexism, we need to name it. To activists
who’ve talked about the importance of breaking silence about
domestic and sexual violence for years, this seems redundant. But
in the wake of the senseless yet horribly predictable Jonesboro
slayings, it’s more obvious than ever- Sexism kills girls.

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