As details emerge from the shooting that killed 10 last week in Santa Fe High school, the first indication of the potential motive of the shooter, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, has been unveiled and has incited a sickening sense of déjà vu. Shana Fisher, who has turned 16 just days before she was shot dead in the attack, had been rebuffing the romantic advances of Pagourtzis for four months, according to her mother, Sadie Rodriguez.
“He continued to get more aggressive,” Rodriguez said in an interview with The Associated Press. “She finally stood up to him and embarrassed him.
"He kept making advances on her and she repeatedly told him no.” Their exchanges culminated in turning him down publically in front of peers and, as her mother describes it, “embarrassing him”.
"A week later, he opens fire on everyone he didn't like," Rodriguez said, "Shana being the first one."
Men’s inability to process rejection is a tale as old as time. As the chillingly prescient adage by Margaret Atwood says, "Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them." It’s fascinating that it’s apparently a “woman scorned” that hell hath no fury like, when it’s men who are so terrifying when spurned.
I spent the best part of my teenage years honing the skill of conjuring convincing fake names and numbers when approached by men I didn’t know or owe anything to on the street, because simply saying I wasn’t interested didn’t feel like a viable option. I still remember the very creeping fear of if they decided to “test” me by ringing the number on the spot and would realise I had been lying. They won’t take it as a sign to back off, I thought. They’ll get angry.
‘If at first you don't succeed, try, try again’ is an idiom applicable to school work or football matches... not the feelings of human beings
While scenarios such as this are as widely accepted as they are concerning, they don’t stem from nowhere. We have to ask ourselves whether this type of behaviour – persistence to the point of pressuring – is something we actively attempt to eradicate or encourage as a society. Twitter user @adigoesswimming brought this into question, sharing an anecdote about how her nephew has been taught to deal with romantic rejection:
“My teenage nephew told me he asked a girl out and she turned him down,” she wrote. “I said, ‘You know what to do now, right?’ He said, ‘I know, I know keep trying’ and I said ‘NO. LEAVE HER ALONE. She gave you an answer.’ He was shocked. NO ONE had told him that before. TEACH. YOUR. BOYS.”
Too often, boys are raised with the idea that unrequited love is simply a wrong that must be righted, an error in judgement that consistent pressure will one day transform. It is a belief propagated by film and family members, and yet we balk at the seemingly endless string of stories that end in men taking the lives of women when their forcefulness doesn’t yield results. “If at first you don't succeed, try, try again” is an idiom applicable to school work, football matches and several other daunting or difficult tasks, not the feelings of human beings. The competitive nature we instill in boys bleeds into everyday interactions, as little effort is made to discern healthy boundaries and encourage the processing of rejection. Everything is a bid to “win over” or “win back” an unwilling party, like a living trophy. When women are deemed objects, instead of autonomous beings with wants of their own, the lines become blurred.
“The cause of confusion is obvious,” Twitter user @chris_csernica chimed in. “In most every other area we encourage persistence in the face of failure. And in most every other area, this is correct. The difference is that another person's affections must be freely given and not some kind of reward for one's efforts.”
While girls are taught to find peace in the fact there are plenty more fish in the sea, men are taught to relentlessly rock up to the same spot in the pond, reeling their in-and-out rod until the same fish that clearly has no interest in biting is caught. Even women are at times brainwashed into believing that a man who is not willing to border on criminal activity to woo you perhaps simply “isn’t that into you” – an undue level of persistence is often seen as a marker of interest. A man on Twitter once regaled users by recounting the story of when he had called every number in the Yellow Pages under the name of a woman he hoped to track down after their brief conversation with in a bar. The response was 50 per cent swoons, 50 per cent turning stomachs. Since we are just beginning to discuss and dissect sexual consent with young men, surely it’s time this extended to the interactions that precursor it?
While girls are taught to find peace in the fact there are plenty more fish in the sea, men are taught to relentlessly rock up to the same spot in the pond, reeling their in-and-out rod until the same fish that clearly has no interest in biting is caught
The idea of harassment being “romantic” behaviour is unhelpfully corroborated by the media, in which men are rewarded for their incessant trying with love and sex from previously uninterested women. Look at cult classics such as Say Anything, where the “lovesick” protagonist Lloyd Dobler stalks his love interest pretty much for the entirety of the film, even post-break-up, where stands outside her bedroom playing the song they lost their virginity to on a boombox. Luke Howard, a musician who vowed to never stop playing his piano on College Green in Bristol until his ex-girlfriend spoke to him, probably thought he’d be met with the same gushing response as our favourite leading men.
Or take There’s Something About Mary, where we actively rooted for Ted who went as far as to hiring a private investigator to find her. Or Mark in Love Actually who set heart breakings across the world as his feelings for Juliet were revealed in the wedding footage he shot, comprised solely of creepy close-ups of her face.
Then, there is how this behaviour is talked about by both people and the press. This year, The Sun came under fire for referring to a man who had scaled the house of his ex-girlfriend as “lovesick”, in a now-deleted tweet. The updated headline now reads “Obsessed Domino’s delivery driver camped on his ex-girlfriend’s roof after she dumped him”. Similarly, The Mirror saw it fit to describe a man who turned up at his ex's house wrapped in firecrackers threatening to blow himself up as “heartbroken”, as opposed to dangerous.
At the core of these cases, however big or small, is the belief women and our affection is something that, if can’t be earned, is owed. The trail of men who kill because of real or imagined spurned advances – from Alek Minassian who killed 10 people by driving a van down a busy street in Toronto to Elliot Rodger who killed six in a shooting spree in California – leads firmly to entitlement. And if we leave films and the press to do the talking to our boys instead of ourselves, it’s an issue that is going nowhere fast.