From Cowboys to Commandos

Tufts Now All Stories

If you feel as if there’s been an uptick in the frequency and lethality of mass shootings in recent years, you’re not imagining it. The time between mass shootings (involving four or more casualties) in the U.S. has been shrinking since the 1990s, and the death rate in these massacres has almost tripled since 2000.And if it also seems that reports of sexual assault on the part of celebrities, politicians, and journalists are coming in almost daily, you are, once again, not mistaken. It is probably not coincidental that the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network reports “a record number of survivors [who] turned to RAINN for help,” with a 26 percent increase in hotline traffic in November alone.
No, I’m not equating sexual assault and mass murder. But as a psychiatrist, I think there is an indirect connection between the rising rates of each. To understand why, we need to explore the shifting media role models to which young American males have been exposed since the 1950s and ‘60s. As sociologist Daniel Rios Pineda has observed, the influence of the mass media begins at a very early age. Based on my own cultural observations, I believe that the emergence of a more violent male “archetype” in the media has been internalized by many young men, and may be one factor contributing to increased sexual and gun-related violence.
The Cowboy’s Code
Once upon a time, the archetype of the cowboy stood tall in the American male psyche. Growing up in the 1950s, my friends and I had plenty of admirable cowboy role models, drawn from TV Westerns like Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Broadly speaking, the heroes of these shows were decent, honorable, and law-abiding individuals, trying to survive in dangerous times. Early TV Westerns aimed to teach the values of …

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