“Consider your man card reissued,” read the ad for the Bushmaster 15, the assault rifle Adam Lanza used in the Sandy Hook massacre.
A woman wielding a 12-gauge, then, should seem a threat to men’s sole proprietorship of stereotypical manhood. She should turn men’s insecurity sensors on and turn men off. Instead, though, she seems to do just the opposite.
That’s because there’s a very specific model of girl with a gun that men appreciate. It’s a model that has dominated for decades, and it’s a model that Butina managed to adapt to the conservative movement. Most of all, it’s a model that doesn’t clash with cultural conceptions of manhood.
Jean-Luc Godard famously said as far back as the ’60s that “all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun,” though Godard protested it was D.W. Griffith who deserved credit. Whoever it was, he would put his finger on it, and filmmakers would pull the trigger again and again. Men like girls, and men like guns. The trick was to combine them in a way that made clear that the show — girls, guns and all — was still for men.
Sometimes, the girls weren’t actually holding the guns; they were holding onto gun-toting men instead. Other times, they did hold the guns, but the way they did it catered to men all the same: Either the girl with the gun was the femme fatale, put in her place when the man vanquished her, or she was an accessory to the man on-screen — just like the gun.
The man off-screen mattered, too: These girls weren’t there just to shoot their guns. They were there to be looked at while they did it. Even in recent years, “Wonder Woman” (though its protagonist fights with a Lasso of Truth, not an AR-15) set off a feminist back–and–forth about whether the film, for all its messages of female self-sufficiency, played up Gal Gadot’s sexiness for mass-market appeal.
These same themes run through the arena of the American gun nut. On a site such as Barstool, whose whole shtick is a chauvinism-as-business model, men with guns are clad in layers of combat gear and look ready to fight, while women with guns wear far less and look ready to do something else altogether. Google “woman with gun,” and you get a pastiche of provocative poses. Google “man with gun,” and you get, well, a man with a gun.
Pornography sites host sections devoted to girls with guns. Instagram accounts attracting hundreds of thousands of followers feature women who raise their shirts just enough to reveal flat stomachs with compact firearms sticking up suggestively from the waistlines of their pants. There’s even a whole genre of videos of scantily clad rifle-shooting women filmed from behind to capture the recoil rippling through their buttocks.
The man is still the one in control, even if the woman has a weapon. The girl’s got a gun, yet she’s still a sexual object to the man. Her fascination with guns exists only to complement his fascination with them, and with her.
The men of the National Rifle Association are a different audience than the younger, brasher Barstool crowd. But they were drawn to a girl with a gun for similar reasons. Those who came into Butina’s crosshairs didn’t find her compelling because she knew how to lock and load. They found her compelling because as interested as she was in guns, she was also interested in them.
“She had an extra button or three unbuttoned,” said one female activist who dined with her. A handful of additional descriptions include the word “flirtatious.” Her Instagram also showed that she exercised and cooked, and it included overtures to men whose hearts had “been broken.” She had gun photos, too. She was baring less skin in them than your typical gorgeous gun girl, but then again, she was going after the Republican notables, not bros on the Internet.
Women in the real world, of course, don’t carry firearms to fulfill male fantasies. Most of them say they do it for self-defense, and it follows that the people they’re defending against are actually creepy guys. Butina said her interest in guns started with shooting bears in Siberia — and it allegedly continued, at least in part, as a strategy to collect intelligence for Russia. But it turns out men don’t really care why a girl has a gun. They just care how she looks when she holds it.