Portrait of a Killer

Remembering one of Montreal’s darkest days through a photograph

His hair is untidy, his beard overgrown, and his eyes glossy brown, gazing back at us from the tiny frame of the photograph. Smiling wide, his lips stretch from one side of his face to the other, bracketed by a pair of curving dimples. White lace curtains hang in the background behind him, brushing against the black fabric of his crewneck tee. By conventional standards of beauty, you might even be inclined to call him handsome. At a glance, the image seems unremarkably average, just another thumbnail to be lost within the internet’s ever-expanding archives of profile pics and selfies. Or at least, it would be easy to see it that way. That is, if you didn’t know you were looking at the face of a mass murderer.

On December 6th 1989, Marc Lépine killed fourteen women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. Today marks 27 years since the tragedy, but the mere mention of the shooting still conjures feelings of gut-wrenching sadness in Montrealers. To this day, Lépine’s portrait continues to haunt the nightmares of the city.

In the press coverage of the event, a pair of alliterative buzzwords would christen it with a memorable title: the Montreal Massacre, they called it. Though, if the dictionary describes massacre as “an indiscriminate slaughter,” then this tragedy was anything but. Marc Lépine meticulously separated male and female students from one another, determined to murder only the women enrolled in this school of engineering. “Feminists have always enraged me,” he writes in his suicide letter, a document that was found crumpled with a list of nineteen names and telephone numbers, each one belonging to one of the women he intended to murder. Indiscriminate slaughter? Hate crimes never are.

In the days following the attack, his photograph might have been printed a million times. There it is, on the cover of The Toronto Star, bound within the columns of The New York Times, buried in the pages of The Montreal Gazette. Always, he is the “Montreal Gunman,” a criminal guilty of murder in its most abhorrent form. In print, his expression is mottled by dark ink and pressed into thin grey paper. He stares back at the reader with that same penetrating gaze, as if his look came from beyond the grave. A black and white spectre, he seems more like a monster than a man.

In a New York Times article published two days after the shooting, one journalist describes him as “a 25-year-old loner,” someone who was repeatedly frustrated by “relationships of the heart.” Canadian reporters sketch him in a similar light, providing descriptions of “an abused child known as an introverted quitter who browsed gun shops and loved war movies.” Again and again, the press reduces this murderer’s life story to a few swift sentences. Temperament: antisocial. Girlfriends: none. Childhood: abusive. Probably, commentators today would fixate upon his Algerian heritage too, adding “radical Islamic fundamentalism” to this long list of vices. But within the newspapers of 1989, Marc Lépine’s smiling portrait sinks beneath a discourse of antisocial criminality, absorbing the semiotic weight of qualifying words like “strange,” “angry,” and “detached.”

His inner monstrosity seems legible from the surface of the image itself, and back in 1989, this photograph was a signifier for Lépine’s unforgivable sins, printed and reprinted as news of the shooting spread across the globe.

But today, over a quarter-century later, the very same image absorbs a whole new range of troubling associations, circulating within the forums of men’s rights websites online. There, it is uploaded as a symbol for one man’s victimization at the hands of so-called “feminazis,” reimagining Marc Lépine as a martyr, some kind of perverted hero figure who took a stand against misandry. Within these male-dominated digital spaces, mentions of the fourteen women that Lépine murdered are nowhere to be found — and it is to them that I dedicate this exploration of gendered violence, internet extremism, and the visual culture of crime.

In the fringes of the internet, Lépine is regarded not as a cold-blooded killer, but as an activist for men’s rights instead. While the users of these websites might claim the title of “activist,” for the most part, their discussions involve hate speech, sexism, and violence against women, all in the name of combatting feminism. Within these male-dominated online spaces, “political activism” masquerades as the most appalling form of misogyny imaginable — and Marc Lépine’s image is uploaded all too often, repurposed as a symbol for the male liberation movement.

Take, for example, The World According to Bob, a blog dedicated to defending “the basic human rights of men.” On December 6th 2009, exactly twenty years after the Polytechnique shooting, it featured a post celebrating “International Marc Lépine Day.” The shooter’s photograph hangs below the opening paragraph, this time in full colour, with his scruffy smile, wide eyes, and boyish looks on full display. He seems more like an angst-ridden young man than a mass murderer. “Every year, every month, every day, every hour, men are driven to suicide by the evil feminazi hate machine,” Bob writes, proceeding to celebrate Marc Lépine as a folk hero who was “oppressed and abused by feminist hate.”

I seek out Lépine’s image, following the leads into the underworld of the internet. On marclepine.blogspot.ca, he is hailed as “the man who won the gender war,” and his photograph resides above an entry that assigns him the title of “freedom fighter.” Later, in the forums of anti-misandry.com, I read the accusations of one user who blames “hate from cruel feminists” as the reason for Lépine’s killings. In a thread filled with hate speech and curse words, this remark is among the least offensive. An entire article in Encyclopedia Dramatica is dedicated to Lépine, where he is glorified for “setting out for the high score by killing 14 filthy marxist feminist whores.” The principles upheld within these digital spaces are embarrassingly retrograde, if not completely delusional. Imagining Marc Lépine as a political activist, these websites expose the dark side of the internet’s participatory culture, revealing the noxious form of misogyny that pollutes much online discussion.

Still, I can’t help but wonder: what level of ignorance is required on the part of the reader to take these posts seriously? Again and again, that same recognizable portrait of Lépine adorns these digital spaces, as if his image validated the far-fetched version of history inscribed within the text. Cut, copied, and pasted from its original context, the photograph is stripped of its traditional associations, deployed instead as a symbol for the violent reclamation of masculine power. It forms the fabric of false histories and misogynistic fantasies.

The meaning of Marc Lépine’s image is malleable, open to divergent applications and interpretations. Regarded as both criminal mugshot and commemorative photograph, his portrait is a site of tension, one that marks the collision between contradicting perceptions of gender, violence, and tragedy. After all, photographic objectivity is an aesthetic of ambivalence, and the more Marc Lépine’s image circulates online, the more it threatens to normalize violence against women, upholding the out-of-date tenets of the patriarchy in the process.

Today, as we commemorate the 27th anniversary of the Polytechnique Shooting, remember to look twice at that recognizable photograph of Marc Lépine. What you see when you look into those wide staring eyes, that much remains up to you.

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