by Alanah Mortlock

On the 27 September 2023, a 15-year-old girl – a child – was fatally stabbed on her way to school. A 17-year-old boy believed to be the one who killed her has been taken into custody, charged with her murder on the 29 September 2023. This happened in Croydon, on Wellesley Road just outside the Whitgift shopping centre. The argument started on the number 60 bus, spilling out onto the pavement where the stabbing occurred, and where the girl died before her family could reach her. The bus was still there the next morning when I walked past on my regular route to the Whitgift centre to shop for groceries. I was not surprised – it is the crime scene of a homicide investigation – but it was shocking nonetheless. Devastating. People walk past, the trams keep running, the shopping centre is still open, and the bus stands there surrounded by police tape and police officers and a horrible expanse of untraversable space, all stopped in time.

It was first reported that the boy attacked the girl because she rejected his romantic advances; he bought her flowers and wrote her a love letter, but she refused both and in response he stabbed her multiple times in the neck and chest. The following day, it was clarified that the girl (a young Black woman named Elianne Andam) was not the intended recipient of the flowers, not the ex-girlfriend the boy wanted to reclaim: Elianne was her friend. Elianne was killed as she intervened to protect her friend from an ex-boyfriend. I do not know if the boy intended to stab his ex-girlfriend for rejecting him, or whether he intentionally stabbed Elianne for protecting her, or whether in that moment he stabbed without knowing why or who he hurt. What is clear is that a teenage girl saw a boy who wanted to harm her friend for saying no and stepped in to protect her. And now she is dead at the hands of that boy.

Photograph by author, 28/09/2023

On the day of the killing, I attended the start-of-the-year lecture on gender theories given by my colleague Dr Aiko Holvikivi, in which she introduced the students to a favourite saying in our Gender Studies department: “theory saves lives”. She spoke specifically about how gender theory can save lives, which is to say how working to understand what gender is, why it operates as it does, and the effects and implications of how gender circulates can change the way people live, or the ways they are able to live, which also means the ways they are able to not die. I believe this is true structurally, politically, economically, personally, and relationally. That evening when I commuted home to East Croydon station, less than five minutes’ walk from where the incident happened, I thought about how our theory was not there to save Elianne’s life. And how a different kind of gender theory had taken her life.

My claim of “a different kind of gender theory” might be hard to parse. Anti-gender propaganda has reduced the common meaning of “gender theory” to describe the idea that gender is a construct, and thus can be deconstructed; this is helpful to anti-gender activists, who believe theorising gender is dangerous, radical, and possibly evil because it challenges the immutability of binary, biological sex. This is important: “gender theory” is a threat because it is a way of thinking that denies the natural order – biological sex – which, for them, is not a theory because it is a fact. But if a theory is an attempt to explain a (social or material) phenomenon using a set of internally coherent concepts, then any definition or belief about men and women, masculinity and femininity, can be thought of as a theory of gender. The occurrence of femicide in which the motive is the inability of a man to withstand the rejection of a woman can then be understood as a problem in the theory of gender he used to make sense of their interaction, and both his and her (gendered) roles in it.

In the kind of Twitter (or “X”) bubble I am exposed to, attempts to understand what had happened quickly turned to the rise of online incel culture amongst young men, and an increase in associated offline violence. While this phenomenon is no doubt concerning – and with so little context for the incident yet available, it is not my intention to deny its role in this case – I fear that so quickly placing the blame solely on a “fringe” culture risks eliding more deeply embedded and pervasive structural and cultural factors that perpetuate gendered violence. As said by my former colleague Dr Hannah Wright on Twitter:

The murder of a 15 year old girl in Croydon is just heartbreaking. I’ve seen a few tweets attributing it to incel ideology, but 2 women a week are murdered by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales and I don’t think their killers are all incels.

The truth is that incel ideology is not as far removed from mainstream patriarchal culture as we often like to think and the idea that a man can possess a woman such that she’s not allowed to leave him is far older and more deeply ingrained.

By relegating this act of gendered violence to a social fringe, it bypasses the need for more holistic interrogation of the gendered social environment we all inhabit. I would argue this is because of an unwillingness to understand patriarchy, also, as a theory of gender – as an attempt to explain what genders are, what roles and behaviours characterise particular genders, what their implications ought to be, and how gendered subjects ought to interact with the world and each other. Which may seem illogical, given the mainstreaming of conversations about “patriarchy” as a system of power and inequality, but I would argue that this is not the same as understanding it as a theorisation of how gender exists and operates. The latter requires the dematerialisation of gender, because an understanding of patriarchy as a theory of gender means that gender (or sexual difference) is not natural; it is the result of a set of ideas, values, codes, and behaviours that result in the creation of unequal gendered subject positions. Seeing it as a theory makes normative genders ideological. The refusal to acknowledge this is what facilitates the perpetuation of the theoretical hegemony, which is to say enables patriarchy’s violent theorisation of gender to structure our social environment while invisibilising its effects.

It has become easy in mainstream socio-political discourses – because it is beneficial to those in positions of hegemonic power – to think of “gender theories” only as ideologically-oriented extreme positions: Gender Theory as a radical attack on women, the family, and heterosexuality; incel ideology as a reactionary attack on (acceptable) women’s liberation gains. The “gender theory” is something that disrupts, something that offers a “different” way of thinking about gender; different from the way gender “really” is. For that reason, it has become dangerous to talk about “gender theory” and theories of gender; they are ideological, and they threaten to radicalise those who are exposed to them. But patriarchy is hegemonic, and this is what makes it so uncomfortable to identify as a gender theory; it describes the naturalised – which is to say, the given as fact-not-theory – system of gender. But this elides that patriarchy is an ideology that makes concrete unequal gendered differences and relationality, one that continues to unfurl fatal violence against women and other minoritised gendered subjects. That means the refusal to engage with the idea that gender is not natural – and our social reality is structured not just by gendered power but also by artificial theorisations of gender – is actively facilitating patriarchal cultures of violence. This occurs in the refusal to treat “mainstream” ideas about gender as unnatural and possible to change; in the way that critique of “mainstream” gender becomes that which is radical and dangerous.

When I walked through the Whitgift centre the morning after the attack, I looked at the people around me and wondered if they, too, were shaken by the terrible implications of what had happened just the other side of the centre’s walls. I expected it to be somehow changed – for there to be a tangible difference in how the passing shoppers were interacting with each other and me – which was maybe naïve, but I prefer to think it was hopeful. I was hoping that this act of gendered violence might enable some reflection on the ways theories of gender are endemic to social reality, and how the hegemonic one we are given is failing us. How it is killing some of us. I thought, also, about the 17-year-old boy – another child – who too has been so terribly let down by the theories of gender made available to him. By his understandings of what a man is, and what a girl should be. I wonder how he will live the rest of his life with the knowledge of what he has done, whether at any stage he will be provided with the tools and support to understand how he came to play his role in what happened. If the boy they have charged is found to be responsible for Elianne’s death, it is likely he will spend time incarcerated (although it is unlikely he will face trial as an adult under UK law). I wonder if anything will change because he is arrested, possibly imprisoned. I wonder if his incarceration – should he be convicted – will heal Elianne’s family, or her friends, or the Croydon community. Whether he will become an “example” that discourages the next potential perpetrator of femicide from killing when faced with a similar threat to his understanding of his own masculinity. To me, this feels less hopeful.

I believe that theory can save lives, and I believe the denial of the multiplicity of ways to theorise gender is ruining lives. As we grieve the loss of another young woman (a Black girl) at the hands of another man (a boy), I hope her death is not dismissed as an individual act of violence or as driven by a radical fringe ideology. Patriarchal theorisations of gender are the heart of this lethal problem, and only embracing theories of gender that liberate rather than tame us will allow us to become free.

Alanah Mortlock is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Gender Studies, London School of Economics and Political Sciences. Her current research looks at how discourses of “transracialism” interact with theorisations of Blackness, and her broader interests include Black feminisms; theories of Blackness; mixed-raceness and racial ambiguity; trans theory.