Conflicting ideologies, converging identities: the masculinity-disability dilemma

28 Apr

Source: Wiki Media Commons

It’s been documented by both gender and disability scholars (see: Shuttleworth et al; Shuttleworth; Shakespeare; Gerschick and Miller) that masculinity and disability ideology conflict. To be clear, by disability ideology, I mean the medical view which pathologizes disability as a curative illness or defect of person and considers permanent or chronic limitations to function as misfortune and abnormality. Disability, in this view, is associated with fragile bodies and weak minds and persons with disabilities are assumed to be helpless and dependent. This should be distinguished from the social model which defines disability as a social-historical construction that is, at its core, grounded in fear and misunderstanding of difference, and becomes justification for ongoing material as well as attitudinal barriers to persons with impairments. Despite this being the dominant view held by the disability community at-large the medical model has permeated popular discourse and practice leading some scholars (see: Couser; Murphy; Mairs) to believe that disability, in this view, has the power to trump other identities like gender. In-effect, disability is assigned the position of Other and masculinity, autonomous, able-bodied, and strong-minded, is it’s opposite. Thus it follows, men with disabilities are perhaps confronted by an ultimate contradiction in status which beg important questions about subjectivity, the self and identity expression. My PhD dissertation (though in the early stages) explores these ideas from the perspective of blindness. This blog is the first of a two-part piece based on an interview I had with Will Reilly*, a young blind man living in NYC. Part one will focus on masculinity and disability and part two will introduce the significance of visual impairment, gender and contemporary (visual) culture.

Conceptually speaking, the common definitions of masculinity and disability are like oil and water and as such, in practice, each tends to assume something different about the person: disability as limited to the other and masculinity as proof of the self. Will and I talked about this, specifically how he manages masculine norms and expectations and negative stereotypes associated with the medical view of disability. The subject of independence came up. We spoke about everyday activities like getting from A to B, eating, reading and how such activities become even more about agency in the absence of being permitted to do them with ease and indifference, that is, without question. Independence runs deep in our culture and it generally takes a linear path. Needing help, getting it or asking for it least of all with things that most of us have the luxury of just doing signals a lack of independence which isn’t very manly or American for that matter. Men are generally assumed to be unshakeable, unencumbered agents that move through life knowingly and with purpose. American men, in particular, put the individual in individualism and the Self in self-determination. For Will, recognizing the necessity for help, as a man, has been something of a lesson in acceptance that he has come to regard, in his words, with graciousness and gratitude. Still, managing the material needs of impairment and broad assumptions made about disability is a balancing act made trickier by masculinity’s expectations. Indeed, impairment might well necessitate the need for help. However, disability when framed as dependent, as is most often the case, potentially rules out the option of one to act freely without it. Of course, and it probably goes without saying, thinking about people with disabilities as independent agents wouldn’t be a foreign or questionable concept within a more sophisticated social context.

Mainstream ideology isn’t a true reflection of the diversity and nuance of the people, places and things it’s said to represent. Disability certainly doesn’t amount to a conceptual model of tragedy, weakness or abnormality and masculinity can’t be reduced to a small set of defining traits. Nonetheless, common views are still significant to how people conduct themselves and live their lives whether they align with these views to various degrees or look for ways around them. To be sure, we’re all more socially aware, politically knowledgeable and culturally clued-in but abstract wisdom is always a little slower to catch up on the ground because of the oppressive apparatus of established world-views. As a disability activist and scholar with an interest in gender Will has an informed understanding of how all this works. He began losing his sight during adolescence and adjusting to full sight loss by eighteen. He explained how blindness prevented him from taking the kinds of risks that a lot of men take during their formative years. Having to adjust to impairment and the social experiences of disability as a young person he believes has been instrumental to who he’s become as a man, someone who’s more sensitive, gentle and quiet. It’s clear that Will’s a confident guy who values himself; he’s well-educated, successful in his work and active socially. Yet like a lot of young men, he’s still confronted with the pull of masculinity’s expectations. In his words, ‘…being sensitive as a man, in theory, is nice but it doesn’t pan out in real life…they [women] want a strong man, a charismatic, adventurous man that will stand up for what’s right’.

The common understanding of disability complicates this even further. He goes onto say, a man is someone who’s respected, takes charge and protects not someone who’s treated like an infant or regarded as fragile. The discrepancies between masculinity and disability are quite prominent for Will in what he considers moments of conflict. It’s in these moments when personal insecurities and social expectations come head-to-head. He gave me an example of a time when at a social event another man inappropriately crossed a boundary necessitating a verbal confrontation. Despite that he spoke up for himself, and I would argue-took charge of the situation, Will said he felt like less of a man because he didn’t or couldn’t react in the expected way. When I asked him what the expected way was, he said ‘…most men would have punched him in the face…part of me was disappointed that I couldn’t be a man in that way…assert myself…part of me felt like I’m not being a man, not doing what I’m supposed to’. When I then asked if he really believed that most men, if in the same situation, would choose a physical confrontation over a verbal one he answered, ‘my perception is that they would’. This is just one example of how ideologies and identities converge and often conflict. With regard to masculinity and disability specifically, much of what is known is at an abstract level with less empirical knowledge of how men with disabilities self-identity within the context of certain ideological truths. This means that there’s still many questions to be asked and much to be learned.

*Names have been changed for purposes of anonymity

Further reading:

Couser, G.T. (2006) Disability, Life Narrative, and Representation, in: Davis, L.J. (Ed), The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd Edition. Routledge: New York, pp. 399–401.

Gerschick, T.J., and Miller, A.S. (1995) Coming To Terms: Masculinity and Physical Disability, in: Kimmel, M.S., and Messner, M.A. (Eds), Men’s Lives. Macmillan: New York, pp. 262–275.

Gerschick, T.J. and Miller, A.S. (1997) Gender Identities At The Crossroads of Masculinity and Physical Disability, in: Gergen, M.M. and Davis, S.N. (Eds), Toward a New Psychology of Gender: A Reader. Routledge: New York, pp. 455–478.

Mairs, N. (1997) Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Non-disabled. Beacon Press: Boston.

Murphy, R.F. (2005) The Body Silent: The Different World of the Disabled. W. W. Norton & Company: New York

Shakespeare, T. (1999) The Sexual Politics of Disabled Masculinity. In: Sexuality and Disability No. 17, pp. 53–64.

Shuttleworth, R., Wedgwood, N. and Wilson, N.J. (2012) The Dilemma of Disabled Masculinity. In: Men and Masculinities No.15, pp. 174–194.


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