Disability and Masculinity
Written by Maitreya Shah
Masculinity as a concept might have evolved over years in terms of its social construct, although the development has mostly been restricted to the definition of a ‘complete man’. From active aggression and violence to a more nuanced, tempered minded, the toxic forms of masculinity have passed through generations forming the larger patriarchal structure of the society.
Although the dictionary-meaning of masculinity is “the characteristics that are traditionally thought to be typical of or suitable for men”, there does not exist a single socially acceptable definition of it. The concept has evolved through the perspectives of various sociologist, gender-rights and feminist thinkers. From biological determinism to social construct and from sexual objectification to gender-essentialism, there have been many ways to look at it (Mikkola, 2019). For the sake of this Article however, I would like to deviate from these schools of thoughts; for me, masculinity is about the trades, attributes, behavior, personality or legitimatization amongst others, ascribed to a nondisabled male by the mainstream society. The definition is obviously not all-inclusive, it nevertheless does help in setting the tone of this Article.
Hence, taking it from the definition above- in the debate over toxic or hegemonic masculinity, the one aspect that has largely been left out of the conversation is ‘disability’ and its impact on the social construct of this deeply rooted phenomenon. Starting from the Mahabharata, where Dhutarashtra was denounced as unfit for the King’s throne because of his blindness, the narrative has been prescribed: a ‘perfect man’ cannot have a disability. Fast-forward to the 21st Century, the idea of a perfect man might have changed from a sword- carrying warrior to a rather muscular lad, a disabled body however remains a no-no.
This exclusionary narrative is also all-pervasive in society; from parents choosing the non-disabled son for inheritance of the assets and responsibilities to a potential bride looking for a guy who is ‘tall, dark and handsome’, where disability is clearly the only ‘overarching impediment’. The instances are endless, counting the structural exclusion in families, workplaces, relationships, bonds and perspectives. It should then be about the ‘ideal gender-performance’ that we co-imagine as humans, and how the so-called abnormal bodies do not resonate with such fancies. Very conveniently thus, the entire perception of a ‘masculine man’ is tweaked in seconds, to purposely keep the disability invasion out.
Over a period of time, masculinity has also been given many different filters; from bodily superiority to sex-roles, and from power-politics to sexual dominance. Even with feminist literature, this so- called idea of masculinity can be read through popular works. For instance, Patricia Sexton in her work ‘Feminized Man’, popularly notes: “What does it mean to be masculine? It means, obviously, holding male values and following male behavior norms… Male norms stress values such as courage, inner direction, certain forms of aggression, autonomy, mastery, technological skill, group solidarity, adventure, and a considerable amount of toughness in mind and body” (Sexton, 1970). Significantly so, a lot of these elements do not fit in with disabled bodies; where autonomy or adventure often stay only in dreams, aggression and toughness are also rare-luxuries for many. The cultural ideal of manhood is thus apparently relevant for women as well, in their efforts of replicating this ideal with their male-relatives.
The element of ‘power’ has often been a central-theme in the midst of many gender theories. Raewyn Connell’s idea of hegemonic masculinity, one of the foremost theories, stems from socially idealized values established by men in power to organize society in gender-unequal ways (Jewkes, 2015). A considerable part of this legitimacy afforded to patriarchy in society comes from one’s bodily experiences and fundamental normality, from which disabled bodies are conspicuously deviant (Scott, 2014). For instance, the unsettling nature of bodies often undermine the ideas of self-reliance, strength or independence often attributed to the culturally ideal ‘masculinity’.
Antonio Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony was largely surrounded by men in the ruling class; the ones having considerable positions in the society to shape the gender-relations (Jewkes, 2015). More often than not, these power-dynamics and dichotomy of structures can not be straight-jacketed for disabled men, for they have largely been excluded from the power-roles as a whole. If disability supposedly is out of the hegemonic masculinity dialogue, it should also automatically be a no-consideration for the counter-hegemonic revolution that Gramsci talks about (hegemonic masculinity is also viewed as a possible source of intervention to change the gender-norms in the society) (Carrigan, 1985). Would it then exclude the minority redressers with disabilities from breaking the social construct of dominant, oppressive masculine structures remains a question requiring sociological investigation. To however say that hegemonic masculinity does not exist within the disabled gender-dimensions is also deceiving, given that masculinity as a concept has not emerged from the nature (Jewkes, 2015); it should rather be the practices in which men and women engage, which forms the basis for bodily experiences and personalities by and large. Such exclusion from the dominant practices also make disabled men prone to abuse by the other hierarchically dominant men in the oppressive structures. Several thinkers have considered this male vulnerability as an important part of the dialogue on masculinity (Scott, 2014); however, the focus was more on the vulnerability generated from conflicts with women empowerment than a focus on marginalized, disabled men by and large.
The debate gets even complex with entry of terms like ‘sexuality’, and ‘gender’. Where persons with disabilities are considered incapable of having sex, one of the most important factors forming the ‘masculinity code’-the ‘extreme aspiration for sexual dominance’ gets compromised. The debate gets intensified with the challenges faced by the queer-disabled with varying genders and sexual identities.
Why is it then important to consider the inclusion of disability-aspect in such theories largely synonymized with oppression and abuse of dominance? Despite the negative connotations of toxic masculinity, it is perhaps important to consider the role of disability also in the act of oppression. To put it in context, one of the very extreme ramifications of this exclusion could lead to disabled men believed to be incapable of performing acts of dominance, oppression, violence or abuse. In 2016, a court in Delhi, while discharging a blind person accused of raping his daughter, remarked: “a blind person cannot put his penis between the thighs of a woman”. Although the order was later reversed by the High Court, the deep-rooted idea of this asexuality and incomplete masculinity came out of the Judge’s words in the court. This is also further reflected in the widespread sexual harassment of women both disabled and otherwise in the rather socially segregated community of the disabled. At times, survivors of harassment by disabled perpetrators often face the dilemma of believing the intentions and abilities of the perpetrator in committing the act of abuse. Last year, during the me-too movement, news of a gender-disability rights activist facing harassment by a blind- colleague made rounds in the disability rights circles. It was notable how the survivor acknowledged the general indecisiveness that women face about the perpetrator’s capability of committing the act. The segregation thus not only gives a passive camouflage to oppressors, but also keeps a large-chunk of disabled population void of crucial information on consent, bodily autonomy or socially accepted behavior.
On the other, less-extreme side of this narrative lies the marginalization of disabled men in their social roles as sons, brothers, fathers or partners, while also affecting the disabled women who are in a closer Nexis with them. One of the very subtle examples of the undermining effect of this exclusion can also be found in a restaurant waiter handing out the check to a non-disabled woman instead of a disabled man on a shared table, while the patriarchal tendency is often the opposite if the disability be subtracted. Although the practice be counterintuitive of an equal society, it nevertheless highlights the convenient changes in the idea of masculinity. The brunt of this can further be faced in dating or relationship experiences, where the general perception of asexuality keeps disabled men out of the regard by many non-disabled women.
If talked about in the contemporary context, the boys-locker room controversy has brought about several debates in the changing sociological shift of toxic masculinity and the various forms of intersections. While disabled men have not popularly been a part of either the mainstream oppressors or the reformers groups, studying an intersection of disability and masculinity could perhaps help us in understanding either toxic masculinity, or the possibilities of reformation in a space person with disabilities usually find their comfort in. A deep sociological investigation is much-needed especially in the Indian context, considering it with the other cultural and socioeconomic factors specific to India.
Jewkes, R, et al. Hegemonic Masculinity: Combining Theory and Practice in Gender Interventions. PMC (2015 Oct 16; 17(sup2): 96–111).
Scott J. Illuminating the Vulnerability of Hegemonic Masculinity through a Performance Analysis of Physically Disabled Men’s Personal Narratives. Studies Quarterly (Vol 334, no 1 (2014).
Carrigan, T, et al. Towards a New Sociology of Masculinity. Theory and Society, Vol. 14, No. 5 (Sep., 1985). pp. 551-604.
Mikkola, M. Feminist Perspectives on Sex and Gender. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition). Edward N. Zalta (ed.), .
Sexton, P. the Feminized Male. (New York: Random House Inc. 1970).