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Disability's Affect on Gender

Amophrast's picture

One thing I wanted to talk about: how does disability affect gender in terms of femininity/masculinity? Can disability "ungender" someone?

A specific example I'm thinking of is from the movie "The Best Years of Our Lives" which is about three WWII veterans returning home and trying to adjust to their old lives. One of the veterans lost both of his hands and they are now replaced by hooks (the actor had this happen to him, so they are real and functional). The things the character struggles most with include coming home to his fiancee/newlywed wife and feeling inadequate in terms of not being able to do certain things for himself. One of his most vulnerable scenes is near the end of the movie when the wife takes off her husband's hooks and helps him get into his pajamas. One could argue that in this movie, the veteran is metaphorically castrated by his disability. His performance of gender roles is inhibited by his disability, thus ungendering him in both the world around him and in his own mind.

Problems: world is constructed for gendered people. World is constructed for able-bodied people.

There is nothing "wrong" about being ungendered or having a disability, but in many cases people with disabilities are seen as being ungendered or nonsexual (or in some cases, hypersexualized). I have not seen much of people trying to assert their masculinity/femininity over their disability, except in the case of this blog owner:

"Just to be clear, I’m not ‘ashamed’ of being in a wheelchair or anything like that, but it’s not WHO I am, it’s just something that helps me get from a to b, and I don’t think it deserves to be the focus of special photographic memories of my life.

In this case, it's a shift of focus from the disability to gender, which still may seem like an assertion, but it's not trying to compensate for a sense of loss. She is simply trying to visually frame herself in a way that she finds flattering.



someshine's picture

How the American film and television industry undermines...

I am in agreement with you, Amophrast. I'd like to suggest that Hollywood and other organizations that dominate the American film and television industry undermine disability by casting able-bodied people in 'disabled' roles. I'm reminded of the outcry against FOX after Kevin McHale was cast in the role of Artie, the guitar-playing paraplegic wheelchair-ridden on Glee. There was quite an emphasis on his internal struggle with "getting girls" because of his 'disability' that I think the writers focused too much on for how seldom he was the centerpiece of a given episode. Aside from this, however, is a larger problem I held with his character, which is the point I mentioned above. Not knowing quantitative data, I hardly felt Glee (and other shows and movies) accurately reflected the vast number of people with physical and mental disabilities in America, on screen. That could definitely be said for races/ethnicities, sexual orientations, and other marginalized groups, but my focus and strongest frustration about people with physical disabilities in particular is the tendency to cast able-bodied actors and actresses to 'play' or embody them. That to me is a negative step beyond undermining gendered representations of people with disabilities. I'm reminded of an article I read my freshman year in the Huffington Post which gave a very fascinating picture of representations of people with disabilities on television and in film. I don't want to impress my reading of the article on you, Amphrast, or anyone else reading this, but I highly recommend you check it out. I will write I felt affirmed and then disappointed when I read the following excerpt: About one-fifth of Americans age 5 to 64 have a physical or mental disability – more than 50 million, according to U.S. Census figures. But fewer than 2 percent of the characters on TV reflect that reality, according to a 2005 study of Screen Actors Guild members conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. While I thought about the ways in which people with disabilities were misrepresented and not even cast in roles as themselves, per say, I did not think about how UNREPRESENTED they are in general. I'd like to build into your question, Amphrast, by asking how anyone thinks film/television representations, misrepresentations and/or lack thereof create entanglement between disability and gender, especially in cases when those being represented are not (being allowed/offered the opportunity) representing themselves.