DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

This essay explores the themes of disability and gender in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The novel's portrayal of mental disability is found to be impressive in its avoidance of stereotypes through the representation of its characters as individuals, rather than merely characterizing symptoms of mental disorders. In exploring the novel's investment in individual characters, however, it becomes clear that within the novel, disability and emasculation are intrinsically linked. This creates something of a patriarchal undercurrent to the text: Nurse Ratched's control is a direct result of her continual emasculation and her de-feminized domination of the all-male patients. In contrast, McMurphy, the infamous anti-hero of the text, is celebrated as a liberator despite having been committed for rape. These portrayals of the main characters seem ultimately representative of a troubling message in the novel: that a matriarchy abolished can be a satisfactory conclusion to the plot, and further, is seen as a cure for the patients' mental illnesses.

Instructor's Statement

Stuart Murray
University of Leeds

The course for which Caroline Leach submitted her paper is entitled "States of Mind: Disability, Cognitive Impairment and Exceptionality in Contemporary Culture" and is a final-year course that has run for five years in the School of English at the University of Leeds in the UK. It looks at fiction, films and web material that represent issues of mental health and disability, with a particular concentration on schizophrenia, Tourette's Syndrome and autism. Students study both book and film versions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at the start of the semester to introduce a singular storyline, but also to pose questions about narrative form, normalcy and the issues inherent in viewing disability through a visual medium.

Caroline's paper addresses the specific intersection between gender and disability in Ken Kesey's novel, and the idea behind my question on the book was to invite speculation on the fact that a text might have emancipatory politics in certain areas, but that these may well be qualified by other aspects of its representation. The novel is excellent for beginning to think about the ways in which disability can be portrayed and discussed in relation to other social forms and processes, and Caroline's work is an exemplary account of such an investigation.

Disability and Gender in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One of the triumphs of Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is its ability to provide an inside view of a mental institution free from the stigma that such a facility almost always invites. The first-person narrative of a patient, Chief Bromden, makes the asylum setting ordinary, and encourages the reader to invest in the personalities of its inhabitants instead of perceiving the characters as mere stereotypes of disability. Kesey's inclusion of Bromden's delusions within the narrative itself, which are at first a disruption to the reader used to linear narratives of the real, become merely another narrative norm for the reader as the novel progresses. Retrospective thought allows the reader to discover that while Bromden's disability makes him different, it is not debilitating for him as a narrator, nor, more importantly, as a man. Such insights into Bromden and the others initiate in the reader a reassessment of potentially unexamined perceptions of mental institutions, their inhabitants, and lead the reader to review the origins of concepts such as disability and normalcy. Yet the text is not without its problems: the most significant of which is the portrayal of gender in relation to disability. The text's depiction of this relation is more problematic: It could be suggested that the link goes some way to undermine the success of the novel's individualistic approach to, and questioning of, disability. This is seen especially through the novel's reinforcement of the long-standing and stereotypical dialogue between disability and emasculation, a connection so engrained in society that it can be described as a "cultural script," which Rosemarie Garland- Thompson describes in "The Politics of Staring" (66). In crude terms, it could be suggested that while the novel breaks down prejudices regarding mental disabilities,1 it builds upon prejudices regarding gender.

The most explicit example of a connection between disability and gender in the novel is the idea that the men of the ward are unable to assert their masculinity, and that this is ultimately the reason for their (mostly voluntary) institutionalization. Introducing the men of the ward to McMurphy, Harding suggests they are all "sly and frightened and elusive" — they are "rabbits," "the weak" (Kesey 57). Harding and the other inmates believe they are failures as men, even lacking the stereotyped sexual promiscuity shared by rabbits and macho men like McMurphy (Kesey 60). While Harding is metaphorically assigning animals, without specifying their gender, to the people around him — Nurse Ratched is a wolf, and McMurphy "may be" one too (Kesey 60) — the attributes belonging to wolves and rabbits are clearly suggestive of stereotypical gender roles. Harding's view resembles what the sociologist R.W. Connell calls the social dynamic of "hegemonic masculinity," which "privileges men who are strong, courageous, aggressive, independent, [and] self-reliant" (qtd. in Gerschick & Miller 455) — to use Harding's terminology, wolves. In claiming the world "belongs to the strong" (Kesey 57) and labeling himself a rabbit, Harding vocalizes his feelings of inadequate masculinity. In further claiming the fact that he and the others are in the institution because they "can't adjust to [their] rabbithood" (Kesey 58), Harding suggests their emasculation is the reason for their incarceration, and thus implies it is at least part of their disability.

Looking further into the individual characterization of some of the patients confirms this link between disability and gender, particularly the failure to fulfill gender stereotypes, an issue which is arguably given greater prominence in the novel than the mental and emotional disabilities supposedly being treated at the institution. Harding's young wife is the subject of his group therapy sessions, and his relationship with her becomes the problem that replaces any discussion of his disability; what is discussed is the fact that his wife "thinks any word or gesture that does not smack of brickyard brawn and brutality is […] weak dandyism" (Kesey 39). Harding feels emasculated by his wife — her "ample bosom at times gives him a feeling of inferiority" (Kesey 39), and during her visit, the reader sees that what Harding finds so belittling is her lack of conformity to the stereotypical image of the obedient wife. She is "as tall as he is," carries her purse like a book, "not by the strap," and "hate[s]" her marital name (Kesey 156). Harding feels greatly emasculated by his tall, independent wife, commenting to McMurphy the inadequacy of the term better half due to its implication of "some kind of basically equal division" (Kesey 156), which he clearly feels is absent. Harding, more so than any of the other men, completely lacks any overt symptoms of disability, and this absence only magnifies Harding's emasculation, making it the manifestation of his disability, if not suggesting that it is his disability itself.

Chief Bromden also struggles with an emasculation that is shown to be a significant part of his disability. It has been suggested that his mixed-race heritage — his oppressive white mother and alcoholic Native American father — produces the Chief's model for emasculation and is "at the root of the Chief's problem identity, accounting, to a large extent, for his schizophrenic narrative" (Waxler 255). This idea gains weight when one looks at McMurphy as a re-masculinizing entity. McMurphy helps the Chief grow "big" again — after McMurphy's arrival, the Chief's delusions lessen, the "fog" becomes more infrequent, and when McMurphy asserts himself, the Chief is often affected positively: "The ringing that was in my head had stopped" (Kesey 172). By the close of the novel, the Chief has become "a man" again, realizing he must "free" McMurphy, finding he is able to lift the tub-room control panel, and that he can escape, taking "huge strides" (Kesey 280). Significantly, once the Chief fulfills all the criteria of Connell's hegemonic masculinity, he battles and averts his final two fog delusions: "[i]t's fogging a little, but I won't slip off and hide in it. No… never again" (Kesey 248); "I came fighting out of it in less than a day, less time than ever" (Kesey 249). There seems a clear correlation between re-masculinization and the lessening of cognitive impairments, a link which turns Chief Bromden into "the courageous overcomer, contemporary America's favorite figure of disability" (Garland-Thompson 61).

Billy Bibbit's attempt to overcome emasculation is also paralleled by changes in his disability. At the party in the ward, where Billy's manhood is seemingly affirmed, the prostitute Candy is described in male-dominant terms — "Billy and his girl." By commenting "All these things, Billy? Phrenic this and pathic that? You don't look like you have all these things" (Kesey 260), Candy succeeds in disregarding Billy's disabilities and perhaps the emasculation with which they are intrinsically linked. Candy is also literally correct: As with Harding's seeming lack of impairment, the only display of Billy's disability is his pervasive stammer, and Candy's statement could encourage the men's realization that they are "men now. No more rabbits" (Kesey 265) and thus on their way to overcoming, as Bromden does, their emasculations-as-disabilities. After Billy loses his virginity to Candy, even his stammer is "fixed," if briefly: "'Good Morning, Miss Ratched,' Billy said […]. He took the girl's hand in his and grinned. 'This is Candy.'" (Kesey 270). The return of the stammer coincides with the return of Billy's emasculation, caused by the double threat of Ratched's presence and the pointed suggestion that she does not know "how [Billy's] poor mother is going to take this" (Kesey 271).

Nurse Ratched clearly utilizes the men's emasculation-disabilities to maintain her strict control over them. The accusations leveled at her by the men of the ward tellingly center around this: "she's a bitch and a buzzard and a ball-cutter" (Kesey 54). Ratched, the leader of the therapy sessions, encourages the patients to see themselves as emasculated — she is the one who labels Harding's wife as his "problem" — and also to see each other as "failures" as men, encouraging them to turn on one another by reporting behavior in her log book. Bromden implies that her intention is to create a lack of unity, or brotherhood, when he notes "[i]t was better than she'd dreamed. They were all shouting to outdo one another" (Kesey 45). Kesey also makes it clear that Ratched's power extends to all of the men she is in contact with, including Doctor Spivey, who has "maybe got more to say, but […] the Big Nurse usually hushes him" (Kesey 44), and who also "escapes" with the patients for the fishing trip. Characterizing the doctor as practically a patient further reduces the significance given to their impairments in contrast to their troubles with masculinity. Kesey has inverted the doctor-nurse relationship usually found in asylums at the time, where the women in care roles "must defer to the male scientific authority" (Carlson 129), seemingly to underline the fact that the men of the ward are "ordinary," united with the "normal" doctor under the power of Ratched. As Ratched's power is enforced through her emasculation of the patients (and doctor), and the successfully emasculated men in the novel are "ordinary" otherwise, the novel seems to imply that an inverted patriarchal norm creates, or in fact is, a disability. By supplying this association, the novel reinforces traditional gender norms; the result is that Nurse Ratched represents what the novel sees as "abnormal," an aggressive matriarch, a female with masculine traits: the "Big" Nurse.

Reinforcing the idea of Ratched as masculinized are the attempts on her part to hide her femininity. Her bag contains "no compact or lipstick or woman stuff" (Kesey 4), and her uniform is "starched so stiff it don't exactly bend in any place" (Kesey 38), covering her shape. In fact, Bromden often chooses to figure her as an automaton: "a watchful robot" (Kesey 26), whose face is "smooth, calculated and precision-made" (Kesey 6), removing any semblance of sexuality. Her sexuality (or femininity), unsurprisingly symbolized by her breasts, is, in terms of the novel's logic, shown to be Ratched's own disability: Bromden claims "[a] mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big, womanly breasts on what would otherwise have been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it" (Kesey 6). Ratched loses the last of her control when McMurphy "rip[s] her uniform all the way down the front," exposing her as a woman (Kesey 275). After her re-feminization (or her own "ball-cutting") by McMurphy, her new uniform "could no longer conceal the fact that she was a woman," and it is implied that because of this, "[s]he couldn't rule with her old power anymore" (Kesey 276, 277).

This representation of gender within the novel is somewhat troubling. McMurphy is the liberator of the inmates: he teaches them to re-establish their masculinities and overcome their disabilities (in some cases these seem the same thing), and he is the most exciting and entertaining character in the novel — yet he has been committed to the institution for raping a fifteen year-old girl. In contrast, Nurse Ratched is figured as the perhaps more mentally-unstable character, whose power must be overcome, presumably to restore "natural order." Elizabeth McMahan comments: "But why is the Big Nurse so eager to emasculate the men in her charge? […] This is a question Kesey never answers; he apparently never thinks to ask it" (146-47). Instead, Kesey minimizes the mental disabilities of the male patients while highlighting the inability of a woman to have control over men and keep it without resorting to emasculatory tactics.

In his attempts to explore and criticize the cultural script of male emasculation, Kesey arguably replaces his representation of disability with one of emasculation. This in part enables Kesey to dismantle the stereotypes of mental disability, focusing on the personalities of the patients, instead of obscuring individuality by repetitively portraying stereotypical symptoms of mental illness. But this replacement also reduces mental disabilities to problems of masculinity, which can simply be "solved" by the injection of testosterone that is McMurphy. Other problems with the plot occur in the representation of a woman or an institutional system that abuses power: instead of systematic reform, the "solution" to terrorization is to expose Nurse Ratched as a flawed female and figure this, instead, as a disability. While the novel inventively causes a reassessment of the reader's investment in stereotypes of mental disability, it ultimately reinforces gender stereotypes: in suggesting that both emasculated men and powerful women are abnormal, the novel denies its propensity to challenge normalcy in relation to disability with a resolution that enforces and supports the normalcy of patriarchal gender roles.


Caroline Leach completed her studies at the University of Leeds (UK) this year, gaining first class honours in her English Language and Literature BA degree. She is currently working for the academic publishers Taylor & Francis. Her interests include badminton and dance.

Works Cited

  • Carlson, Licia. "Cognitive Ableism and Disability Studies: Feminist Reflections on the History of Mental Retardation." Hypatia 16 (2001): 124-46.
  • Garland-Thompson, Rosemarie. "The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography." Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Eds. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson. 57-75.
  • Gergen, Mary M., and Sarah N. Davis, Eds. Toward a New Psychology of Gender: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Gerschick, Thomas J., and Adam Stephen Miller. "Gender Identities at the Crossroadsof Masculinity and Physical Disability." Toward a New Psychology of Gender: A Reader. Eds. Mary M. Gergen and Sarah N. Davis. 455-75
  • Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. London: Penguin Classics, 2005.
  • McMahan, Elizabeth. "The Big Nurse as Ratchet: Sexism in Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest." A Casebook on Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Ed. George J. Searles. 145-9.
  • Searles, George J. A Casebook on Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." New Mexico: U of New Mexico P, 1992.
  • Snyder, Sharon L, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, Eds. Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. New York: MLA, 2002.
  • Waxler, Robert P. "The Mixed Heritage of the Chief: Revisiting the Problem of Manhood in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Journal of Popular Culture 29 (1995): 225-35.


  1. The prejudices regarding mental disabilities of course extend to the linguistic difficulties faced in discussing them: terminology used to describe individuals with mental disabilities quickly becomes stigmatized and derogatory. While every care has been taken in this essay to avoid terms with negative connotations, the author acknowledges that some terms used may be developing or develop such associations in the future. All terms used are meant as neutrally as possible, unless connected to a sentiment found in the text discussed, and therefore do not represent the author's personal feelings.
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