This performance analysis traces the emergence of masculinity in the open-ended narratives of 14 men who self-identify as "physically disabled." The participants range in physical ability, age, relationship status, build, and socioeconomic status. They also range in their responses to the interaction of their ability and gender: mourning, resisting, accepting, and/or embracing their daily performances of physically disabled masculinity. Through bodies defined as the negation of 'normal,' they attend to and expose the nuances of the interacting cultural components of hegemonic masculinity that all human beings negotiate, interpret, create and re-create through our interactions. Their stories and insights offer opportunities for us to understand the impossibilities of ideal gender performance all humans co-imagine, reiterate, and pursue but can never realize.
In a one-one-one interview, Jesse, a higher education administrator with a club foot, took a moment to struggle through the significance of the relationship between sexuality and physical ability, grappling with why these culturally-constituted categories demand our attention:
I mean sexuality is a very loaded thing
particularly for disabled people
you know I think in lots of ways
because that's such a fundamental part
of how we come to acknowledge and validate ourselves
and that's an important part in how we find value
within culture you know?
This essay will move through this "fundamental part" of what it means to be human, specifically what it means to perform masculinity through a physically disabled male body. 1 Masculinity is not a "natural character type, behavioral average, a norm … [but] is simultaneously a place in gender relations, the practices through which men and women engage that place in gender, and the effects of these practices on bodily experience, personality, and culture" (Connell, 2005, p. 71). Each narrator's story of being a physically disabled male emerges intertwined with cultural understandings of embodiment and deeply engrained understandings of hegemonic masculinities. Connell (2005) defines hegemonic masculinity as "… the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees, (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women" (p. 77). As Hatfield (2010) explains this perpetuated argument materializes in an intricate web of cultural performance:
Hegemonic masculinity identifies the hegemonic position of males within many Western cultures and argues that men's multiple performed masculinities grapple for power along a continuum … With hegemonic masculinity, masculinity becomes much more complex than sex role arguments — combining ethnicity, sexuality, economic power, and personal characteristics to determine status (528).
The physically disabled male body provides a means to grapple with the components of embodiment and cultural interpretations of masculinity because "disability is defined not as a set of observable, predictable traits — like racialized or gendered features — but rather as any departure from an unstated physical and functional norm," as a result "disability highlights difference" (Thomson, 1997, p. 24). The narrators included in this study move upon a spectrum of physical ability, personality, size, and socioeconomic identity. Living through bodies culturally categorized as "atypical" and in turn continually evoke the attention of others, the narrators remain attentive to how their physical bodies interplay with other identity markers, crystallizing the multifaceted constitution of hegemonic masculinity in daily performances of embodied personal identity.
'Doing' Masculinity in Gender Performance in Personal Narrative Research
Butler (1990) asserts that gender is not a characteristic of our bodies to observe but an ongoing performance, a pursuit of a culturally-constituted norm at which we can never fully arrive. In turn, gender, as a cultural constitution, exists as we perform and re-perform it; "only real to the extent it is performed" by our bodies through daily interactions (p. 278). As Connell articulates in regards to masculine identity, "There is an irreducible bodily dimension in experience and practice … Bodily experience is often central in memories of our own lives, and thus our understanding of who and what we are" (p. 51, 53). Our daily performances of self are contingent upon our bodies; they rely upon our sizes, weights, frames, movements, ages, physical abilities, etc. "Materiality matters. They will do certain things and not do others. Bodies are substantively in play in social practices such as sport, labor, and sex" (Connell, 2005, p. 58). Jesse describes sexuality as "loaded," a weight bearing down on our physical frames, embedded into the structure of our culture, and whose power is perpetuated through our bodies that reiterate it, performing into existence through our daily interactions. The physically disabled body, in its deviance from expected normality, complicates gendered performances that are, in Jesse's words, "such a fundamental part" of how we come to know ourselves.
Each narrator included in this study initially responded to a call sent across professional list-serves requesting stories surrounding "What it means to be a physically disabled professional." Fourteen of the 26 respondents from across the U.S. were male. 2 In each face-to-face audio-recorded interview, I invited the interviewee to begin wherever she/he wished to begin and end wherever she/he wished to end. In turn, some stories will take place within the professional space, while others will migrate to private relationships, highlighting how difficult it is to compartmentalize identities as they emerge and re-emerge through daily interactions. Each story illustrates how disability and masculinity emerge thickly interwoven in collective understandings of identity.
Performance of Narrative Transcription and Analysis
In order to enact a performance of identity analysis of open-ended narratives of physically disabled professional identity, I transcribed each narrative interview in its entirety and then broke each up into the smaller stories that made up the overall narrative. I then read through each of the 26 narratives, attending to potential emergent themes across interviews. The larger study was organized by themes of daily performances of professionalism, embodiment, and gender relationships. This essay emerges from the last of these categories attending specifically to the experiences of self-identified male participants.
Each narrative is transcribed removing all periods and commas and instead moving to a new line at each pause so that if read aloud, the reader can access the person's unique speech pattern (Peterson & Langellier, 1997). The performance transcription serves as a reminder of the individual vocal chords through which the words emerged as the experiences of living, breathing, mortal bodies engaged in the co-constitution of meaning through telling their personal stories to a present audience. From a performance perspective, each story is not simply a reflection of past realities, but is its own reality, materializing in the time and space of the performance act as narrator and listeners co-constitute meaning and understanding through embodied interaction (Peterson & Langellier, 1997). Preserving the narrators' speech patterns on the page attempts to continually call attention distinctive bodies, (not just the words that co-create physically disabled masculinity in daily performance) throughout the analysis.
Illuminating Cultural Discomfort with Embodied Vulnerability Vulnerability through Performances of Physically Disabled Masculinity
The disabled body potentially unsettles us, perhaps reminding us of our own "fleshed vulnerability" in its ongoing reminder of the contingency of our bodies on identity (Scott, 2012). Greg, a professor of physical therapy with cerebral palsy notes:
I am an awkward walker
walking with two canes and looking precarious like I am gonna fall down
in fact I have several times
and that was a little unsettling for people to say the least (soft laugh)
Narrators expressed the unsettling nature of their bodies across cultural spaces. The lack of physical stability can potentially alter perceptions of self — reliance, strength, and independence — associated with preferred cultural performances of masculinity. Quinton, a professor of disability and self-defined "avid skier" who walks "odd" and with the aid of crutches mentions that when he goes into ski shops, the staff "choose not to engage with him," perhaps interpreting his body as in opposition to a space reserved for the athletic:
I think sometimes they assume I either can't ski
or can't afford the equipment they sell
that I'm unemployed or whatever
Like Greg, Quinton's disability appears to negate preferred performances of masculinity that value both physical and fiscal independence, though he possesses both.
Disability theorists and researchers have analyzed the relationship between gender identity and ability, providing multiple discussions on how disabled bodies are interpreted by the dominant culture. Some disability researchers explain that the presence of disability potentially negates sexuality, compelling those around the disabled person to view her/him as asexual and incapable of entering into a sexual or romantic relationship with another person. As Porter (1997) notes, "a disabled body seems to be lacking something essential, something to make it identifiable and something to identify with; a body that is deficiently itself, not quite a body in the full sense of the word, not real enough," and in turn potentially absent of sexual identity (p. xii). In U.S. patriarchal culture, the physically disabled male body is often feminized, seen as incapable of the autonomy, bodily strength, and aggressiveness associated with dominant Western masculinity (Manderson & Peake, 2005). Prior studies have illuminated how some men may resist this feminization, such as Lindemann's (2010) ethnography of wheelchair rugby players. Disability scholars have also highlighted how disabled male bodies can be interpreted as pillars of strength and admiration for overcoming adversity (Wilson, 2004) and/or capable of deep emotional connection through dependency (Shuttleworth, 2004).
Performance methodology offers a means to explore disabled identity as a co-constitution of humans interacting and struggling with how to be human within relationships. A performance perspective highlights the fluidity of human identity; of how "gender and disability are produced, displayed, and constructed by a host of forces, including external ones such as cultural codes or internal ones such as desires" (Smith, 2004, p. 4). Through an analysis of bodies in performance, we can make the deeply embedded meanings of cultural discourses visible for reflection and refutation. Those which surface typically undetected and accepted, allowing hegemonic masculinity to appear natural, are exposed as fragile co-constitutions of human communication vulnerable to dismantlement and open to reinterpretation through future interactions, as open to change as the bodies themselves.
In this analysis, I move through varying personal performances of physically disabled masculinity. Quinton and Greg have already reminded us that the perceived vulnerability and dependency of the disabled body unsettles onlookers who assume they cannot comfortably perform to dominant expectations of masculinity. The next narrators interpret their performances of masculinity as deficient and pine for the restoration of lost identities. The third group of narrators resists the cultural stigma assigned to their perceived diminished masculinity while the fourth group of narrators embraces the diminishment of masculinity, seeing the revision of their performance of gender to be an overall improvement to their daily interactions. The final group of narrators interprets their disabilities as strengthening their performances of masculinity, allowing them to be strong, steadfast, and paternal in the face of adversity. The spectrum of responses illuminates the complexity through which physically disabled men negotiate their embodied performance of gender. Despite their varying reactions and interpretations, the importance of the body in daily performances of gendered identity re-surfaces across their narratives. Together they remind us that our performances of self are as vulnerable to change as the bodies we depend on to perform and re-perform them into existence and the different times and cultural spaces in which we find ourselves.
Struggling with and against Diminished Masculinity
Some narrators interpreted their performances of masculinity as deficient due to their physical disabilities. Both Yann, a plant manager with emphysema, and Victor, a recreation director at an independent living center who uses a wheelchair after a tumor developed on his back, position their physical disabilities as disruptive to their preferred masculine performances as husbands and providers for their wives. Victor states that his wife needing to go back to work after staying home for over a decade to raise their children was
naturally hard for both of them (sigh)
Yann laments, that in addition to needing to retire early, he could no longer take care of his property as he had throughout his marriage:
I can't keep up the yard for Daisy (sigh)
It's just too hard with my breathing
It's just too hard
Both men mourned the loss of the physical ability that facilitated their preferred personal performances of masculinity, as successful providers and physical laborers. In their frustration, they articulate their desire to reject their bodies' inescapable dependencies.
Yann and Victor remain in romantic relationships after the onset of their disabilities, other narrators focused on other's rejections of their atypical bodies. Xavier, an anesthesiologist who uses a wheelchair due to polio, notes his subversive use of the word "handicap" to describe potential partners' reasons for rejecting him:
women you know
when I dated them
most of 'em didn't really want to go out with me to be honest with you
and I think that was because of my physical disability
I use that word but most people don't 3
Xavier draws attention to his lived reality of cultural marginalization, resisting lingual attempts to soften the stigma and cultural rejection of his atypical body as sexually desirable.
Xavier has been physically disabled for the majority of his life and positioned his physical disability as negating his preferred performance of masculinity. Some narrators who became disabled as adolescents or adults performed the contrast between their masculinity before and after embodying physically disabled identity. Ulmer, an architect who uses a wheelchair after an ice climbing accident, positions his disabled body as incompatible with the marriage and relationship in which he participated before becoming paralyzed. He explains that his wife left, desiring to continue in able-bodied athletic pursuits they shared as a co-ambulatory couple. After she helped him adapt his house and lifestyle to his new ability she informed him that she was leaving:
So before she started packing she goes
I've been with you for six months
You're on your own"
and away she went (soft laugh)
She couldn't do this
She's an adventurer
Being active is what made us
Ulmer's story reifies his body as deficient, incapable of the companionship he experienced as an ambulatory man. His physical ability initially attracted his partner to him and was at the core of their relationship, without it, he is no longer a suitable life companion, there is no "us." Other markers of masculinity, such as financial stability, ability to control emotion, and maintained respect and influence in their community, could not compensate for the loss of physical prowess. As Connell (2005) notes, "The constitution of masculinity through bodily performance means that gender is vulnerable when the performance cannot be sustained" (p. 54). Disability marks a disruption across these men's experiences of gendered self that depended on physical ability.
Solis (2007) asserts that Ulmer's experience reiterates recurrent interpretations of physically disabled masculine identity; according to Solis, the daily performance of a physically disabled male body is often culturally infantilized, judged incapable of romantic love or partnership. Ulmer performed his memories of his wife with a sense of wistfulness and disappointment, but not anger, positioning himself as understanding of his wife's decision to end their marriage.
Ernest, a higher education administrator who uses a wheelchair and ventilator after a diving accident as a teenager, also narrates the story of his divorce and performs himself as sad, not angry at his wife for leaving, positioning his body as the inevitable reason for their marriage's end:
My disability had a lot to do with the fact that we divorced
it's not easy living with a disability if
and it's even tougher
I think in many ways if you have a disability
a disabled spouse
Kara found that ah
she had to be out of bed before 5:30 when my aids came in
she couldn't go to bed at night till 10:30 at night
when my aids finally left (sigh)
the house had to be laid out in a certain way
for me to be to maximize my independence um
and I used to talk about societal discrimination
um how things were not ah
accessible to me and ah
she left saying
"I can't stay with you
there's too much pain um
there's too much pain here in the house
I have to get away" (sigh)
So I think if it weren't for my disability we might still be together
I'm not sure (sigh)
Ernest positions his physical disability as the catalyst for his divorce. He performs the physical and emotional struggle over disabled embodiment as more difficult for his wife who is not disabled, than for him. He pauses throughout this portion of his narrative, performing the overwhelming weight of the burden participating in the co-constitution of physically disabled identity. He moves through the restraints and demands on his wife's body: her sleep schedule, the way the house and furniture needed to be laid out, and the habitual reminders of the stigma and prejudice surrounding her partner's, and consequently her, daily life. He positions his wife's life as restricted, disabled by his disability. In the end, he performs Kara's choice to shed her burden of the pain of disability. She continues in life apart from Ernest, restoring her able-bodied identity through ending their relationship, and refusing to participate in the co-constitution of the pain, exhaustion, and stigma that emerges from the physically disabled body in daily performance. He closes the story of their relationship with her statement, "I can't stay with you, there's too much pain here in the house. I have to get away," and offers the tentative conclusion that perhaps they would still be together if he was not disabled. Ernest reiterates the hypothetical nature of this unrealized ending that is now inaccessible, expressing the reservation that he's "not sure." He imagines that the markers of masculinity that initially attracted her to him, (his resilience, personality traits, and professional success among others) would remain and they would still be together without the cultural struggle over his body. Ernest performs her rejection as the exhaustion of a body unmarked by pathological difference enduring the ongoing hardship of stigma.
Performing resistance to physically disabled asexuality
Thus far, narrators have performed their stories of their bodies rejected by the dominant culture, marked as deficient by strangers, romantic partners, and/or themselves. The next narrators resist the potential rejection of their bodies. In their stories, their able-bodied partners' acceptances of them potentially restore them to valued members of the human species. Their performances of resistance to the marginalizing and stigmatizing of their masculinities illuminate the struggle through which all humans pursue the coveted identity of valued gendered and sexual identity.
Kale, a film professor who is paralyzed from a degenerative congenital disorder and uses a wheelchair performs an interaction with a colleague:
we work together and have for awhile
And one day out of the blue he asks
"Who is the semi-attractive woman with you all the time?
Is that your nurse?"
and I said "No ah
that's my wife"
She comes and meets me for lunch some days
Kale reiterates dominant norms of masculinity in his confrontation with his colleague, demonstrating the inappropriateness of the comment through raising his voice and swearing, cutting off the conversation. Drawing upon the work of Anderson (2005), Lindemann (2010) explains that men accrue "masculine capital" by "not showing fear, weakness, or passivity" (p. 438). Zeb, a physics lab coordinator and congenital amputee, does not appear visibly disabled, and told a story of how revealing his disability allowed him to gain masculine capital and impress his wife:
It was never an issue
If I'm wearing pants you can't even tell
which is why I get dirty looks for parking in the handicap spots
This one time
I saw this couple just leering at me
and the woman whispered something
Then the guy started yelling at me for parking in front of the restaurant
he wouldn't let it go
He was being really rude calling me names and everything
The type of prosthetic I wore then was not easy to remove
but I reached down
and I pulled the leg off put it up on top of my car
and looked at him directly
and I said to him "IS THAT MAYBE GOOD ENOUGH FOR YA?"
he shut up and and and and and (laughing)
my wife and I now enjoyed now staring at them
as he was exposed for the one who really was stupid
and that woman that he was with was was
yelling at him
Then as he got into the car
Zeb reveals his disabled status, causing himself physical pain when ripping off his prosthetic in order to claim his legitimate use of a handicap parking space and also display masculine dominance in his retaliation to another man's heckling. In turn, the other man drives away ashamed with his female partner. Zeb, victorious, arguably gains masculine capital through his claiming legitimate disabled status.
Several narrators, like Zeb emphasized during their narratives that they had positive, successful relationships with able-bodied female partners. An able-bodied female partner as a caretaker can often heighten a disabled man's perception of overall cultural success (Lindemann, 2010). Jesse narrates his attempt to resist the rejection of his body as valued and masculine through engaging in a sexual and romantic partnership with a woman defined as beautiful by dominant cultural standards. He reflects back on their ended marriage:
Um I think that in a real way
I was looking for this tall beautiful blond
to validate my existence somehow
I know that that was something that I came into that relationship
needing somehow which is
boy that's a lot of freight to pile on to something as fragile as
two human beings trying to spend time together
and make a life together you know?
Jesse positions his ex-wife as an embodied gender ideal, the negation of a "spoiled identity" that could cancel out his perceived lack (Goffman, 1963). He performs his failed attempt to restore his identity through the intimate acceptance of an able-bodied partner as the reason his marriage ends, "I was looking for this tall, beautiful, blond to validate my own existence." He positions the stigma he desires to shed as thickly embedded in cultural understandings, "a lot of freight" weighing down on human identities too "fragile" to withstand the exorbitant pressure of stigmatized identity. Like Ernest, Jesse positions his struggle as the cause of his divorce, overwhelming other identity markers (such as personality, career, and talent) that attracted his wife to him.
Xavier, Ulmer, Ernest, and Jesse — (unlike Yann and Victor who entered the workforce after high school, and worked their way up in a factory and human services respectively) — are accomplished professionals and graduate degrees. Each continued to advance in their careers despite their disabled bodies. As Connell (2005) notes, within contemporary labor markets, "the growth of credentialism, linked to a higher education system that selects and promotes along class lines" dominant, preferred masculinity is defined beyond physical ability and force to include influential and marketable skillsets that allow men to hold positions of influence, authority, and wealth in the economy (p. 55). That said, despite the patriarchal culture's emphasis of the "mind/body split", and the way masculine authority is connected with disembodied reason … the contradictions [and vulnerability] of embodiment" cannot be ignored (Connell, 2005, p. 164). Professional, educated, accomplished men cannot eliminate the importance of the body in the daily performance of masculinity, sexuality, and relationships. Rather both emerge intertwined, dependent on each other in daily performances of self.
Gill (1997) in her component theory of disabled identity development, asserts that physically disabled individuals must undergo a personal evolution in self-understanding in which they reach the point where they are comfortable claiming their bodies as not needing restoration, but as fully and legitimately human and thereby entitled to full participation in a culture without apologies or perceptions of self-lack. Jesse performs his initial desire to undergo this evolution through the sexual acceptance of his beautiful, able-bodied wife:
One of the first times Nicole and I had sex um
I had her take my brace off
and um it was you know
so what it's symbolic significance?
it was very significant for me
and I think for her too
in a way it was a signal of a level of acceptance
that was very important you know
if we were going to go to this next level
take the next step this is you know
something that has to be
this something we have to
that you have to come to terms with
to accept in some ways
I mean in some way I had to accept
and she might already
but I never really fully did that
It was very significant for sure
Jesse describes his wife's taking his brace off as "symbolic" of her acceptance that she could "take this next step," accept him on a level that she could both emotionally and physically connect with him. Jesse conjectures that the act of removing his brace potentially was more significant for him than for her because he had not personally overcome the cultural stigma toward his body, though he cannot confirm if she did or did not.
Jesse goes on to position his inability to accept his body and in turn his identity as desirable, valid, and worthy of love and sexual attraction as eventually causing the end of his relationship; he performs himself, not his ex-wife, as lacking the means to resist the stigmatization and restore his body. He later asserts that his desire for her to restore his body, an impossible task, ultimately led to the end of their marriage. "I think that's why it ended like it did." Jesse closes the story of his marriage with a moral lesson:
No one can make you comfortable in your own skin
that's something you need to do for yourself
No one can do it for you (sigh)
Jesse positions the restoration of one's physically disabled body as a personal, rather than shared process: the personal rejection of the dominant culture's deep seeded prejudice and judgment as artificial, contrived, and therefore, unimportant.
Jesse's struggle resonates with Ostrander (2008), who in a study of young men with spinal cord injuries found that a physically disabled identity resulted in a perception of "diminished masculinity … [in] their sexual encounters, intimate partner selection [and] body image" (p. 592). Jesse's desire to restore his masculinity through the acceptance of an able-bodied, beautiful partner can also be compared to Lindemann and Cherney's (2008) observation of wheelchair rugby athletes, "In effect, the players aggressively adopt a hypermasculine attitude and employ ableist values of strength and physical accomplishment in order to become more 'normal" (p. 121). The validation of a beautiful, able-bodied partner, successful display of athletic prowess, or other culturally valued masculinity markers serves as a means to regain that which feels lost.
Up to this point, I have moved through stories of physically disabled men who positioned their daily performance of masculinity as diminished through their disabled bodies, responding to this perceived diminishment with mourning, resistance, and/or acceptance. However, not every narrator positioned his disability as diminishing his masculinity to the point of needed restoration. I will now move through the remaining narrators along the spectrum of masculine performance and trace how their physical disabilities emerge intertwined with preferred cultural constitutions of masculinity, unsettling cultural expectations. The narrators perform others' interpretations of their bodies as successfully performing a preferred masculinity through the presence of physical disability on a body with multiple other markers (height, frame, voice, weight, authority, etc).
Performing diminished masculinity without need for restoration
Herman, a higher education administrator who is a paralyzed after a farming accident, and Travis, a director of health and safety at a university who uses a wheelchair due to a degenerative neurological disorder, both perform their physical disabilities as diminishing their performances of masculinity, a phenomenon which is recurrent throughout disability theory and literature (Asch & Fine, 1988; Ostrander, 2008; Thomson, 1997; Solis, 2007). Yet unlike previous narrators, they do not perform their masculinity as a loss to be restored, mourned, resisted, or accepted. For these narrators, the diminishment of independence, dominance, severity, and intimidation of their bodies fostered an increased approachability rather than reproach or disdain. Their narratives further draw attention to how we perceive and understand our own and others' bodies through a multifaceted and complex process, uniquely situated in bodies, situated in spaces, and embedded in discourse with multiple meanings, possibilities, and interpretations.
In his performance, Herman contrasts his gender performance before and after his accident. Before his accident, he positions himself as embodying dominant cultural expectations of masculinity; personal autonomy and disinterest in emotional connection or attention to the feminine (Johnson, 2005/1997). He interprets these qualities as hindering his connection to his wife:
Well I was a real redneck (laugh)
a guy's guy you know
it's easier to talk with each other
she never was a partier and I was and
and I actually
probably respect her more now than I did when I was young and rowdy
the relationship is more of a less
it's deeper now
Herman performs his physical disability as diminishing culturally perceived dominant masculine traits such as independence, emotional distance from interactions termed feminine by culture. In turn, he positions his able-bodied identity as resonating in and belonging to masculine relationships, "a guy's guy" embracing hegemonic masculinity and its resistance to the feminine. For Herman, the onset of physical disability alters his identity because he is no longer able to enter cultural contexts where he can interact with the "guys" who were "partier[s]" and "young and rowdy." He positions his physical disability's obstruction of these performances as a means to open communication with his wife, compelling him to value her, and foster their relationship, "I actually probably respect her more now that I did. It's deeper now." Herman positions the diminishment of his masculinity as a means to re-constitute his gender identity through interactions with his wife, which facilitated a relationship and identity that he prefers to his prior, hyper-masculine identity. Herman's disability appears to allow him to embody an idealized soft man: an embodiment of "'antisexism' which is seen in the egalitarian relationship he forms with women" that many argue only exists in cultural fantasies of gender dynamics (MacKinnon, 2003, p. 13). Connell (2005) notes that to reject hegemonic masculinity "… basically involves choosing passivity … this choice is likely to be difficult" (p. 132). For Herman, (and for Travis who will be introduced momentarily), the catalyst for this choice is made through their changing bodies, crystallizing the dependence of social process on the bodies that perform them.
Travis reiterates Herman's sentiments, performing his physical disability as opening space to foster relationships in his professional rather than his private context:
well I'm I'm actually fairly tall
I'm 6 foot 3 and um
I have been told by many
that I look like either a doctor or an attorney
so in a sense I am
perhaps a bit imposing
and people tend to stand off from me a little bit
I have um in one way or another
always been involved in a field
with its own jargon and technical vocabulary
and I tend to um I'm I'm um a bit of a wordsmith
of a person
so I try to be very precise in how I describe or um
or discuss things
and I think that's a little standoffish for people as well
that are perhaps lay people or whatever
and I think that that put me out of reach for a lot of people
and in my niche I connected well
but in general I was out of reach and with my disability
um no pun intended (laugh)
it really did put me in reach
Travis positions his identity prior to the onset of disease as hyper-masculine, intellectually elite, and in turn intimidating and unapproachable. He compares his professional presence to that of a doctor or a lawyer, two high-powered, culturally-valued professional identities predominantly equated with masculinity. Like Herman, Travis has quadriplegia and uses an electric wheelchair. He is also dependent on his wife to eat, bathe, dress, etc. In order to accommodate his build his chair takes up space. His legs are long, his shoulders are broad, his voice is deep, and his face is angular with a defined jaw. At five foot one, standing next to his wheelchair, I made eye contact without glancing downward.
Within his wheelchair, Travis retains a masculine, commanding presence. He performs how his physical disability altered others' impressions of him, allowing him to build relationships with people who normally would have remained distant from him. He positions his disability as a gateway, "an open door," rather than a barrier to his relationships with others. As a "receiver of assistance" his large body, deep voice, and large vocabulary are less intimidating. Travis performs his physical dependence as softening his hyper-masculine, powerful, professional identity — a reduction he welcomes and embraces. Rather than being ostracized, he is more approachable (like Herman is to his wife) and is able to form closer relationships:
I can now connect with people deeply, which I like
Like Herman, he does not perform any experience of stigma or marginalization that potentially accompanies physically disabled identity in performance.
Travis went on to narrate what he positions as a recurrent performance of his professional identity:
If I'm trying to draw a diagram on a flipchart
flipcharts are usually mounted
so that the bottom of the flip chart is about shoulder high
and my arms don't reach very high
and with a marker I can make some scratches on a flipchart
but they don't necessarily translate to any communication
between myself and the audience
and I think um that it's
ah I've learned to ask for help and to be comfortable with that
so I'm willing to solicit from you know whatever group
whether it be from the um from the team that I'm working with
or whether it be from the planning board members
and I think in doing that
particularly if I'm soliciting from a group that I'm presenting to
so actually reaching over that chasm between me and them
you know us and them
that breaks down barriers
I invite one of them to come and help me and um
and then then it um I don't know
it puts us on the same team or something
Travis performs his dependence on others as means to co-constitute shared identity within the professional space. He positions himself as comfortable "soliciting help" from both his colleagues and audiences, seeking assistance to "translate" information. He emphasizes that his request for help is "particularly" significant when he asks for assistance from those he is presenting to, a means to "[reach] over the chasm" and "[break] down barriers" that divide them from one another within a professional space. He articulates that, "It puts them on the same team or something," situating them in collaboration rather than on opposing sides of a professional interaction that could evoke a competitive struggle over power and resources.
Travis enacts his professional expertise through a large body that others interpret as commanding, educated, and articulate. Through his body, his performance of dependence is not met with reproach or resistance. Rather, his masculinity is mitigated to the point of approachability, not contempt. Travis's story crystallizes the multifaceted dynamic of culturally-preferred masculine performance. His sheer size, and the authority which comes from professional success, allows his loss of physical ability to heighten rather than diminish his ability to connect with others.
Herman and Travis embrace diminished autonomy, force, and intimidation and a personal performance of a "softer man" rather than resisting the change to their bodies. The final narrators blur the lines between a softer man and hegemonic masculinity, allowing them to appear strong and steadfast in the midst of adversity (exuding valued strength) while also appearing nurturing of others through empathy.
Performing validated physically disabled masculine performances of Perseverance and Paternalism
In narratives of validated masculinity, narrators position their physical disabilities as evidence of their fortitude of character in that they were capable of enduring hardship and adversity. Others interpret them as examples of leaders and mentors who possess the strength to enact the stereotypically masculine role of a leader through times of trial and a role models, akin to a wounded warrior returning home to a society in which he is esteemed for his ability to endure and triumph over potential misery and serve as an inspiration to others. Alvin, a professor of political science with quadriplegia with limited use of his vocal cords notes:
I th.ink. that. it. prob.ab.ly. ma.kes. me. a. bet.ter. pa.rent. my. ki.ds. have. an. un.der.stand.ing. of. hum.an. res.i.lience. a. role. mod.el. in. how. much. we. can. take. and. they. re.spect. me. for. that. 4
Alvin positions his disabled male body as a positive attribute in the masculine role of a father because his children interpret his ability to withstand physical disability as indicative of his strength of character. In his narrative performance of his parental identity, he emerges as a warrior who endures through battle. His fortitude in the face of adversity fosters admiration from his children, a living example of how to continue on in the midst of trials.
Larry, a pastor who uses a wheelchair due to a degenerative condition, also positions his disabled body as a source of strength and admiration for those around him. He positions his physical body as evoking a similar response from his congregation:
I don't know what what to make of this yet
I don't know how I feel about it um
there would be times at which a hurting person
would feel a certain kind of intimacy
or connection with me because they already have this sense that I
was a person who struggled and
who struggled and dealt with extra complications
and pain and what have you
you know what I'm saying?
So that was always sort of sort of a thing
that almost like in my views how
I'd how I'd frame this
almost like God
through my journey with struggle and difference and isolation and what have you
ah puts me out there among a people ah
who can then find some place of comfort
to know they're
they're shepherd is also ah
a wounded person
or a person who struggles as well
and another aspect of that though that was interesting
what I was gonna say at first
another interesting aspect of that
though was to have people who wanted to share
and who really needed to um
I guess be affirmed and to just have me share in their difficulty
and be present to their pain
Larry pauses throughout his performance. He emerges reflective and thoughtful in his interpretation of his congregation's understanding of his identity and the meanings that form through their interactions. He positions his body as appealing to those seeking a teacher, advisor, and counselor in times of suffering, seeing his body as evidence that he is familiar with their pain. Larry draws upon the familiar Christian metaphor of a pastor as a shepherd who takes care of the congregation, nurturing them like a shepherd would tend to his flock. He positions himself as strong and respected by his congregation, his masculinity does not need to be restored, and he effectively performs the role of a respected paternal leader. Like Alvin in his performance of his role of a father, Larry gains credibility and respect from others, able to embody the reiterated constitutions of masculinity as one who is able to singlehandedly endure and press on through hardship.
Park-Fuller (1995) asserts that in taking on the role of an audience for one another's stories we "bear witness" participating in the meaning-making that occurs within the time and space of human interaction. In his role of a pastor, Larry's leadership and authority is arguably paternal, that of father who is intimately connected to his congregation, tantamount to the head of a family. Because they interpret his body as enduring suffering, others are compelled to seek him out as a validated witness to pain, able to offer them insight and support. When enacting paternal masculine roles, such as that of a father or pastor, physical disability can legitimate rather than negates one's masculine performance. Outside of nurturing and counseling masculine roles, such as a father or pastor, the narrators did not perform the presence of physical disability as heightening one's perceived masculinity. 5 Still, their performances highlight the complexity of the interplay of identity markers in varying contexts, and illuminate how cultural understandings of masculinity is produced and reproduced through bodies interacting.
Conclusion: Exposing the Vulnerability of Culturally-constituted Hegemonic Masculinity
The relationship between masculinity and physically disabled identity materialized as a central component to personal identity across performances. Narrators struggled through what it meant to perform masculinity and sexuality, a desire to be desired, through a body culturally positioned as "other." Each narrator performed his identity in a unique time and space, situated within cultural meanings, beliefs, and realities. The variability across experiences drew attention to the ability and masculinity spectrums on which these bodies surface, enabled and constrained by cultural expectations of gendered performance. Bodies cited as different and deviant potentially unsettle dominant understandings of the culturally-constituted gendered continuum upon which all human bodies move within their daily performances. Through bodies marked atypical, the narrators expose the nuances of culturally-constituted hegemonic masculinity that all human beings negotiate, interpret, create and re-create within our interactions. Narrators mourned, resisted, and/or embraced their performances of masculine identity through disabled bodies.
Narrators positioned their masculine identities as changing based on their changing bodies, highlighting both the multifaceted nature and vulnerability of our bodies and the culturally-constituted gender identities we perform. Their performances of masculinity also call attention to our gender identities' dependence upon multifaceted cultural markers, from size and ability, to professional success and personal relationships, all of which are vulnerable to change with age, contexts, relationships, and/or events. Perhaps, through their reflections on gender, disability, and embodiment, we can first understand, and then begin the process of dismantling notions of 'ideal masculine identity' that all humans imagine and pursue, but that can never be realized by any body.
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- As a self-identified "physically disabled researcher," I consciously chose to not use person-first language in this study in an effort to resist positioning cerebral palsy as a lesser portion of my overall identity.
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- All males who responded self-identified as straight and white, in turn ethnicity and sexual orientation (important components of hegemonic masculinity) are not addressed in their narratives.
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- Xavier married a physical therapist while in medical school. He linked her acceptance of his body's difference to her exposure to pain and suffering in the medical field, which allowed her to mature more quickly.
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- The periods within Alvin's speech indicate the slow, careful form of each syllable.
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- Jesse also included that his wife looked to him for stability, but did not directly tie this desire to his ability to navigate a physical disability.
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