Disability and manliness are like two old lovers who’ve had a horrible falling out and can no longer bare to be in the same room together. Though they actually share a lot of the same struggles, their goals are so starkly different that they wouldn’t dare try to reconnect, nevermind look each other in the face. And out of respect for the way things are, everyone abides by this, with manliness on one side of the room and disability off crying in a hopefully-wheelchair-accessible bathroom somewhere.
It’s sad really, they could totally chum-it-up if they both acknowledged their common elephant in the room: vulnerability. Vulnerability has been by both of their sides for as long as either can remember, in fact, I’m pretty sure she’s the mutual friend who introduced them.
But anyways, I super digress. Today, I’d like to talk about the way manliness and disability don’t jive (you know, beyond the obvious “disability doesn’t play nice with anyone” stuff) , a comparative example showing the disconnect, and then a shot in the dark at how to unite the two.
Manliness: The Norm of Norms
Way back a little bit after dinosaurs, being manly was the only acceptable plight of being. This dates back to Aristotle (and probably before him), who said that women have “improper form” and are “monstrosities.” A woman named Nancy Tuana has renamed this the view “Misbegotten Men,” which clearly indicates that men were seen as the ultimate normative standard.
Add time and a population pregnant with– well– women, and this standard evolves into bland old gender stereotypes with men at the centre and women being all hysterical and such. As a society that commonly defines ourselves by our affinity for dichotomies, we see men as natural and women as unnatural. Ideas of stoicism and strength are quickly elevated and idealized.
If throwbacks to early histories tell us that manliness was the only way to go, you can only imagine the type of stuff being said about disability. More than just a deviation, disability was/still is considered an anti norm, a spectacle, often “exhibited as freaks,”(Integrating Feminist Theory, 7). Exploited for what I call points of difference from ablebodied norms, disability was the opposite of anything anyone wanted to see, outside a circus setting. It’s the furthest away from our standards of manliness and beauty as you can get, a direct reminder of human flaws, a stiff shot of non-conformity.
The thing that unites disability and manliess is that they’re both unachievable essentializations; one is a desired standard and the other a fascinating performance. They exist in the realm of human categorization, of measurability, and both do an adequate job of denying human’s humanity. Moving up to present-day, I have two examples of vulnerability, one portraying men, and the other people with disabilities. Both photo collections, the first depicts ablebodied men in their gitchies, in a space where they feel comfortable, baring their unaltered bodies for the viewers. It’s poignant, and by way of exposing vulnerability, very de-sexualized (since norms tell us manliness and vulnerability cannot coincide). The second photo grouping, which shows disabled people also in their underwear, aims to bring up sexuality in the realm of disability.
It’s interesting that two photo essays with almost exactly the same requirements(near-nudity in home spaces to demonstrate realness) can have completely different narratives propelling them. Taking pictures of ablebodied men in their homes, whilst stripped-down is exposure, vulnerability, while capturing disabled people at home in their nickers is apparently sexing them up. This distinction is reinforced by the comments below each post, with the article featuring ablebodied men inciting intelligent, discussion- driven comments like:
I was intrigued with the notion of getting away from violent imagery to portray masculinity, but as I scrolled through the photos what struck me was that — with the exception of the man holding the flower — they all look melancholic. Is that the message — take away aggression from men and they look like they lost their best friend? A man without aggression can be giddy, lively, loving and funny, too.
I’m off to the gym.
The article conveying disabled people “stripped” on the other hand, provoked uncomfortable reactions like:
“What did I just see…?”
“We really don’t need to see naked pictures of anyone,”Quite silly, being that none of the people portrayed in these photos are full-frontals, and shadows and angling are used very appropriately.
And, my personal favourite:
Since an article often speaks through its comments, this tells me that either the readers of Daily Mail UK are their own breed of trolls, or that they have simply internalized a chunk of discomfort around disability and sexuality that they haven’t yet gotten around to shaking off. Naturally, I submitted a hefty comment on re-evaluating societal standards of acceptable sexuality, but it was moderated, and the post was then closed to commenters. There’s 3 minutes of life I’ll never get back.
Maybe commenters of the able-bodied photo essay were just more open-minded than your average Joe on Daily Mail, but even so, I think this speaks volumes about what we’re open to discussing—male concepts of vulnerability and its implications—and what wer’e not—sexuality of persons with disabilities. This is fascinating, because it seems that both articles have similar end-games, in that they want to change norms around sexuality, and yet they are received with starkly different reactions by readers.
I don’t have concrete answers for the gap we face with acceptance of vulnerability, in the contexts of manliness or disability, but I like to think reminding others of their commonalities (deviation from the norm, disapproval from the mainstream, unachievable standards of performance), we can move towards more positivity on both fronts. Because divided we fall,or whatever.