Disability and Sport: Hypermasculinity Explored

Whether you prefer “the Blade Runner”, “the Man Without Legs”, “the Fastest Man on No Legs” or Oscar Pistorius, this young man’s story will serve as a case study of mainstreaming in ‘disability sports’, specifically in the film Murderball. Pistorius is a 21-year-old South African below the knee amputee who won gold in the 100, 200 and 400 meter events at the 2006 Paralympic Athletics World Championships. Pistorius was regarded as being fast enough to earn a spot for the 200- and 400-meter sprints on South Africa’s Olympic team.
Pistorius asked to be allowed to run in the Olympics if he would qualify for his country’s Olympic team. The world governing body for track and field (IAAF) ruled on 14 January 2008 – invoking its rule 144. 2 which deals with technical aids – “that double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius is ineligible to compete in the Beijing Olympics because his prosthetic racing legs give him a clear competitive advantage” (IAAF, 2008).
The story of Pistorius well serve as the example of attempted mainstreaming of disability in sports, on the elite international front. Does the film Muderball make progress in mainstreaming disability through sport? The merits of the film will be analyzed through the lens of the relationship sport and disability, as well as its connotations for mainstreaming in disability. Murderball presents a unique opportunity to reflect on representations of disability in the contemporary North American context.

The narrative of the film constructs a rugby wheelchair rivalry between Team U. S. A. , captained by Mark Zupan, and Team Canada, coached by Joe Soars. Murderball does exceptionally well in muddling the notions of people with disabilities as fragile and helpless, countering ableist assumptions about what persons with quadriplegia can accomplish. However, based on a close reading of the film, it is suggested that Murderball accomplishes this disruption through the celebration of ableist, sexist and heterosexist tropes.
The following is a critique the film’s construction of the relationship between competitive international sport settings, disability, and masculinity by drawing on anti-normative politics. It is proposed that recuperations of normative identity in Murderball rely on a jingoistic and violent moral authority, while subjecting themselves to the constraints of normalcy. Due to its popularity and its subject matter, the film presents a unique opportunity to reflect on representations of disability, through the unique lens of sport, in the contemporary North American context.
In portraying disabled men participating in a highly risk involving contact sport in intensely belligerent nationalist settings, the film differs from the majority of North American cinematic portrayals of disability. As Irving Zola, in his Missing Pieces: A Chronicle of Living With a Disability, points out that “the use of the concept of danger was questionable, for a basic human right is the right to take risks”, a right which a quadreplegic does not surrender. Murderball serves to humanize disability in this regard.
It was compelling to undertake a critical examination of the film that Murderball works exceptionally well to disrupt notions of people with disabilities as fragile and helpless, and that disability was humanized through the story presented. Kurt Lindemann and James Cherney (2008) similarly argue that: “wheelchair rugby is itself a communicative act that sends a complex message to both the community of sport and our broader social collectives that counters ableist assumptions about what persons with quadriplegia can accomplish” (p. 08). Within the discipline of disability studies, premises of disability have evolved in the last several decades. Nigel Thomas and Andy Smith (2009) note that there has been “a shift from medical, individualized definitions and ideologies of disability to more socially constructed explanations of disability, which place more responsibility for disability on mainstream society” (p. 23). The medical model, however, is not without its merits. Disability has become a topic in sport sociology with increasing depth in recent years.
Themes that have commonly been addressed include: disability sport policies, governing bodies, and the opportunities for participation they provide; media portrayals of disability sport; the ways that athlete’s identities are negotiated through medical and social models of disability; and the role sports play in managing the stigmatization of athletes with disabilities. Within the study of the sociology of sport masculinity has become a dominant topic of discussion. David Howe and Carwyn Jones (2006) consider the classification of disabled athletes into competitive classes in amateur associations and Paralympic competition.
They claim that the International Paralympic Committee has marginalized the disability sports community by controlling classification systems and imposing restrictions on opportunities for equitable sports practice. Their justification is, that this threatens the ideology of Paralympism while ignoring the empowerment of non-elite athletes (Howe & Jones, 2006, p. 44). While providing an analysis of sport’s structure, choices, and fairness for participants of all abilities, Howard Nixon (2007) advocates for the creation of diverse sports opportunities for people with disabilities.
My critique of Murderball does not extend to the sport’s governing body, or policies that effect the sport, however the case study of Oscar Pistorius serves this exact purpose. How do individuals with disabilities negotiate their identities through sport? Both social and medical models of disability affect disability sport participants’ identity formation, while success in international disability sport may lead to positive subjectivity, changed self-understanding, and an increased sense of personal empowerment.
Much research of participation in disability sports at the school age indicates that physical activity is a normalizing experience for these children as it facilitates friendships and social identity (Taub & Greer, 2000). The problems of normative aspects of the representation of athletes with disabilities in Murderball demonstrates that people with profound disabilities can be aggressive and athletic. It must be noted that all of the people with disabilities depicted in Murderball are elite athletes in international competition who are shown making aggressive plays on the court and whose off court commentary is full of macho bravado.
The limited representation of people with disabilities in popular films may be partially attributed to the pursuit of profit. In attempt to appeal to the largest audience possible and to increase box office and rental sales, narratives are filed with homogenizing representations and saleable themes. Normative narratives allow the maximum projected audience to relate to the story, by relaying common themes such as normative masculinity Murderball subscribes to this familiar scheme by placing the athletes at the center of a very conservative political project.
The film positions quad-rugby players as worthy subjects of the documentary according to their ability to participate in a sport that requires affirmations fitting with normative masculinity such as power, violence, hypersexuality, and strength. Meanwhile, The players’ contentions with stereotypes associated with disability is unfortunately overtaken by a seemingly constant reiteration of the athletes’ capacity for athletic competition, and this is demonstrated through their sport participation and physicality.
This situates the athletes’ conformity to hegemonic masculinity in that “the athletic male body has been a mark of power and moral superiority for those who bear it” (Dutton in Dworkin ; Wachs, 2000, p. 49). The opening scene effectively illustrates the ethos of the film in this respect. Mark Zupan undresses and gets himself ready for a workout. As he begins to dress in athletic shorts, he removes his shirt revealing a defined white, muscular torso, his physical presence doesn’t seem weak or fragile. He is clearly capable of dressing himself, the absence of a sound track is noted as uncharacteristic for contemporary North American cinema.
This leaves an uncomfortable silence as accompaniment for an intimate moment rarely depicted on camera. The mere fact that he has an obvious impairment and uses a wheelchair is also atypical for popular cinema. This silent visual representation provides context for the film’s opening credits and sets up the primary subject of the film. The uncomfortable image is contrasted with Mark Zupan’s capacity to be independent and fill the screen with his presence. His large bold tattoo is featured in the center of the picture as he lifts his leg with his hands.
Zupan assembles a wheelchair highlighting its mechanical efficiency with close up shots of nuts, bolts, spokes and a battered metal surface covered with an American flag sticker. An electric motor makes noise, as the wheels are pumped up. The name Zupan is affixed to the pump with athletic tape. Although he does not represent completely normative masculinity as a man with a disability, the other aspects of his presence in this scene – his strength, his ability to perform complex technical tasks self sufficiently, and his loud tattoo and goatee – are symbolic of a strong masculine physicality.
His embodiment also works to code his non-conformity as marketable. On a surface level, then, the film’s popularity can be considered a success for disability cultural activist movement. It is an authentic portrayal of a disabled subculture that avoids the traditional narrative traps of many mainstream disability films. The audience is immediately directed to check their well- intentioned sympathies at the door, along with any preconceived notions about the fragility of the disabled body. Disability sexuality, a taboo and uncomfortable ground for many non-disabled viewers, is reclaimed with a vengeance.
Indeed, one of the difficulties in analyzing Murderball is that its most radical features are simultaneously its most conventional. Thus, while non-disabled viewers may find their assumptions and stereotypes challenged by the masculine sexual bravado of Murderball’s quadriplegic rugby players, there may be a simultaneous sense of relief at the ironclad endurance of male heterosexual privilege. Heterosexuality no longer functions as evidence that a disabled masculinity has finally been ‘cured’; instead, it is the masculinization of disability that holds the power to rehabilitate heteronormativity from its own gender trouble.
Therefore, Murderball serves as an interesting case study of the intersection between disability studies and masculinity. The popularity of this film demonstrates a powerful cultural backlash against representational histories that have conflated feminization, male homosexuality, and disability. The film successfully remasculinizes its subjects, celebrating disability and strength, resulting in the inevitable hypermasculine body. Ironically, the rhetoric of masculinity in Murderball is also the source of its anatgonism. The film’s ‘crip’ critique of able-bodiedness relies on repeated heteromasculine performances.
A close reading of the film reveals masculinity as the visual mechanism through which disability is beginning to find its place on the contemporary cultural stage. Murderball harnesses the normalizing powers of masculinity, presenting a narrative of gender that helped to generate mainstream appeal in the box office and, more importantly, mainstream approval of a stigmatized social identity. A question that must be mentioned is what does the film Muderball mean for quadripelegic women? The same logic that masculinizes the quadriplegic or paraplegic man also functions to both masculinize and desexualize the quadriplegic or paraplegic woman.
Disabled women, and particularly disabled female athletes, are not celebrated as having been liberated from oppressive conventions of gender, nor are they given access to normative femininity. Indeed the few images of disabled women that the documentary presents function more as a set of brief snapshots that, while easy to miss, momentarily interrupt the temporal, and often verbal, logic through which these ‘boys’ become ‘men’. These more or less static images haunt the film’s perimeter, a subtle threat to the coherence of a narrative that celebrates quadriplegia as the natural outcome of the hypermasculine male body.
The concept of mainstreaming has been prominently constant in the world of disability for many years, while its definition has evolved substantially. Mainstreaming, initially referring to merely placing individuals with disabilities in regular classes with able-bodied individuals, was introduced in the 1960s (Reynolds, 1962). The majority of professionals in the disability field did not accept mainstreaming. It was mostly regarded as “a statement of what could or should be possible” (Aufesser, 1991).
Initially, the premise of mainstreaming only included integrating those with ‘mild disabilities’ and definitely not those with physical disabilities. During the movement of deinstitutionalization in the 1970s, the definition of mainstreaming underwent a significant shift. The ‘new’ interpretation of mainstreaming is highlighted by the Cascade System, a model first proposed by Reynolds in 1962 and amended and reintroduced by Deno in 1970. This revolution, of sorts, gave way to new terms such as ‘normalization’, ‘least restrictive alternative’, and ‘continuum of service’.
The Cascade System can be characterized as a two-box system in which parallel but separate educational programs for regular and special education operate within school buildings. The implementation of the Cascade system was difficult at best, and nonexistent a lot of the time. The model helped create understanding and support around a better system that “facilitates tailoring of treatment to individual needs rather than a system for sorting out children so they will fit conditions designed according to group standards not necessarily suitable for the particular case” (Deno, 1970, p. 35). The philosophy behind this model is commendable and is the only logical framework within which to develop a system of mainstreaming. Therefore, Murderball has already been mainstreamed in some regards. The excitement and intensity of the sport attract a large following, able-bodied and disabled alike. The stories of Pistorius and Mark Zupan extend beyond bionic runners and wheelchair rugby. Several other issues arose as a result of the Pistorius controversy.
Can the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities, the newest human rights instrument for people with disabilities, give some guidance? By invoking the rule 144. 2 and dealing with technical aids for Olympic, Paralympic, other-lmypic, and international sport, it opened the dialogue for further progress. The future of ‘enhancements’ and their impact on the Olympics, Paralympics, other-lympic, and international sport has not been thoroughly researched, and it is expected that an increase work into this issue will emerge.
Another interesting dynamic that is touched upon is the relationship between the Olympics, Paralympics, other –lympics and international sports. Will we be exposed to any changes in the relationship between the ‘lympics’ due to the Pistorius case? Bottom of Form Deno, E. (1970). Special education as developmental capital. Exceptional Children, 37, mildly retarded—Is much of it justifiable? 229-237. Works Cited Dworkin, S. , ; Wachs, F. (2000). The Morality/Manhood Paradox. In J. McKay (Ed. ), Masculinities, gender relations, and sport. (pp. 47—65).
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Hoare, Q. ; Nowell Smith, J. (Trans. ; Eds. ). New York: International Publishers. Howe, P. D. , ; Jones, C. (2006). Classification of disabled athletes: (Dis)empowering the Paralympic practice community. Sociology of Sport Journal, 23(1), 29—46. “IAAF Oscar Pistorius – Independent Scientific study concludes that cheetah prosthetics offer clear mechanical advantages”, International Association of Athletics Federations, 14 Jan 2008, available at:http://www. aaf. org/news/newsId=42896,printer. html; Kurt Lindemann and James L. Cherney. “Communicating In and Through “Murderball”: Masculinity and Disability in Wheelchair Rugby. ” Western Journal of Communication (2008): 107-25. Lead Article. Taub, D. E. , ; Greer, K. R. (1998). Sociology of acceptance revisited: Males with physical disabilities participating in sport and physical fitness activity. Deviant Behavior, 19(3), 279—302. Thomas, N. , ; Smith, A. (2009). Disability, sport and society: An introduction. New York: Routledge.

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