Battle of the Sexes: Does One Sex Look “Better” with Disabilities Than the Other?

Happy March, readers!

Thanks for joining me for another month here at the IndependenceChick blog. I’m not planning a series for March, but I’m hoping to bring you thought-provoking posts that build on ones that are already here, as well as ones that build on current research. For example, today’s post is not about love or sex, as were February’s posts, but it does deal with a “battle of the sexes” type of issue.

One of my most frequent readers, galacticexplorer, gave me the idea for this one. In November 2013, I wrote a post entitled “Disney and Disability,” where I examined the reasons why Disney has not given us a princess with a disability. That is, unless you count Ariel’s temporary muteness or Elsa’s sometimes destructive ice powers, which I don’t. I do count Vanellope Von Sweetz as a representation of disability, but she is neither in the princess line nor considered to have a real-world disability, so there you go. Anyway, galacticexplorer and I ended up discussing the fact that, not only is the media’s attitude anti-disability, it’s also often anti-women, within the realm of disability. That is, if you watch a TV show or movie and do see a character with a disability, that character will most likely be male. Even in books, the character with a disability is most often male.

Furthermore, if you probe into media portrayals, the male character with a disability (CWD) is usually painted in some kind of “overcomer” role, even if he ends up dying by the end. Or we could just call “dying” what it is in that case–being sacrificed for the sake of a good story, but moreover, being sacrificed because the powers that be thought a story that kowtowed to disability stereotypes had to be “good.” But, back to the overcomer thing. Examples:

Freak the Mighty. Kevin Dillon does have Murqio Syndrome and has to deal with the fallout, such as hospital stays and a weakened immune system. Yet, he is painted in an overcomer role in that he still goes out on adventures with best friend Max, stands up for the vulnerable, and even helps kick some villainous butt.

Jimmy (the book by Robert Whitlow and the corresponding film). Yes, Jimmy is terrified of water. Yes, he has a childlike personality. But he does many things independently. He is intelligent enough to remember what he hears. He sees and communicates with angels, which not many of us do, disability or not.

Mr. Holland’s Opus. Cole, Glenn Holland’s son, is Deaf. Yet, his disability is barely mentioned (a true rarity for media), and he is seen only as an independent individual. Even as a child, before learning sign language, when he throws himself down on the floor and screams, it is made clear that this is out of frustration at not being able to communicate. It is not a manifestation of Deafness or a “behavior.” Without even knowing it, then, I’d say Cole overcomes stereotypes he, and we, didn’t even think about.

Growing up Fisher. I haven’t seen this show–in fact, its premiere is slated for this week. But I know from the trailers that it features an older man who happens to be blind. Nobody around him knows this, and played for laughs as it can be, that’s pretty darn ingenious. In one trailer, a supporting character exclaims, “But you just test drove my $10,000 car!”

Monk. Granted, this is less so. Adrian Monk’s OCD can be downright debilitating, and more discouragingly, it’s often played for laughs. Not that this is always malicious; the director and producers were pretty good at creating situations where the viewer can laugh with, not at, or laugh because they don’t understand why Monk doesn’t get more, well, understanding. At least, that’s how I laugh. But Monk is still an ace homicide detective. He still gets to the point that he fully overcomes a lot of the OCD’s fallout. And at times, he kicks rear with, not in spite of, OCD.

See what I mean? A male with a disability in fiction stands a great chance of being in a proactive role. Not always–we still suffer from the effects of pieces like Rain Man and Flowers for Algernon. But they stand a better chance than females, even in real life. For example, here’s a painful contrast for real life. The homepage for shows a man in a wheelchair, smiling, wit a smiling woman standing behind him. The implication is that she is temporarily able-bodied and that their marriage is or will be happy (she’s in bridal gear, he’s in a tux). In contrast, the Google search “disability and marriage” also turns up a letter posted to a message board. The writer explains that he is married to a woman with CP. While at first, he didn’t care, he now claims he is no longer attracted to her physically, often finds himself looking at “prettier, healthier” girls, and feels he cannot do the physical activities, such as sports, he enjoys because his wife cannot. In addition, in a couple where one spouse has a disability and one is TAB, reports are likely to be positive, in my experience, if the TAB spouse is the woman. (I have yet to find research of this kind on homosexual couples; if anyone knows of any, please feel free to let me know).

Odd, right? Double standard much? I think so. In our conversation, my reader theorized that this “battle of the sexes” complex may be because TAB people find it easier to believe that a man would be an undesirable sexual partner than a woman. Now, leaving aside the idea that any PWD is sexually undesirable, because we know that’s crap, why the heck is that? Is it because, after what, 150-200 years, we still persist, in the deepest regions of our psyches, in seeing women as the weaker sex? Do we therefore feel better painting them as the “victims” of disabilities?

I do have to stop and give the media credit here. It has gotten better. For example, we have:

Ice Castles. In this movie, champion figure skater Lexi becomes blind as a result of a head injury on the ice. With the help of her dedicated boyfriend, she does return to skating. (But it’s presented almost as though she needs him for confidence, and she does trip and fall at the end of her big routine at the end). Better, but not quite.

Temple Grandin. This one, based on true events, shows Temple, played by Claire Danes, going to college and grad school, and becoming a pioneer in the humane treatment of cattle. (But we do see plenty of the fallout of her autism/Asperger’s, and plenty of people making fun of her). Of course, we see characters making fun of males with disabilities, too, like with Kevin Dillon and Jimmy Mitchell. But overall, with males, that is presented less.

Sue Thomas, F.B. Eye. If that’s not a woman in an overcomer role, you tell me what is. I mean, she’s a freaking F.B.I. agent. She is also Deaf, and I think that gets her bonus points because the Deaf population has embraced disability on a level that most other PWDs do not. (We have Deaf Pride–I’m waiting for Cerebral Palsy Pride, Down Syndrome Pride, Blind Pride, and so on, people). But Sue does have to “do time” in Special Projects, as it were, and Jack Hudson does overprotect her.

Now, you could say I’m nitpicking, and I’d listen to you. But I would not concede the point? Why?

  • Pollyanna gets cured.
  • Klara Sessaman gets cured.
  • Beth March dies (not classical disability, I’ll grant you, but Little Women gives plenty of evidence that she had a weak immune system from day one)
  • Melody of Out of my Mind is left out of a state quiz team competition because of her CP, with a teacher’s implicit permission
  • Molly, the protagonist of an eponymous movie based on Flowers for Algernon, suffers the same fate as Charlie in the original novel
  • Cynthia Voigt’s novel Izzy, Willy-Nilly, about a high school student named Isobel (Izzy) Lingard who must have her leg amputated after being hit by a drunk driver, is less about her in an active role than it is about her becoming friends with Rosamond, a TAB girl she’d never noticed before and even passively shunned.
  • Kissing Doorknobs, a 1998 novel about a girl named Tara who has OCD, focuses a lot on her being misdiagnosed, shamed, and bullied. She is never in an active role even after being properly diagnosed, even when kissing a boy (he too has OCD, and their relationship seems built 90% on that).

So my question is, why are we putting women in the “victim” role and men in the “overcomer” role if we’re so liberated and open-minded? Of course, there are theories. The Economist has a very recent article online, entitled “Why it’s Not Rain Woman,” that explains some of these. One is that girls on the autism spectrum have more copy-number variances (CNVs) that “protect” them from autism’s more severe effects. Another is that women are better at “hiding’ evidence of autism and Asperger’s because they are less “socially blind” than men and boys who have the same disabilities. But that brings up another question: So, you’re saying women with autism and Asperger’s display fewer of the symptoms and to a lesser degree. If they’re supposedly higher-functioning much of the time, why still paint them as victims? Why?

I don’t get it. I’d venture to say most women don’t either, disability or not. But I will say this: disability is disability. It doesn’t look the same on any two people, and one sex doesn’t make it look better or worse. So let’s represent both sexes, with disabilities, in a positive way.



  1. Whoa, I got mentioned! =) I’m glad to see you bring this up again for your readers. I do think that the various different prejudices that we have as a society do tend to intertwine and take on a life of their own. Sexism+anti-PWD-bias (does that have an easier name?), or racism+sexism or sexism+transphobia, or any number of other combinations lead to unique discrimination. I think this is why it is essential that any rights movement should stay aware of the ways in which their movement intersects with others and we must all support each other. I am all for having separate organizations and movements for different goals, but we should all still remain educated and a little involved with each other. We are connected whether we admit it or not! =P

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