The Ableism of Western Masculinity

When I, and others, read definitions of what it means to be “masculine” in the western world, we get words like: active, aggressive, ambitious, analytical, assertive, athletic, authoritative, blunt, certain, competitive, decisive, dominant, forceful, independent, individualistic, physical, protective, self-reliant, self-sufficient, strong and tough.

Some of these meanings of masculinity are perfectly okay—being active, ambitious, analytical and certain, for example, can be positive traits in many circumstances.

Other traits are, in my humble opinion, traits that contribute to gender inequality and so many sexual assaults against mostly women—being aggressive, authoritative, dominant, and forceful come to mind. The topic of how some ideas of western masculinity contribute to gender inequality and sexual violence may very well be the subject for a future post, but I won’t cover this in my current one.

And then there are other “masculine” traits such as: active, athletic, independent, physical, self-reliant, self-sufficient, strong, and tough. These traits are ableist, or discriminating in favor of able-bodied people, at least to some extent, because men who have disabilities are then viewed as completely unable to fit these traits of what it apparently means to be a “true man” or “manly enough.”

Consider the following:

  1. If you are a blind person, you don’t fit into some people’s ideas what it means to be masculine. The definition of masculinity includes independence, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency, yet you need to depend on other people, animals or things to guide you.
  2. If you are deaf person, you don’t fit into what some think it means to be masculine. You need to depend on sign language from others or closed caption coming from a machine, so you therefore don’t have the independence, self-reliance, or self-sufficiency associated with masculinity.
  3. If you need a cane to get around (let alone if you’re in a wheelchair), you don’t fit into our society’s idea of what it means to be masculine. Regardless of what your level of activity is (and I know my share of people who are on a cane or in a wheelchair AND are actually quite athletic), you are often viewed as inactive, unathletic, dependent on others and weak if you use a cane or are in a wheelchair.

The bottom line is that if you are a man with some form of disability, that person likely does not fit the definition of masculinity. In fact, because masculinity is ableist, the very ideas associated with modern western masculinity completely exclude men with disabilities the “manliness club.”

So when I hear someone talk about “toxic masculinity,” I agree—masculinity is toxic. The ableism of masculinity makes masculinity inherently toxic.

Note: I want to thank the blog Me, Myself and Disability for bringing this issue to my attention. When I first discovered that blog, I read a post about the author’s own experiences with the ableism of masculinity. If you want to get a more personal perspective on the ableism of western masculinity, I highly recommend that you read his post on the issue.

23 Replies to “The Ableism of Western Masculinity”

  1. I have a friend who who is a born a male and identifies as male. He presents himself as a male. There are times he presents himself as little bit feminine by wearing eye liner of nail polish. Some people think men wearing makeup in public is a big no no. Another thing is that we are both gay and fact people look at that differently.

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    1. Yes, Joe, there is the toxic idea that a man can’t or shouldn’t present themselves in a “feminine” way as your friend does. That’s a toxic idea as well and one I’ve thought about a lot. That’s possibly a topic for a different post at a different post though (however lots of articles have already discussed this topic, so I’m not sure how much I’d have to offer by writing my own post).

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  2. Hi Brendan, I get what you’re saying. Many of the traits you call toxic are toxic when taken to extremes. They are also traits of confidence and risk taking needed for success.

    It’s almost impossible to find yourself, if you let society define you.

    Btw, I am old-fashioned and love a masculine man. Not many women want a man hiding behind her or wearing her makeup.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would agree with you Angela. The sad thing is that some of these traits are taken to extremes (and I see it happen way too often). What motivated me to write this was actually another blogger who wrote about his personal experiences of these traits being taken to extremes.

      By the way it doesn’t really matter to me whether people are old-fashioned or not, as long as the behaviors aren’t toxic. If the behaviors are toxic, then that’s a different story.

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  3. An important discussion Brendan. I wonder if you have had a chance to see the video, “Tough Guise,” featuring Dr. Jackson Katz. I’m not sure if it’s available for free viewing online, but here’s a link to a brief overview of the updated version: http://www.jacksonkatz.com/videos/. Katz describes how these myths, expectations, and stereotypes have continued to be passed on to both men and women in the U.S.

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  4. This is a really interesting post/subject! I have an older brother and I have definitely seen how his disability has affected who he is as a man and his identity as a man. I’m always glad to see topics like these talked about because a lot of my views on disability are shaped by my experiences as a woman, and it’s good to see another perspective. Thanks for this!

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    1. Thanks for the compliment!

      I honestly wasn’t thinking about this subject until another blogger brought this up a few weeks ago on one of his posts. But when I looked further into what it means to “be a man” (or “be masculine”) society often defines it, it became clear to me that some of these traits are not really compatible with disabilities.

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  5. Thank you so much for referencing my blog, I’m glad it helped spark a discussion and you’ve put things so wonderfully! As you say, mine was more personal, but the idea that some of these supposedly masculine traits are incompatible with the mainstream view of disability in the broader sense is spot on.

    In response to an earlier commentor, these traits are not in themselves inherently negative, but the way they are seen as requirements for masculinity is the problem. I’d also argue that these are not always taken to extremes but can still be deeply problematic.

    Thanks for reading,
    C.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re welcome! I’m also glad that a discussion was sparked by my post too, and a bigger discussion than I realized.

      Your post was more personal, but it still brought up really good points that I wasn’t aware of. So thank you.

      As for the response to the earlier comment, I definitely agree with you. There’s nothing wrong with strength and independence, but if those traits are a requirement for masculinity, that’s a problem.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m not sure why we need generic labels and definitions for masculinity, or femininity. The people are people … I like the idea of just accepting people as they are without the need to label. Sigh. But then, I am in the minority. Good post and something we probably don’t even think about often. Thanks!

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  7. I’m not sure why we need the generic labels either. Yeah people are born with certain genitalia but that doesn’t mean that there should be specific restrictions on how people with said genitalia should act. You’re welcome!

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  8. Brendan: Thank you for this post! I teach feminist philosophy at a local college, and so this post is very important to me. I have been thinking a lot about what you write about–the way in which masculinity in the West has been constructed in an aggressive, dominating way. I never thought of it being ableist, but this really makes a lot of sense. Thank you for this insight. I am very interested in exploring what empowering femininity and empowering masculinity look like. I would be interested to hear more about what you think the characteristics of healthy masculinity are. Great post! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Shelly-You’re welcome!

      I didn’t think of masculinity in the West as being ableist until another blogger wrote on the topic. But when the blogger wrote on that topic, it was a revelation to me!

      I personally feel that a healthy masculinity doesn’t worry about what is “masculine” or “feminine” and also doesn’t worry that certain actions or characteristics make them “less of a man.” Men can be independent or dependent, tough or crying frequently, strong or weak, and still “be a man.” Of course, keep in mind that different people who talk about toxic masculinity have different opinions on your question too, so my comments might not be representative of everyone who’s passionate about the topic.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Brendan, interesting take on the disability aspect of things. Some questions popped into my head while reading, I hope you won’t take them as challenging. But I couldn’t help thinking that men with disabilities could be all of those things? Yes in the beginning it would be difficult but like everyone who requires education at the start of life, wouldn’t their education simply be tailored differently to suit their needs? Once again not challenging, and I look forward to seeing your reply.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries! I don’t care how simple or challenging a reader’s questions are. I am here to answer them, to the best of my abilities!

      To answer your question, masculinity is often portrayed as being “self-reliant” and “self-sufficient.” Relying on a doctor to diagnose you with the right disability, and then relying on a doctor to give you the proper treatment depending on the disability, is neither self-reliant nor self-sufficient. It doesn’t fit with how masculinity is often portrayed.

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