Rebecca Davis’ 4 March analysis on dailymaverick.co.za http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2014-03-04-analysis-so-what-if-pistorius-screams-like-a-woman/#.UygDPWYrjIU argues that many South Africans’ notions of masculinity are threatened by the implication that a man might scream “like a woman” – as Oscar Pistorius’ lawyer Barry Roux intimated he did, during his trial.
“... there’s a particular sense of incongruity here because many of us have become quite wedded to a narrative of Pistorius which places him firmly within a South African culture of hyper-masculinity: a testosterone-fuelled scene of fast cars and guns, where physical strength is valued above pretty much any other virtue,” she writes.
And then: “But the truth is that there’s no reason why Pistorius can’t be both a testosterone-loaded boytjie and a sensitive soul who cries and screams in anguish – or neither, really. It’s time we acknowledged that our mainstream gender narratives are reductive and confining, and sometimes we’re only aware of them when they become a tool with which to taunt someone.”
So far, so good: I appreciate that our definitions of masculinity are fragile and narrow, and that gender violence and discrimination stand more of a chance of being fought against if we managed to broaden our understanding of masculinity, to allow our boys to be as confident and comfortable in their own skins as they can be. A man who likes himself and his maleness is, after all, less likely to subjugate a woman.
Defining everything that’s “like a woman” as risible and undesirable is offensive to women – but it also short-sells all boys and men because it narrows the range of human emotion they are allowed.
The investigation of Oscar as a man who discharges firearms in anger, and the suggestion therefore that his definition of masculinity is bound up with power, aggression, uncontrolled rages, is fair enough.
But Oscar is male and disabled. Where was the mention – any mention – in an article largely about identity formation, of his disability, as well as, crucially, how that feeds into his notion of himself as a man? If the South African context is as obsessed with hyper-masculinity as the article suggests, then Oscar’s disability has affected his own, or others’ sense of his masculinity over the course of his entire life.
Why are we so surprised that our role model textbook “disabled guy” stands accused of a desperate, angry crime? Why can’t we acknowledge that disability and dark characteristics such as rage and even antisocial behaviour can stand side by side?
As much as the tropes of masculinity constrict the choices available to men, so do the tropes of disability constrict the acceptable choices of disabled people. You can list them yourself: disabled folk should be: brave, inspirational, grateful, undemanding, proud, not too bitter... Where is the space for a sense of impotence? And how to integrate our expectations of masculinity, which encourages expressions of anger, and our society’s expectations of disability, which doesn’t?
Growing up as Oscar, it must have been very difficult to try to integrate those conflicting demands. And Oscar became, not just Average Disabled Guy, but Supercrip! Like all superheros, he had a fatal flaw: he had to pump himself up to being above the law to maintain the facade – and it’s caught up with him now.
Growing up as Oscar did, he must have experienced difficulties around the fact that his young body could not do, unassisted, what his friends’ bodies could. An old picture did the dreary rounds on social media recently: Oscar at the age of about ten, returning with a group of friends from a swimming pool – Oscar not wearing his blades, instead piggy-backed by a buddy. At the time, pre-Reeva, the ag-shame brigade went wild: wasn’t this an inspirational example of the beauty, innocence and lack prejudice or artifice of childhood?
Growing up as Oscar was never going to be uncomplicated. There was never going to be, for him, a simple trip back from the swimming pool with his buddies. The adult gaze would always project onto the boy Oscar its adult emotional baggage. That baggage would most likely load Oscar with one of a set number of tropes: as passive, as a victim, or a hero-despite-odds, at best – all things very much not traditionally associated with South Africa’s supposed notions of what makes a man.
The adult gaze is one of which my youngest son, who has spina bifida, is already acutely aware at three years old. He spends much of his time randomly lashing out at strangers who stare at him. He is just learning the vocabulary for what bothers him, and we are all hopefully learning how to express his anger safely (so that Future Himself does not discharge guns in restaurants or through sunroofs).
A year and a half ago, people who met my son would notice the similarities between him and Oscar Pistorius – handsome and with obvious leg issues – and perhaps think, “There goes another potential South African Paralympian.” Now, it’s “potential murderer”.
Oscar’s firing of that gun has stripped him of his inspirational-ness. If the shell of his masculinity is as empty as has been suggested, what is left?
To paraphrase Davis, it’s time we acknowledged that our mainstream disability – and not only gender - narratives are reductive and confining. And so I will try to raise my sons to have a sense of masculinity that can hold a fondness for traditional masculine pursuits alongside ones considered feminine. And I will try to raise my disabled son with a “disability identity” that similarly does not paint him into a too-small corner, that teaches him it is okay to be more than only ever either inspirational or pitiable.