Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Let’s talk about Oscar

The rest of the world is doing it, so we may as well talk about Oscar, too, then.

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.



  1. Powerful post .... poignant point of view ... as usual you offer an angle that I may not have been able to see left to my own devices.

    I told you I would be one of the 8 who would read your blog if you started posting again. xxx

  2. A very interesting point of view! Interestingly I switch channels whenever anything Oscar comes on air. I don't think my fragile heart can handle it

    1. I don't watch it either, it is so depressing

  3. Now that you mention it, because Oscar is so successful and famous I did not even consider him "disabled" in my mind and completely ignored the impact his disability must have had on his psyche growing up. Ouch! His anger and aggression issues make a lot of sense in this regard, whether he is a murderer or not.

    Before, I was thinking along the lines of, well the stresses of fame and success can lead to anger and paranoia, and athletes probably need that level of aggression to succeed. These things are probably still partly true, but you cannot discount unresolved issues from a difficult time growing up the way he did,either with society's pity or with its need for him to be a superhero all the time.

    1. Hello po! Thanks for the comment. I think everything that makes up his identity needs to be considered, while, male, disabled, South African, his particular family, etc etc etc. It was good to hear from you again!

  4. I am so over this trial. I cannot see why it needs to be aired live on television. I don't follow it and already have more than enough just watching the news at night.

    1. Because it's a hugely fascinating insight into how our courts work and thank goodness we are seeing everything because there will always be somebody who says the verdict was wrong either way it goes. Like all things in life it's a choice, tune in or don't tune in but hells bells stop moaning about a done deal.

    2. I can understand your perspective very well, Anonymous, but I am mystified why you would want to take such a nasty tone with Lynette, who was expressing her opinion. The lack of social media etiquette is out-and-out the largest reason I stopped blogging. Who wants to walk around all day in a fug of criticism and negativity from all the Anonymouses in the world? Can't they just gossip quietly out of earshot like in the good old days. But apparently we don't even accord each other that small courtesy anymore.

    3. I apologise. Things don't always come across as they should on the internet. I was just tired of the moaning about the trial being televised when nothing can be done to change it. I shall refrain from commenting until I have thought it through from now on.

    4. Ah man bloody hell now I feel suitably chastised too. Sorry if I was too fast to feel criticised - it Is a chink in my armour. You are right, we don't have tone to help us on the internet. I am sure we both agree - those of us who want to watch, can and should and will, and those of us who don't, shouldn't and mustn't, and both parties have good reasons. Sorry again.

  5. Marvelous piece of writing, Margot. Huzzah; it's great to see you back here and in such fine form. (Stac)

  6. Great post Margot...
    I am also so over this trial. And the sad thing is it going to drag on for ages.