Toxic Masculinity and Disability

By Keith Murfee-DeConcini

DSAB 611: Research Methods, Fall 2018


My research will focus on disability in relation to masculinity, especially in relation to current social movements investigating toxic masculinity. In previous coursework, I completed a lengthy study of masculinity and disability, comparing the histories of social perceptions on the topic to their modern equivalents. I obtained data on the latter with interviews of a small sample size of disabled men who had all been born with their disabilities. My proposed research will expand on my previous work, including taking a more in-depth look at how toxic masculinity influences (and is influenced by) the modern notions of masculinity and if that includes disability in any way.

Focus groups (in person and online) will be a major data-gathering method, as will daily diaries by the men in the study. Social movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up will be examined, as will the effects those movements have on men with disabilities, if any. Further, my proposal will also call for an investigation into whether an emerging field of study of masculinity can aid the already established areas of femininity and queer studies, while also addressing what role, whether positive or negative, disability plays in those fields.

Over the past few years, with the emergence of social movements like Time’s Up and #MeToo, the concept of masculinity increasingly has been under a microscope of scrutiny. This level of scrutiny has been desperately needed as we examine whether masculinity is healthy. If the concept is considered not healthy, society must find ways to improve the modern model of masculinity. Where does disability fit into this? Disability is often an unknown or a not-thought-of concept to the general public, except for those who live with a disability, their families, or people who work on behalf of people with disabilities. Often when disability is thought of, it is considered with skepticism, fear, or hostility; these reactions are parallel to those experienced when the concept of toxic or hegemonic masculinity is brought up. All too often toxic or hegemonic masculinity is thought of as the current terminology that encompasses the totality of masculinity, and that notion is extremely problematic.

I began studying the concept of disabled masculinity in the summer, and through that research, the desire arose to contrast an often-neglected concept, disabled masculinity, with a well-researched term, toxic masculinity. I found only limited references that addressed the two. While that is a good thing on one hand, on the other, if toxic masculinity is thought to cover all males, then the limited references between the two concepts should illustrate two things, both a positive and a negative. One, that perhaps that males with disabilities do not subscribe to the traits of traditional masculinity that are viewed as toxic (this is the ideal outcome), or two, that when people study the concept of masculinity, they do not even consider it from a disability perspective. The latter may be especially true of people who are unaware of the academic field of disability studies. The fact that they are not aware of disability studies and therefore do not consider it when studying masculinity is the best explanation, while the worst is that researchers do not consider men with disabilities true males, assuming they lack masculine traits because of their disabilities.

As with my previous work on the subject of disabled masculinity, Exploring the Complexities of Disabled Masculinity: A Primer (2018), this proposal will use Raewyn Connell’s definition of hegemonic masculinity as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (Connell, 2005). It is important to note that throughout this proposal, the terms “toxic masculinity” and “hegemonic masculinity” will be used interchangeably. The readings discussed within the Literature Review will use this method as well.

I will not argue that toxic or hegemonic masculinity is a good thing and has benefited the world in a substantially positive way, or that it does not require a major adjustment to better adapt to a changing world. Rather I will advocate for bringing the study of masculinities to the forefront of academic field research, alongside feminism and other gender studies, while allowing the study of disability to enrich those fields. The purpose of the study of masculinities is not and should not be to flex the range of the patriarchy; rather it should provide a field of study where men are allowed to learn and grow into better men.


I am a male with disabilities who is almost in my mid-thirties. I was raised by an Irish feminist mother and an Italian American father. I was born in New York City, spending my early years there and in Arizona before moving to Washington, DC, for my teenage years. My life in some ways has been a variety of moves across the country. Throughout my formative years, I heard about the histories of the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement from my mother. I later learned about the gay rights movement from several friends and family members who had come out as gay. I was aware of my skin color but not aware of the privilege that was attached to it. I was beginning to understand the concept of disability and the fact that I had several; however, I was not aware of the stigma attached to disability and the hardships faced by those who have disabilities.

 Even though my disabilities are considered “mild” by medical professionals and my parents, I was soon made aware, as the years progressed, that the “hallmark” of my disability identity would be my voice. No matter how much I or people around me may have wanted me to conceal my disability and therefore “pass” as a normal kid, I could not do that. This was because as soon as I opened my mouth, my disability sprang out to greet whoever was listening or at least pretending to listen. Before I even was aware of the concept of a disability identity, I had one affixed to me, just like the social connotations of gender and sexuality. My voice is the most outward appearance of my disability, which renders trying to pass as normal to avoid stigma a pointless endeavor (Wilson & Brune, 2013). My disability and the marginalized identity that comes along with it will always be with me, just like my skin color.

Literature Review

 The foremost scholar on the subject of hegemonic masculinity is R. W. Connell (who later published under the name Raewyn Connell), an Australian sociologist who has studied this concept since its inception in the 1980s. The concept started in a study surrounding social inequality in Australian high schools and then branched out from there into a global investigation (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). In 1985, Connell, along with two colleagues, began to unpack the social and cultural histories surrounding the male sex role that eventually led to hegemonic masculinity. They analyzed several early books centered on feminist theory and feminist critique, while also looking at the literature of the emerging field of theory surrounding men’s liberation. One of the authors in the latter category reviewed is Joseph Pleck, who completed his Ph.D. in masculine psychology in 1975 and is known for writing books such as 1981’s The Myth of Masculinity (Carrigan, Connell, & Lee, 1985).

 Through scholarly works like Pleck’s The Myth of Masculinity (1981), Connell’s Masculinities (1995/2005), and James Messerschmidt’s Hegemonic Masculinity (2018), among several others, the overarching message is clear: the male sex role must evolve and be redefined. Carrigan, Connell, and Lee summarize the point this way: “The ‘male role’ is unduly restrictive because hegemonic masculinity does not reflect the true nature of men . . . masculinity is fundamentally the social pressure that, internalized, prevents personal growth” (Carrigan, Connell, & Lee, 1985). Collier (1998) points to a fundamental flaw in the concept of hegemonic masculinity, in that the definition “excludes ‘positive’ behavior on the part of men—that is, behavior that might serve the interests or desires of women” (Collier, 1998).

In 1995, Gerschick and Miller issued a pioneering study on disabled masculinity entitled Coming to Terms: Masculinity and Physical Disability. In the study, they established an emerging groundwork for disabled men to deal with hegemonic masculinity through several responses, such as reliance, reformulation, and rejection. In conducting numerous interviews with disabled men, they discovered that while “some disabled men continue to rely on hegemonic masculine ideals for their sense of self, some reformulate these ideals in line with their limitations, and others reject hegemonic masculinity, formulating instead an alternate masculinity for themselves” (Gerschick & Miller, 1995). None fit into a single response completely, suggesting that the ways in which disabled men deal with complex social pressure, internalized or externalized, are incredibly diverse.

A later study by Russell Shuttleworth, Nikki Wedgwood, and Nathan J. Wilson, The Dilemma of Disabled Masculinity (2012), suggests that the previous study provides a scholarly voice to “explicitly link disabled men’s dilemma to the feminist and masculinity studies agendas” (Shuttleworth, Wedgwood, & Wilson, 2012). This claim is bolstered by the fact that the 1995 study was inspired by a 1988 study by Adrienne Asche and Michelle Fine on women with disabilities, which also referenced the paradoxical notion of disabled masculinity (Asch & Fine, 1988).

While there are feminist scholars that advocate for a more inclusive theory of feminism in relation to disability (Wendell, 1989), there are other scholars who question whether that work is actually being accomplished (Wendell, 1996; Rohrer, 2005). Disability can be not only a biological concept but also a social concept that can touch virtually anyone at any time. This certainly includes people who have different sexual or gender preferences from those that are considered the norm (Harley, 2002).

 The study of the concept of disability is as complex as the study of gender relations and the resulting theories that accompany them. Feminism has always been multiple and evolving, from the early radical theorists that made such conclusions as “women embody the force of light and men the force of darkness” (Eisenstein, 1983). The rise of both the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements over the last several years are important because their missions are vital to the overall positive growth of society and were a long time coming. Because of those movements, a renewed interest in the concept of hegemonic masculinity has occurred. It is here where the study of masculinity, Men’s Studies, or Critical Studies on Men (CSM) (Hearn, 2004) can be employed to assist in beginning to dislocate the deeply rooted entrenchment of patriarchy that has only been aided by toxic or hegemonic masculinity.

One of the most prominent analyses of disabled masculinity that raises the possible intersection of hegemonic masculinity is found in the 2009 critique by Cynthia Barounis of the independent film Murderball, which came out in 2005. The film documents the lives of a group of quadriplegic rugby players. Barounis also uses the critique to study the portrayal of homosexuality in the film Brokeback Mountain, which came out the same year as Murderball. She uses her critique to explain her belief that “The aesthetic elevation of these two particular films reveals much about how contemporary cultural anxieties regarding queerness and physical disability are negotiated through visual culture.” The films in their depictions of disability and homosexuality showed the “the normalizing powers of masculinity [which allowed] for the mainstream approval of a stigmatized social identity” (Barounis, 2009; see also Lindemann & Cherney, 2008).

In response to the societal debate over hegemonic masculinity as a systemic issue, the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2018 updated their guidelines to psychologists to help them better address hegemonic masculinity with their patients. These updated guidelines do not seek to demonize all men but rather address the diverse “social identities [that contribute] uniquely and in intersecting ways to shape how men experience and perform their masculinities, which in turn contribute to relational, psychological, and behavioral health outcomes in both positive and negative ways” (American Psychological Association, 2018). While the guidelines do cite the prevalence of a certain type of masculinity ideology that is negative, that being “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence” (Levant, 2007), the APA does recognize the plural nature of masculinity as a term with many different meanings in different and diverse contexts (Wong & Wester, 2016).

From articles in publications like the New York Times (Blow, 2017; Black 2018) and Forbes (Zalis, 2019), to name but a couple in recent months on all sides of the masculinity debate, to companies like Gillette, whose ad reframing their long-time “The Best a Man Can Get” slogan was met with uproar (Cave, 2019; Rodriguez, 2019), it is clear that this debate will continue to develop and expand outward, hopefully changing the way we look at and feel about masculinities of all types for the better. The notion of looking at masculinity within a more critical framework, designed not to demonize men but rather to allow them to mature, should not scare men. This should be the purpose of a study of masculinity, Men’s Studies, or Critical Studies on Men (CSM). Much like the continuing evolution that feminism and gay and gender studies have undergone over the past several decades, so too should masculinity studies evolve. The impediment to social progress between the genders occurs when society assumes that all masculinity is toxic (Cooper 2018), or that there are many ways to be a young woman but only one way to be a young man, which now seems to be the case in a surprising gender rule reversal (Miller, 2018).

It is vitally important that these discussions continue and that all voices are heard, regardless of ability, ethnicity, race, sexuality, or gender. Diverse voices throughout the years have bolstered feminist theory and queer theory. The connections between queer theory and disability have already been established in the concept of Crip Theory (McRuer, 2011; Bone, 2017).

 What my proposal calls for is not a direct merging of feminism and the study of masculinity, because I do not feel that would be effective, and even if it would, such a merger would be a massive undertaking which would take years. Instead, I am proposing a closer alignment of masculinity and feminism using the concept of intersectionality. The term was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw as a framework to connect different fields of study (e.g., race, gender, sexuality) to each other (Cooper, 2016). Before the framework of intersectionality can be used to begin to link the concepts and social theories of masculinity and femininity and, it is hoped, the people who subscribe to them, a deeper analysis of hegemony (leadership or dominance) in relation to masculinity, and its result in hegemonic masculinity which is spurred on by legitimacy of patriarchy, must be undertaken. I seek to begin that process with an applied emphasis on disability in relation to masculinity, particularly hegemonic masculinity.                         

Proposed Method

My research for this project will use a mixed methods approach. I will rely extensively on qualitative research, with a maximum variation (heterogeneity, mixed methods) sampling approach. It will differ from my previous work, as I plan to conduct in-person and virtual focus groups (Rainey, 2015; Stewart & Shamdasani, 2015a, 2015b) and utilize daily research diaries (Hyers, Swim, & Mallet, 2006), in addition to in-person and online interviews as I have conducted previously. The sample size will be twice as large, including at least 10 men instead of five. How the research in this proposal will differ the most from the previous study is that the study on disabled masculinity was conducted and written as akin to a broad brushstroke, while this study will focus explicitly on the relation between hegemonic masculinity and disability, looking at the correlation between the two concepts, to what degree the correlation is established, and how to address it going forward.

Patton (2015) states that “We interview people to find out from them those things we cannot directly observe and to understand what we’ve observed… to allow us to enter into the other person’s perspective.” I believe this mindset is vital for a researcher to have if they want to conduct research effectively. Patton elaborates on this point further, stating that conducting applied interviews with research participants can “capture their experiences, beliefs, fears, triumphs—any and all aspects of their stories” (Patton, 2015).

 The reason I decided to use the above methods is that I believe they are the best tools that will allow me to collect as much valuable data as possible (through interviewing) in the most time-efficient way possible. There is nothing wrong with conducting quantitative research, which relies on standardized measures and answers and fitting any new data into data already established. As stated above, I will focus more on qualitative research, which will allow me to document and analyze peoples’ experiences. Using a quantitative approach when free from time constraints would possibly allow a future researcher to better analyze the historical context surrounding hegemonic masculinity and disability.

Limitations and Challenges

The limitations and challenges that I predict in conducting this research study are as follows. As mentioned above, using a mixed method and a maximum variation (heterogeneity) sampling approach gives me more leeway to not rely completely on one single methodology. A paramount limitation to conducting extensive research on societal and cultural histories that examine social concepts is having enough time to do the research, data analysis, interviews, and case studies and produce a report on the findings. Extensive research and data analysis on the topics of toxic masculinity and disability is what I hope this initial proposal leads to, whether or not I am the researcher who ultimately conducts it.

Another limitation is that while there is some research on disability and disabled masculinity in relation to toxic or hegemonic masculinity, there is not enough readily available to rely on (see Scott, 2014). This is where making connections through concepts like intersectionality would play a vital role in not only conducting research but also calling for change in the conclusion of the study.

  One of the most surprising challenges of conducting research into toxic masculinity and disability is how emotionally exhausting reading the research and the various opinions on all sides of the issues is. While I anticipated some of this background research to be draining, I was quite unprepared for the emotional toll it would take on me as a researcher. One possible explanation for the intensity is that analyzing the readings required multiple read-throughs for effective examination.

 While researching the topic of toxic or hegemonic masculinity, I did not feel threatened or attacked as a male researcher, which was something I had been concerned might be a challenge before I started conducting research. By conducting as much research as I did, I was able to grasp a more historical background for the concept of hegemonic masculinity. This bolstered my conviction that an emerging field of study in masculinities is required to assist men to learn that there is a right and a wrong way to be a man and that it is entirely possible to grow and adopt a sense of masculinity that is secure and is not hegemonic in nature.

Ethical Considerations

While my research proposal may not require as much ethical consideration as other proposals, given that a substantial part of building the background research portion of the study will be analyzing historical context of the nature of male human behavior, the fact that I will rely on interviewing disabled males in both individual interviews and focus groups makes getting Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval essential. Consulting the principles addressed in the Belmont Report is vital for conducting research that meets ethical standards. The three principles are respect for persons, beneficence, and justice (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects, 1978). Applying these principles requires every researcher to conduct three main practices: informed consent, assessment of the benefits and risks, and selection of subjects (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects, 1978).

In terms of conducting interviews, these principles and the practices that are required to implement them will be used in the following ways. I plan to handle informed consent by making sure that not only do I obtain a verbal confirmation from every interviewee and group member, but that they must also receive and sign a form before entering into any part of the study. Before the form is signed, every participant will be given a pamphlet that will contain information about the study, such as the basic goals and aims of the study and the knowledge that participation is voluntary and can be revoked any time, along with requirements of participation such as being over the age of 18 both physically and mentally.

 Also included in the pamphlet will be the expectations for every member of the study, both participants and researchers conducting the study, and important contact information for members in the research team. There will be a section addressing the benefits and risks of participating in the study. The main benefit of being a part of the study will be helping to contribute to greater understanding and exposure of disabled males in the 21st century and the issues they face both in relation to their masculinity, and in regard to society in general. While the condition of anonymity will be offered as a strict guideline to adhere to before every interview and focus group, it will also be stated that while every effort will be made to maintain this condition, it cannot be absolutely guaranteed, especially if research files are stolen. This is the main risk to the participants in the study. When the final research report is being compiled, all identifiable information about research participants will be changed or removed. One method of achieving this would be using pseudonyms for the participants in the final report.

The selection of research participants must be as diverse as possible, to gauge the variety of disabled male experiences in relation to their masculinity. This is even more critical in the era of social movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up. In addition to that, choosing to study a diverse group of people is good practice and aligns with the third principle of the Belmont Report, which is justice. The principle of justice is based on being moral and fair regarding the selection process, in both a social and individual justice manner. Social justice in ethical research means that there is a correct order of preference (which is addressed in the age requirement that participants must be 18 or older, both physically and mentally). Individual justice in ethical research means that researchers should exhibit fairness to all research participants. (For example, if there is compensation for participation in the study, it should be offered to all research participants in the same equal amounts and not just offered to some participants.)

Since people with disabilities are often regarded to be vulnerable subjects and placed alongside other minorities like those of racial and economically disadvantaged populations, special consideration would be advised under ethical guidelines to protect them “against the danger of being involved in research solely for administrative convenience, or because they are easy to manipulate as a result of their illness or socioeconomic condition” (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects, 1978). In terms of this study, this would not be an issue because disabled men from all backgrounds and of all disabilities would be sought out for participation, as long as they met the age requirement and were interested in lending their voice to further research in exploring the intersection of disabled masculinities in relation to toxic or hegemonic masculinity.


Disabled masculinity is a complex concept that is very understudied, and it is only one of the multiple masculinities that exists. The same could be said for disabled femininity in relation to multiple femininities. With the rise of social movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up, it is only right that society takes stock of how the social concept of masculinity has evolved over time and examine what work needs to be done to improve it. Disabled men must play a role in not only this discussion but also any discussion that relates to their sense of being. The problem that this research seeks to address is that for far too long, disabled men have been left on the sidelines of meaningful dialogue that narrates a critical part of their self-conception. It is true that toxic or hegemonic masculinity has been around for a very long time and has only been emboldened by the range of patriarchy. However, as this proposal has begun to explain, in using the definition set forth by R. W. Connell, masculinity is not a single overarching concept but rather a plural terminology.

So, it is a great injustice to think of all masculinity as a representation of one thing, presumably a negative. The same injustice argument could be made in regard to the concept of femininity. All men, regardless of ability status, especially outside the norm, should play a part in reshaping the complex concept of masculinities. The focus of having a study of masculinity, Men’s Studies, or Critical Studies on Men (CSM), should be bringing forth a realignment of masculinities away from the range of patriarchy. There is no one type of man, no one type of woman, no one type of sexual preference, gender norm, or body status. There are multiple types of men, women, sexual preferences, and so forth. It is time we recognize that these concepts and the issues they present to us are as complex as the origins of human nature. Disabled men should help pave a way for a new conceptualization of masculinity.


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