Double Rainbow: Autism and Masculinity

I’ve touched upon the construction of autistic masculinity and the construction of autism as inherently masculine a few times already in this series. In this post, I’d like to take a little bit of a closer look at the relationship between autism and masculinity. At first glance, I think that relationship seems contradictory: while autism is understood as a condition that predominantly affects cis males and is associated with exaggerated “masculine” traits, autistic masculinity itself is represented in popular culture as a kind of damaged, incomplete version of masculinity. 

I’ve referenced Simon Baron-Cohen’s “extreme male brain” theory of autism a few times already in passing. It’s more or less exactly what it sounds like: a theory that autism can be described as possession of an “extreme male brain” based on the idea that there are inherent differences between “male” and “female” brains. A significant portion of the evidence that Baron-Cohen uses to support his theory is represented by research on the potential effects of testosterone on brain development. And of course he conflates high testosterone with “maleness.” 

Now, I am an extreme social constructivist—I think everything is socially constructed. But I don’t know everything and I’m just a social scientist; maybe testosterone does directly cause specific and consistent changes in brain development. I genuinely concede the possibilty. My argument against Baron-Cohen’s essentialist suggestions is this: Humans in general produce testosterone, to an endless variety of degrees (including not at all). It isn’t a “male” hormone. “Male” as a category isn’t fixed in objective reality. Sex does not determine gender and sex, like gender, is socially constructed. Empirically, there are more than two sexes. Human bodies exist on multiple spectra of different genital configurations, secondary sex characteristics, and hormone levels. Sex isn’t simply a matter of genetics either: There are XX males and XY females, and various sex chromosome patterns other than XX and XY. (Note: I linked to the Intersex Society of North America, an organization which has been defunct for several years. Their website remains up as a helpful source of information.)

The idea that males and females A) exist as discrete, objective categories and B) are inherently, physiologically different from each other obviously predates Baron-Cohen. So does the enduring stereotype that women are inherently disposed toward empathy, emotion, and language, while men are spatial, analytical, and rational. These sexist assumptions also predate the idea of autism, and the condition has been associated primarily with men and boys since its “discovery” in the 1940s. 

Despite being understood, in part, as an “extreme” expression of certain “masculine” traits, autism definitely isn’t associated with some kind of “hypermasculinity.” It isn’t compatible with the performance of hegemonic masculinity; in fact, it’s constructed as a threat to normative masculinity. 

In Constructing Autism, Majia Holmer Nadesan has a little bit to say on the matter: 

Given the difficulty in proving the underlying assumptions across gender, cognitive style, and neural anatomy, it seems probable that this speculative line of research is at least partially indebted to some cultural anxieties about masculinity in a time in which early-twentieth century constructions of masculinity invoking a “warrior” ethic are increasingly inappropriate…Given the irrelevance of “machismo” in corporate life, alternate “masculine” characteristics such as “rationality” take on added importance. According to this line of thought, the construction of equations across “innate” masculinity, technical/analytical facility (particularly engineering), and autism render autism the cost men must pay for their inherent technical/analytical superiority.

I’m not quite sure about all that. For one thing, I’m not sure “machismo” has really gone anywhere. 

I think the threat that autism—and disability in general—poses to normative or hegemonic masculinity is rooted in something more fundamental. In trying to articulate this thought, I’ll turn to a quotation from the film Adam. Of the titular protagonist, the female lead’s father warns her, “It’s not his fault, but he’s more like a child than anything else. He’ll never be the kind of man you can admire, that you can look up to….” Because he can’t perform appropriate masculinity, Adam can never be an aspirational figure and doesn’t deserve a relationship (at least with a non-autistic woman). He is emotionally dependent, “like a child”—or a like a woman.

Women, like autists and other disabled people, are often infantalized within popular culture. They still end up portrayed as flighty, emotional creatures dependent on the rational guidance and protection of men. Just as the same qualities that ostensibly make autistic people autistic also make us “masculine,” the qualities that purportedly make us “childlike” also make us “feminine.” That’s where I think autism’s relationship to a sense of masculinity “in crisis” lies. Being compared to a woman is still one of the worst things that can happen to a man. Autistic people—particularly autistic men—are beings of frightening contradiction because they are in some ways especially “masculine,” and yet also so terribly “feminine.” Some part of the fear lies in the contradiction itself, I think—any entity that combines two supposed opposites is scary—but it also comes down to plain old sexism. The “feminized” masculinity associated with autism is “damaged.” It’s been stripped of its hegemonic power—”castrated,” if you want to get Freudian.

So where does all this leave autistic femininity? Erased. One of the redeeming aspects of Asperger’s and Girls is that it starts, however feebly, to explore the idea of autistic femininity. Right now, with autistic femininity severely marginalized, autistic masculinity perceived as “broken” and therefore threatening, and “feminine” traits viewed as markers of impairment, the entire spectrum of autistic gender expression is in crisis. Autistic people cannot perform or express any gender identity without that expression becoming pathologized, thanks to the combination of institutional sexism and ableism. 


Previously: Valentine’s Day Fluff, Deconstructing “The Geek Syndrome”

Related: What Autistic Girls Are Made Of (the author incorrectly asserts that “classic” autism is “autism with mental retardation.” A diagnosis of “classic” autism does not require intellectual impairment, and not all “classic” autists–including those who are “low-functioning” and/or nonverbal–are intellectually impaired.)

by Caroline Narby
View profile »

I write a little bit in the areas of embodiment and autism. I am very disappointed that Bitch Media has announced their intent to discriminate against people with disabilities in the hiring process for an executive editor. 

Get Bitch Media's top 9 reads of the week delivered to your inbox every Saturday morning! Sign up for the Weekly Reader:

8 Comments Have Been Posted

You should write a book (if

You should write a book (if you haven't already). Your pieces are always so amazingly captivating, insightful, and reflect things that I often think but do not necessarily know how to put words to. Thank you.

Thank you, a great piece. I

Thank you, a great piece. I think the only thing overlooked is that there is a steady progression toward viewing Aspergers as something of an evolutionary step *forward* for men. Icons like Steve Jobs are celebrated for exhibiting Aspergers like behavior. I've heard people stating that it is *only* this sort of hyper-focused, unempathetical behavior that has advanced us technologically, and the eccentricities of men like Isaac Newton are being dredged up to forward this argument . It sounds very much to me like a 21st century form of Neo-Platonism and the Judeo-Chrisitan theology that it influenced; ideas about developing into the Superman, the perfect androgyne, predate Nietzsche and the Futurists and go back to the Middle Ages at least. I find these concepts incredibly disturbing because it is not about embracing the spectrum of people and their sexuality which this post so well describes, it is actually about cutting away what they view to be the unnecessary and bestial female component of humanity. In Medieval Jewish Mysticism this is about Man bonding with the Shekhinah (the female spirit of God embodied in the Bible) making the female animal finally superfluous. This is reflected in both Chrisitan and Islamic mystical teaching.

Men with Aspergers, like Steve Jobs are the new Supermen, and the condition is being hijacked to fulfill an ideology that equates "objective" Scientific Thought and technological progress with masculinity, so women who exhibit Aspergers are and will be ignored because they do not fit this paradigm. However, scientific progress does not enable social progress, as they would imply; science cannot develop without social progress (ask those fighting for embryo research) and historically, it is largely women who have been the instigators of social progress. The salon culture, dating back at least to Magueritte de Navarre is a prime example of this. The irony of the spread of Christianity is that it is largely thanks to women that it spread throughout the Roman Empire ((Paul cannily recognized their utility in this regard), *because* it was viewed as an emancipating force, before being usurped by the elites who then went on to fuse it with Neo Platonism. The influence of religion on current scientific thinking ( including Medicine ) is largely unrecognized or overlooked. In an age when technophiles are talking about uploading their consciousness into computers, and eugenicists are raising their ugly heads again, we really should pause to consider the implications of this, and make them fully aware of the lineage of their regressive philosophy.

But...we don't know that

But...we don't know that Steve Jobs had Asperger's--if he did, we haven't heard anything about it publicly from him or his family. And furthermore, it's a harmful myth that autistic people are empathy-impaired or unemotional, and a shallow stereotype that Asperger's=technological talent or focus. While many display those gifts, Asperger's is actually defined by a high level of verbal development. The Asperger's=superior evolution trope is based on a raft of misinformation and misunderstanding of what it is. Those promoting it are conflating Asperger's with a stereotype of personalities like Jobs, Al Gore, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, etc., and not looking at the personal/professional realities of most autistic men at all. Asperger's Syndrome is not a personality type; it's a pervasive developmental condition.

Yes, there are personality types that encompass some autistic characteristics, but I don't think that's what this post is about. Though I agree that the condition is being "hijacked" and conflated with ideologies with which it has little to nothing to do whatsoever.

Autism as embodying gender

One of the inherent difficulties of interpreting the nature of people with autism is that their exterior presentation often does not conform with their internal state. For instance, my (autistic) twelve-year-old's pet peeve is that people often cajole him to "cheer up" when he is already perfectly happy, but his facial expression and body language are misread by others who conclude that he is bored, sullen or otherwise unhappy. He asks "Why does my outside have to match my inside?" Honestly, the main reason is that information gleaned from affect is socially useful to others. This is not a compelling argument to him and he prefers not to waste his energy making his exterior features reflect his interior state. Likewise, I am highly suspicious of anyone's ability to label characteristics of autism as "masculine" especially if by that they mean that the person somehow *is* more masculine because of these characteristics. Talk about judging a book by its cover. I can envelope an apple in an orange peel, but it won't change the essential nature of the apple. Nor can I draw any conclusions about the apple from the fact that it is enclosed in an orange peel. Thus, Baron-Cohen's leap from "these are traits typically identified with masculinity" to "the presence of these traits increases the masculinity of the subject" is unwarranted. We do not know the function of these so-called masculine traits. Many people claim that people on the autism spectrum lack empathy (absence of empathy being assigned to the masculine category) because they are observed to be emotionally unmoved by the plight of others or to have difficulty comprehending the feelings of others. A reasonable alternative interpretation of the same behavior is that people on the autism spectrum are so overwhelmed with empathy that they become emotionally paralyzed and unable to act or describe their thoughts while in this state. I suppose that if he accepted this interpretation, Baron-Cohen would have to conclude that people with autism are actually more feminine in nature. This all begs a larger question: why are we trying to interpret characteristics of autism as having a gender value? How does that increase our understanding of autism? The more fruitful question may be to ask how assigning a gender value to characteristics of autism benefits various constituencies within our culture. I could say a lot about that, but this is neither the time nor space. As a final thought I will point out that if we were intellectually honest about seeing autism as a gender enhancer, someone, by now, should have posited the idea that autism acts as a "corrective" in females, providing a counterbalancing male influence on their female characteristics. Culturally this would explain why so few females are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders - because rather than being a disability, autism is of benefit to females. Unless we suddenly discover that the world's most successful and influential women are closeted autistics, I don't think this theory will fly. Thanks for the interesting topic!

I'd take it a step further

I'd take it a step further and say his outside already matches his inside, it's just not what people are used to.

I have the same issue, and it feels like I'm putting on a grotesque grimace if I make my face smile more obviously, for example. It probably wouldn't look sincere anyway. But my exterior matches my interior just fine.

And yes, I agree that there are very basic flaws in the theory, such as basing our internal state on the interpretation of observable characteristics and behaviour, which goes wrong, and then there is the assigning a gender value on what is interpreted, which seems rather... thoughtless and not taking into account all kinds of stuff, so that also goes wrong, and then you just sort of build errors on the back of prior errors.... Just deciding things are inherent, and dividing them up... Not just for autistic people: to decide we have super-masculine traits they had to decide these traits are inherently masculine, and the basis for it just seems very flimsy.

And a lot of autistic women have had prior diagnoses that are often seen as very feminine disorders, such as anxiety or bipolar.

"Desired behaviour" and the associations that are made?

What I was thinking while reading the article: Is it possible masculinity is described to autistic behaviour that is seen as aspirational, intelligent and savant-like and femininity is described to social behaviour that is different from what is seen as the norm and which isn't seen as desirable??

They forget disclaimers

As an autistic girl, this "more masculine" assertion angers me! Sure, I may have <i>stereotypically</i> masculine traits, but I really don't see how rational analysis is a male thing. Also, they completely forget statements like, "Although female autistics may possess traits often associated with masculinity, they are still the gender they say they are, just like everyone else is." It almost makes me want to fake stereotypical female traits and preferences, or overhype the stereotypical female traits I do have, just to prove these guys wrong.

Add new comment