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.
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.)