If Hollywood gravitates toward a “sexy” disability for male characters, it would have to be blindness. I was recently mulling over how the big screen portrays men of color and with disabilities and realized that blind male characters in movies often aren’t dehumanized or marginalized. They’re downright hot. And did I mention they’re Oscar-worthy to boot? (See also: A King’s Speech) Both Jamie Foxx and Al Pacino took home Best Actor awards for Ray and Scent of a Woman, respectively.
I’m not arguing that Foxx and Pacino didn’t deserve the kudos or that films shouldn’t feature blind characters; in fact, Hollywood could use more representations of disability that aren’t used as comedic or heroic devices. Or aren’t entirely bypassed. Anna Palindrome touched on this in a previous guest blogging series Transcontinental Disability Choir when discussing the frustrating Hollywood trope of the disabled character who is magically able to avoid realistic obstacles posed by his or her disability throughout the entire film.
Over and over again, it seems that blindness is the go-to disability in film that doesn’t compromise a character’s masculinity. Did you know that Barbarella falls in love with a tow-headed, shirtless and sightless angel named Pygar? Oh, yes she did. Here’s a brief rundown of other prominent blind male roles:
- Butterflies Are Free – Edward Albert, as Don a blind young man struggling to maintain independence.
- At First Sight – Val Kilmer as Virgil, a blind masseuse who briefly regains his sight.
- Ray – Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles.
- Scent of a Woman – Al Pacino as Lt. Col. Frank Slade.
- Love! Valour! Compassion! – Stephen Bogardus as Bobby, a blind, gay boyfriend of the lead character.
- Sneakers – David Strathairn as computer whiz, Whistler.
It makes sense that blindness is Hollywood’s male disability of choice (on the flip side, a cursory review indicates that Hollywood prefers deaf and mute female characters to blind ones, which has telling gender implications). The dashing blind male character can communicate and move around with full mobility, which by extension, means that the character can perform sex scenes in a Hollywood-friendly kind of way. On top of that, it provides an internal obstacle to overcome—instantly imbuing a character with depth—and creates a sensory distance between him and the inevitable love interest who must learn how to “see the world through his eyes,” or some other sniveling tagline like that.
While compiling my list of blind male movie characters, I also ran across Zatoichi. This fictional blind masseuse (something in common with Virgil in At First Sight…) and badass sword master is one of the most famous in Japanese pop culture. From 1962 to 1989, 26—count ‘em—Zatoichi films were made, not to mention the long-running television series. Similar to the case of Ben Affleck in Daredevil, who can “see” through sound waves, the disability is a narrative tool to artificially heighten their heroism and bravery.
But I’m curious to know what readers think about this semi-trend. Is this something other people have noticed as well, and does it translate to the small screen? And the big question: What does this say about how our culture relates masculinity and sexuality with disability?
As a side note, it could also be worth extending this conversation to post-traumatic stress disorder among male film characters, too. With those characters typically suffering from PTSD due to military combat, you could unpack that suitcase of gender construction and disability for days.