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«CHALLENGING NORMALCY? Masculinity and Disability in Murderball by Benjamin Neal Tollestrup A thesis submitted to the School of Kinesiology and Health ...»

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CHALLENGING NORMALCY?

Masculinity and Disability in Murderball

by

Benjamin Neal Tollestrup

A thesis submitted to the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies

in conformity with the requirements for

the degree of Master of Arts

Queen's University

Kingston, Ontario, Canada

September, 2009

Copyright © Benjamin Neal Tollestrup, 2009

i

Abstract

In 2005, MTV Movies and ThinkFilm released Murderball, a groundbreaking

documentary about wheelchair rugby. Due to its popularity and its subject matter, the film presents a unique opportunity to reflect on representations of disability in the contemporary North American context. The narrative of the film constructs a rivalry between Team U.S.A., captained by Mark Zupan, and Team Canada, coached by Joe Soars. Murderball works exceptionally well to disrupt notions of people with disabilities as fragile and helpless, countering ableist assumptions about what persons with quadriplegia can accomplish. However, based on a close reading of the film, I suggest that Murderball accomplishes this disruption by also celebrating ableist, sexist and heterosexist representations. I critique the film’s construction of the relationship between competitive international sport settings, disability, and masculinity by drawing on the tools of feminism and anti-normative politics. I also examine representations of hegemonic masculinity that are discursively linked to sport competition and violence in ways that work to support a U.S. nationalist and imperialist impulse. Overall, I suggest that recuperations of normative identity in Murderball rely on a jingoistic and violent air of moral authority where American men work to preserve the winning reputation of the U.S.A., while subjecting themselves to the constraints of normalcy.

ii Acknowledgments I wish to thank Samantha King, my supervisor, for her invaluable help and inspiration in writing this thesis. Special thanks also to my advisory committee members, Mary Louise Adams, Amy Latimer, Margaret Little and Samantha King for their advice, encouragement and help throughout my years at Queen's.

I am very grateful to the authors and activists who have impacted this work for their commitment to their arts, relationships, and struggles. I have learned a great deal from my friends and fellow authors, and am indebted to: Angie Maltby, Michelle Helstein, Dina Georgis, Shannon Smith, William Bridel, Barbara Bersherat, Marty Clark, Kat Heintzman, Robbie Millington, Sarah Barnes, Nicky Potopsingh, and Carla

–  –  –

Abstract

…………………………………...…………………………………………….....i Acknowledgements ……………………………………………………………………….ii Table of Contents ………………………………………………………………………...iii Chapter One: Introduction ………………………………………………………………..1 The Problem ………………………………………………………………………2 Research Questions ……………………………………………………………….3 Rationale ………………………………………………………………………….3 Methodology ……………………………………………………………………...4 Theoretical Approach ……………………………………………………………..5 Hegemonic Masculinity …………………………………………………..5 Anti-Normative Politics …………………………………………………..7 Disability Theory …………………………………………………………8 Feminist Intersectional Analysis ……………………………………..….10 Chapter Outline ………………………………………………………………….11 Chapter Two: Review of the Literature ……………………………………………...….13 Masculinity in the Context of Sport ……………………………………………..13 Disability in the Context of Sport …………………………………………….....15 Intersection of Masculinity and Disability in the Context of Sport ……………..17 Media Representations of Disability..………………………………………...…19 Stereotypes ………………………………………………………………19 Representations of Disability and Gender ………………………………22 Murderball ……………………………………………………………….24 Militant and Nationalist Sport Settings ………………………………….25 Chapter Three: Masculinity in Murderball ……………………………….……………..28 Physicality and Violence in Murderball ………………………………………...29 Zupan’s Body ……………………………………………………………29 Antagonism and Rivalry ………………………………………………...32 Battling Bodies …………………………………………………………..33 Invulnerability and Injury ……………………………………………….36 Alternative Narratives …………………………………………………...39 Sport Comes First ……………………………………………………….41 Representations of Women …………….………………………………………..45 It’s a Man’s World ………………………………………………………46 Caregivers ……………………………………………………………….47 Heteronormativity ……………………………………………………….51 Normative Desire ………………………………………………………..51 ‘Normal’ Sexual Activity ………………………………………………..54 Conclusion ………………………………………………………………………59 iv Chapter Four: Nationalism and Imperialism in Murderball ………………………….....61 U.S. Dominance …………………………………………………………………62 Rivalry …………………………………………………………………………...64 The Traitor ………………………………………………………………66 Flags and Team Rivalry …………………………………………………68 Sport Salvation and the U.S. Military …………………………………………...69 Conclusion …..…………………………………………………………………..71 Chapter Five: Conclusion ……………………………………………………………….73 References ……………………………………………………………………………….77 Appendices





Appendix A Character Biographies ………...……………………………….......88 Appendix B A Summary of Wheelchair Rugby.……………………..................91

–  –  –

Murderball, also known as wheelchair or quadriplegic rugby, is a fast-paced, contact sport created by quadriplegic athletes who use an indoor court as the field of play.

Participants with a wide range of functional impairment in all four limbs play offensive and defensive roles. The film Murderball is a documentary, music video, sports entertainment and narrative hybrid that traces the rivalry between the United States and Canadian teams in international competition, interspersed with stories of the athletes’ everyday lives and personal relationships. Released by MTV movies and ThinkFilm, subsidiaries of the large MTV media conglomerate, Murderball is one of the highest grossing documentary films of all time, with international box office sales of over $1.7 million dollars (“The Numbers,” n.d.).

In Murderball, Team U.S.A., captained by Mark Zupan, is pitted against Team Canada, coached by an American, Joe Soars. The film follows the action between the two wheelchair rugby teams as they compete in Sweden at the 2002 World Wheelchair Rugby Championship, and then again in Athens at the 2004 Paralymic Summer Games. From the outset of the film, players from Team U.S.A., including Andy Cohn, Scott Hogsett, Bob Lujano, and Mark Zupan, are shown performing the daily tasks of their lives and talking about their impairments, their lives before injury and illness, public perceptions of disabilities, their social lives and sex lives, their families, and the sport of wheelchair rugby (see Appendices A and B for further details about the film’s characters and the structure of the sport).

Due to its popularity and its subject matter, the film presents a unique opportunity to reflect on representations of disability in the contemporary North American context, and to examine this context through those representations. This is the goal of my thesis.

The Problem In portraying disabled men participating in a highly aggressive contact sport in intensely belligerent nationalist settings, the film differs from the majority of North American cinematic portrayals of disability. While these innovations are ripe for analysis in themselves, I was compelled to undertake a critical examination of the film by popular reviews of the story that repeatedly claimed that Murderball works exceptionally well to disrupt notions of people with disabilities as fragile and helpless (“Rotten Tomatoes,” n.d.), and that disability was humanized through the story presented. Kurt Lindemann and James Cherney (2008) similarly argue that: “wheelchair rugby is itself a communicative act that sends a complex message to both the community of sport and our broader social collectives that counters ableist assumptions about what persons with quadriplegia can accomplish (p.108). I am concerned, however, that the film accomplishes this disruption by also celebrating ableist, sexist and heterosexist representations. While humanizing disability and disrupting stereotypes about disability are certainly my concern, I am skeptical that the representations of the film work innocently to this end. I will therefore examine whether the film functions to delegitimate some ways of living with disability, paying particular attention to representations of non-normative embodiments of masculinity. With this in mind, my goal is to critique the film’s construction of the relationship between international competitive sport settings, disability, and masculinity, by drawing on the tools of feminism and anti-normative politics.

Research Questions

My thesis responds to three main questions:

1) How does the film Murderball construct and represent disability?

2) To what extent does Murderball offer an alternative to dominant discourse about disability? And to what extent does the film depend on representations of normative masculinity, heteronormativity, and militaristic nationalism?

3) What do the answers to these questions suggest about the power relations that constitute the cultural context of the film?

Rationale The study of a widely consumed medium such as film is important since media representations do “not simply create nor co-opt the social, political, and economic conditions of [their] possibility, but rather become a vehicle for the concurrent proliferation and reification of those conditions” (Helstein, 2002, p. 37). Examining the relationship between masculinity and disability in the context of Murderball will thus allow me to explore how certain messages about disability are made tenable and become part of cultural commonsense.

In addition to offering an alternative reading to conventionally held ideas about disability and masculinity, my aim is to contribute to the very small body of research in the sociology of sport on the intersection of disability and masculinity. Four papers were presented on Murderball at the 2007 annual conference of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport (NASSS), a testament to the sociological questions the film presents. A number of published works also touch on the film and filmic representations of sport, masculinity and disability. I will address the arguments that these works make and differentiate their analysis from my own in my review of the literature.

Methodology The U.S. release of the film Murderball is an hour and twenty-eight minutes long.

I watched the film twenty times and took the following steps: 1) Identified overarching narrative themes, key scenes, lead personalities/characters, and the sequence of events that hold the story together; 2) Transcribed the dialogue of those key themes, narratives, and personalities and noted the visual details that accompany them; 3) Examined the use of music and other visual and narrative features for their contribution to key themes and narratives; and 4) Undertook further viewings to re-examine earlier interpretations where necessary.

Once I gathered this information, I used textual analysis to examine the particular discourses made available by the film. Although the film can be interpreted in multiple ways, the production of the film employs many skilled crafts people who intend to produce a coherent preferred reading for an audience with a number of contextual similarities and thereby similar interpretive sensibilities. As David Andrews and John Loy (1993) suggest, popular culture has to be viewed as “a site of ideological struggle where individual lives and experiences are involved in a process of interpretive negotiation with surrounding social structures” (p. 269).

Although there are multiple angles from which the film can be read critically, my intent in this textual reading is to focus primarily on masculinity and disability as sites of ideological struggle and interpretive negotiation. Furthermore, although media audiences are active participants in making meaning and can work to produce resistant readings, Darcy Plymire (2005) points out that “the media have an unequal power to set the cultural agenda in ways that favor the economic, political and social status quo” (p. 159).

Plymire (2005) contends that the construction and interpretation of various cultural texts through media studies provides an opportunity to clarify the meanings and values implicit and explicit in a particular way of life or particular culture (p.141). In line with feminist and disability studies critiques of the status quo, my examination of the film works to interrogate the problematic constructions and representations of masculinity and disability.



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