effeminately disabled – gender, disability, and queerness

“Upon the whole, he had a frail, languidly-fretful, over-refined look – something singularly and unpleasantly delicate in its association with a man, and at the same time, something which could by no possibility gave looked natural and appropriate it had been transferred to the personal appearance of a woman.” (p.42)

A note on language used in this piece: I use disabled not as an insult or pejorative term, but as the most commonly preferred descriptor for medicalized peoples. It is important to note, however, disabled as a term was not popularized until the 1990s, so it could be said my use is anachronistic, however I’m trying to employ modern disability theory to my work. Words that were used in the Victorian era include handicapped, affected, idiot, and so forth.

The Victorian era witnessed the simultaneous birth of modern conceptions of gender and disability. This was no coincidence – ideas of health and gender performance went hand in hand with each other. If we understand gender through a performative lens – a process which requires people to exhibit certain behaviors and mannerisms to be “read” a certain way, we can extend that to disability as well. While an Victorian example of gender performance may be a woman covering much of her skin through layered petticoats and dresses, a performance of disability may be a poor disabled person begging on the street. Disability and the medicalization of difference often overlapped with conceptions of gender, especially as it came to body hair, skin color, and body size. One needs only to look to Victorian circus history to see performers labelled simultaneously as medically different (disabled) and gender variant.

In Wilkie Collin’s novel, the gender and ability of all characters are examined through his extremely long and detailed descriptions. Perhaps the most striking example of the gendering of disability is the paragraph introducing Mr. Fairlie. Through the perspective of Mr. Hartright, the reader is inundated with minute descriptions of Mr. Fairlie’s body hair, weight, skin color, and dress. The tone of Mr. Hartright’s description shifts from curious to disgusted. He begins by guessing at the Mr. Fairlie’s age, one of the most important markers for disability. In these modern conceptions of disability born out of the Victorian era, a young body is equated with health, whereas an older body is more likely to be sick. Next, he catalogs Mr. Fairlie’s body hair, which he describes as “beardless”, specifically denoting the lack of something (the beard) which men are expected to have. Mr. Fairlie’s hair is then further described as “scanty” and “soft to look at”. Softness is not typically associated with men. His feet are described as “effeminately small”, wearing “womanish” shoes, perhaps Mr. Hartright’s most transparently stated frustration with Mr. Fairlie’s conflicting gender and gender presentation.

In his conclusion, Mr. Hartright remarks that Mr. Fairlie is womanly, but in a way that would not translate if transferred on to a woman. This is one of the most revealing remarks, I believe, because Mr. Hartright reveals that he sees Mr. Fairlie not as a woman, not a man, but an effeminate (queer) man. His conclusion is directly tied to Mr. Fairlie’s disabilities, and therefore, his anger and frustration with his failure to conform is as well.

2 thoughts on “effeminately disabled – gender, disability, and queerness”

  1. Dear fishy queer professor,
    I find your analysis extremely interesting because you explore a an expectation of gender-conforming behavior that becomes evident in other instances in the book with different character constellations, too. Some of our classmates discussed it very well in their blogposts but Miss Halcombe, who is not known for stereotypically feminine behavior, criticized Mr. Hartright for showing emotion and implied that he should be more manly.
    But is it okay for Mariam to behave more masculine than other women in the novel? Although she is described as unattractive, she is not told to behave more feminine. Therefore, it seems like only femininity is criticized, when it is shown by men.

  2. This is a really interesting reading of Mr. Fairlie, and it is one which I almost want to compare with one of Marian. While Mr. Fairlie is “womanish,” Marian is seen as manly and brutish, which is a very interesting contrast. It seems here that Collins is playing with gender, allowing it almost to define itself, and let the reader make inferences where they may. Marian is not a womanly woman in the same way that Mr. Fairlie is not a manly man, and although Mr. Fairlie’s disability brings him further toward the level of a woman, both characters challenge traditional gender expectations in a Victorian novel.

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