Isn't He Lovely: Hollywood Adores a Handsome Blind Man

film post for scent of a woman with a close up of al pacino's face with downcast eyes and a screen shot of pacino and chris o'donnell arm in arm in the foregroundIf 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.

jane fonda as barbarella looking coyly at pygar, the shirtless blonde angel wearing a feathered loinclothWhile 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.

Comments

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Don't forget the blind guy

Don't forget the blind guy from Curb Your Enthusiasm! "I don't even know what red is..."

Sidenote: love this series.

Just like Mr. Rochester

I think this has something to do with 'disarming' men. Blindness robs men of the legendary male gaze, which has such implications for women who are constantly told to reconfigure themselves to please it. It flips the power of the sexual dynamic in the favor of the woman. Jane Eyre wasn't able to experience love with Rochester until he was blinded and maimed. In a somewhat similar vein, Samson is blinded in addition to the loss of his strength-inducing hair. Oedipus puts his own eyes out because his sexual transgressions have led him to violate the ultimate taboo. Perhaps our collective imaginations have associated maleness with looking. Just another essentialist gender stereotupe, really. Making female characters deaf or mute could also be another manifestation of this essentialist gender binary, taking away what must be "important" to women: conversation, and the implications of conversation in emoting and relationship-building.

I do like the idea that blindness in film characters is "a narrative tool to artificially heighten their heroism and bravery." It helps that unlike disabilities that affect mobility, there are few outward signs.

I think you're onto something

I think you're onto something with the male gaze -- I'm specifically thinking Gabby from Desperate Housewives, who "let herself go" after her husband lost his sight, and whose marriage improved immeasurably after her husband could no longer focus on her beauty. I think blindness in men is supposed to lead women to believe that the men have to get to know them as people to fall in love rather than simply lusting after an image. Since I can hardly imagine a woman in the US today who isn't in some way self-conscious about her appearance, a blind man who literally CAN'T see the flaws she sees and who MUST see her as the person she is inside would have an undeniable appeal.

great point!

Great point! And going back to the previous commenter who pointed out the blind character in "Curb...," Larry is befuddled when he finds out that the guy wants to make sure his date is attractive. As though he shouldn't care what she looks like since he can't see her. In other words, he still exercises the male gaze without even physically gazing.

Carlos from Desperate

Carlos from Desperate Housewives was blind for a few seasons -- he, of course, remained the Sexy Machismo Machine that Gabby Remarried For No Reason, but he did deal with feeling reduced since he could no longer work as some sort of foggily-defined CEO. Instead, he became... a masseur. The show claimed that this was a common profession for blind people since it dealt mostly with touch, neatly sidestepping the fact that blind people can still read and write and that a lot of high-end business is conducted through channels that can be easily translated from a visual to an auditory medium, especially if you don't have to deal with having been blind while fighting your way up through the ranks.

Then, a season or two later, he regained his sight through magic surgery, and Gabby had to deal with having gained weight while he was blind. Because you can't feel that.

Other blind guys on TV... did we talk about Daredevil, the blind superhero whose superpower is sight? The only man of color I can think of was Becker's friend whose name I can't remember. I do remember they used to make tons of jokes at his expense, culminating in the episode where we find out that Blind Friend actually really hates that.

People First Language

Remember to use people first language! Instead of "blind guy" try "guy who is blind" or "masseuse has a visual impairment" or "the dashing male character who is blind".

Oh, please do not forget

Oh, please do not forget Augie from Covert Affairs. I haven't had a dream about a tv character in forever... but the night I watched the show he appeared. YIKES... *thud*

an example of a character of color who's blind

Denzel Washington as Eli in The Book of Eli. (Spoilers ahead.) Viewers don't "find out" until the end that he's blind, but it's implied that his blindness is a sort of superpower, as it allows him to hunt and fight better due to heightened senses of smell, hearing, and touch. The villain, trying to acquire the book Eli carries, first tries to distract/tempt Eli with a beautiful woman, but since Eli can't see, this doesn't work. Failing that, he steals the book outright, but after breaking the lock off it, discovers it's written in Braille and is of no use to him. Eli, however, has the whole book memorized. I'm not sure if the implication was that Eli would've been tempted if he could have seen the woman, or that, had he seen her, he still would have abstained because he's a Christian (the Book of Eli being the Bible), or that he has no sexual desire just because he can't see, or what.

I haven't seen that

I had heard of "Book of Eli" but wasn't familiar with the premise. I'm now curious to see how it portrays blindness since it's the spoiler alert. Sounds like this is a similar "Daredevil"-esque blindness-as-heightening-heroism theme, too.

People First Language is PC

People First Language is PC nonsense! I don't feel any more "respected" if someone calls me a "man who is gay"! I think it sounds ridiculous!

I'd definitely agree that

I'd definitely agree that blindness in a male character is an overplayed trope to signify sudden enlightenment. Other comments have given examples of consistently blind characters, but temporary blindness is, I think, even more telling. In addition to promoting the myth that blindness heightens the other senses to compensate (which never seems to be applied to the other senses - no one loses their sense of smell and suddenly gets super-vision), it "forces" the male character to examine the world around him in a new way - ostensibly, a better, more evolved way. Although, to be fair, I don't think this is strictly limited to the male perspective. Piper, on Charmed, becomes blind in one episode and finally develops the maternal instincts she's been lacking. However, as the original post points out, blindness is more frequently attributed to men than to women.

The one major movie that deals with female blindness that comes to mind is Bjork's Dancer in the Dark. As she gradually loses her sight, she struggles to hold onto the person she already is, rather than "overcoming this disability to become a better person for the experience." Meanwhile, the blind photographer on NCIS can "see" the beauty in the world that no one else can; Blanche's blind boyfriend on the Golden Girls can appreciate her inner beauty in a way that no other man ever could; and Augie, from Covert Affairs (mentioned already), is USA's Barbara Gordon with a hot body that can still meet all the traditional male sexual obligations. It's as if blindness itself is being used as a fictional superpower - not as with Daredevil or Zatoichi, but one that gives us the "ultimate" man: handsome, sexual, able, working, intelligent, but now also sensitive, introspective, caring, not obsessed with looks. He listens, he doesn't rush to judgment, he doesn't seem to have any faults. It's almost as if writers are afraid that making a blind character as flawed as any other person they might create would be seen as mocking the blind - yet this benevolence doesn't seem to extend to other disabilities.

well said

Well put, mattoo: "It's as if blindness itself is being used as a fictional superpower - not as with Daredevil or Zatoichi, but one that gives us the "ultimate" man: handsome, sexual, able, working, intelligent, but now also sensitive, introspective, caring, not obsessed with looks."

Food for thought, indeed.